Just when you think you might die of thirst…

This was my mom’s favorite story I told her about the Camino so you get to hear it, too….

At the end of June this year, I was wrapping up my five days on the Camino de Santiago and after having survived a couple of meltdowns and contemplating cutting my feet off at the ankles, I had finally settled into the walk and was quite enjoying myself. This, the fourth day, found me and my friend Katie walking separately from Bruma to Siguero. It would be around 28km and the terrain would change quite a bit…less mountains and more farmland. Sadly, the fabulous water fountains we had been accustomed to also mysteriously disappeared. As did any villages or small towns in which to buy food. Somehow I wasn’t all that upset by this development and pretty much bounced along the trails and dirt roads with a grumbling tummy and parched lips, but happy the weather was nice and simply relieved my flip flops had restored my feet.

About 8 hours into this 9 hour walk, I spotted a figure way up in the distance. It was Katie Ford!! I couldn’t believe I had caught up to her as I was certain my lazyass pilgrim’s leisurely breakfast had likely put me way behind. But Katie had taken a wrong turn that morning and was also feeling some pain and so was taking the day’s walk gingerly. But the one thing I knew Katie did have going for her was a camelback. Yes! At this point I had not had a sip of water in almost five hours!

But alas, Katie Ford was also out of water. And food.

We walked together for a while but she really wanted to go slow and I really wanted to sprint to town before I died of thirst. I forged ahead and after another hour I finally made it into Siguero. As I approached the city, it kept feeling like there should be a convenience store or gas station around every turn. But, nada. Then the Camino took me through a pretty little city park and I’m thinking, “perfect…for sure there will be a water fountain or at least a bathroom with a sink.” Psych! Seriously, I was walking through there very audibly saying, “REALLY? REALLY?? NO WATER????”

But then, and this wasn’t the first time that something so unexpected would happen on the Camino, I rounded a corner and BAM! Huge public swimming pool with kids doing cannonballs and parents lounging around on a blanket of green grass. I marched my dirty pilgrim butt up to the counter, paid my 2 Euro, changed into my swimsuit and sprawled out on the grass with a giant pink popsicle. I’m hard-pressed to think of another time I’ve felt so overjoyed with such a simple pleasure.

So there I was, buck naked again…

I originally wrote this story last January in an email to some girlfriends. I debated posting it due to some nudity but then figured that while it was a little bizarre, it was perfectly legal (I think) and so here goes…

January 7, 2013
So I’ve been up in Dallas working and was feeling a little worn out and beat up from the past few weeks. This afternoon I decided to look for a yoga studio or something to unwind and relax. I remembered a friend of mine talking about a Korean spa and sauna that her sister had tried so I Googled it and found King Spa & Sauna. Since there were tons of great reviews on Yelp, I thought, “what the heck, I’ll try it.”

Around 6:30 tonight, I drove up to North Dallas and as soon as I pulled through the huge entrance flanked by 30 foot tall fiberglass giraffes and into a packed parking lot in front of a mammoth building, I knew this was no Milk & Honey Day Spa. KING SPA & SAUNA (all caps seems more appropriate) had already made an impression. Of what, I wasn’t quite certain.

With a tiny amount of trepidation, I walked past a pair of life-sized bronze lions, up the steps and into to the reception hall. I was a little unsure of what to do but the Yelp reviews had informed me of a couple of things. For instance, the staff may or may not be friendly and helpful (may not, check). You must immediately take off your shoes (check). And they have a scrub/massage/facial package for $120 that everyone seems to love (where do I sign up!).

While the staff who greeted me were not friendly nor helpful (annoyed with another non-Korean speaking white girl seemed more like it), I did at least gather that I was to book spa services in the actual ladies locker room area. So I paid my $27 entrance fee, got my plastic bracelet with locker key, removed my shoes and found the ladies area. I also knew from the Yelp reviews that complete nudity was pretty much the game so wasn’t too shocked to walk into a large locker room full of completely naked women of all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities. I approached the young girl standing at a little table with a schedule book and mimed my request for a 9pm spa reservation. Ok, so two hours to kill….what next?

Since the schedule girl spoke zero English (or at least pretended not to), a nice naked lady told me where to find my bright orange t-shirt/shorts outfit that is the mandatory uniform for the entire facility (sans the locker room and wet room, of course). She gave me a few other tips and off I went. Or rather, off went my clothes.

After storing my things in a locker, I strutted my stuff into the wet room (there is a separate one for men). The big rule posted everywhere is that you must shower (basically high school-style with shower heads lining a wall) before entering any of the pools. I obeyed and then took a dip in one of the hot whirlpools. I’m not a huge fan of hot tubs so I moved to the cold pool next. After that shock (it was more like Barton Springs than just a cool-off pool), I tried the wet sauna. I liked that one the best. I immediately felt all the holiday booze pouring out of my skin. There was one other completely naked lady in there with me and at some point, one of the staff girls opened the door and said something to us in Korean….it seemed like a reprimand but we weren’t sure what we were doing wrong. I mean, sweating in the buff seemed to be the thing to do.

Anyway, after showering again, I put on the ridiculous orange uniform (I surmised that they make them so doggone ugly to prevent theft) and headed out of the women’s area and into the main hall of the spa. This is basically the co-ed part of the place and there were people everywhere. All in matching orange uniforms. It sort of looked like prison, except everyone was happy. There were couples (young and old), families, gaggles of teenagers, random people like myself. This place is actually open 24/7 so I guessed it was an overnight destination for many. Cheaper than a hotel, right?

Down the center of this hall were a series of very Ming Dynasty-ornate chairs (um, guessing maybe a Chinese reference is politically incorrect in a Korean story, but I don’t know any Korean dynasties), small little dainty tables with slightly less hugely ornate chairs, little tables and chairs for kids, and at the far end, rows upon rows of big leather recliners in front of an enormous TV screen with no sound. But don’t let the close-caption mislead you….this was not a quite place. To the right was the “cafeteria” with all sorts of Korean dishes, smoothies and teas….lots of clatter and chatter. But finally, on the left side of the hall were all the different saunas. I headed to the very end of the hall, thinking I would try them all and work my way back to the ladies wet room where I would get my treatments later. And also thinking I could get away from the throngs of people.

The first one I tried was the Infrared Room. Basically it was a room with some infrared lights. It was actually quite soothing and totally quiet but then I couldn’t remember if infrared light causes skin cancer and I got myself freaked out and left. Next I tried the Gold Pyramid Room. It was also very relaxing and quite a bit warmer than the first room. The gold plated walls and ceiling cleanse you or make your energy vibrate or something. It smelled good. But there were two girls in the corner whispering and playing an iPod through earbuds (which you can totally still hear) and so it was sort of hard to concentrate on my third eye and stuff.

Next I tried a larger and much hotter room (can’t remember what it was named) but there were so many people talking so loudly, I wondered why they were here and not at a bar. Nobody seemed to mind the “Quiet Please” signs and the staff was oblivious so I moved on. I entered the Salt Dome Room at the same time as a very handsome black dude who flashed me a huge grin and told me this was his favorite room. At first it was awesome…we were the only two in there and it was totally silent. It smelled heavenly and was pretty darned hot so the sweat started pouring again and I could feel the toxins dripping to the floor. But then a group of three girls came in, all with iPhone in hand, and just started chatting away like they had never learned English and so the “Quiet Please” sign clearly meant nothing (they were speaking English, by the way). The handsome guy immediately sat up and asked them to respect the quiet and then those damn girls continued to giggle in hushed voices (as if we couldn’t hear them from 1.5 feet away). Ok, deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Third eye. I’m in tune with my body. I’m not hearing about their boyfriends. But then the freaking girl sitting next to me starts scrolling through her phone (obviously she doesn’t know you can make it NOT click) and that was it. I sighed and left.

At that point, all the sweating had me feeling a little queasy so I went over to the cafeteria and got a green tea. My plastic bracelet was scanned and the tea charged to my account. I had brought a new book with me called Vortex that’s all about getting in touch with your inner self and drawing things into your life, etc…seemed like the thing to read at a detox spa. But for whatever reason, I grabbed an In Style magazine and read up on hair care instead. I do feel more enlightened, but maybe not in the way Vortex intended.

ANYWAY, after lounging in a recliner and learning a few hair tricks (spray dry shampoo on bobby pins to make them stay in place better!) it was time for my spa treatments. I made my way back to the ladies’ lounge and was instructed to go stand in the wet room and wait for my number to be called. So there I was, buck naked again, standing in the wet room waiting to be told what to do. Finally a Korean woman (maybe 50ish) wearing a black and white polka dot bra and matching panties called my number. She lead me to the far side of the wet room where a row of maybe a dozen massage tables covered in Pepto Bismol-pink plastic were lined up behind a low wall that was topped with glass etched with Bart Simpson’s image. Not kidding. Read that again if you need to.

Suzi (that’s what the sign on the wall above the table said her name was…she did not introduce herself) pointed at a table and motioned for me to lie on my stomach. I did what I was told and the next thing I know she was throwing buckets of warm water on me…what a cool sensation! But then the scrubbing began. At first it hurt like hell. I mean, this woman was wearing exfoliating gloves and rubbing the backs of my legs like she was scrubbing blood out of carpet before the police showed up. But my mind drifted to the Yelp reviews that gushed over how “worth the discomfort” was ‘cuz “your skin would be so soft,” so I relaxed into it and after a while, it actually didn’t hurt so much.

This went on for a while with Suzi flipping me this way and that, scrubbing the shit out of every square inch of my body. Oddly, when she had me flipped over on my back, all I could think of was, “I wonder how she thinks I got the huge bruises on my leg.” And then I thought, “I wonder how I got those huge bruises on my leg.” Oh yeah….NYE at Courtney Mountain Ranch. Makes total sense.

After all the scrubbing was done, Suzi doused me with more buckets of water and then told me to go shower off. I followed orders, making my way past the other women getting the shit scrubbed out of them by middle-aged women in lingerie. After I returned to my table, Suzi patted me dry and then started in on some serious Korean massage. Now this type of massage might be a little rough for some but I’ve had massages in Thailand, China and Bali and so am used to the technique. And Lord knows I needed some intense massage. But I have to admit I’ve never had the twisting and elbowing and pounding followed up with a woman straddling my bare butt and rubbing hot oil all over me. I was trying not to laugh as I pictured my mother seeing this whole episode. I mean, it wasn’t dirty or inappropriate…heck, at least six or seven other women where getting the same treatments just feet away from me…but still.

Next, Suzi began to rub the most delightful peppermint oil into my scalp….now that was amazing. And after wrapping my head in a hot towel, she flipped me over, slathered on more hot oil and then applied a super thick, incredibly cold mask to my face. Once Suzi was satisfied that I couldn’t open my mouth (yes, the crazy mask went right over my lips), she put a swatch of fabric over my eyes and then went to massaging the rest of me. “Maybe the massage will actually get rid of the bruises,” I theorized.

Now, you may be asking yourself if this story can get any more bizarre. Well, yes. Yes it can.

So I’m lying there on my back, covered in hot oil, turban on my head, lips sealed with a mask and my eyes covered with a strip of fabric. I have no idea, and I mean NO idea, what was going to happen next. That’s when Suzi pushes me to a sitting position and literally spins me around on the oily plastic table. It would have been funny (you know, spinning around on your oily bare butt) if I hadn’t been so surprised. Then she laid me back down so that my head was by the hose (yes, there was a garden hose at the end of each table) and began to wash my hair.

I’ll give you a moment to take all that in. It was a lot to experience so I’m sure it’s a lot to digest. I share this with you because many of you have traveled with me (or at least have read my past travel stories) and so I thought you would appreciate one that happened right here in Big D. In any case, that was the end of the treatment and after removing the mask in one fell swoop (I love those kind!), Suzi sat me up and nodded to me. I took that as my queue to smile, thank her and walk my scrubbed, pounded and oiled naked ass back to my locker. Thank gawd tip was included in the price….that could have been an awkward exchange.

I must say that my skin is indeed as smooth as a baby’s butt, my hair feels luxuriously soft, and the giant knot in the middle of my back is gone. Will I do this again? HELL YES. I know it must sound crazy, but honestly we’re the only culture I know who are so dang prude and modest. This place really was about healing and relaxing and using centuries-old wellness techniques. I would definitely prefer a spa like this for adults-only as all the kids (children to high school) were a bit annoying, but overall I was pleased with the five hours I spent there tonight. Oh, and the guy who checked me out at the reception desk was way nicer than the one who checked me in.

The end.

You Gotta Laugh to Keep From Crying

“Baby, sometimes you gotta laugh to keep from cryin’.”

I’ve heard my mom use this phrase my entire life and I can say without hesitation that it has saved me from myself on more than one occasion.  I’m a pretty balanced and positive person but there are times when I crumble like the best of us. And while I’ve experienced much harder challenges in life than the Camino de Santiago, there were a few moments that most definitely tested my mother’s favorite saying.

I don’t think it was an accident that our first day on the Camino was amazing. The weather was mild and the walk was easy.  Katie and I merrily took in our surroundings as we relaxed into our adventure. Our packs were just right, bodies felt strong, the paths were easy to follow.  We stopped after 12km when we arrived at our first albergue in a town called Neda. The albergue, situated on a green lawn next to a pretty river inlet, was brand new and surprisingly void of pilgrims. I had been skeptical of staying in these pilgrim hostals as I am not a fan of dormitory-style arrangements. We couldn’t believe how nice this one was and to our delight, Katie and I had a private room for the bargain price of 6 Euro each!

We picked up some pasta and wine at a nearby grocery store and I made us a nice dinner while Katie washed our clothes. We adorned our picnic table with a bouquet of lavender and dined in the fresh cool breeze with a huge lovely sun slowly sinking on the horizon. With that same cool breeze gently rustling the drapes and a faint industrial clanging sound in the distance, we were both lulled into the sleep of babies. I’m not sure what everyone was warning me about on this pilgrimage. The Camino is awesome!

I’m sure you know where this is going.

The next day started out fine enough. In fact, the next 8-9 hours where quite pleasant. We had packed sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs in our packs before leaving the albergue so a mid-morning snack was in hand. We stumbled upon a lovely beach outside of Pontedueme around lunchtime and enjoyed the ocean air while we sipped beers and listened to 70’s classics coming from the radio behind the bar. We stopped for chocolate croissants and coffee at a cute sidewalk café. We did need our rain jackets as it was misty. But definitely not raining. Piece. Of. Cake.

Around 5pm we found ourselves in a town called Miño. There was an albergue there but it was sort of a gloomy place (especially in comparison to the albergue in Neda) and the next town was only 8km away. We decided to stop for a beer and make a decision. Note to self: do not make super important decisions on the Camino de Santiago after a couple of beers.

With fresh enthusiasm, we decided to forge ahead. I mean it’s only 8km. That’s like, 5 miles. It’s the long loop around Town Lake. We can totally cover that in under two hours and then we will be in Betanzos (way cooler town) on a Saturday night with plenty of time for a good dinner at a nice restaurant.

Sigh.

Now I’m not sure why we thought the terrain we were walking was anything like the flat trail around Town Lake and that the distance could be compared. What we ended up walking for the next 8km and FOUR HOURS was the equivalent of walking Stratford Drive from Zilker Park to Red Bud Trail. Twice. With backpacks. And tired feet. (Non-Austinites, consider the steepest winding road you can imagine and that’s what we tackled).

By the time we rolled into Betanzos, it was dusk (about 9pm) and I was utterly delirious. The red-hot pain that shows up in the balls of your feet had set in and every single step felt like shards of broken glass were piercing my peds. Seriously, it was hard to breathe. The one hopeful moment (that would be quickly dashed) was hearing Claptone over a PA on a party boat as we crossed the bridge into town. I had a fleeting vision of a hot shower, fine dining and maybe some good music later in the evening. Ha. Here’s what actually happened:

After winding our way up two more cruel cobblestone streets to the top of the old town (I’m sure it was cool but I was too exhausted to care), we quite literally stumbled around a plaza where the albergue was supposed to be. There were people strolling arm-in-arm, laughing as they made their way to some fabulous dinner with friends. I wanted to ask them for help or directions but the pain in my feet had paralyzed me and I dove onto the first bench I saw. An equally exhausted Katie Ford stepped up to the plate and found someone to tell us where to go. The albergue was just around the corner. “I can do this…just a few more steps.”

We tumbled into the office of the albergue (this one was in an old church and was cool, but again, too tired to care) where an old man checked us in, stamped our pilgrim passport and gave us mattress covers. He led us upstairs and into a dorm with at least 20 sets of bunk beds, most of them occupied. The lights were dim and everyone was already hunkered down.

As quietly as we could, Katie and I made our way to two open bunks and began to rummage through our packs for toiletries and clean clothes. I was promptly scolded by a mean lady for “jiggling” her bed. Gawd, I think my exact response in the bitchiest tone I could manage was, “OK, LADY.” It was at this precise moment that I panicked. I suddenly remembered reading that many church-run albergues have a curfew and lock the doors at night. I ran down the stairs to the front desk where I asked the old man what time he would be locking the doors. As the words were leaving my lips, my eyes were registering him packing up his things and putting on his jacket. “Cinco minutos,” was his response.

No! No! No! No! We haven’t eaten anything since lunch! I’m so hungry I’m shaking! This can’t be!

I dashed back up the stairs and found Katie in the hallway and quickly explained our predicament. While the last hour of the walk that evening had laid the groundwork for a meltdown, my having to explain to Katie that, “we are about to be locked inside a f**king albergue with a bunch of asshole people and we won’t be able to get any food before the f**king old man locks the f**king front door” was the tipping point.

My mind was racing. How do I piece together, “is there a regular hotel nearby?” in Spanish. The old man had now come upstairs to see what we were going to do. I was frantically trying to ask him if we can hurry and get food or if there is another place to stay. He finally understood and explained that it was 10pm on a Saturday night and he did not know if there is availability at any nearby hotels and that no, there was no time for us to leave and come back because he was going home. When the door is locked, it’s locked. You can leave, but you can’t come back in.

I looked wild-eyed at Katie and pleaded for her to make a decision. I was too bewildered to deal with this and I couldn’t string together a coherent plan to save my life. I was THAT upset.

You know, an old travel buddy and I used to have a saying that went something like, “only one of us can freak out at a time.” One person must always stay level. That night Katie was the calm one. She looked right at me and very gently explained that we have two choices. Go to bed hungry but with a hot shower and a guaranteed place to sleep or take our chances on the street, maybe having to walk for some time to find another room. I knew the smart thing to do was to stay put but my mind was fighting it. Instead of a nice dinner, perhaps some music and new friends, I was faced with a room full of snoring mean people and an empty belly.

We stayed. I came unglued. I pointed my finger at Katie and said, “I will never stay in another f**king albergue. Ever.” I cried in the shower. And then one of the nicest things happened. A sweet Italian lady had overheard our conversation and pushed her lunch pail into Katie’s hands and said, “eat.” Katie and I stood in the bathroom shoving crackers and cheese down our gullets and while it was by no means a meal, it was something. And about the most thoughtful thing anyone could have done for us.

But alas, I still had not laughed. I was pissed and I was going to hold onto that a little longer. I lay in bed that night fuming. The cacophony of snoring was unbearable. I think, no…I know I was sighing very loudly and sarcastically every time I turned over. I wanted everyone to know I was miserable. No one heard. And I doubt they would have cared.

The next morning I was still grumpy. I told Katie to go on, that I would catch up to her later. We had already decided we would walk a few days alone and I’m sure it was clear I was not going to be good company. A few hours later I was having coffee and a croissant and it dawned on me that it was 9am on a Sunday morning, that nothing was going to be open for hours and if I was going to stay here and get a hotel and relax, I likely couldn’t check in until after lunch. Oh, to heck with it. I decided to walk.

In studying the hand-drawn map we were given in Ferrol, it looked like there was a place to stay in a little town halfway between Betanzos and the next major pilgrim stop in Bruma. I figured I could handle 12 or 13km. But here’s something I learned about the Camino that day. It takes you where you are supposed to go. Not necessarily where you want to go.

About 4 or 5 hours later, I walked into a tiny village. It was utterly quiet with only a small cemetery and church flanking a modest plaza with a covered pavilion. There were a handful of farmhouses nearby but not a single person to be seen. I suppose it was siesta.

Surprisingly, I spotted a very large new modern sign with the Camino route clearly outlined. But to my extreme dismay, the “Aqui” marker put me about 3km past the town that I thought would be my half-way salvation. And meltdown #2 commenced.

No! No! No! No! No!  This can’t be!

I still want to hear the voice mail I left Katie in that moment. I’m pretty sure it went something like, “holy shit, I missed a turn and now I’m past the town I wanted to stop in and I don’t know what to do and I would pay a million dollars for a taxi right now. CRAP! CRAP! CRAP! My feet are killing me and this f**king camino sucks! Call me!”

But then I did what my mom would have done. I laughed to keep from crying. I laughed at my predicament. I laughed at my aching feet. I laughed at the crummy faucet I had to get water from (amoebas be damned!). And then I did the smartest thing I would do on that walk. I put on my flip flops. Oh, sweet relief. Now, I have some nice Merrill hiking shoes that are broken-in and quite comfortable and I didn’t have blisters, but there was no getting around the searing pain in the balls of my feet. That was, until I slid those little piggies into a $10 pair of squishy soft flops from Academy.

With a spring in my step, I forged ahead and not an hour later, I stumbled upon a white tablecloth restaurant, quite literally in the middle of nowhere, with a gorgeous view of a green valley and an honest-to-goodness wine list. Adding to my immense delight, I ran into none other than Katie Awesome Ford. She had just finished lunch and had actually already left the restaurant when she doubled back to use the ladies’. Coincidence?  I think not.

Katie walked on while I enjoyed a leisurely lunch. A sweet guy in another group of pilgrims called ahead and made a hotel reservation for me outside of Bruma and then I met two of the sweetest people I would encounter on this walk. Eve and Caroline from Sweden would become great friends throughout the rest of the Camino (and I’m certain forever).

I didn’t have another meltdown on the Camino and for the record, I never put those stinking Merrills on again. I walked approximately 50 miles in flip flops. Yep. And I will always try to laugh instead of crying. It works out so much better that way.

P.S. Later I did apologize to Katie for pointing my finger at her as if the albergue dilemma was her fault. I’m pretty sure I actually scared her when I did that. But, like my mom always says, “don’t cross Lisa when she’s hungry.”


 

L O O K

All along the Camino de Santiago, there are markers that lead pilgrims on their walk. Those markers aren’t always obvious and it really does make you pay attention. It reminded me of a book I read a long time ago called the Celestine Prophecy. The book talks about connecting with what and who is around you. Being grounded. Being present so that you don’t overlook something or dismiss someone who might turn out to be a key part of your journey.

That idea resonated with me and so I’ve made a point to be mindful. Mindful of who crosses my path. Mindful of things that didn’t happen the way I envisioned (and then turned out to be so much better!).  Alert to opportunities to learn and travel and experience. From the quirky to the mundane to the breathtaking, every moment can be significant. Some of you wonder where I get my adventuresome spirit and perhaps this explains part of it. I’m not saying we can’t make discoveries in our own backyard, but putting myself out in the world just opens so many more doors.

And is why I took myself to a seaside port in the northwest of Spain this past June. For five days, I walked with my adventuresome friend, Katie Ford, from Ferrol to Santiago de Compostela, covering more than 120km (that’s about 75 miles for you non-metric Americans). Since there aren’t really printed trail maps you can buy for the Camino (just basic town-to-town maps, many times hand-drawn and xeroxed), your only real guidance is the scallop shell markers found along the Camino routes (there are actually seven official routes that originate in Spain, France and Portugal). It took some faith at first, placing yourself in the hands of strangers who have walked before you. I’ll admit to checking my cellphone GPS on more than one occasion, but the markers were never wrong.

However, not all markers looked the same. You might have the big official stone pedestal with the scallop shell emblem or a scallop shell design conveniently displayed on a manhole cover along a city street. But mostly, and especially in rural areas, you might only have a yellow arrow spray-painted on a tree or in the road or on a telephone pole. And without realizing it, you begin to slow down and look around anytime you pass an intersection. Or when your footpath meets a road. Or when you just sort of need reassurance.

And this is what I mean by looking for signs on the Camino. Your well-being quite literally depended on it, but it was also a constant reminder to pause, look around and pay attention. I like that.