About Me

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Author of Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town http://tinyurl.com/owdwvrp I write about travel and adventure from my home in California and from Africa. I've sailed a catamaran from California to Hawaii, trekked in the Himalayas, worked as a construction manager on a bridge project in Zambia, hiked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, (http://bootsbedouinsandabridge.blogspot.com/) and traveled in over 100 countries and all seven continents. Indie Book Award Winner for Best Memoir of 2012, New York Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, Travelers Tales Solas Award for Best Travel Writing Honorable Mention for My Gambian Husband. Indie Book Award Finalist - Best Travel Book 2013. BOTYA Honorable Mention 2013 - Travel Essay. Member of The Explorers Club since 2013 You can follow my current 2013-2014 expedition across Africa, this time in a 1973 Land Rover Series III 109 on http://teresaokane.blogspot.com/ and on facebook https://www.facebook.com/safarijema

Friday, April 30, 2010

A Typical Day on The Camino de Santiago

When we stay in a refugio or albergue (a pligrim hostel), we are obliged to follow Peregrino rules. Everyone has to clear out of the refugio by 8am. There is also an informal “no stirring before 6 am” rule, which many people ignore. Some early birds are chomping at the bit to be out the door by 5:30 each morning.

Occasionally, the refugio will offer breakfast of bread, jam, and coffee. Sometimes they will prepare a pilgrim meal at night.
In the teeny village of Juan de Ortega we stayed in the church annex and the community served us garlic soup, after mass. It’s better than it sounds, and I think it might have kept the fleas at bay that night.

Anyway, by 6:00a.m., there is a whole lot of rustling going on as people stuff their sleeping bags, pull on their hiking clothes, and arrange their backpacks. Taps are running and toilets are flushing. As I wake up I try not to notice that the Italian cyclist two bunks down wears briefs, not boxers. (Size 32, very colorful).
At 7a.m., those still asleep (an incredible feat!) are jolted into consciousness with a recording of Gregorian chants, traditional pilgrim songs, or in one case, Bob Marley. More rustling is joined by whispers in French, German, Spanish, Dutch…. Soon the room is vibrating with steady conversation; “How far are you going today?”, “Do you think it will rain again?”, “Can you believe how loud that guy snored?” People tend to their blisters and coat their feet with Vaseline before pulling on clean socks, and boots. The Spaniards swear by Vaseline as a way to prevent eruptions. Band-Aid wrappers and moleskin backing make up the majority of trash in an albergue.
Boots are usually neatly stacked on shelves near the front door for airing overnight.

It’s always a blessing to utilize all the facilities before one leaves the refugio in the morning because toilets are few and far between on the trail. For the first week urgencies struck me at the most inopportune moments and I had no choice but to fertilize some poor farmer’s wheat field, or olive grove, or vineyard. So if someone offers you this year’s red wine harvest from the Rioja region of Spain, you should give it a miss, because there is sure to be a little of Tris in every drop.

If the refugio hasn’t provided breakfast, or if we don’t have our own supply of bananas or yogurt, we start the trail on an empty stomach. Cafés are few and far between and don’t open before 9:30 am anyway.
As the refugio empties, everyone wishes one another a Buen Camino, a good walk. We walk out of the refugio and look for a yellow arrow, usually painted on the road, or on a building, which indicates the way to go. (We usually arrive the previous evening so tired, nothing looks familiar. The next morning, we barely remember which direction we came from, so the arrows are a blessing.)
All day long, we follow yellow arrows. They appear on trees, benches, stop signs, buildings, overpasses, or on dedicated Camino steles. Sometimes someone has taken the time to fashion an arrow from stones collected along the road. We are always curious to meet the people who have the energy to do that.
Acceptable modes of travel on the Camino are by foot, by bicycle, by horse, or by donkey. Every day we look for signs of the one donkey on the trail. By the evidence (fresh, but not that fresh), the donkey is a day ahead of us.

With a 25-pound backpack (35 for Scott), we walk for 6 to 8 hours each day. It will take a long time at our slow 'stop to pet a dog, or cat, or calf' pace to walk the 706 kilometers to Santiago.
The landscape and scenery varies by the hour. One day it’s gentle rolling hills of nothing but wheat fields. The next, it’s vineyards followed by a steep climb. The day after, we walk on 17 kilometers of straight-as-an-arrow Roman road, The Via Trajana. Sometimes, we walk on a path next to a main road and those are our least favorite days.

By 10am, it’s time for a coffee break, or to check in with the friends we made the night before at the refugio. Everyone walks at his or her own pace. Many people prefer to walk alone, solitario.

If we are lucky, the town might have a shop or tienda where we can buy supplies for a picnic lunch. Everything closes in the middle of the day, so we have to time this carefully, or we can go the day without eating. This happened only once.

The daily walk is usually broken every 3, or 6, or 13 kilometers by another village with a church - always a church - and a bar. Bars serve coffee, croissants, beer, and sandwiches in a smoke filled environment. But it is the only place for a cup of coffee in the morning or a cold San Miguel for an afternoon pick-me-up.

In almost every town, an enormous stork nest or two tops the towers of Romanesque style churches. We can hear the storks clacking their beaks as they build their nests, long before we can see them. The storks and their nests, have become our favorite symbol of the Camino.
Throughout the day, we are serenaded by frogs that make sounds like the tribbles from Star Trek. It seems there is never a single moment without birdsong, and we love that part of walking the Camino.

Sometimes, the scenery is like walking through a photo that has been enhanced in Photoshop. The sky is too blue, the shoots of newly planted wheat too green, the clouds too blindingly white and fluffy. But the colors are real.

We walk a few more hours, before stopping to make a picnic lunch. For us, lunch is usually a baguette with tuna, or salmon, or Parma ham with cucumber or tomato, and an apple, or bananas. Sometimes a village dog will come to investigate what we are eating and ask us to share. We drink lots of water throughout the day. Refills are available from spouts in the villages’ main plazas.

By 3 in the afternoon, we are usually ready to stop for the day – our feet are killing us and I am ready to throw my pack into a ditch. But there isn't a church steeple in sight, so we must keep going. I pray that there is not a steep ascent, or any change in elevation at all, before we get there. It doesn’t matter if we walk 13 kilometers or 24. The last 4 kilometers are always murder.

Finally, we reach a village and follow the yellow arrows to an albergue or refugio (same thing). The villages often seem completely deserted. There are many For Sale signs. The recession has hit Spain hard.

Once inside the refugio, we present the Pilgrim Credentials that were issued to us on our first day in Pamplona. The hospitaliar puts a stamp inside our “passport”, and we pay the cost of accommodation, usually between 5-8 euros, or whatever you want to donate. Then, we are assigned 2 beds in a dormitory. If we are early (HA!), they might say, “Pick any bed.” Near a window, away from the ablutions is a good choice. Some people take naps, some shower, some write in journals, or read, or talk. ‘Wasn’t it pretty today?”, “Did you stop at the Templar church?"
Sometimes there is local entertainment. In one village, the hospitaliar suddenly exclaimed, “The cows are coming!” and we all went out to watch a nightly parade of cows walking through the main square with the locals. Scott was inspired. We tied red sashes (the rain covers for our packs) around our waists and "ran with the bulls". Only, they weren't bulls. They were matronly cows with milk-swollen udders.

At 7:30 or 8 pm, a “pilgrim meal” is served, usually at the one bar or restaurant in town, or sometimes at the albergue. We select from a first course of soup, or salad, or paella, a second course of stew, pork, fish, rabbit, or chicken, and a dessert. Every meal comes with water, bread, and a bottle or two of wine, all for between 8-10 euros. I love the pilgrim menu! We walk all day, have a hot shower, then someone cooks for us, and brings us all the wine we want. The only bad part is that we eat this big meal, and then it’s time to go to bed. Lights out is usually 10 pm. This is when the conversations with God begin in earnest. Dear God, can the mattress be long enough to stretch out in and un-lumpy enough for a good sleep? Dear God, I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow. The best I’ve overheard are "Lord, bless and heal my feet" or the ever popular, "God, let my sleep be peaceful".

Mine always is, Please, God, help me convince the Spaniard sleeping in the next bunk that fresh air is a good thing. This is how the conversation goes each night between me and the person in the next bunk. I try my best to communicate in Spanish, which by now you know is pretty bad, to say the least.
I open the window.
Spaniard says, “No! During the night the air will cross my face!”
“Yes!” I say. “The time in this temperature is very good!”
Spaniard looks at me with mixture of pity and confusion and says once more, “No!”
I plead with my eyes and say, “Until sleep time, it is well that the window is open for business!” Spaniard rolls over.
The symphony of snoring begins.

Scott and Tris
On the Way of St. James
Camino Francais, Spain

The Handkerchief - On the Camino de Santiago

Two hundred and forty kilometers into our walk of The Camino, Scott came across a mauve handkerchief on the trail. It was a wet day on a muddy track, but the handkerchief wasn’t soiled, so we assumed the two girls from Prague walking 50 meters ahead of us must have dropped it. Scott looped it around his backpack belt and we increased our pace to catch up to the girls.
“Did you drop this?” Scott asked. One of the girls laughed. “I didn’t realize I dropped it. But you must keep it now! You see, I found this scarf on the trail five days ago and, as you did just now, I picked it up and assumed the Italian guy hiking ahead of me had dropped it. He said it was not his, but that he found it on the trail two days ago and had unsuccessfully tried to find the rightful owner. Someone said they had seen it on a Brazilian man. I have been looking for a Brazilian man ever since. Anyway, you must keep the scarf now.”

So Scott is the fourth person on The Camino (that we know of) to come across the Brazilian-Italian-Czechoslovakian handkerchief . He has it looped around his trekking pole strap and will carry it to Santiago - if he doesn’t drop it on the trail first.

Scott and Tris
On the Camino to Santiago, Spain

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bon Camino, Madam! - On the Camino de Santiago

Correction: Not all the accommodation on the Camino (Albergues or Refugios) are spotlessly clean. I am now officially a flea-bitten Pilgrim.

Many of the Refugios on the Camino are in stone buildings, old drafty monasteries, or farmhouses. The floors are so cold that Scott uses them to chill a can of beer, or keep our breakfast yogurt cold and free from anything but the "healthy" bacteria we paid for.
To prevent Pilgrims from catching pneumonia at night, there is always a stack of heavy wool blankets in the dormitories. Only, fleas need a warm place to sleep at night too, and Spanish fleas seem to favor wool. My down sleeping bag is plenty warm, but one particularly cold night I decided to throw a blanket over my bag. I was toasty warm - and the fleas were well fed.

Usually our only option when sleeping in a refugio is a bunk in a 20, or 30, or 100 bed dormitory. It’s actually fun and part of the Peregrino (pilgrim) experience.
One rainy afternoon in a crowded dorm room, Tia from Finland, sat on a top bunk bed tending to her many blisters. A Frenchman across from her began offering blister care advice. He seemed to know everything there was to know about blisters. Then an Italian girl crossed the room while gesturing passionately to Tia's foot. "Sbagliato!" she said. "If you do as the Frenchman says, you will lose your foot!" Soon Tia was the center of an animated debate in Spanish, French, German, Finnish, Slovenian, Korean, Italian, and English on whether to puncture the blister, or leave it alone. I listened intently to the advice since I had a blister the size of a cherry tomato brewing on my own big toe.

Later, I learned that certain songs penetrate all borders when a Slovenian woman joined me at the bathroom sink and announced, “I just love The Macarena!” A Spanish woman at the next basin began singing the lyrics while we all danced in unison, me with a toothbrush in my mouth.

It’s always entertaining staying in what the Spanish call a dormitorio, but whenever it’s available we always ask for a matrimonio, the quaint term for a room with one bed, or un quarto con dos camas, solimente, a small room with only two beds. We’ve been lucky. One time, we stayed at a monastery in a small room with 3 beds and, because it was so late in the day when we arrived, we had the room to ourselves. In another village with a population of 80, we were initially shown a bunk bed in large dorm, as usual. I pleaded with the  hospitaliar (the name given to the owners or volunteers running the refugios), “Es possible, Senor, un quarto con dos camas solimente, or un matrimonio?”
“Ah. Come with me,” he said, and led us up three flights of stairs to the attic. Under a skylight were two single beds and one bunk bed. There was also an ab-buster exercise machine, a desk, a fold-a-bed, and forgotten toys. Obviously, it was a combination overflow accommodation for Pilgrims during the busy summer season, and storeroom for the owner. We loved it. "All for you. Todo por dos,” he said with a smile and a wink. As he watched us slowly remove our boots and coats he added gravely, "Feel free to use the ab-buster."

We did our laundry (a daily hand wash obligation when on the Camino –wear one, wash one) strung a clothesline under the skylight, and pushed the two beds together.

Something one should know ahead of time about a refugio is that there are no locks on the doors. It is not uncommon to see a sleep deprived Pilgrim, driven out of his bed by snoring bunk mates, walking the halls and opening random doors looking for a quieter room to sleep in. We knew there was a slight risk that someone would try to join us in our quiet little room at the top of stairs, but since we were three flights up, and I had positioned a big red umbrella, open, at the top of the stairs, I felt pretty confident that no one would wander in to the room in the middle of the night.

I can’t tell you exactly how many times the door opened during the night, but the last time the door opened was, let’s say, particularly bad timing. “Oh! Pardon!” a Frenchman exclaimed before retreating. The lights were out and I had quickly thrown a sleeping bag over Scott and me so I thought the man didn’t see anything more than the silhouettes of our laundry hanging on the line.

The next morning, as we chatted with other Peregrinos over breakfast of café con leche and croissants in the refugio dining room, a Frenchman announced, “Buen Camino!” (Good walk!) as everyone says to one another before they set off on the trail for the day. As he crossed the room his eyes settled on me with sudden recognition. He looked me right in the eye, winked and said, “Et, Bon Camino a vous, Madam!”

Scott and Tris
On the Camino Francais

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Boat, Boots, Bedouins, and A Bridge - On the Camino de Santiago

A Boat:

On March 16th, 2010, I was busy loading my backpack (one pair boots, 2 pair socks, 2 pair hiking pants, 2 t-shirts, rain gear and, last but not least, ear plugs) for a 6-week trek in Spain when Scott said, “What if we travel to Spain by sea instead of by air?” By the 17th I was trying to fit cruise attire into my backpack. By the 20th, Brazilians (we boarded in Sao Paolo) were handing Scott their cameras and asking him to take their photo.
We didn’t manage to fit much cruise wear into our packs after all, so I think they mistook him for crew. (This has happened to us before). Scott played along, cheerfully arranging everyone and putting them in the best light. “Smile! Say queso!” he said, which wasn’t even right since the Portuguese don’t say, “cheese” before taking a photo. If they did it would sound more like “kejzo” anyway. But queso or kejzo, it didn’t matter. Both end in an “O", so a few Brazilians who mistook Scott for crew have photos of themselves looking like they've just been goosed.

We occupied our days at sea by finding creative ways to make hiking gear passable on “formal” nights (impossible), and by reading, playing trivia, and talking to nice people, especially those from Holland and America. Most afternoons found Scott in the library, where he learned to play Bridge from a patient teacher who just happened to be the doppelganger for my wonderful brother Mike. That was nice...


My hiking boots disintegrated on the flight over from San Jose. I don’t know how or why. At first I took it as a sign from God. After all, what idiot would commence a 500-mile trek without training for it? Yours truly and her one true love, that’s who! Our training consisted of walking around the ship - four times around the deck was a whole mile.
After one such rotation I noticed that my boot was baring its sole all over the promenade deck - insulation was flying everywhere. Soon, the entire boot bottom was flopping around after me like a spatula stuck to my foot. I needed appropriate shoes for the hike in Spain, but our favorite outdoor store, REI, was an ocean away. But I was in luck! The island of Tenerife, off the coast of Africa, is a duty-free shoppers paradise  that specializes in electronics. They also sell footwear such as Nike, Puma and Solomon.

At the first shoe store, the saleswoman said with disbelief, “Size 9 and a half! Are you kidding me?” Then, she announced it over the P.A. system. The other customers in the store pointed at me and stared, waiting to see what would happen next. I know they were thinking, ‘Big foot! It’s not a myth!’

The shop clerk gave me a look of pity as I left, shoeless: How ever did you get this nice man to marry you with feet the size of tennis rackets? her eyes said.

After several more false starts and sniggers by wide-eyed shoppers and clerks, I was able to find a pair of Solomon hiking boots that fit perfectly. So what if I had to buy them in the men’s department? They have served me perfectly well so far.

We began the hike in Pamplona, home of the running of the bulls and occasional hangout for the late Ernest Hemingway. In Pamplona you can find signs such as, ‘Hemingway slept here’, ‘Hemingway wrote here’, ‘Hemingway drank here’, and random shops simply called 'The Hemingway'. We didn’t stay at the Hotel Hemingway near the bullring because it was 200 euros per night, but as we stood in the lobby soaking up the aura of the notorious adventurer, a hotel guest noted our hiking apparel and said, “You must be Peregrinos. You should stay at the Refugio!” He walked us there, pointing out the places where Hemingway had a cigar and took a lover.

For more than 900 years Peregrino has been the term for anyone hiking The Camino de Santiago.  Refugios, or Albergues, were where they slept.
In Pamplona, for 6 euros each, we were assigned a bunk in a 100-bed dormitory that was housed in an ancient monastery. We were numbers 92 and 93 to sign in.
Most refugios on the Camino have at least 30 beds in one room. “Sounds smelly!” you might be thinking, and you would be right. Hundreds of years ago, a monk or priest would walk through the Refugio swinging a smoking incense ball to dull the odiferous funk of the pilgrims as they slept. Modern day Refugios have hot showers, laundry machines, Internet, and kitchens. Still, that first night in Pamplona, I thought a few passes with an incense ball wouldn’t hurt. Two hundred sweaty boots smell like a wet cow. No worse than that - like a wet cow with bad breath that snores with its mouth open.

It’s not that bad. I brought lots of earplugs with me, the refugios are spotless, and a slight smear of Vicks under the nose works wonders. If it weren’t for all the Germans who get up at 5 a.m. to use up all the hot water and race to the next Refugio for the best bunk (the German half of me really wants to do that too), the refugio experience would be great.
So far, all the refugios are co-ed. Even the dorms and the bathrooms aren’t divided by sex. It’s like living in a house with a hundred brothers and sisters from all over the world. We’ve met Estonisan, Dutch, German, Irish, English, Canadian, and lots of Spanish peregrinos. On rare occasions we get a double room to ourselves, and that is muy bien. So far, we haven’t met any other Americans but we probably will meet one or two over the next 40+ days of the hike.

One is supposed to be on a spiritual or cultural quest to hike The Camino. If we see it as a spiritual quest, and make it to Santiago, where the bones of St. James rest in peace, we will be awarded an indulgence. An actual indulgence! That means if I complete the Way of St. James, as the Camino is called, I will earn an indulgence and all my sins will be instantaneously wiped clean. Poof! Permanent record erased. Then, if I were to get hit by a car or something before I have a chance to sin again, I would go straight to Heaven. The chances that I wouldn't sin again shortly after leaving the compostela office by, say, taking the Lord's name in vain,"Gosh darn! That is one beautiful Cathedral!" (only it wouldn't be "gosh"), or coveting chocolate or beer or woman's boots is pretty remote. The "express to Heaven" reward was more significant before the Pope did away with purgatory anyway. But still, I will be walking a little lighter after I gain the indulgence, at least for a few moments.
Strange to say if you know me, but I do feel spiritual while walking the Camino. At least that's how I interpret the vibe. I feel just so darn happy all the time. I have long thought nature is my religion and I feel closest to my Maker when I am out in it.
Scott says his intention is a cultural quest, which I don’t mind one bit, because he has been giving me history lessons everyday. Whether it be details about an old Roman road we are walking on, or tidbits regarding Spanish or Portuguese explorers, it is always interesting and takes my mind off my aches and pains.

“Keep an open mind,” I suggested. “After 6 weeks on the trail, you might find it has somehow become a spiritual quest.” To which he replied wincing, “Very likely since my feet might die and go to heaven before I get there.”
I hope that doesn’t happen. But this is only day 4 of our hike, and he is already walking like Amos McCoy. I resemble Grandma Moses - in mens boots. I don't think I needed to clarify that. I think Grandma Moses always wore mens boots, didn't she?

Every day, we trod up and down hills, through vineyards, olive groves, and newly planted wheat fields so green the wheat looks like a jade river swirling down hills and around the vineyards. We walk from village to village, over narrow, or muddy, or rocky footpaths just the way pilgrims did 900 years ago - except we are powered more by café con leche and chocolate croissants, than by gruel. The villages are so charming, and the churches along the way so magnificent, that they distract us from thinking about our sore feet or backs, or calves, or thighs, or knees, or shoulders-- at least for a little while. We walk about 12-15 miles per day, which takes us 6 to 8 hours depending on the terrain. But our packs are way too heavy because we have stuff in them that we don’t need in Spain, but which we do need for Africa, which leads me to Bedouins.


Mid-May will find us in Cairo, where we will join an overland truck for a ten week journey up the Nile that will take us through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya.

In August, we will transit to Zambia to help build a bridge.

Bridge: A footbridge, that is, in Zambia. We will work with a non-profit called Bridges to Prosperity. Learn more about how we became connected with this organization at: www.firstgiving.com/teresaokane

We’ll be gone Five months, Bridge (San Francisco) to bridge.

We love hearing from you!
Hasta Luego! Scott and Tris

Torres del Rio, where Hemingway, as far as I know, didn’t sleep.
The Way of St James,

Haiku (sort of) for the day:
Behind the hay
I peed
The hills were green