Tag Archives: el camino de santiago

She Will Move Mountains

As a lover of nature and all things symbolic there is nothing more moving to me than a mountain metaphor. The peaks and the valleys of life are the moments in which we experience our highest highs and, naturally, our lowest lows. I am drawn to the mountains for many reasons, one of which being that they are my natural habitat. Growing up in Vermont I grew up accustomed to the embrace of the Green Mountains. As such, I have always felt at home in the protection of a great mountain. And so, whether they are soft and green or jagged and rocky, it’s undeniable that the mountains are where I feel a sense of true belonging.

On this trip to Poland, I had two objectives–culture and nature (mountains), and I am grateful to say that I got everything that I wanted and more.

I just spent the last 3 days in a city called Zakopane, which is nestled away in the Polish Tatra Mountains. The down town itself is kitschy and touristy, but the mountains that surround Zakopane are magnificent and majestic. What’s more, the room I had booked for three nights in a quaint bed and breakfast called Domki Javorina, was a little slice of heaven on earth.


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I arrived in Zakopane on Thursday morning with one intention–to get myself as swiftly as possible to the peak of a mountain. I wanted to experience the natural and metaphorical high of climbing into the clouds. And like any outdoor junky feels in the presence of a gorgeous mountain range, I knew that the Tatra’s would give me my fix.

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Day one in Zakopane didn’t offer enough time to bus myself to the national park, so I opted to hike up to the top of a nearby ridge recommended by the sweet lady at my B&B. To my disappointment. there were so many strange tourist attractions on the top of this mountain, and it annoyed me that man had conquered this place and put up ridiculous games and restaurants in order to turn a profit. It was a low moment, in which I sincerely hoped that the next day in Tatra Park would rectify.

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Thankfully, the next day did not disappoint. The sun was shining with all of its force when I woke up early Friday morning. I set off to find the bus that would take me to the park so I could hike out to Morskie Oko, a well known lakeside vista that the internet instructed me was a must see. After getting 16 different sets of directions to the bus station, I boarded a bus in the direction of Kusiniçe, which I would come to find out later was not at all where I was trying to go. I had a quick and sarcastic, “oh, great” moment, before I confirmed that there were some good trails in the direction I was headed in.  And so, equipped with my trail map in hand, I started walking. To where? I had no clue. I just climbed and climbed and climbed following the blue trail markers higher and higher. IMG_2577

Along the way I met a few Polish trekkers and we exchanged some basics. They were astonished that I was from the USA and hiking alone in the Tatras. With a steep 5 miles behind me, I arrived at a large shelter. I asked around about where to head from there, and was told by various people that there was a lake nearby, perhaps another mile away. Again, I got mixed messages about where and how and if it was safe or not. Due to the glorious sun, the avalanche alert was high, and I was slightly under equipped for the snow without trekking poles or my gators, but I thought “what would Drake do?” And decided that he would tell me Y.O.L.O (you only live once). So I decided to heed the MOTTO and risk it in order to see the lake.

I walked along this narrow trail — if you could even call it that — and arrived 45 minutes later to Czarny Slaw Polski or Black Lake as it’s called in English. Ironically, Black Lake was completely covered in white snow, and it took me a second to realize that I had arrived at my destination.

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I was almost completely alone, save for one other person, whom I passively cajoled into taking my photo after he watched me struggle with the auto-timer on my Nikon for a good 5 minutes. We chatted briefly, before he returned to his spot, content, like me, to be quiet in the midst of such an awe-inspiring view.

This was the peak that I was striving for, and the funny thing was that at the beginning of the day I had imagined myself fighting against throngs of tourists up to Morskie Oko–an achievable vista for people of all athletic abilities. My original game plan was to go easy on my first day and get my footing.  I wanted to cordially get to know the park a bit before I conquered something more challenging. But of course, I never do things the “easy” way. I guess the universe knew what was best for me on this day. After all, I had set an intention that morning to proceed courageously. The Universe knew what I was craving and directed me accordingly.

At the lake I found a nice boulder and climbed up on top of it. I sat with my legs crossed, inhaling and exhaling deeply. I traced the outline of the peaks before me with my eyes, trying to memorize all of their zigs and zags. I knew a photo would never accurately portray the view. As I sat, I meditated on my morning’s intention, and what kept coming up was how far I would travel for something or someone that I love. Sitting alone, deep in the middle of the mountains, on the border of Poland and Slovakia, thousands of miles from home, I confirmed that I would, indeed, move mountains for the ideas that I believe in and the people that I love. In order to do this, though, I realized that can’t protect my heart’s ambitions from the fear of failure or heartbreak. It just doesn’t work that way. You have to be willing to find yourself in the valley, if you ever want to reach the peak.

Walking back down the mountain, I did my favorite 5-4-3-2-1 meditation that a friend taught me on El Camino de Santiago. To do this meditation you must describe, in as much detail as possible, 5 things you see, 5 things you hear and 5 things you feel. Then 4 things, then 3, 2, 1. I love this meditation because it brings you deeply into the present moment, insisting that you experience every detail around and within you. It doesn’t allow you to relive what has happened in the past or invent what will happen in the future.

Just here. Just now. Just the conifer trees whose branches bow from the heavy green needles, or the silvery snow, which is pock-marked from the trekking poles of fellow adventurers, or the sound of a bird’s wings flapping, or the way your muscles tighten and release carrying you up and down the mountain.

As the sun began to set over the mountain, I had to remind myself to proceed slowly down the steep and slippery trail. I didn’t want to get hurt, especially all by myself. So after finding center from my meditation, I allowed myself some music to help me concentrate and to keep the fear/exhilaration of being alone in these bold mountains from overwhelming me. I had already walked some 12 miles and knew that my legs were fatigued and I still had a few more to go. I had to keep it light, physically and mentally.

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After stopping in a restaurant for a beer and a face full of pierogies Ruskie, I reached my bed and breakfast, showered off and collapsed into my bed ready to sleep instantly. As I drifted off, I gave thanks for the blue bird day, for the exciting adventure, for the wise lessons mother nature always provides, and for the mountains I moved.

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Gdansk with the Stars

When I started to plan this trip to Poland I read travel blog after travel blog about the best things to see and do. Knowing myself and how I like to travel, the two non-negotiables on my list of things to experience were culture and nature.

I made up my mind that I would first go north to the city of Gdansk in order to experience what one blogger called “the most charming and romantic city in Poland.” However, as my trip drew nearer I realized that I had booked my flight to arrive over the Easter weekend and that the “charming and romantic” inhabitants of this city were going to be eating eggs and borscht and kielbasa with their families, as I strolled the empty streets and peered into windows of shops whose signs read, “zamkinęty” or “closed.” But I wanted a taste of the city nonetheless, so I started to email anyone that I knew who was Polish to see if they had family who would take me in and celebrate a traditional Polish Easter with me.

No dice.

Two days before I was scheduled to fly I thought that I would send out a few messages via couchsurfing.com and see if I got any replies. I sent out 8 requests and got 7 “declines.” But there was one family who agreed to host me.

At first I only had communication with the father, Mariuscz. According to their profile, they were a family of four–a husband, wife and two daughters. As soon as I accepted the invitation, however, I started to think…I hope this is legitimate. As I boarded the train to Gdansk my thoughts were, this could be great…or this could be a nightmare. Crossing my fingers for my good karma to bring me into the home of a nice Polish family, I got off the train and was greeted with a big hug from Mariuscz and Matilda, their eldest daughter. As we drove back to their house I breathed a sigh of relief as 15-year old, Mathilda, told me that I was their very first couch surfer and that they were so excited to take me in and share their home, culture, holiday and city with me.

When I arrived I met the mother, Patricia, and youngest daughter, Melanie. I settled in and we sat around the table drinking tea and getting to know each other. We shared tales of travels and hiking expeditions. They love to travel and see the world and they have instilled this value into their beautiful, well-rounded and mature daughters.

As we talked I learned that Patricia and Mariuscz met walking on a pilgrimage to the relic of the Black Faced Madonna–a 500km trek by foot from their hometown Gdansk. When they met, Patricia gave Mariuscz the travel bug and they have made seeing their country and the world a top priority for their family. They also told me about a piece of graffiti he did many years ago on the top of the tallest building in Gdansk, that reads “kocham moja Pa” meaning “I love my Pat,”which had become very famous in the city. It’s a symbol of their incredible love, which knows no boundaries, and it’s for all the world to see.

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This morning when I woke up, Easter breakfast was on the table. We had an egg fight and then ate lemon salmon, stuffed eggs, potato salad and desserts until our stomachs couldn’t handle anymore. After breakfast the girls searched for their Easter eggs and then we got ready to go to church.

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Because we knew we had another Easter meal at 2pm, we decided to walk so that we could burn off some of our breakfast. We bundled up and set off in the direction of their church. We had walked less than 300 meters when I stopped dead in my tracks. Low to the ground on a metal highway divider was a trail marker for El Camino de Santiago. To my disbelief, the trail that I had walked 800 km on to Santiago de Compostella in Spain 2 years ago was right outside their front door!

The spirit of pilgrimage came up once the last night, when Mariuscz and Patricia recounted their love story to me. In the back of my head I thought of my own pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, but then quickly brushed it to the side in order to let myself fall in love with their love. This morning, when I saw the marker, however, I was truly astonished. It was like El Camino was calling out to me to remind me that I am always on the way. I felt the magic of the trail once again and my heart swelled. The trail showed itself two more times throughout the day, and I laughed thinking that there was no coincidence. I was meant to be here and meet these amazing people.

After mass we drove to Mariuscz’s mother’s house for MORE food. Seriously, these people have opened their doors and kitchens and hearts to me in a way that is so generous and kind and fattening. I’m going to need to buy some new jeans. I thought I couldn’t be more grateful for their hospitality and sharing of their family’s holiday, but then they offered to drive me into Gdansk and give me a guided tour of their city.

Gdansk is a stunningly beautiful and an amazingly strong city. It was burned to the ground in 1944 by the Russians, who were fighting over the city with the Germans. The devastation was massive and you can still see scars of the war everywhere. However, the rebirth is something like a phoenix from the ashes. It was a reminder to me of the resilience of humanity. Life is not always going to be easy, but sometimes we are meant to be burned to the ground so that we can wear our scars like badges of honor and flourish in the wake of catastrophe.

We arrived back at home many hours later, exhausted from our epic day out. Mariuscz, Mathilda and I squeezed in a workout, and kick boxed against each other in the living room. The end to my perfect day was 10+ punches to the face…and I mean that in all seriousness. This family gets me.

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The gratitude is flowing as always.

Happy Easter to all!

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Attitude of Gratitude–Day 12–Skype

One of the many marvels of our technological age is the ability to connect with people on an instant’s notice. Whether it’s by text message or whatsapp, Facebook or Instagram, I have the ability to remain connected and follow the daily happenings of the lives of the people I care about most.

And while it might seem unnecessary that I should know what someone ate for breakfast or how “good” they look in a selfie, I find that the internet helps me maintain and balance my relationships. Inevitably Facebook or Instagram will remind me that it’s been way too long since I’ve talked to so-and-so and it’s time for me to reach out via Skype, phone call or text message for a check in.

I’ve always been good about keeping in contact with friends, and it’s something I am quite proud of. Though I have friends in every corner of the globe, Skype and Whatsapp have permitted me to stay close with those who are so far.

Today I am grateful for Skype, but moreover, I am grateful for the conversation that it facilitated. I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with one of my soul friends, Nicola, today.

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Nicola and I walked the Camino de Santiago together at the same time during the summer of 2013. We started on the same date and crossed paths many times. We had mutual pilgrim friends, but never got the chance to really get to know each other until we both hit our stride towards the end of the walk. We finished our camino, walking (well, I was limping) into Santiago together. Our connection was so deep, so real, so pure. I was devastated to say goodbye to her, but knew that she would be a part of my life for ever.

Today as we talked via Skype it was apparent that our connection had not faded with the passing of a year and a half. We are the kind of friends that when we talk, the passing of time doesn’t matter. Whether it’s been a week or 4 months since the last chat, we always pick up where we left off. When we do catch up we talk for hours about our lives. We share our triumphs and our trials and we give each other advice. We understand each other’s needs because we are very similar, and we are able to use our coaching skills to help reframe each other’s challenges in a way that is meaningful for each of us.

Gratitude hardly expresses how I feel today for this conversation. Being able to reconnect with such a strong, independent, thoughtful, beautiful and aware human being is food for my soul. So thank you so much Nicola for the lovely conversation, and thank you Skype for bringing Australia into my living room!

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Attitude of Gratitude–Day 29: Leggo my ego

Like any self-driven human being, I set standards, expectations and goals. It’s a way for me to measure my successes and to track my personal growth. Though the legitimacy of my progress is evident with just the slightest bit of self-reflection, I often run the risk of not living up to my own expectations. What’s more, I am also frequently let down by the actions of others whose standards, expectations and goals do not match my own.

Today I’m writing this post for multiple reasons, though particularly as a chance for me to acknowledge the fact that yesterday I failed to write. Not writing yesterday isn’t something I feel any panic about, though I do feel a sense of self judgement and disappointment because I didn’t complete my task sans flaw. I know I could just write two posts today and call my guilt good, but I’ve decided against that course of action because I want to reflect on the validity of leniency and letting go.

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Every so often we need to cut ourselves some slack. I once had a yoga teacher who said, “I don’t make my classes hard because I want you to push yourselves beyond your limit. I make them hard so you can recognize where your ego is telling you to do more than you are capable of on this day. When you find your personal limit, you are not weak for backing off, you are strong for telling your ego to let go.”

I remember being wowed by this statement, and it has never left me. I needed this reminder while I was walking the Camino. One day I pushed myself too hard and walked 40km. My tendonitis flared back up and, though it killed me to do so, I had to let go of the idea of walking every kilometer of the trail. It wasn’t going to be possible in the time frame that I had so I took the bus. GASP. But the lesson I learned that day was perhaps more valuable than the walking itself. I had to tell my ego, which wanted to boast that it walked EVERY SINGLE STEP, to be quiet. On that day, I couldn’t physically walk and I was stronger for recognizing this and taking the necessary measures so as not to hurt myself any more.

This lesson can and should be applied to ourselves as often as possible, but it is also very useful in relationships with others. I’ve had relationships, both friendly and romantic, where I’ve pushed myself to my limit in the search for perfection. My ego, is the part of me that registers disappointment in others. It’s a comparison of my desire with theirs that, when unequal, generates hurt. When my ego rears its head, which it does every so often, it takes the strongest part of me  to tell it to back off. My ego wants to attach itself to a story of disappointment, but my higher Self is so much bigger than that.

Letting go in relationships is probably the most challenging thing we, as humans, can do. In an attempt to control and perfect, we fail to see that everyone is on their unique journey through life. I’ve seen this with parents who push their children to be something they don’t want to be for the sake of monetary gain and “success”. I’ve also seen this with friendships and romantic relations where, though their paths have diverged, one or both of the people cling desperately to the past out of fear for the present.

What I’ve learned through both observation and experience is that the healthiest relationships are those grounded in non-attachment. This doesn’t mean that we don’t  care for and communicate to our friends, families, and partners, rather, it recognizes that their journey is transpiring simultaneously alongside our own. In order for them to live out their personal truth, they must go forth, alone, with your blessing, support and love. Attachment stunts those we love. Ego is attachment, love is its opposing force.

So today, my dose of gratitude is for yesterday’s non-post. I am grateful, once again, for the life lessons I’m learning through this writing experience. Sometimes these lessons come from a place of quiet awareness and non-action, and I’m grateful that I was attentive enough today to see this. I am truly grateful to my higher Self, which took the opportunity to learn as opposed to judge, and I am grateful to my ego for letting go of its self expectations.

 

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Attitude of Gratitude — Day 8 : Taking the Time, Savoring the Moment

When I cook myself dinner I usually tend to want the whole meal to miraculously appear before me so I can get my eat on as fast as possible. As a result of my impatience,  I cut corners and toss a whole bunch of vegetables into some oil on the wok, mix in some spices and stir.  The end result is a mildly satisfactory meal, as the zucchini usually over cook or the garlic burns from having to sit on the heat long enough for the squash to soften. Tonight, however, as I cooked, I reflected on a valuable lesson I’ve been learning this year — take your time.

I thought back to a few moments in my life where I was encouraged to take my time. One of them was a day of mindfulness at Thich Nhat Hahn’s Blue Cliff Monastery in New York, the other was my journey along the Camino de Santiago. At the monastery we took our meals in silence, chewing our food slowly, enjoying every bite, savoring every flavor, and reflecting on the hard work and the chain of people it took to get that food onto our plates. A meal that I could have eaten in a few minutes took over an hour. The satisfaction that I got out of every bite was tripled, and I realized how full I became half way through a typical portion. I then thought back to the Camino, where everything from your physical being to your mental and emotional state crucially depended on your slow stride. I specifically remember one evening on the trail that I spent sleeping in a small church called San Nicolas. One of my fellow pilgrims offered up some advice in a form of a song from the musical Brother Sun, Sister Moon. He sang,

If you want your dream to be
Take your time, go slowly
Do few things but do them well
Heartfelt work grows purely
If you want to live life free
Take your time, go slowly
Do few things but do them well
Heartfelt work grows purely

I try to remember these lyrics when I catch myself rushing through things, and seeking  immediate results. I was reminded today, as I slowed myself down and took the time to brown my tofu and cook each vegetable properly, that each moment is a moment worth savoring. And that doing things slowly allows us to be fully present through the action. Not only does it enhance our over all satisfaction, but it also makes the end result more enjoyable as well. The practice of being present is difficult, and I, like many, have a tendency to want the quick route to perfection specifically with relationships, food, body image, work etc.

Thus, today I am grateful to myself for slowing down when my reflex was to speed up. I’m grateful to the beautiful meal that I enjoyed as a result, and I’m also grateful to all the people in my life who have encouraged me to challenge our societies norm regarding perfection and quick results. I will try to incorporate this value into my daily life as much as possible by practicing presence and gratitude for each beautiful moment.

In the words of Tich Nhat Hahn,

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”

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Attitude of Gratitude — Day 5: Camino Magic

Today, as I nested in my new apartment, I felt twinges of nostalgia and melancholy. While I neatly organized  7 years of photographs and items I’ve collected in my travels, I thought long and hard about each adventure and its respective boon. The grand picture that came into focus today was of the series of events in my life that have led me to where I am now. Each step and each decision has a cause and effect as well as an alternate reality of what could have been. Looking at all of my things, I recognize that they are not me, just mere symbols of my identity. However, the purpose they serve is to remind me how far I have come. 

To me, though, gathering all my things together is not just about how much I’ve done and how many “successful” moments I’ve lived. I believe, rather, that these belongings are filled with energy, and they release it into my present surroundings in order to elevate my own personal energy field. 

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As I crafted my symbolic ode to one of my life’s most significant experiences, El Camino de Santiago, I began to feel emotions of deep gratitude. El Camino changed my life because it taught me to trust the unknown and to faithfully believe in the mantra, “the Camino provides.” As a metaphor for life, El Camino showed me that it’s crucial to take your time and to open your eyes, ears and heart to the energy of the Universe. The feeling of magic, which pilgrims experience whilst walking the camino is difficult to describe. The only way I can explain it is that each day, the collective energy of past, present and even future pilgrims pulses along the trail bringing to each person a valuable lesson or gift.

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With my shrine put together and the camino on my mind, I began to radiate the magic, and the energy was felt world-wide. 

This afternoon I spoke with a dear friend of mine from the trail. He is someone whose brief sojourn into my life changed everything I knew to be true about life and love. Every discussion we’ve ever had has given me deep insight into my Self. Speaking with him today, we talked about the fact that had I not walked, I wouldn’t be in the exact place I am at this very moment–nesting into my new apartment on the eve of my new job. I explained to him how grateful I was for the series of heart-opening events that has led me here, and how, even though I’ve been feeling a little nervous about this transition, I am confident that I am capable of taking on this huge responsibility. 

As the evening came round, I received an email from a woman whom I had met at the airport departing from Santiago de Compostela. The day after I reached Santiago, I was scheduled to fly. With almost no time to process that I had completed my pilgrimage, I took off for the airport hustling to get to Barcelona. That early September morning, everything seemed like a blur. I couldn’t actually believe that after a year of preparation and 33 days on the trail, that this portion of my journey was coming to an end.

As I stood in line to grab a croissant and a juice, I crossed paths with another pilgrim. I asked her if I could eat breakfast with her. As we began to chat our hearts opened and poured out our stories to each other. Though we were complete strangers, we both desperately needed each other’s company on the brink of transition off of the trail. I told her how I had fallen in love on the camino and was flying to Barcelona, she told me about her son and how he was experiencing a rough patch in his life. Then she showed me photos of the people she walked with and told me stories of her journey. As we walked to security she asked me what seat I had on the plane. “34C,” I said. She was in seat 34D. We laughed at the serendipity, though we both knew it was the Camino’s magic. When we landed in Barcelona, the song “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros played softly over the speakers. I hummed along thinking about the times me and my best friends danced in the kitchen to this song and thought about the perfection of their lyrics. 

Upon our arrival in Barcelona, I gave her my email address and we parted ways. 

Every so often I thought about her, wondering how she was, but she had my email, I did not have hers. Today, as my phone chimed to let me know I’d received a message, I imagined it was one of the hundreds of e-newsletters I’m subscribed to. I didn’t recognize the name, and there was no subject message, but when I opened the email, this is what I read: 

Hi Lizzie,

 
You remember…on the airport of Santiago de Compostela… we both had to cry..
Today i was thinking about you, I heard the song from the airplane in Barcelona, you were in love..
How are you?
 
Kind greetings from Ineke (Holland)
 
I burst into tears feeling overwhelmed and in disbelief. Not only had I spent the entire day thinking about the camino, I had also spoken  with my friend from Barcelona for the first time in a long while, and now I was receiving this message from Ineke. It seemed to me, that the energy I was putting out into the Universe was that exact kind of Camino magic we had felt on the trail–pure love. Her message came to me in a time of self-doubt and transition as if to say, “Remember how strong you are? Remember how far you’ve come? Remember all of that trust you’ve cultivated?” Her message shouted to me to keep my heart open and to proceed slowly with alert awareness of my surroundings. If I do, it seems, the magical lessons and gifts will keep presenting themselves for me; there will be more peace, more generosity, more kindness, and above all more love. These are the real things of value I want to gather in around me, because with them, I can make my own magic straight from the divine source . 
 
Grateful to Ineke and her timely reminder of the Camino’s magic. Lots of love to you and your son, my dear! 
 
 

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