Monday, December 10, 2018

Impulsive Kindnesses

When I walked the Camino de Santiago in 2015 I spent eleven days alone on the Invierno route between Ponferrada and Santiago de Compostela. When I tell people that I didn’t see another Pilgrim during those eleven days, I’m sometimes asked if I was ever frightened or felt endangered. My response always includes one of several stories about the kindness of the local people I met along the way.

One day was especially hot and I walked for several hours without passing through any villages or seeing another person. I’d misjudged my water needs for the day and my bottle ran dry about an hour before the day’s destination. 

I wandered into a small hamlet and, in search of a place to fill my water bottle, I walked past the yellow arrow indicating the direction of the Camino. 

Camino Arrow

A man ran towards me pointing to the path and telling me that I had missed the turn. I nodded and gestured that I was looking for a place to purchase some water. He immediately led me to his home, invited me in, and filled my water bottle. Then he went into another room and returned with an ice cold orange soda which I eagerly accepted.

The most refreshing orange soda ever

Back on the path I reflected on the interaction. I noted that he didn’t hesitate to take a strange woman into his house. He hadn’t stopped to wonder what people might think, or if I might be fearful of him; he saw a need and he responded with kindness. I thought about how different this might have been in the States and I knew that I wanted to live more openly, where kindness was the first impulse.

This past week a young woman knocked on our door just before sunset. I was in another room when she arrived but she told Sam that she was lost and had run out of water. Before I joined them, Sam invited her in and filled her water bottle. He asked where she was headed and it was unclear. She was planning to camp “somewhere.” 

Sam’s paternal instincts were immediately triggered and he knew that she needed dinner and a safe place to sleep. My introverted side wondered how we would entertain her all evening, but I agreed with Sam, and thought of our own daughters and how we would want them to be treated in a similar situation. As we sat down to a pasta dinner we introduced ourselves and invited her to stay the night. She was visibly relieved by the offer. 

The evening passed easily as she entertained us with stories of her various adventures. The next morning we fed her a good breakfast, supplied her with boiled eggs and energy bars for her hike and then walked with her to the trail that she wanted to take into Capileira.

With our unexpected guest

I shared this story on Facebook because I thought it was a pleasant event. Sam and I have been astounded by the response. 

This is the most “liked” thing that I have ever posted. Comments range from “What a great thing for me to read this morning,” to “Thank you for having kind souls,” to “She was lucky to knock on the right door.”

This last comment got me thinking. The thing is, I don’t think there is a “wrong door,” where we live. I believe that anyone on our mountain would have responded exactly the same way. We have noticed over and over again that the first impulse here is to assume the best of others and to respond kindly. We live among gentle souls and in turn are learning to live more gently.

But what has struck me more than anything is the clear indication that people are hungry for stories of kindness. We are living in a time when our leaders prey on victims and feed on the most hateful and fearful impulses of the people. 

But my friends remind me that at our core we desire kindness and love. I truly believe that no act of kindness is ever wasted and it is always the correct choice.

Wishing you all peace during the holidays and in the year ahead.

Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough. 
Franklin D Roosevelt

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A Quick Trip to Órgiva and an Anniversary

Living remotely can be disorienting. When you spend days at a time going no where and seeing no one, but each other, you could be living deep in the Maine woods, in the Australian Outback, or on a mountainside in Spain. Our style of living, and our daily activities are different than in Oregon because we live off the grid, far from town, but where we are living can escape our awareness after many days of isolation.

But then we go to town and are immediately reminded that we live in Spain. Not only are we presented with the reality that our mastery of Spanish has stalled, but there are so many scenes that just were not common in our suburban life in the U.S..

Today we needed to drive down to Órgiva to check the mail and pick up some packages from the business where we have things delivered. We've had some very heavy rains in recent days and the road down the mountain is a mixture of deep puddles, mud, and treacherous grooves. It is an adventure just getting to the tarmac.

On the way Sam received a call from the Correos man. He had arrived to deliver a package, but the business was closed and he wanted to know what to do. Sam told him that we were thirty minutes away but we would hurry. Vamos rápido! The man said that was no problem, and he would wait. We raced into town and Sam jumped out of the car to meet the delivery man while I went off to find a parking space.

It was a busy day in Órgiva and we couldn't figure out why. Last week was a holiday week, but this was just a Tuesday in October. As I drove past the church a large crowd was gathered and nearby a hearse was hidden behind massive wreaths of flowers. Clearly someone had passed and it seemed that the entire town had gathered for the funeral.

After parking I met up with Sam and together we went to do our various errands. The business where our other packages were waiting was closed until 12:30 and we had a few things to take care of. On the way to the Post Office we passed the funeral procession. Traditionally the hearse slowly drives to the cemetery and the people follow behind on foot. 

Funeral procession

Next we stopped at a new-to-us bar for coffee. We each had café con leche and the man added some cocoa on top as a nice touch. Our total bill was 2 euro and 20 cents. We tried to give him 3 euros, but he refused anything beyond the 2.20.

The street to the Post Office is very steep and towards the bottom we could hear a strange scraping sound. When we arrived we saw that a large truck carrying heavy equipment had gotten stuck on a side street. Now in an attempt to reverse, some part of the vehicle was scraping along the high wall that frames one side of the street.

Not gonna make it!

Finally we returned to claim our packages. As we approached the business, a man went past the Farmacia on horseback. 

Not unusual to see in Órgiva

The sign indicated that the business would re-open at 12:30. We waited until 1:10 when a man happened by with a key and let us in to get our packages.

Returning to the car we passed a man who peddles various items for a living. He is always smiling and walks around town enticing people at outdoor cafe tables with his solar powered lamps, belts, and dish towels. We have several of his items and today he greeted us like old friends, without trying to sell us anything since he knows we already have the full collection.

Yesterday we drove to Pitres, a small village to the east of our place. The builder supply there has made several large deliveries of materials to our property and we wanted to pay our bill. While there we also picked up a few items. One particular item comes in several sizes and we were not sure which we needed. The man gave us two packages and told us to bring back whichever one didn't work, and at that time we could pay for the one that did work. We insisted on paying for at least one package before we took any home with us. And then he sent us away without paying our larger bill; he didn't have one prepared and he promised to email us when it is eventually ready. We tried to imagine such an exchange in our previous lives and just couldn't. The trust and kindness we experience here is like that of my childhood in small-town Pennsylvania; but business just doesn't work that way any longer in the U.S..

And an was ten years ago this month that we first visited this part of Spain. The draw was a description I had read of a B&B in a tiny village called Ferreirola. The words told of an enchanting collection of cottages behind a blue door. When we arrived there we were already in love with las Alpujarras.

Sierra y Mar - as enchanting as promised

Yesterday we went back to Ferreirola, walked past the blue door and took a short walk. It is a walk that we return to several times a year; a place where we are always happy anew; with each other, with Spain, and with all that is good in this world.

In my happy place

Thursday, September 27, 2018

But What About Healthcare?

One of the questions many Americans ask when they learn we moved to Spain is “what about healthcare?” The question often implies that we’ve moved to a third world country, sacrificing the excellent healthcare offered in the United States. We quickly tell them that we’ve heard very positive things from others who have had medical procedures in Spain and then we tell them that we have private insurance that costs about 1/10th of what we were paying in the States. That seems satisfactory to anyone who has asked.

During the first 18 months that we lived in Spain we didn’t need any healthcare services and therefore we never used our insurance.

A Trip to Urgent Care

Urgent Care in Órgiva

Several months ago I came down with a routine infection, but one that needed attention. Of course it was late in the evening and the local physician’s office was closed. We drove to Órgiva, about 45 minutes from home, where there is an Urgent Care clinic. The door was locked so we turned away looking for another entrance. As we walked down the street an older woman came running towards us gesturing that there was a button to push and that it would ‘Buzzzzzz!!” We thanked her and went back to the door where a man was already waiting with it held open for us. 

I used Google Translate on my phone to share what I believed was my problem, showed him my insurance card and Passport, and then we were directed to a simple waiting room. It wasn’t decorated, there was no soft music playing, and the chairs were the basic plastic variety. But it was adequate. 

After a few minutes I was instructed to enter the exam room. With my limited Spanish, the doctor’s less-limited English, and the help of Google Translate, we discussed my symptoms. He examined me and did some lab work, which was all performed in the exam room. It was very thorough and efficient. Before long I had a prescription in hand along with some complimentary tablets to quickly reduce my discomfort and we were sent on our way. 

The Farmacia across the street was still open and it only took a minute to get the prescription which cost less than 5 euro. That was the only money we paid for this entire experience. There was no co-pay and with such an inexpensive antibiotic, we’ve never submitted that receipt to our insurance. 

Typical Farmacia

We were totally satisfied with this introduction to Spanish healthcare.

I Think I'll Have Eye Surgery!

In July I decided to pursue laser surgery for my eyes. A year ago, after having worn contacts for over 30 years, I was suddenly unable to tolerate having contacts in my eyes and I switched to progressive trifocals. I was unhappy wearing glasses. I was miserable on hikes as my prescription sunglasses insisted on sliding down my nose, over and over. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror and I just wanted to be free from glasses.

I thought that perhaps I would have it done while we were in the States. My insurance here wouldn’t cover elective surgery so I’d need to pay in full regardless of where I had the surgery, and it seemed like something that would be simpler without a language barrier. I called the eye doctor in Oregon and was told that my visit there would be too short to accomplish all that would be involved. 

So I got on my computer and researched laser surgery in Spain, and specifically in Granada, our nearest city. I found a clinic, Vistalaser, with offices in Granada and Malaga. The site answered all of my basic questions and even included testimonials. The information indicated that they offered free consultations, so I had nothing to lose. I completed the on-line inquiry form and asked if I should bring a translator for my appointment. 

Within 24 hours I had an email response that I could bring a translator if I wanted, but that they would do their best to communicate with me in English. That certainly was not something that I expected. We agreed on an appointment time and the next week Sam and I drove to Granada for my free consultation.

I really had no idea what would happen during the free consultation, but I certainly didn’t expect a thorough eye exam. They utilized every machine available and then put me through the more typical exam that I am familiar with. In the end there were four different people, over the course of 90 minutes, who gave me their full attention.  Finally I met with the doctor. He performed some additional tests and then told me that at “your age” they do not recommend laser surgery. Instead they recommended a lens replacement surgery, much like cataract surgery, but without the cataracts. He said that this would avoid my needing to return in ten years for cataract surgery as I would never develop cataracts if I had this particular surgery. In addition, I would be able to see at all distances, because they would implant multi-focal, rather than mono focal lenses. It all sounded too good to be true! But he wanted me to return in a week to consult with his colleague for a second opinion.

A week later we returned to the clinic and the second surgeon confirmed the recommendation of the first. He would be the one performing the surgery and seemed very certain that all would go well. 

After a quick discussion Sam and I decided to go ahead and schedule the surgery for after our trip to the States. We sat with the scheduler and this was the first time that money was discussed. There was no charge for anything up to this point, but if I wanted the surgery, they asked for a deposit, although it was up to us to decide on the amount. 

We deposited a modest amount, both thinking that I might still change my mind, and we agreed on a surgery date for the week after our return to Spain. I was given a sedative to take the night before my surgery, instructions for a required blood test, and the name of antibiotic eye drops that I would begin using three days before surgery. We stopped next door at the Farmacia and purchased the less-than 5 euro antibiotic eye drops. 

The following day I went onto our insurance provider’s website and found a doctor in Salobreña, a town on the coast. I scheduled an appointment so that I could get the blood test done before we left for the States. We made the hour and fifteen minute drive to Salobreña several days later and I showed the instructions to the doctor there. He wrote an oder for a blood test and I was told to return on Wednesday morning for that procedure. We were a bit baffled by the need to come back, but were not in a position to question anything. 

We returned to Salobreña on Wednesday morning and found the only person in the clinic was the slightly nervous technician. She seemed particularly flustered that morning, but we eventually provided the information she requested and after trying both arms and wiggling the needle a bit, she eventually found the vein she needed to get my blood. Then she told us to return in a week for the results. We indicated that we would be out of the country in a week and she shrugged as she ushered us out the door.

We were a bit annoyed by this seemingly inefficient routine, but told ourselves over croissants and cafe con leches, that we had different expectations based on our culture and that this is just part of what we’ve signed up for by moving to a remote area in Spain.

Back at home I emailed the doctor and he said that the results could be mailed to me, which was a relief. While we were in Oregon, he did email me the full results with a brief message, “tienes colesterol alto.” But that’s a concern for another time…I forwarded the results to the eye clinic and they responded that the emailed version was adequate.

Day of Surgery

For convenience, we rented an apartment in Granada for the night before and the night following surgery. My appointment was at 8:30 am and soon after I arrived, totally mellowed by the sedative, I was taken into a room and instructed to change into scrubs. Once changed, a hat was put on my head and booties over my shoes and the anesthesiologist started an IV for the light sedative that would be used during surgery, “like too much whiskey,” he said. 

I was led into a bright room with various people busy with their particular tasks and instructed to lay on the table. This all happened in a dream state as the various meds were clearly doing their job. I was aware of some heavy duty tape pulling my cheek down and my forehead up as my eye was fixed wide open. They did the right eye first and, although I’d been told that I would only feel pressure, I was very uncomfortable. I remember slurring that “this hurts more than I expected,” and then the doctor instructed, in English, “Put additional numbing drops in her left eye.” They must have done that because the left eye didn’t experience any discomfort. The surgeon told me to look at the light and then look at my feet, and then I was done.

A sample Vistalaser surgery

Back in the room where I’d left my clothes I couldn’t really see anything so I felt around, fumbling through the pile of clothes left there by the next patient until I found a shirt and pants that felt familiar. I dressed and then was led to a dark room to relax for a few minutes. Soon I was taken out to where Sam waited, given sunglasses to wear, instructed to purchase a second type of eye drop and to administer both types every two hours for the next three days, and then was told to return the following afternoon for a follow up. 

Recovery begins

That afternoon and evening I rested, between doses of eye drops, and by the next morning I was seeing pretty well. My follow up was with the first doctor I’d met back in July and he seemed very pleased with my vision and recovery. He gave further instructions for my recovery and I was scheduled to return a week later for another follow up. 

It has now been two weeks since the surgery. I am typing this at my computer without reading glasses and when I glance out the window at the view, I can see clearly. I can’t say that my distance vision is 100% sharp, but I’ve been told that will take several weeks. I have one more week of eye drops and then the following week a final re-check appointment. 

I have been beyond satisfied with this experience. The professionalism and thoroughness of the procedures and the personnel have exceeded my expectations. And the graciousness of each person who has done their best to communicate with me in English when there is no reason for them to accommodate my limited language skills, has been very kind. And while the cost wasn’t inexpensive, it was far less than I would have paid in the States, where this particular surgery has only recently been approved (due to barriers set up by the insurance companies), and is rarely practiced.

And for those who worry about the quality of healthcare in Spain - in a recent report, Spain was ranked #9 in the world for healthcare, while the United States was ranked #35.  

I think we’ll be ok.

Because every blog post needs a beautiful photo

Friday, July 6, 2018

Portugal's Rota Vicentina - and a quick update about Spring 2018

On the Rota Vicentina

I know that we are settled because days, weeks, and now months have gone by without my feeling as if there is anything blog-worthy. But the blog has been viewed nearly 11,000 times so there is still interest, and that encourages me to keep sharing.

This spring we have enjoyed visits with friends from Las Vegas, Oregon and California. We are humbled that anyone will make the effort to come find us here in the mountains of Southern Spain and we truly appreciate the opportunity to share the rhythm of our lives with those who are interested.

Friends Mary and Richard visited from Las Vegas for Sam's birthday

Oregon friend Janelle contemplates Ronda on my birthday

California friends Linda and Toni enjoying lunch on the Mediterranean

In May we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to fly to Italy to spend time with a friend from Oregon who was returning to the village where he was born. Our time with Carlo was precious as he showed us places from his childhood and shared stories of what it was like living there during WWII as a young boy. Spending time in Italy is always magical and we took every opportunity to enjoy the food and wine while exploring picturesque villages in Tuscany and Umbria, finishing with a few days in Rome. 

Touring Carlo's childhood village

And in June I went walking in Portugal. 

Back in January my neighbor's husband decided that she and I should plan a walking holiday. We jumped at the idea but deciding where to go took some consideration. Our trip could take no more than a week, so wherever we went should be within a day's drive from home. We agreed that camping wasn't necessarily what we were imagining; a good daily walk with a shower, a cool drink, dinner out, and a comfortable bed each night sounded appealing. I did some research and then I remembered the Rota Vicentina in Portugal.

Three years ago, the day before I arrived in Santiago de Compostela, I encountered a group of Portuguese in a small bar. We seemingly became instant friends. During that first visit, one of the men, José, told me about the Rota Vicentina, a path along the southern Atlantic coastline of Portugal. He insisted that I must walk it someday and told me it was the most beautiful walk. I filed that information away in my mind where it was soon buried by other adventures, including our move to Spain. But now I looked it up on the internet and sent the link to Juliet. It was quickly decided that this was exactly what we would do!

The Rota Vicentina begins in the seaside town of Porto Covo, south of Lisbon and it follows along the high cliffs and beaches that make up the stunning coastline. The photos promised a gorgeous walk. We decided to go in June, which is late in the recommended time frame because the weather can be quite hot by June, but that was the time that we had available so I got to work planning our trip. Soon our group of two grew to four as Juliet's cousin and her friend decided to join in.

Our International group

I planned to do lots of training, as I had before walking the Camino de Santiago, but a wetter-than-usual winter and spring, interspersed with other distractions, meant that I did very little physical preparation. Three days before leaving for Portugal I loaded up my pack and walked to our gate. I was suffering from a back injury and recovering from a recent illness and as I leaned and swayed under the weight of my pack I wondered how in the world I was going to manage. So I got back online and researched luggage transport options. 

When I walked the Camino I carried my pack every step of the way discarding unnecessary items as I went making my load more manageable, but this walk was meant to be restful and fun, and clearly I was not going to be rested or have fun if I tried to carry my full pack. And so I contacted the transfer service and happily paid the forty euros to have my pack picked up and delivered each day. By the time we started walking the others decided to do the same.

Portugal also had a cooler and wetter-than-usual spring and the week before we went was rainy so we went prepared for any type of weather. But we were blessed to pick the week between the rain and the first heat wave of summer. We had perfect weather. And the result of so much rain was an abundance of wild flowers that were blooming long after the typical season. 

So much color

Lovely flowers

We met up with the others in Porto Covo and the next day we started out. The group consisted of a South African, an Aussie, a Brit and an American, which always sounds to me like the start of a joke, but we blended together easily and enjoyed each other's company every step of the walk.

The guidebook stresses that the trail is challenging and that it is not a good one for those with vertigo or a fear of heights. I think this is good advice, but I also think it is given to discourage those who really are not prepared. The physical challenge is mainly from the distances between services. We needed to carry plenty of water (one day I carried three liters) and much of the walking is in deep sand. This isn't so bad on the flats, but walking uphill in sand takes some effort. And there are certainly dizzying heights, but we were rarely in danger of falling off a cliff. So with minimal attention and good judgement, it is a safe and less-than-terrifying route.

Watch your step!

We averaged twenty kilometers a day taking seven to eight hours to cover that distance. We took hundreds of photos, stopped for leisurely picnics and made time for rest and silliness along the way. The villages that we stayed in each night were charming and we savored the local cuisine from snails to sardines to octopus. Each morning we stopped at the local bakery to purchase Pastel de nata, the typical Portuguese egg tart which made a delightful mid-morning snack.

This walk was truly one of the most beautiful routes I've ever experienced. In every direction the scenery was magnificent. The flowers painted the landscape in brilliant pinks, blues and yellows and the cliffs and beaches were honestly breathtaking. I cannot recommend this walk highly enough.

Truly stunning

The busiest time is typically April and May although this year many people canceled their trips because of the weather. But it can be walked any time of the year. (We never encountered more than ten other walkers each day during our four day walk.) I would not want to do it in high winds because of the sheer drop-offs, but a clear week in January would be a pleasant time to go. I definitely recommend the luggage transport service and booking accommodations ahead of time offers easy days without worrying about where you'll end the day.

If you are interested, all the information you'll need is available here: I ordered the guide book and map and found those useful.

For a short video of our experience follow this link:

Soon we leave for our summer trip to the States to visit family and friends, but we'll be back in Spain in mid-September with more adventures and every-day stories to share. 

Hasta pronto~

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Camino Friendships

It was day #15 on the Camino. The previous two days had delivered a steady bone-chilling rain and I awoke that morning in Hornillos del Camino to a deafening downpour. I wasted two euros trying, without success, to work the coffee machine, and I was homesick. By the time I left the albergue the rain had stopped and I stood in the puddled street trying to hook up to wifi to send Sam a text, as I did each morning. There was no signal, so I posed for a smiling selfie I'd send to him later on. I didn't want to burden Sam with my sadness - it was a gift for me to fly to Europe and walk across Spain. Complaining wasn't a luxury I allowed myself.

A forced early-morning smile on day #15

As I walked out of town the chorus of birds lifted my spirits and soon I was taking photos of wheat fields glowing in the early morning light. 

Early morning light

The dirt track was wet, and in places deep mud made the walking difficult. Flattened wheat suggested that Pilgrims ahead of me had gone off the path into the farmer's fields to avoid the mud, but by now even those newly made paths were muddy so I trudged on.


After an hour and a half of walking totally alone, no others in sight, I stopped to leave a small pile of my dear friend Sue's ashes on a stone wall. Since leaving St. Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees two weeks earlier I had carefully selected places to leave the ashes, always with a view. At times it was as if Sue was with me and I could hear her laughing as I imagined her delight in my experience. 

I left some of Sue's ashes here

I paused for a few moments of reflection and then took a short video of the view.  As I filmed the trail behind me I spotted an approaching Pilgrim. He was gaining on me quickly; an older gentleman, with a slight limp. When he was near I commented on how quickly he had caught up to me.  Laughing he said, "Well no one has said that to me before."  Our conversation was easy and I welcomed the companionship. 

Trevor walked ahead of me through the muddiest sections and as I slipped and groused behind him he offered steady encouragement, "We're almost through this section. I see dry road ahead." Not always accurate, but the words that I needed to push on through the thick, clinging sludge.

Not my favorite walking

Most days on the Camino I walked alone. I enjoyed the solitude and preferred to respond to my own pace rather than that of someone else. But on this day the Camino provided exactly what I needed, and that was a companion to help get my mind off of myself. Trevor and I walked on to Castrojeriz where we checked into an albergue and met up with Cameron, a millennial from New Zealand with whom Trevor had walked earlier. 

With Cameron and Trevor in Castrojeriz

The next day we added Mary from Boston to our little group and later Jackie and Laura, a mother and daughter from Ireland joined us. We were crossing the Meseta, the high plateau that many consider the most tedious stages to walk. But we were all enjoying the Meseta, and the company of each other. 

The group

Our last day as a group was in León, eight days after Trevor and I first met up. Jackie and Laura were returning to Ireland, and Trevor and Mary stayed an extra day in León to give injuries a rest. Cameron and I walked together off and on for another few days before I went off on the Invierno route by myself.

It has been nearly three years since I walked the Camino and I have remained in touch with several of the people that I bonded with while walking. Linda visited while we were still in Oregon, and Lin stayed with us for a few days soon after we arrived in Spain. 

With Linda in Oregon
With Lin in the Alpujarras

Sam and I enjoyed a fabulous weekend in Porto last May visiting with a group of five Portuguese who embraced me as their friend within minutes of meeting them in a bar near Santiago. 

With the greatest group of Portuguese friends in Porto for my birthday

And yesterday Trevor and his wife Christine came and stayed the night with us. 

Trevor and Christine

There is something special about Camino friendships. Thousands of people walk the Way each year, but each person chooses a particular day to begin, and as you walk you soon recognize many of the people who started on or near the same date. Days or weeks might pass and then you run into someone you shared a meal, or a bunk bed with. 

I met many Pilgrims and offered a "Buen Camino" greeting to hundreds, but something clicked with a handful of people and those became my "Camino family." 

Early Camino Family

Sam has heard the stories and looked at the photos, but there is a special joy for each of us in sharing a bottle of wine and a brilliant sunset with a friend who was a special part of my Camino experience.

Celebrating friendship

New friends Sam and Trevor