For me, Estonia was a bar in Tartu and 6 hours laying face down on a massage table.
I’m serious. I did go to Tallinn, but I really have nothing to say about it other than it’s a city and I had amazing strawberries. We were looking for some excitement, but it never presented itself. And so we headed to Tartu…
I found a host for us, she is a triathlete and getting her PhD in evolutionary biology. That is enough to make you cool in my book, and she did not disappoint. In fact, she was much, much more than that. Margot is intelligent, beautiful, and edgy in her own way. She also possess what I would later learn to be the Estonian Poker Face.
Alright, I am perhaps more emotionally effusive than most people, but sometimes being around Estonians makes me feel like I am taking crazy pills by contrast. Telling the story of how Maria and I met takes like 20 minutes, but when you ask an Estonian how they met their spouse/partner/whatever you are given a 3 sentence explanation.
“Well, he works in my lab. And one day I just asked him out. Now we live together.”
Alright, good talk.
Maria and I have a knack with getting people to come out of their shell a bit, and to our delight this was the case with Margot and her boyfriend. We heard all kinds of stories about him about how he is quiet and never says anything to anyone, ever. So imagine our surprise when he came home and we started talking to him and he actually spoke to us. Not only that, but he took us out for beer and talks to us for hours.
Oh by the way, yeah, another side-story of Estonia is that I realized as I sipped my “morning” coffee around noon, that we had been in Estonia for 8 days and had yet to make it 12 hours without drinking. I really had no idea how that happened, it truly took me by surprise, but now I completely understand why this is an Eastern European stereotype. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the bar we went to had free chocolate.
Margot, her friend Riina, Marko, and this other couchsurfer from New Zealand Hayden spent a lot of time with us in this particular bar.
It was in this bar that the subject of tattoos came up. Riina and Margot have awesome tattos. Apparently, the guy who did Riina’s actually lives in Tartu. His name is Mico and he is super busy. Thankfully, Riina is extremely charming and managed to contact him and “beg” him to meet with me about a tattoo while I was in town.
See, I have been wanting one for a while. Since January when I did Ayahuasca. If any of you remember my entry about Killing Bears and Taming Wolves, you might recall that I lucid-dreamed about a tattoo. Well, I later drew this design out while I was huddled next to a fire in France. Ever since then I have been waiting patiently for the universe to present me with the opportunity to get this drug-induced tattoo done (sorry mom). And this was looking promising.
Mico agreed to meet with me, and I threw down my drawings proudly waiting for some reaction.
I really didn’t know if I could trust anyone else to do it. I swear, his work was some of the most precise artwork I have ever seen, in fact, I didn’t even know some of the stuff he did was possible to tattoo. So even if he wasn’t super into MY design, I didn’t really care as long as he could get the job done.
Then we talked about price.
“How much can you give me?”
“Well, I know you’re traveling, so how much are you prepared to spend.”
“I know I am traveling, but I want to pay you for your work.”
And then I gave him the estimated figure. To protect his reputation I will not publish it, but suffice to say it was a modest price. Even for something that wouldn’t take long, which he didn’t seem to think this would.
It ended up taking 6 hours.
This is what dedication to an experience looks like. I got to spend a lot of time with Mico and get to know him a little bit. It was actually quite a pleasant experience. I am still blown away by the conspiring done by Margot and Riina to make this happen. It was really a group effort. Margot even held my hand when it was being done, and Riina showed up a few hours in to give me (and Mico) snacks.
I managed to walk all around Tartu both at night and in the day time, I think at one point I also drank a liter of beer and had wild boar. But this is what I will remember about Estonia. I made new friends and I surprised myself when the time finally came to ramble on, I was actually sad to leave.
The people make everything. This should come as no surprise. I’ve seen hundreds of cities, hundreds of churches, had countless coffees, countless beers, read countless maps. After a while it all starts to look the same. What I remember about places is not the way the cities look, it is who I met while I was there. The people are the story and they stay with you even after you’re gone.
This was taken from an email I wrote to a friend. I realized that I am not exactly comfortable sharing my lows on this blog. I guess it comes from the idea that I am on this trip and I want to be having fun all the time, and I want my friends and family to think I am having fun all the time. Of course, that is not true and I think a lot of you know that already. So I decided after hitting ‘send’ that I would open up a bit more about this whole Miraculous Journey…
I had a good time in the Netherlands and an even better time in Denmark. We surfed with this American girl and her boyfriend in Hilversum and had a wonderful time. They were some of the coolest people I have met on this trip. Sarah, was hard at work writing her thesis, but she still managed to take time out of her schedule to chat with us (English, at lightening-speed). We played board games, watched movies, drank beer, it was great. But she had work to do, so we parted ways, promising to reconnect when we passed through the NL again after Scandinavia.
Our next destination was Denmark. We hitch-hiked 900 kilometers in 24 hours. This included rides with 4 truck drivers which was awesome. I might blog about this separately, but I will just say right now that I love riding with truck drivers. They are technically “at work” so they keep to a schedule, there is a bed to sleep in during the ride, and they usually have built-in coffee makers. But more on that later…
So we reconnected with a friend we made on the Camino, Grethe. She is a 62 year-old-woman who was hit by a car and badly injured. She lost the use of her hands, arms, and hips but hrough years of alternative medicine and therapy, she finally regained her mobility. As a celebrationchallenge, she walked the entire Camino. She is definitely one of the most inspiration people I have met on this trip so far.
She greeted us at the door wearing an apron. Hugs followed and then an endless parade of nutritious food for 4 days. She lent us her flat for the duration of our stay and I can’t remember the last time I slept so well and was so well fed. Our days were sunny, full of walks, trips to the garden, coffee, and food. It was a much needed re-charge and I was so happy there. I was stretching every day, going for runs, eating well like I wanted…and then of course we had to leave.
I think I started to get pretty low once we left. I was reminded of how beneficial staying in one place can be and I miss it. To make matters worse, when we were in Malmo, my brother reached out to me and confessed he wanted me to come home. He is having a hard time with life, you know, with a 1-year-old and trying to navigate a relationship with his son’s mother (thankfully, things are civil) and trying to be a good dad in the process. I gave him as much support as I could from a distance, but obviously I wish I could do more for him.
He went from a pot-smoking unemployed couch potato to a young father with a job and bills almost overnight. I really am proud of him, and I tell the story to anyone who wants to know about my family. I tell about my nephew and I am pleased to report he is surrounded by people who love him. But I can understand this was a huge change, very quickly for Alex. He is a sensitive dude, and I feel kind of guilty that I can’t be around when we are finally at the stage when we can interact with each other as adults. And of course, I miss my nephew. He is probably one of the cutest babies to ever exist (aside from me).
Then! One of my best friends ever announced that she is engaged and her wedding will happen next year and she hopes I will be back to attend. I was so happy, and so anxious at the same time. I wouldn’t dream of missing this. And yet, when Maria and I previously discussed the scenarios that would cuase us to come home right away, a wedding did not make the list. In fact, I think the only thing that did was terminal illness. And yet…here I am. But I am not surprised. My friendships mean a lot to me, especially my friendship with Maggie and why shouldn’t I be free to nurture the things in my life that I care about?
It was at this moment that I realized it is distinctly more difficult to travel when you are not running from anything, than it is to go away and leave so much behind. I was so comfortable in my old life that I needed to invent new challenges for myself, and I guess that is the whole point right? That is the optimal scenario, to be so efficient in taking what life throws at you, that you have the space to plan challenges for yourself. You know, like training for a fight, or a race. You do it because you know it’s good for you and it prepares you.
But it comes at a price. I am realizing this now. I spend a lot of time in the future, or the past. I am still not very good at focusing on the present. I do want to change that, but it is slow going. I have such an emotional connection to everything that I left, it is impossible to drag everything with me and make progress.
So when I arrived in Norway I was very down. It is a beautiful country, but all I wanted was to be back in Denmark, or back in Oceanside, or back in San Francisco, hell even Seattle. And I felt guilty about it. I am on this trip, in a beautiful place, and I have trouble enjoying it. I was hating everything. My backpack, the budget, the price of food here, the price of everything here and it was not fun.
I was browsing through our host’s book collection yesterday and I found Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. I stayed up most of the night reading it and I felt better. I mean, I still have no idea how I would react to such a situation, and it was an extreme example, but the idea that you should not be surprised when your lows are only punctuated by brief, fleeting highs, before they continue to get lower is valuable information. This is often how life behaves, and I recognize this pattern from the winter I spent in Europe.
The catch is that, if you remove yourself from the present, you never make it out of these spots alive.
My new strategy is this, I am taking a break from the Book of Face. I will answer emails when it’s convenient for me (and when they are from my parents), but otherwise, I purchased 2 books yesterday and I plan on reading and writing in my journal to pass the time.
We are taking a break from couchsurfing, and exclusively wild camping for the next few weeks while we journey to North Cap. It’s over 2500 kilometers and I have no idea how long it will take. But this is my moment to Alexander-Supertramp-it and really do something good for my soul. You know, without the dying part.
Finally, I told Maggie that I would go to her wedding even if it meant heading there straight from the airport. I discussed this with Maria and it was agreed that I can go home whenever I would like, but that doesn’t mean she will come back with me. She has her journey and her goals, and I have mine and we’re comfortable allowing each to take it’s course. And that made me feel much better, and much more in control. I can decide how to prioritize my own life. And it’s nice to know that I have support in my relationship to do what is best for me. I am thankful for that every day.
Foreword: I decided sometime during the Camino that I was going to start writing my blog in the first person. I originally started this as something different. I suppose at the time I did not feel as though I truly owned this travel persona that I was inhabiting. But as of now, I have fully embraced the traveler and from now on, my blog (and my journal) are all written with I…
Now onto business. I have been putting off this entry, but it is time I publish something about my experience on the Camino. My reluctance stems mostly from the fact that this trip left me completely ragged and weary. As much as I wanted Spain to be fun and exciting, it was mostly frustrating and challenging. As much as I want to say that I was having the time of my life, I mostly remember laying on death’s doorstep.
But through the difficulties came some very important realizations, naturally. The Camino has a reputation for doing true work on a person, whether they are aware of it or not. So here is the story…
For those of you who don’t know, the Camino de Santiago (or Way of Saint James) is the recreation of a historical pilgrimage from Jerusalem to the site where the remains of the apostle James are thought to be buried, Santiago, Spain. The route we took is the most famous, beginning in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, and goes 720 kilometers through the northern part of Spain.
Our motivation for this was strictly practical. Maria and I love hiking, we love camping, and we would like to get more into thru-hiking in the future. This seemed like an excellent way to get our feet wet. It was also in Spain, where I have never been and a region where Maria had never been. We already had all of the gear, and all of the time. Done.
We expected to: camp most nights, spend around 5 euro per day on food, finish the hike in around 30 days.
Reality: We camped exactly 6 nights, we were over budget almost the entire time, and it took us 38 days.
I will describe my walk as they pertain to the following categories:
1. THE WEATHER
We arrived in Saint Jean, not knowing what to expect really. There was snow on the ground and we camped in a random farmer’s field the first night, somewhere near the beginning of the trail and got an early start the next morning.
What we realized quite quickly, is that after walking 26 kilometers, we are very, very tired. The first two days of the walk are big days and all uphill. This means they are above the snow line. Of course, we did not anticipate there being record snows in the Pyrenees this winter, but that is exactly what we got.
We showed up to a town that looked like this:
If you don’t know how I feel about snow and cold, go read “Thoughts on Traveling in Winter” and the post just before this one. To recap: cold and snow and rain fill me with homicidal rage. Especially after having seen only those things for the past 4 months with no respite whatsoever.
The very beginning of the Camino had me confronting harsh conditions and I had to be outside in them all day. The best part is that the cold and rain did not let up for THREE WEEKS.
It’s one thing to hike in some rain, and know that it’s no big deal because you can dry yourself and your stuff off the next day when it’s sunny. This was rainy day after rainy day. Cold after cold, wind after wind. It even hailed on us in APRIL. And I was going out of my fucking mind. The worst part was that being inside offered no relief. Every place we stayed was a 900 year old monastery made of stone with no heating. I had to practically go to sleep in all of my clothes. This is how I spent the better part of the first month:
Of course, we couldn’t camp in these conditions. Sometimes we did, but only when it was above freezing at night. I was not happy and I am ashamed to admit (but I will) that I cried. I cried a lot. In fact, there were at least two times where I found myself shaking with sobs. But the last time it happened was definitely one of my lowest points. It occurred almost two full weeks after we left Burgos, on April 14th. We were hiking to Cruz del Ferro that day (arguably the most significant point on the Camino). Suddenly, the temperature dropped and I was back in my dark place, wearing all of my clothing, and just waiting for it to be over. Then the heavens opened up and unleashed hell.
I remember standing on top of a mountain shouting “FUCK YOU, SPAIN!” as loud as I possibly could, knowing no one could hear me over the rain. I was talking out loud to myself like a crazy person. Finally, I snapped and began walking in every puddle I could find to get as wet and as cold as possible, because fuck you, Spain. I nearly injured myself doing this and even at the time I knew I was having a mental breakdown.
I rolled into the next town to find a beer waiting for me. I just sank into the chair and cried. Then I stopped, and never cried about it again. The point was, that happened to me. I don’t think that is a normal Camino experience for anyone. And it was hard.
2. GETTING SICK
Getting sick is not fun. It is especially not fun when you are in a foreign country and you are on the move to a new place every day and must leave your hostel by 8am.
I met other pilgrims who have gotten ill on the Camino. It happens, there are a lot of pilgrims and close quarters. Also, in some regions the water is not exactly treated as well as in others. Things go around. But I do not know of any other pilgrim who got sick TWICE.
Just do me a favor for a moment and imagine being here in a room full of people (the above photo). Then having to climb out of bed every 20 minutes to puke your guts out for SEVEN STRAIGHT HOURS.
I can say proudly that Maria and I both became ill hours and days apart respectively, with stomach-flu-food-poisoning-esque illnesses, and we did not take a day off from walking.
…except for when Maria was ill in Samos. But still that average is pretty good.
The point is, I thought the weather was agonizing. Then I was confronted with cold and rain AND vomiting over freeway guard rails with my backpack on for 15 kilometers. I can now say with confidence, that agony is walking the Camino with the stomach flu. Or walking it when your girlfriend has the stomach flu.
3. THE BUDGET
Our budget suffered. We could not camp as much as we wanted to for a few reasons. The weather was one aspect, but it wasn’t everything. The company is a huge draw to the albergues but I’ll get to that later.
The issue is that we were confronted with this system of lodging that we had to participate in, but we could not afford. Our budget is only 7 euros a day (each). An albergue is anywhere from 5-10 euro per night, but it’s usually 5-8. That leaves between 4 and -2 euros for both Maria and I to eat, daily.
When you are as conscious of freeloading and taking advantage of strangers as we are, it is very difficult to work out this lifestyle. We ate very cheap food. Bread and nutella, rice, pasta with oil, eggs, and various seasonings. Not to mention endless tea cookies. Occasionally we sampled some local delicacy off the plates of our friends, but usually it was poor man’s meals.
Maria ended up using her magical stretching powers on other pilgrims, and received donations from some of them. We called this the Generous Pilgrim Fund, or simply “the bag.”
Basically, any money we found or received on our trip went into a bag. From there, we were able to draw supplements to allow us to stay in albergues and feed ourselves. It was the only way we could feel in exchange with people around us and the system as a whole. But it was a shock to our system. It took some time to get into a rhythm but in the end it was completely worth it because…
4. THE COMPANY
Here is the overwhelmingly good part of the Camino. We made friends. Lots of them. Good ones. And that is probably worth all of the aforementioned bullshit. We met people on our second day on the trail, and then somehow stuck with them.
I walked with people for entire days and you can really get to know someone if you talk to them for 5 hours. Maria and I got particularly close with a Canadian couple called Fred and Jen (or Fredifer). We also met Niny, a 60 year old Dutch woman who spoke 6 languages fluently. We also met Gretchen, who was as close to an angel in the flesh that I think a person can be.
The amazing thing was seeing these relationships develop over time. You leave people and then run into them a little later. For us, we could not shake our Canadians. Every time we left them, we ran into them again. Of course, they were trying pretty hard to make sure we found them again as well.
But the point is that with friends like that, why would we want to spend 5 hours a day in a tent by ourselves? Of course we are going to change our plans and make sure we can have dinners with these guys, and walk with them.
We got so close with these two in particular, that we actually met up with them in Porto 4 days after we finished the Camino. We gave them some of our winter clothes to take back to Quebec with them so we can pick it up from them when we visit. That kind of thing.
Others were shorter lived companions, but still just as close. Niny invited us to stay with her in Amsterdam when we come through later this year. Even though she is going to Italy for 3 weeks, we are more than welcome to the keys to her house and we can stay as long as we need to.
Paul from California offered us a place in Bend, Oregon any time we’re in town. We knew a Swedish woman for 2 days, and by the end of the second day, she was giving us her contact info and telling us she’d have an apartment and a fully stocked fridge waiting for us in Stockholm.
THE END OF THE ROAD
The Camino was difficult in many ways. It was physically challenging and even more mentally challenging. It forced me to confront a lot of things about myself that I want to change. Such as my inability to cope with adverse weather conditions. It also helped me realize when my breaking points occur and how I behave when I am feeling weak.
I did not originally begin this walk with any sort of intention or spiritual goal. What I found was the intention made itself clear along the way. I needed to make it through rough times just to know that I could. I needed to increase my mental toughness.
In the end, laying there in the middle of the square after it was all over, I remember the feeling that I had gained something. What, I’m still not exactly sure, but the story needed to be told anyway.
Paris is big, old, and full of awesome stuff and awesome people. It also happens to be one of the most expensive cities in Europe. It should come as no surprise to anyone that you are on an ultra-low budget during your travels. 7 euro per day might be reasonable in a small country town, but here that notion is absurd. In fact, you were met with incredulous laughter anytime you told anyone living in Paris about your 7-euro-per-day budget.
Despite this, you managed an incredible week in this grand city and only spent 50 euro. How? Surely you must not have had a very good sampling of all Paris has to offer. Okay, so you didn’t go to the Louvre every day for 3 or 4 days like a real tourist. But the food, the entertainment, there is no way you could have fun every day and spend that little. Impossible.
The key to all of this is deeply rooted within your travel philosophy. Of course values are everything. Some people need those kitchy overpriced souvenirs, and they need to go out to dinner every night, and stay in a hotel, and go to the top of the Eiffel tower, and take taxis everywhere.
You need to have an authentic experience and meet local people and do local people things with them. You need to see things. And thus, your trip went something like this:
You set up a couch-surfing host well in advance and were planning to stay with him for the entire week. Knowing you will be living in someone’s home for a week, it is important that you do not rely on them too much. They are providing you with a place to sleep, access to a bathroom and a kitchen for free. This is more than enough on their part and so you do not expect them to feed you also. According to your travel ethics, you must be prepared to be self-sufficient at all times. This means feeding yourself.
You were conveniently dropped right within the city boundary and the first thing you and Maria did was go to the grocery store. The grocery store is one of your favorite rituals when traveling. It gives you an opportunity to sample local foods without being completely ripped off. Among other things, France is the land of cheese, wine, 50 cent baguettes, and charcuterie. Their grocery stores reflect this in variety and price. Behold:
Due to an exceptionally lucky day of hitch-hiking, you arrived at your host’s apartment about 30 minutes early. This is not usually a problem for those who stay in hotels or hostels. You check in when you arrive. But the money you save waiting around (in your opinion) is well worth it. This is how a traveler on a budget kills time:
When your host finally did arrived home from work, he lead you up to his apartment. Famished and fully stocked from the grocery store, you had a nice get-to-know-you meal together. Vincent graciously contributed a bottle of wine from his own collection. What you spent on the food was given back to you tenfold in Vincent’s generosity and good company. This is how it usually goes.
Your first day out in Paris. Vincent kindly left you a key so you could come and go as you pleased. Today was the day of introduction. The first thing on your list was Notre Dame. You were content to just look at the building, but as luck would have it, entry is free. Score! Little gems like this occasionally present themselves and they are always to be taken advantage of.
Notre Dame was easily within walking distance from your host. About 30 minutes. Now, this is sort of a crucial step because you do realize that you are able and willing to walk much farther than the average person. Blame this on your life in San Francisco, if something is within 2 miles, you will walk. When traveling (especially when you don’t have a backpack) if something is within 5 miles you will walk. You have learned over the short time you’ve spent on the road that nothing compares to what you see and observe while on foot. This is why you decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower.
You suspect most tourists (with the exception of those tourists with children, you certainly have an excuse) would take a taxi to the park and spend a half hour walking around and buy some food nearby. For you and Maria, your idea of an Eiffel Tower outing is to pack a lunch and set off with your day packs.
Many sights and many photos later you arrived here:
You enjoyed your packed lunches on a bench just across from the one in this photo and went on your way. You spent the whole day outside looking at Paris and enjoying the city the way the locals enjoy it – mostly on foot. (Is this perhaps why the French are so thin?)
On your way home you stopped at a farmer’s market and picked up some artisan foods for an excellent price (4 euro for charcuterie which ended up lasting you 4 days and 4 euro for 500 grams of artisan organic cheese. Not bad folks). For dinner that night, you cooked some of your groceries from the previous shopping excursion and called it a day.
Breakfast is served: the charcuterie and cheese you purchased the day before. Yum!
Later that day, you and Maria walked to the movie theater to see Les Miserables. Your ticket cost 4.60 because you are under 25 and her ticket only cost 6.50 because it was a matinee. (Did you hear that America? 11 euro for two people to see a movie).
As an added perk, you were able to walk through a different section of Paris and see even more of the city on foot. It was a relaxing but eventful day.
Your host invited you to an art exhibit by a friend of his that evening. The exhibit was awesome and afterward, he took you and Maria out for drinks. And paid for them. This is not something you rely on your hosts to do, but it is always appreciated when it happens. Thus, you had an authentic outing with a bunch of French people at no cost to you.
You finished the with some quiet down time with your host, reading on the couch. For a traveler, rest is important.
Louvre! You packed a lunch and set off for a wonderful art tour. Of course you had no choice but to pay the 11 euro for the ticket. And of course, you couldn’t imagine anything more worth it if you tried.
The point is, you are selective about what you want to do. Rather than see the entire Louvre because “you must”, you chose the things you wanted to look at and planned the day around that. Even as an artist and an art history major, there is certain art you care about and certain art you don’t (as much). For this trip, you decided to be selective and have a relaxed day in an outstanding museum.
You and Maria followed up the visit with a final run to the grocery store and a nice walk down main street. You went slightly over budget on this day, but not by much, and you still got a lot of sight-seeing in.
But what about other entertainment? The bars? the excitement?
Leave it to your host to cover that one. Vincent was planning a BeWelcome party that night, at his/your apartment. No taxis or metro required and you had a lot of fun and got to meet a bunch of new people and listen to 90’s club music until 4am. Priceless.
Early afternoon when you woke up, Vincent insisted on cooking you a French dish while you stayed with him. This involved a trip to the best farmer’s market you’ve ever seen and some damn-good food. Again, no cost to you.
Vincent was also kind enough to invite you along to play squash with some of his friends and then play board games afterwards. These are the kind of things your method of travel provides that other, more costly, methods do not. You could not pay for a day like this if you tried. These moments are entirely unique to who your host is and what kind of people you meet. They are random but they always happen in some way or another. It turned out to be a wonderful day full of awesome people, fun games, and of course, more delicious food.
You would like to note that you never want to free-load. You contribute when you must and you feed yourself when you must. In this case, you made sure your exchange with them was even. You and Maria purchased your own beer and some other things and only took what was offered to you. Even when you contribute monetarily or otherwise, your cost is almost always less than in a restaurant and always far more interesting and fun.
The hike. In Europe everything is closed on Sunday so there is usually no point in going outside. Also, everyone is recovering from their partying on Saturday. Still, sights are always open, and thus you and Maria embarked on a 17.5 kilometer walk around the city, visiting some less popular spots.
The money you do spend when you go out is selective, and thus, very special when it does occur. You will probably remember that pastry for the rest of your life because it’s not competing with a bunch of other experiences of the same kind. That is the same principle you follow when it comes to most food in foreign countries. Be selective and choose special things.
A few trips to the grocery store to off-set some key splurges is well worth it. Additionally, giving up some privacy to stay with a local comes with its own special benefits. When you stay with a local you meet other locals and make friends. Usually, they invite you to do things that they do on weekends, or suggest good spots for you to go to that would be unknown to you otherwise.
In return, you respect their space, clean up after yourself, and provide them with stimulating conversation and allow them to entertain you when they offer. All it takes to spend a week in Paris for 50 euro is a loose itinerary, selective splurging, and a willingness to share your experience with others. It is a win-win for everyone and you can’t imagine traveling any other way.