Camino de Santiago Pt. 3: Journal Excerpts

My friends often joke about wanting to be included in the book about my life that may eventually get written. Even though I highly doubt I will ever be of enough interest to have a book published about my life, I suppose this could be an excerpt from one of my many journals that I consider a significant event in my life from my experience on the Camino de Santiago

Disclaimer: This is how my mind creates word flow at 4 am when sleep continues to elude me.

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Date: October 30, 2015

Location: Somewhere outside of Astorga

And I left it there. Hanging on the wooden base of an ancient cross, surrounded by the stones and burdens of 700 years worth of pilgrim’s stories and histories. As I walked away, I mused to myself “the Camino provides”.

We woke to a misty gray morning, dragging our feet and not possessing the willpower to drag our tired bodies from our sleeping bags. Too dang cozy. Why did the municipal albergues always drive us out at 8am? So I tapped on Derricks shoulder and made him wake up. The forecast called for rain. A lot of it. Deciding this was completely necessary, we donned our swimsuits and took a Vitamin D each and packed up our backpack casas.

As we trudged through the streets of Astorga, we just could not shake the feeling of awkwardness. So I walked ahead in silence, thinking that it would be good to clear our heads. And it did. By the time he caught up with me, we were surrounded in a pleasant mist that was reminiscent of the Marin County that reminded me of home. 9 km in, a small town rose out of the mist and we both decided breakfast would do is good. The café, bacon, and shelter from the rain soothed us as we began to spy our friends walking into town. Soon our table was full of plates of breakfast and coffee and familiar faces.

Jonathan spoke of the mist being short for “mystery”. Striking something in my memory as we sat there sipping our cafe con leches. We spoke of a rural housing option for the evening in Manjarín, an old Templar that offered a communal meal and a simple dwelling. However, it was 31.5km away, so we would flip a coin as we got closer.

The day began to reveal itself, I did an impromptu Spanish lesson, and we spoke of relationships, the good, the bad, and the emotionally unavailable. We made crosses in the middle of the forest and added them to the fence. Naturally I used my hair to bind mine. As we arrived in Rabanas we found Steve and walked with him and found medieval founts, joking about taking a casual dip. But upon reaching the second one, we actually did. The time after, walking commando, soaking in the October sunshine amongst the changing colors, I had not felt this at peace in a long time. Jonathon had wisdom to impart. “It always seems that you walk the Camino with the right people at the perfect time” ,” you see glimpses of people from your life, your mother, an old girlfriend, a friend, a distant cousin, but you see the people from your life here, and it’s a beautiful thing”.

We completed 26km. Do we carry on? The water was invigorating, and I felt like I could do another 10km if it was asked of me. So after being tempted with warmth and a movie, Derrick made the coin toss, and debated whether to abide. But I knew in my heart that I wanted to continue. And I was going to go on with Jonathan with or without Derrick. We feared the rain closing in on us as we trekked up a mountain, but we found that we were being taken care of.  A few kilometers out of the town lay the Cruz de Ferros. The cross at which you leave your stone and burdens. Both a mental and physical place of significance. Walking in silence and reverence, we arrived. I panicked, not wanting to be unauthentic, not having carried a stone with me this entire journey. But as those thoughts swam through my head, I heard a small cling of stone against carabiner, and remembered that I have carried something all along. Long before the Camino even entered my mind, on many of my adventures, something I used to distinguish myself from others.

Years ago I purchased a small talisman from some group trying to raise money for a trip at my old University. I never wore it, I simply thought it was beautiful due to the pattern and inscription of “peace” on the back in Japanese. Over the years people would ask me why I had it, and the story behind it. So I made up stories. Always feeling a twinge of guilt, because I was trying to make myself sound cooler than I actually was. This. This was a representation of what I needed to leave.

The burden I carried was guilt. Guilt for being dishonest and embellishing stories slightly, the guilt of having a phenomenal home life, the guilt of wealth and education, the guilt of being a model minority, the guilt of being considered a somewhat attractive human, the guilt of blatantly going against the good intentions of people older and wiser than I.

One week prior to reaching the Cruz de Ferro I had an intriguing interaction with an older woman in a tiny Spanish town. She was a fellow peregrino, but about 40 years my senior. She was an accomplished doctor from the Bay Area who spent her life providing health care for those who could not afford it, volunteering with Doctors Without Borders, and trying to bring as much good as she could to those who did not have the same access to wealth that she had. The more we talked, and the more we drank wine, the more we found that we had in common with each other. We both have the ability to see the good we have had in our lives, the privilege we grew up with, our access to education, and the way in which history set us up to succeed. We both felt the pain of the atrocities that have been and are being committed in the world, and the lack of resources available. Despite any involvement on our side for these atrocities, we felt guilt for it nevertheless and take it upon ourselves to make it right. So we studied what we thought could help others, and tried our best to volunteer and rectify the wrong.

The problem lay with the motivations and intentions of the works. We sat there, sipping on our bottle of wine, questioning our motivations for our actions. Our answer? Guilt. It was not just our good will, but we felt bad for the things we had when others had so little. It was our way of trying to make ourselves feel better about it all, that we couldn’t possibly be seen as the “bad guys” as “part of the problem” if we were actively doing things in the world to help others. It was our guilt that motivated us, and our selfish desire to make ourselves feel better about ourselves. I saw the pain in the woman’s eyes as we talked, and she grasped my hands and told me not despair. “You still have time Stephanie, live your life free of the guilt that I have let mine take. Do not despair about the world, do not let it consume and cloud your mind,just do your best”.

This was the revelation I uncovered in the desert, this is what needed to leave me. This is what was tying me down, and binding my actions to selfish intentions.

So I laid down my pack, took off my sandals, claiming the ground I was kneeling on to be holy ground, and meditated on my intentions and prayers as I continued on this journey. Both completely terrified and completely trusting of what was to come.

And I left it there. Hanging on the wooden base of an ancient cross, surrounded by the stones and burdens of 700 years worth of pilgrim’s stories and histories. As I walked away, I mused to myself “the Camino provides”.

The Camino provides.
The way provides.
The way, the truth and the life.
God provides.
God always provides.

The woman in the desert, the talisman I unknowingly carried, the friends I met along the way, the Camino provided. As we created the next mountaintop, we were  greeted with a splendid burst of sun. Consuming our vision and warming our souls. It was that moment that I felt a peace that was not my own, but transcended all that I had experienced on this trek. We stood in silence and surveyed the landscape bathed in glory, and found our hermitage for the evening. The last of the Knights Templar.

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The Mountaintop Hermitage


Fast forward six months later, and I still find this day to be the one I look back on the most. For me, the Camino de Santiago was a transformational time of searching for yellow arrows and mental clarity. I headed west leaving behind so many of the things I had originally carried.

What were the things I left behind? Some random useless cosmetics, clothes, and a whole lot of mental burdens. What did I acquire? A comfortability with who I am, what I’ve done, what I do, and who I am to be, a large amount of international friends and a Camino family.

I will always reminisce on this trip with a smile on my face and a warm fuzzy feeling in my chest. One of my dearest friends described the Camino best with a quote from Ernest Hemingway.

“We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.”

And it was one of the most joyful times of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago Pt. 2 : Planning & Packing

Let’s be real, the extent of my planning before the Camino de Santiago was me buying a guidebook, looking up a few packing lists and breaking in some shoes. Now that I have trekked 900km through France and Spain, these are a few of the recommendations and things to take into consideration for any future Peregrinos.

The Book: One of the most common guidebooks used on the Camino de Santiago was the one written by John Brierley. This guidebook lays out various “stages” of the camino day by day with a rough plan, it gives insight to the small towns, alternate routes, and albergues to stay in for the evening. I picked up a copy before I left and found it pretty dang useful, however, it is definitely easy to get sucked up into looking forward and anticipating what is to come rather than fully living in the moment. For me, the Camino was about living presently and entirely into it, taking advantage of every opportunity to make today the best I could and to refuse to let the future become daunting.

The Time of Year: The busiest time of the year to trek the Camino de Santiago is June till September. Over the past decade or so, the amount of people choosing to do the Camino de Santiago has grown, meaning that there are a lot more people on the trail, a lot more competition to find an albergue (hostel for peregrinos) for the evening, and a lot of social interactions.  Camping is also an option for the Camino, it will save you money, but as a solo female traveller, I decided against camping in a foreign country by myself on my first go.

Instead, I chose to start the Camino de Santiago late September/early October from St. Jean Pied de Port. My goal was to walk from the Pyrennes mountain range to Finisterre, making my entire trip around 900km. This turned out to be a perfect time of year to trek, because I was always able to find lodging, had a perfect blend of weather that neither gave me heatstroke nor hypothermia, and enough fellow peregrinos for building community and friendships, but not so many that I constantly saw peregrinos wherever I went.

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Day 1: Crossing the Pyrenees

The Budget: For this trip I budgeted a Euro for every Kilometer, 800km from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago. And to be honest, I definitely spent a lot less than that. But if you would like to splurge on food/wine, this is definitely a good guide to go by.  So depending on the route you choose, budget a Euro for each kilometer to be on the safe side.

The Pack: For my trip, I brought my Osprey Kestrel 48 L pack. I’m in love with this bag. It is the perfect size to be a carry on (even for Ryan-Air) so that you don’t have to worry about checking anything in if you’re flying halfway across the world, has the perfect amount of well-placed pockets, and can expand and shrink down to fit your needs. Plus it comes with a rain cover, which saves you from having to purchase one on its own.The Kestrel has an excellent suspension system for weights up to about 35 pounds (which is more than I often carry). This pack has served me well for every trip, be it a wedding in Texas, to a two week venture in the Middle East, to backpacking across the Camino de Santiago for 36 days.

 

Other pilgrims I met on the trail carried packs anywhere from a 28L all the way up to a 90L. I think the 90L were a bit excessive, and the 28L would be excellent to prevent you from overpacking, but I like to have a little bit of room in my bag in case I want to pick up random things from my travels.

What matters most about the bag you choose for this hike is that it is well fitted to you body type. If you feel like investing in a pack, I would recommend spending some time in an outdoor store that can help you find a pack that fits you well. (Also, hip straps are awesome and make your pack feel lighter and put less stress on your shoulders.)

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The Packing List: Let’s be real, you don’t want to be carrying a lot of excess with you, and what you do bring, you want to be dang comfy. The Camino de Santiago is about a lot more than attempting to look cute while you wake up at 6-7am and then hike 20-30km a day. Plus if someone can find you attractive when you are a sweaty mess after going through a mountain range, they are probably a keeper. This is a list of what I brought and what I found useful on my trek.

One long sleeve top (Moisture wicking)

One short sleeve shirt (Moisture wicking)

One tank top (Moisture wicking)

Two sports bras

Three pairs of ExOfficio  underwear :They are the best, dry so fast and you can still feel cute

One pair of hiking shorts (I often slept in these too)

One pair of hiking pants: These REI Sahara Pants were my favorite, and were as comfortable as yoga pants throughout the entire trip. Amazingly warm at 0C and just as impressively breezy in 40C weather

One pair of athletic leggings (perfect for layering under the pants when it got cold)

Three pairs of good hiking socks: You may have heard this multiple times, but get good socks. Your feet will thank you. I’m a personal fan of Smartwool

One down jacket : super packable, lightweight and warm. There were a few nights in the mountains that made this a very good asset

One waterproof /rain jacket : You will be hiking through Galacia towards the end of the Camino de Santiago, notorious as one of the rainiest parts of Spain. Plus, if you are embarking on a 35 day trek, you are likely to run into some rain.

One fleece / light jacket : It is perfect for the chilly mornings, or if you just want something soft and cuddly. Because that’s another reason why I love mine.

Buff : Keeping your head warm is nice, or keeping sweat off your face. Both are nice. A buff can do both and more. Check em out. They are pretty dang nifty.

Light Hiking Shoes: Choose a pair of shoes that will hold up over the distance and that you have broken in some before the trip. There is a lot of varied terrain on the Camino so I chose a pair of shoes that could handle any of them. My choice? Vasque Grand Traverse . They were the perfect amount of support and grip for rainy trails, desert trails and city.

Tevas/ Shower Shoes/ Flip Flops : Even though they were a little heavier than what most other people brought, I loved my Tevas and even ended up hiking a few days in them.

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Sea to Summit Soap : It works as Shampoo, Conditioner, Body Wash, Laundry Detergent, & Dish Soap. And it is biodegradable, environmentally friendly and super concentrated. One cap-full of this soap is enough for a load of laundry or a shower. As a woman with a lot of hair on her head, I was super stoked with this stuff.

Trekking Poles: If used correctly, they can help relieve 5%-10% percent of your body weight and make going down steep mountains easier. I didn’t want to bring any over from the states, so I bought some cheap ones in France and ended up only using one and passing off my other one to a friend.

Sleeping Bag : Choose your bag depending on the time of year you intend to hike the Camino de Santiago. I may have gone overboard, but I brought my Kelty Cosmic Down 21 sleeping bag. Because it makes me feel like I’m sleeping in the lap of luxury. Also because I tend to get cold more easily, and it was perfect for the windy nights up in the mountain.

Sleeping Bag Liner : Definitely optional, people often bring silk ones to prevent bed bugs, I bought a microfiber one, it just adds another layer of warmth, and you don’t get your sleeping bag as dirty because you can just throw the sleeping bag liner in with your clothes and wash it.

Athletic Tape: I used it to prevent blisters, bind an ankle, and as a super cheap form of a band aid. It can also be used to mark your stuff to distinguish it from other people’s.

Small First Aid Kit: When you hike 500 miles across a country, you’re bound to get a blister or trip on something at some point in time. And even if you don’t, it is likely someone else will greatly appreciate your choice to bring a small first aid kit. The Camino de Santiago is very much a community experience, so its always nice when people look out for each other.

Small Sewing Kit : ( Same reasons as above)

Headlamp : Useful for those mornings when you decide to hike before the sun rises or decide to hang out in the evening. Or if you want to read on your bed and don’t want to disturb all 50 of your roommates.

Travel Towel 

Coconut Oil : I carry mine in a small camera film canister. It works for makeup remover and face wash (its super sticky so it gets any dirt out)

Toothbrush & Toothpaste

Hair Ties 

Diva Cup:  So dang convenient. I will swear by this thing.

Tiger BalmUseful for stuffy noses, any sort of muscle soreness, bug bites, and pretty much any sort of ailment that can arise.

Journal & two good pens (Because I’m an advocate for writing, sketching and making random lists)


 

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This list has been tested and tried by yours truly. I’ll be sure to add anything to it if I forget, or if you have any suggestions, feel free to comment below! Now go forth and be awesome. Si Se Puede.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blossom Beauty

 

Everything about her is fierce. From her pink hair down to her frolicking in the fields. She is one of the quirkiest humans I know and also one of the most thoughtful. She brings so much joy into my life and so many others and I’m honored to have been able to capture some snapshots for her senior portraits. You da best Julia Lippert. I can’t wait for you to graduate and show the world what you can do.

let’s get it started in here

#chewsyouradventure

Whether it be chatting with that stranger boppin their head to the music at the bus stop, or buying a spontaneous one way ticket to Paris, choose your adventure. You could end up making an awesome new connection, or making your way through a new country with only the vague semblance of a plan but only to follow what your gut tells you.

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Sup. I’m Steph Chew, a curious creator who dislikes being tied down to one place for too long and walnuts (because they make my tongue feel all fuzzy). I love to sketch, climb rocks, and trek through mountains. If you can’t find me (or if I purposely left my phone in the car), you can probably find me at the gym training for the impending zombie apocalypse or soaking up all the sun possible in a city like Seattle.

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Over the past couple of years I have gained a reputation for being a bit of a traveler, explorer and artist. Much of that is due to the time I have spent working in Belize and Jordan, living in Spain, road tripping around Iceland, capturing video and living among the redwoods, and trekking  900 km across France and Spain on the Camino de Santiago; all over the past three years while I was in University. My childhood was full of volunteering and traveling to around a dozen different countries on 4 different continents with my family.

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Burgos, España

 

I have grown accustomed to assimilating and adapting to various cultures and lifestyles while still holding a curiosity for each one I enter. I have learned how to pack efficiently and at a minute’s notice. I have learned how to get around Jordan despite my knowledge of the Arabic language.I have learned how to travel cheaply, lightly and independently. I have learned to read maps and navigate public transportation like a local. I have learned that people, no matter the continent or culture,  are inherently kind more than anything else.

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Jerash, Jordan

 

More recently my friends and family have been coming to me for advice on how to travel on their own. Some are solo female travelers, some are solo male travelers, and some are just looking for someone to nudge them out of their comfortability. So I’ve decided to create something that could function as a way for me to keep in contact with friends near and far when I am not available to take rattle off reviews of backpacks in REI or sit down to help map out public transport in Japan.

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This will be a space for tips on traveling, encouragement to get outdoors and out of your comfort zone, random musings from what goes on in my head when I get inspired to create, and a few stories about the people and places I have become infatuated with. Let’s be real, there will probably be quite a few photos and haikus to go with it all.  My hope for this project will be that any reader will leave encouraged and inspired to choose their own adventure. You are a capable, creative and awesome human. Si se puede!