Camino de Santiago & A Noisy Night in Acebo

Remaining distance to Santiago: More than 200km…still ages to go….!

 

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My night in Acebo was a bit of a strange one. After walking in the cold and rain to Cruz de Ferro, I was glad to get a lower bunk bed in a private hostel. The place seemed clean and rustic, and I gladly changed in to some dry clothes. Still, I felt chilled and couldn’t quite shake the feeling of flu, so I asked the volunteer staff member (hospitalerio) if I could make a cup of tea in the kitchen. It was about 4pm, so not quite lunch time and still hours away from dinner. I had my own green tea and I just needed to boil a mug of water…I was already day dreaming of curling up in one of the woollen blankets to write in my journal and look out at the rain…it was going to be great!

But if ever there was a guy having a bad day, this was the guy!

The poor man snapped at me and fiercely told me, NO! He then gave me a long lecture about it being a private kitchen and if he let everyone in there to make a cup of tea then he’d never be able to prepare the evening meal that we would all eat later on…this wasn’t one of those self-catering hostels, and people couldn’t just walk in and out when they liked…

So, no way was I allowed to make a cup of tea. That was his decision and the answer was no!

His abruptness caught me off guard and I have to say, I felt rather meek after his lecture. I apologised. I understood his situation. And I explained that I was feeling very cold and I just wanted to warm up, but again, I was sorry for interrupting. I didn’t know the kitchen was out-of-bounds.

And I backed out of his way, feeling rather deflated.

How was I going to warm up now?

A minute later, he ran after me to apologise and tell me of course I could  make some tea if I was feeling unwell. He didn’t mean to lose his temper. He was very sorry. And he explained that he was under such pressure to check-in the new pilgrims while simultaneously prepare an evening meal for us all. He was struggling with the multi-tasking. But he was a flood of regret and sincerity as he apologised, and I was on the edge of tears as we hugged and reconciled.

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It’s hard to articulate it now but there were points on camino when I felt as though all of my nerve endings and sensitivities were on the outside of my body, instead of neatly tucked away inside. In my everyday life, a random stranger losing their temper isn’t usually something to cry about. On camino, his harshness and quick temper really took me aback. The cup of tea represented warmth, wellness, and self-care. In that cold and rainy place, miles and miles from home, I just needed a bit of everyday comfort to ground myself. While I walked those 500 miles, I desperately missed having my own kitchen and the freedom to prepare my own food when, and how I like. So, when this guy chided me for wanting a cup of tea it hit a very frayed nerve.

That evening, our generous hospitalerio announced that he needed help with doing the dishes afterwards. It was only fair, given that he’d prepared a feast for us and shouldn’t have to clean up after 20+ people by himself. I observed the show of hands around the table as people offered to help.

Sure.

I can do that.

No problem.

And then I observed a curious dynamic unfold.

Pilgrim 1 called the room to silence so she could make a speech. This didn’t ordinarily happen on camino but was clear that she was used to commanding attention and speaking to groups. Everyone at the table quietened to a hush, and she publicly thanked our host for all his hard work and great food. She smiled, she charmed, and she publicly offered to help with the clean-up afterwards.

And then we all happily clinked our glasses of wine and toasted our hospitalerio.

Later, when the time came, I observed her hone in on a physiotherapist for an intense conversation about her feet, while a dozen pilgrims around her carried plates and moved the chairs. She didn’t even look up when someone cleared away her plate, too. She had publicly offered to help but when the time came, she ignored the hullaballoo and all the people in it.

Did she help with the dishes?

Nope.

Did she do what she had so publicly offered to do?

Nope.

All talk, no action.

Pilgrim 2 sat quietly at the table and like the rest of us, ate a hearty meal and drank more than one glass of wine over the course of the evening. When our hospitalerio asked her directly, and publicly, to help with the 6-7 other people who’d volunteered to do the dishes, she said Yes. But when the time arrived, I watch her quietly slink away to a corner chair with a glass of wine in one hand and a paperback novel in the other. While other pilgrims carried platters and started scrubbing the saucepans, she disappeared into the half-light and ignored us all.

Did she help with the dishes?

Nope.

Did she do what was asked of her?

Nope.

Says one thing, does another.

For days afterwards, I struggled with a response to the evening’s events.

Should I have said something and if so, what?

I didn’t want to label the women as selfish asses but I also couldn’t understand how they had turned their backs. Maybe they didn’t know that our hospitalerio was under stress but still, shouldn’t they have done their bit to help?

That night, I curled up in my lower bunk bed glad of the warmth, the dry clothes, and the feast in my belly. Unlike countless nights before, there was no one snoring, no one getting up to the bathroom every five minutes, and no one packing their backpack at midnight. There was, however, a couple in the bunk above mine, and they didn’t let the lack of privacy interrupt their…ahem…cuddling!Even though I heard lots of things about camino, I had never heard about *that*.

In Acebo I heard it all!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A High Point on Camino de Santiago

Distance walked: 17km

Elevation gain: 355m

Remaining distance to Santiago: 225.7km

When I left Rabanal at 6:30am, the ground was still wet from heavy rain overnight. Thankfully my socks and shoes were dry but as I peered out from under my dripping wet poncho, I felt a bit dubious about how the day would hold up. The poncho didn’t cover my bare legs and already they were feeling a bit chilly. Up there at 1,150m above sea level, the air was definitely colder than it had been in the meseta, just days earlier. I was a long way from where I started and I was edging further into Autumn. I already felt that all this larking around in sunny Spain was coming to an end!

For many of the pilgrims around me, a high point of their camino was only a few kilometers up ahead: La Cruz de Ferro. Literally, this iron cross stands 1,504m above sea level and, in the words of Brierley, “…has become one of the abiding symbols of the pilgrim way of St. James. Pause a while to reconnect with the purpose of your journey before adding your stone or other token of love and blessing to the great pile that witnessses our collective journeying.”

When I packed my bag weeks earlier, I included a small token to place at this famous landmark on the Camino Francés. Friends had told me that this was a nice symbolic moment on their camino journeys and I imagined that it would be a resonant moment for me, too. After all, I’d walked all that way, I’d done a whole bunch of reflecting and resolving…surely I would want to mark all of that with the placing of my “stone”, right?

In between the showers and the drizzle, the rain clouds hung low and heavy. I knew I was up high but I never considered that the wind would pick up so it was a shivery walk for me. The trail was slippery underfoot and the cold motivated me to keep moving. In retrospect, I probably should have put on some long pants when I realised, even after an hour of walking, that my body wasn’t really warming up. Instead, I shivered along the trail that morning and tried to keep some dry clothes in my pack for later that evening. Was it a smart move on my part? Maybe not the smartest!

*My* high point that day wasn’t the iron cross standing tall in the landscape. It wasn’t even the thrill of reaching the summit of Puerta Irago. Surprisingly, my high point was stopping for coffee at Albergue Monte Irago. That morning, any sort of shelter from the rain and cold would have been welcome, but I was entirely tickled with delight to wander into this place.

Amazingly, a wood fire crackled and burned in the stone fireplace inside the door. How perfect on such a day! Second, I drank my coffee from a *mug* rather than a small cup, as was the standard everywhere else on camino. I don’t know about you but for me, there’s nothing like curling up with a mug of hot coffee on a wet day…I don’t want a measly cup that’s going to run dry after three mouthfuls. I want a generous and comforting mug: I want to know that the warmth will last a bit longer!

The rustic benches were filled with pilgrims in animated laughter. The air smelled of coffee and sweet cake and, unsurprisingly, wet clothes, steaming in the warmth of the fire. In the corner,  bars of fair trade chocolate and baskets of organic fruit were available to buy and given there wasn’t another coffee stop till the far side of the peak (some 11km away with ups and downs), it was a great opportunity to replenish my sugar supplies. 🙂

This little café was a personal highlight. It’s not just that it was warm and cosy on a particularly drippy morning. Anywhere would have given some shelter but the wood fire was a particularly nice touch. I appreciated that they went to the bother of it. I also loved that the place was full of heart and charm and a quirky décor. By then, I’d stopped in countless cafés along camino and even though I was always grateful for the break, *this* place felt different. The staff weren’t harried, the furniture wasn’t made of formica, and there were hearty mugs of coffee all round.

There was lots to love! 🙂

With a warm belly of coffee and cake, I ventured out into the bleak drizzle and walked the uphill 6.5km to the iron cross. My poncho was noisy with rain. My legs felt the chill of the wind. In front and behind, a slow line of pilgrims bent into the wind all heading for the same destination. I contemplated on the token I would leave there and what sentiment I hoped to leave with it. I really wanted to imbue it with great personal meaning but the sentiment kept escaping me, like some sort of slippery fish.

I walked with Kevin and Liz and was glad of the company but I wasn’t prepared for how suddenly the cross appeared. I literally rounded a bend and there it was. Casual as you like! I also wasn’t ready to “let go” of the sentiment I thought I would leave behind. Even after all that time, all that walking, all that reflection: I could leave the physical token, sure, but the emotional one was a bit harder to drop.

Up close, the rocks were strewn with laminated photos, ribbons, and holy medals. In the rain, I spotted handwritten notes and memorial cards for the dead, and countless pebbles in different colours and textures. Thousands of pilgrims before me had carried those stones from all around the world: from beaches, from woodlands, from their own back yards. They’d carried them across Spain and left them all here as a testament to their journey. And what else did they leave with them? Grief? Gratitude? I’d never know.

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I imagined I might linger a while, reflect, and really commit it all to memory but honestly, the cold and the wet were so miserable that I got moving again as quickly as I could. I left my physical token. I didn’t manage to really leave behind the emotions or conflict I wrestled with, but standing around in the cold and rain wasn’t going to change that. I walked onwards toward the peak (1,515m) and then down the far side of the mountain.

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Thankfully, the sky in the distance looked lighter. The rain cleared. And what was that up ahead? A cluster of houses marking the small village of Acebo and hopefully, some warm soup for lunch. And depending on what the weather did, maybe a bed for the night too.

So glad!

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Rambling onwards to Rabanal del Camino

Distance walked: 21.4km (23.4km when adjusted for the climb of 400m)

Remaining distance to Santiago: 242.7km

Walking from Astorga to Rabanal del Camino, I noticed a sharp change in the landscape and the weather. Purple rain clouds replaced the endless blue skies. The yellow sandy trail turned darker, too. The expansive landscape closed in on itself a bit: there were more trees, more walls, and more interruptions to the eye. The Meseta was well and truly behind me but what lay ahead?

Well, cold and rainy mountains, as it happens. I wrapped up in a mid layer of fleece and put on my ridiculous orange poncho in an effort to keep warm and dry. I had bought another fleece in Astorga (thanks for the tip, Kevin!) but I didn’t want to put it on unless absolutely necessary. I couldn’t risk getting all of my clothes wet: I needed to keep a few warm and dry pieces for later that evening.

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Rambling to Rabanal

All around me, new pilgrims were walking westwards towards Santiago. A fresh influx of people had joined at Astorga, so I spent the day in animated chatter with pilgrims who were upbeat in both their walking and in their mood. Initially, the incline was gentle and the weather still dry. As the morning wore on, the wind picked up, the rain clouds gathered (and emptied!), and the gradient got steeper. I felt a different sort of ache in my body: not just the ache of sore feet or shoulders, but the early presence of a cold. Nothing to panic about, but I *really* wanted to get a bed in the parish hostel in Rabanal. I didn’t want to walk on further: I just wanted to get well for the next day and for climbing to Cruz de Ferro – the highest point on my 800km journey (1505m). I spent the last kilometers daydreaming of a hot shower, a hot meal, a hot coffee, a warm bed…notice the theme?!

Rabanal, for me, was a surprise delight on my camino. I already felt I was on the final third of my walking pilgrimage and the changes in the landscape reinforced that feeling. The mountains were cooler and a bit more strenuous, and Rabanal was a gentle tonic on both my body and my spirit. By the time I arrived I was cold and wet, and I needed to stop walking for the day. The parish hostel, thankfully, had a bed, and I was especially thrilled to get a lower bunk and some wool blankets for the night. In a restaurant across the road, I ordered lunch, consisting of a bowl of “vegetarian soup”, which clearly had a very meaty stock and my God it was delicious! The portion of green beans could have easily served four, and dripped with chorizo oil and salt: AM-A-ZING!

That evening, the pilgrim mass was particularly moving. The plaster work crumbled from the walls inside the stone church, as the seats filled with pilgrims from all around the world. We sat in a sort of reverent hush. By now, everyone had heard of the Gregorian chants that made this particular mass different to all the rest. We waited in silence while candles gently flickered and burned beside us. Not a word, just gentle shuffling as more pilgrims arrived and we each moved a little to make space.

Waiting.

Quietly waiting.

And then: monks in dark robes, lowly singing. Deep, resonant, manly voices in enchanting harmonies. And Latin! Of course! And yet, such a surprise.

Each verse slowly vibrated through the small church, like a spool of thread slowly coming undone. It felt like the walls themselves could sing if only because they’d held so much song already in the years past. A few smart phones lit up as people took photos but then, they quickly disappeared again, tucked away in pockets and purses. They were too intrusive. The gentle chanting needed to be seen and breathed – not recorded.

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I imagine that the mass was no shorter or longer than any other pilgrim mass I attended along the way…but it felt timeless. The Gregorian chanting transported all of us into another time and heart space, and the experience was strangely healing. I didn’t know what needed healing (except, maybe, my head cold and my sore feet) but I came away feeling lighter and deeply calm.

I didn’t note the time when it finished: instead, I lit candles for loved ones and I quietly absorbed the stillness. The hostel would be loud and busy and I was in no rush to join the mayhem. Instead, I sat and gave thanks. I enjoyed the time out. And I recorded it all to heart. There are few places on Camino Francés that I would consider returning to, but Rabanal is one of them.

 

 

Camino Francés: Onwards to Astorga

Distance walked: 15.8km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 264.1km

Link: https://www.pinterest.com/san265/gaudi/

Gaudi Palace in Astorga

Between the towns of Hospital de Órbigo and Astorga, the camino path divides in two. One path follows the N-120 national highway for 10km or so: the other meanders through countryside and small villages. The highway route is shorter but less scenic. The countryside route is longer but has cafés and hostels along the way.

Which path would *you* choose?

Just like my approach to Burgos, I accidentally took the less-scenic path. To be honest, I wasn’t even fully aware of a “non-scenic” version because I left my guide book in my backpack and just followed the signs I saw along the way.  It was only when I was somewhere on that very long and very loud stretch of highway did I wonder:

Where *is* everyone?

I could see the outline of only 3-4 pilgrims in the far distance ahead of me and behind me. Usually, I’d see dozens of people but that morning there was almost no one around. Very strange.

It was only later in the morning when I stopped for coffee and happily bumped into Kevin and Liz that I realized what had happened. We caught up on everything that had happened since our chance encounter in León, days earlier. They excitedly asked:

Did you stop at Dave’s place?

Huh?

You know, Dave’s hut with all the fruit and juices and organic food? Their smiles were broad and inviting. They were eager to compare notes and swooning for this mystery man, Dave.

Hmmmmmm….huh? I asked again, feeling utterly lost.

Only then did we realize that I had taken the highway route while everyone else took the countryside route.

Ahhhhhh….so that’s where everyone was!

Turns out, I missed out on famous Dave’s Casa de los Dioses, just outside San Justo de la Vegawhich was a refuge for countless pilgrims on the move. The story goes that Dave walked the camino years earlier and was so transformed by the experience that he decided to set up a quirky café, in service to other pilgrims. With hundreds of other coffee stops along the 800km route, you might be inclined to think his motives were purely financial. Apparently not. I’m told he was full of smiles, warm hugs, and spirited conversation. His hut provided an abundance of fresh fruit and juices, made with laughter and love. His pit stop wasn’t just for the weary body: it was a tonic for the weary soul, too. Everyone that stopped there not only loved the place but they loved Dave himself, too. So, when Kevin and Liz realized that I had missed out on this colorful experience, their faces dropped in disappointment.

Oh, you would have *loved* it! they gushed.

I was so enchanted by their enthusiasm that I very nearly thought about turning back to go find him. I didn’t do it though. Instead, I walked on to Astorga, passing a busker on the descent into the town and delighted in the surprise of live music. The musician played in time to my pace and then jauntily danced alongside me for a moment, like a medieval minstrel!

In Astorga, the rain clouds gathered and I spent much of the afternoon with Kevin and Liz, drinking hot chocolate, viewing Gaudi’s palace, and later that evening, feasting on delicious pizza in a traditional Italian restaurant. I’m not exaggerating when I say the evening was a tonic for my soul. Even though I loved walking by myself each day, I loved sharing good company in the evenings. Walking solo meant that I didn’t always have someone to eat my evening meal with and while I was often okay with that, I sometimes felt an emptiness. The previous evenings in Hospital de Órbigo I had dined alone (if you could even call it that!), and I hadn’t enjoyed it. Here in Astorga, I felt buoyed by the great company and the sense of community that had begun in Orisson when I first met the couple. Sharing dinner with them felt like catching up with old friends – a surprise sensation when I knew them only a month or so. For all my introversion and desire to walk alone, I couldn’t deny that sharing the journey with good people made everything sweeter.

Just as it is in camino, so it is in life, too. 😀

Camino de Santiago: A Lesson in Self-Care

In Hospital de Órbigo, I took stock of where I was on my camino journey.  I had walked about 500km by then – an astonishing amount. Roughly speaking, the city of León had opened up the final third of the journey so it felt like a good time to reflect on what I was learning along the way.

My journal is full of conflicts about how I wanted to walk. It was one thing to put “one-foot-in-front-of-the-other” but I was concerned too about the state of my heart. Was I feeling impatient or compassionate? Was I being judgemental or open-minded? How had I been for the 500km already walked and how did I want to be for the remaining 300km ahead?

There was lots to reflect on.

In Hospital de Órbigo, I met a pilgrim who referred to her tendonitis as a disability (I kid you not), and planned to take buses for the remainder of the journey.

I felt a knot of conflict in my chest.

Personally, I don’t think swollen tendons are a disability.

Is the condition painful? Sure.

It it as life-changing as a disability and as significant as all that the term entails? Hmmm…no.

So, I thought this woman was a bit dramatic and self-absorbed.

And then I felt guilty for judging her because really, what right did I have to pass comment?

And *then* I felt conflicted about whether I should, like her, “take care of myself” and take a bus and give my body a break? Should I take ibuprofen every day like so many of the other pilgrims around me? Should I rest more, go to a doctor, and find a massage therapist?

My answer to all of those things was an emphatic No.

I didn’t think my pain was serious enough to merit intervention of any kind. I knew that once I got home, had a bit of sleep, and stopped walking 25-30km every day with a heavy bag on my back, I’d be fine. So my plan was to “get through” my discomfort until then. I didn’t think much of alleviating that discomfort or, perish the thought, omitting it entirely! That decision was a conflict for me throughout my camino. I felt rather purist in my intention to walk every step but there was no denying that other pilgrims seemed to be in less pain or seemed to be having a lot more fun.

I couldn’t ignore the fact that there might be some good in taking pain relief and/or buses: I just couldn’t bring myself to avail of that goodness.

On reflection, that mindset permeated my camino journey: my emphasis was on enduring it rather than enjoying it.

I was somewhat aware of it at the time and regretted it, but also didn’t know how to change it.

I met countless pilgrims from around the world who had spent years preparing, researching, and anticipating their camino journey. Compared to me, they seemed to lap up every sunrise and every cup of coffee with a sort of marvelous wonder. I was ashamed of my attitude and at the same time, felt immense pressure to keep going. Handsome Husband had made plans to meet me in Santiago and somehow, I needed to arrive there by a certain date. I didn’t want to take a bus. I didn’t want to take a train. If I was going to walk it, then I wanted to walk it well.

That all sounded fine and dandy but I just couldn’t figure out my definition of “well” and what it meant for my walking journey.

In Hospital de Órbigo, I took the time to rest and reflect. I took the time to figure out what I needed for the remainder of my walk. I had pushed hard for three and a half weeks already and I had often felt over-exposed and emotional. For the remainder of my journey, I wanted to feel more centred and calm. I wanted to feel more generous of heart. I wanted to walk well and I wanted to arrive well, too. And that last point, right there, is a whole other philosophy for life. Camino, like life, isn’t just about the destination: the journey itself (and how you live it) is key.

So, Handsome Husband and I cancelled our plans to meet in Santiago. I couldn’t sustain walking 30km every day for the following 10 days: I needed another rest day somewhere along the route. I needed to take better care of myself. I needed to go a bit more gently. What a liberation to say all of this aloud and feel heard! Handsome Husband took the news with a gracious heart and assured me there was no pressure: he only wanted for me to be well. He’s a good man, that one! ;-D

And so, unexpectedly, my two nights in “Hospital” were a chance to rest and recover in all sorts of ways. I left with renewed strength and optimism, and some lessons for the rest of my life.

My point in all of this?

If you’re like me, you might not know how to get what you need. Heck, maybe you’re so busy “enduring” life that you don’t even know what you need sometimes. And maybe you feel the twinge of conflict when you see someone else getting (or indeed, taking) what they need. Those twinges are uncomfortable but also informative. Those twinges can help identify what you value, what’s lacking, and what you want to do differently.

Don’t ignore the twinges of conflict: investigate them and learn. Take the time to rest and reflect. Allow yourself to discover what you need in your life to take it. You might just find, like me, that your life involves a little less pain and a lot more fun!

 

 

Camino de Santiago and 2 Nights in Hospital (de Órbigo)

Distance walked: 28.5km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 303.4km

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When I got to León, I thought the city marked the end of the Meseta region in northern Spain. After a week or so of walking through wheat and corn fields, I thought the landscape would turn into something more leafy, just like the first 300km of my walking journey. I thought the wheat and corn fields were a thing of the past.

I was wrong!

When I left La Virgen del Camino, a suburb of León, the streets were quiet. The wave of pilgrims leaving León hadn’t yet arrived that morning and the quiet created a bit of a reprieve. I felt I was “ahead”, somehow.

Later, I used my phone to record videos for Handsome Husband at home. He and I had kept in touch every day while I walked, but just as I was starting to feel that I had been a nomad for months already, so too for him. He cheered me on from afar but was looking forward to my return. So, I recorded some videos from the trail that day: corn fields on the left and corn fields on the right…and a video of a farm irrigation canal just to break up the boredom! Brierley’s book says, “…once you leave Virgen del Camino, on the recommended route, there are few facilitates along this relatively isolated stretch.”

He wasn’t lying!

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Sometimes you have to look *really* closely for signage!

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I’d set my sights on Hospital de Órbigo, which has one of the “longest and best preserved medieval bridges in Spain dating from the 13th century and built over an earlier Roman bridge.” My map showed plenty of accommodation options and I figured my chances were pretty good of securing a bed for the night.

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In retrospect, I would have done well to stop a bit earlier that day. Or maybe I would have done well to stop in León the previous day and rest a bit extra. I hadn’t quite recovered from my folly of carrying four litres of water, days earlier. My body was still tired and sore, and by the time I arrived in Hospital de Órbigo that afternoon, I was feeling a bit burnt out. I arrived during siesta, when all the town’s shutters were down and the streets were quiet. I was thrilled to secure a bottom bunk bed in Albergue Karl Leisner, the parish hostel in a historic building that had been renovated by a German Confraternity. I washed my clothes and hung them to dry on a sunny clothes line. I sat and brushed my feet against the newly-cut, short, sharp grass. Pilgrims played guitars, cats lazed in the sun, and white clouds raced through the sky overhead.

I liked the hostel but I felt out of place in the town. As with a lot of restaurants along the way, dinner wasn’t served until 8pm and by then, after I had finished attending a pilgrim mass, I was very nearly too tired to eat. I wandered the streets looking for somewhere wholesome and lively but struggled to find anywhere. I met only a handful of pilgrims on the streets and they were faces I didn’t recognise. I’d fallen out of step with the people I knew, so eating alone in town that evening was rather lonesome. I didn’t know where everyone was but it sure felt like they weren’t eating out like I was that evening.

In the end, I settled for a café offering “homemade pizza” but when they produced a not-quite-defrosted pizza base cooked with ketchup on top, well, I cut my losses and left early. The TV screen in the corner blared with football and the old men at the counter didn’t notice that I left. I quietly paid and went on my way: that was probably my most dismal dinner experience on camino and I was glad to go back to the hostel, to bed.

It only occurred to me when I returned home that while I walked camino, I didn’t do a very good job of building in rest days along the way. If, like me, you work Monday-Friday, then your weekly pattern looks something like this:

Work for five days…

Rest (or do other things!) for two days…

Week in, week out, there is a rhythm there, allowing the body and mind a chance to rest, regroup.

On camino, I kind of walked and walked and walked and only took a “rest” when I was in a lot of pain or extremely exhausted. I didn’t have a rhythm and I didn’t really recover as I walked from one place to the next. In Hospital de Órbigo, I took some time to rest and recover. I didn’t feel actively “sick” but I didn’t have the heart to walk on, so I asked to stay a second night. Ordinarily, this isn’t the norm: the arrangement is to stay one night and then move on before 8am the next day. Pilgrims don’t tend to hang around any longer unless they are injured or sick in some way.

The volunteer behind the desk very kindly ushered me into a “private room” where I could sleep in peace…and I did. That saint of a woman even made me some green tea with honey, and assured me that she was nearby if I needed anything at all. I was so overwhelmed with the kindness that I bawled my eyes out crying…and then fell quickly to sleep! 😀

Private room…not exactly private but certainly quieter than the dorms

Looking back, I needed the rest and was thrilled to have it. But you know, I am sorry I didn’t keep in closer contact with my friends along the way. Even though I needed to walk camino on my own, I later learned that Kevin and Liz were in town at the same time as I. Had I known, we might have had dinner together. Kevin had a great skill for finding the most delicious tapas and gourmet feasts along the way: I might have enjoyed chat and laughter, and actual food, instead of sitting alone in a loud, flourescent-lit café bar, trying to eat frozen pizza. Of course, they might have had other plans and might not have wanted me tagging along, but I didn’t reach out to them so we’ll never know!

So, let that be a reminder to us all: keep in touch with the good people in your life, they add the colour and heart that we all need. 🙂

Camino de Santiago: Deciding whether to stay in León

A girl could get used to this…

Distance walked: 26.4km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 309km

The walk out of Mansilla de las Mulas was flat and happily uneventful. After the previous day’s walk,  my feet and shoulders were exceptionally sore and I walked a bit more gingerly than usual. As the morning wore on, my muscles warmed up, the coffee worked its magic, and I found a pace I could comfortably sustain. Like all the days before me, I just put one foot in front of the other.

By then, I’d already covered nearly 500km of the route so I was well and truly past the half way mark. Honestly, I felt it. I felt like a bit of a nomad. All that open landscape and blue, blue sky had altered my sense of…everything. Surprisingly, I enjoyed that the trail was significantly quieter than every other stretch of the camino. Similarly, I enjoyed the expansiveness of such a flat landscape. And even though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, a week of walking through the Meseta really made me feel like I was a long way from home – not just in terms of miles, but in terms of mindset, too. Everywhere else on camino, supermarkets and people and newspaper stands reminded me that I was effectively on holidays in another country. Out in the Meseta though, I felt different. I don’t know if it’s because farming towns and villages are different, or because there were so few people, or because of the landscape itself, but I really felt I was on a journey, not just on holidays. And that wasn’t a bad thing.

All the pilgrims planned to stop in the city of León later that day. After a week of wheat and corn fields, they were looking forward to a cityscape again, with the famous cathedral and some fine dining. Me? I was kind of “done” with the Meseta too. I’d seen enough wheat and corn, and I needed a bit of visual diversity again. But honestly, I wasn’t ready to be in a city – even one as small as 130,000 people. I didn’t care about the cathedral. I didn’t care about shopping or restaurants or staying in a nice hotel. I was happier out in the countryside.

León was bustling with energy and spirit. Natives, pilgrims, and regular (by that I mean non-pilgrim) tourists poured through the cobbled streets, filling the air with laughter and chat. I followed the yellow arrows through the streets, all the while trying to decide whether to stay in the city that night. Though I had started camino on a one-way ticket and had no planned return date, things had changed in the meantime. I had booked a return flight home and so, I needed to be in Santiago by a specific date.

Did I feel pressured by that timeline?

Absolutely.

And yet, I felt that I didn’t want to stay in Spain for more than six weeks. I might have felt greatly detatched from my life at home but I didn’t want to make that a reality by staying any longer.

So, I wandered through León, feeling the atmosphere as I went, and tried to decide what to do.

I wanted to stop for some food and a rest.

I wanted to stop and reflect a little while.

I wanted to decide whether to push on to Santiago for a specific date, or to go a bit more slowly.

I rounded a corner and came into an open square, filled with outdoor tables and chairs in anticipation of lunchtime. Delighted that they were all in the shade, I pulled up a chair and removed my sweaty backpack, and consulted the menu. And then, with no forewarning or pre-planning, I spotted someone I knew: Kevin! The same guy I’d met way back on Day 1 in Orisson, and whom I’d bumped into countless times since, was in León! We hadn’t seen each other in days, but it felt like months or even years. We hadn’t planned to meet so to spot him right there, right then, was such a joy.

Amazing serendipity!

He ran to retrieve Liz and together, the three of us sat for lunch in the shady square. I feasted on paella and wine, and considered my options for the road ahead. Liz, a great listener, helped me articulate my reservations about staying in León. I might have been the only pilgrim that day who didn’t want to stop in the city and take in its sights, but Liz gently coaxed me to do what I wanted to do. And so, when the food was eaten and the wine was drunk, I stood up to bid them farewell. I’d have loved to stay on for dinner  that evening but the road called: I wanted to keep walking. Right before I left, Liz undid a delicate scapular from around her own neck and gently placed it around mine. I’ve never been one to wear religious tokens but she hoped that it would help me with the decision-making that lay ahead. I hoped so too, and I gladly wore the piece for the remainder of my camino, and beyond.

And then, I walked out of the shady square into the bright afternoon sunlight, leaving Kevin and Liz behind me, again, until God knows when.

Other blogs and guidebooks are filled with criticism for the walk out of León, towards La Virgen del Camino. They talk about poor signage and an ugly landscape. I suppose, after the beauty and grandeur of León, those 6km are a bit rough. That day, I didn’t see that at all. I felt lighthearted and happy to be on the move so those 6km, while searingly hot, were some of the happiest kilometers in my camino journey. That’s what happened when I walked camino in my own way. 😀

 

 

Walking 4 hours for my morning coffee…

Distance walked: 24.5km

When I arrived in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos on a sweaty, dusty, Sunday afternoon, I was hugely relieved to get a bed in the hostel. There wasn’t anywhere else to stay for another 17km and I was tired enough from walking 24km already. The ground seared from the heat and it was a relief to get in to the shade. I have to thank my fellow pilgrims for pointing out that the local shop was open for only an hour that afternoon. If I needed food or drink, I’d need to be quick. Just as well because not only was there nowhere to stay for another 17km, there was also nowhere to get food, either. Without that pilgrim’s advice, I would have missed out on the shop’s opening hours and I would have had nothing to eat for breakfast the next day.

The next morning, I ate my breakfast baguette sitting on the side of a corn field, with the morning sun in my face. I did some stretches. I drank some water. I gazed out on the flatness of the landscape and enjoyed that there were almost no trees, no shady spots from the rising sun. It’s one of my favourite memories of all camino, probably just because it is so simple.

That morning, I salivated in anticipation of a coffee. I would have to walk for hours to get one and I realised just how privileged I was, and am, in my everyday life. In my day job before camino, I often got a morning coffee to drink while I worked. The walk from my desk took all of 30 seconds and I did it without really thinking. Here I was, in the hot meseta, walking 4 hours to get my morning coffee. It felt incredible. And I thought of all my former colleagues who were surely at work that morning, perhaps walking 30 seconds to their morning coffee, and perhaps not quite realising how comfortable their lives were. They had no idea the efforts I was going to that morning but you know, my life was comfortable too. I didn’t, and don’t, have to walk hours every day to secure fresh drinking water. Compared to millions of others, I have a dream life. I’d do well to remember that more often.

I did do something rather stupid that day, though. I carried 4 litres of water in my backpack, which added a staggering 4kg of weight to my load.

Why?

Well, the previous evening I chatted with a pilgrim who allegedly cured her tendonitis and plantar fasciitis by drinking lots of water. I mean, 7-8 litres a day. On the surface this sounds plain ridiculous because it puts pressure on the kidneys and one spends the day looking for toilet stops. She insisted it worked though, and I was so sore and so reluctant to take painkillers that I thought I’d try it out. There were no water stops for at least 17km that morning so I filled my water bottles at the hostel before I started out.

Big mistake.

The extra weight hurt my shoulders and back. I drank all morning and even filled up along the way in an effort to hit the 7-8 litre target. Sure, the more I drank, the lighter my pack became. Great. But by the time I arrived in Mansilla de las Mulas that afternoon, I was sore in a whole new way. A word of advice? Don’t carry 4 litres of water at any one time, it’s really not a smart move.

As for drinking 7-8 litres of water each day to cure tendonitis? Well, I tried it for a few days with no notable results only that my feet were even more sore from carrying the extra weight on my pack and I needed to pee every 20 minutes. Medics have since explained to me that consuming that much water throws the body’s salt/water balance out of whack. Drinking that much water, even when walking 30km a day in 30-something degree heat, isn’t necessary. It also isn’t helpful. And carrying that much extra weight? Well, that was was definitely one of my dumb-ass days on camino!

Still, that morning coffee was AM-A-ZING. So good, in fact, that I had two…and you would too if you’d walked 4 hours to get it! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections for walking the Camino de Santiago

When I stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, I received a slip of paper containing The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim – ten reflections for pilgrims walking the way.  I shared them here recently and on the back of that slip of paper, there was another reflection. I’m copying this straight from the page so language or grammar oddities are not my own 🙂

“The Way: Parable and reality

The journey makes you a pilgrim. Because the way to Santiago is not only a track to be walked in order to get somewhere, nor it is a test to reach any reward. El Camino de Santiago is a parable and a reality at once because it is done both within and outside of the specific time that takes to walk each stage, and along the entire life if only you allow the Camino to get into you, to transform you and to make to a pilgrim.

The Camino makes you simpler, because the lighter the backpack the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive.

The Camino makes you brother/sister. Whatever you have you must be ready to share because even if you started on our own, you will meet companions. The Camino breeds about community: community that greets the other, that takes in interest in how the walk is going for the other, that talks and shares with the other.

The Camino makes demands on you. You must get up even before the sun in spite of tiredness or blisters; you must walk in the darkness of night while dawn is growing, you must just get the rest that will keep you going.

The Camino calls you to contemplate, to be amazed, to welcome, to interiorize, to stop, to be quiet, to listen, to admire, to bless…Nature, our companions on the journey, our own selves, God.”

 

 

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

I had never heard of “The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim” before I started walking camino. I never knew there were such things and to this day, I’m not sure how widely these are circulated or known. I’m also not sure whether these have been passed through the years or they are a recent creation, and that lack of knowledge may be relevant to some. You might not want to embrace something that’s hundreds of years old. You might not want to embrace something that’s been around only twenty years.

Still, let me continue.

When I stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, I received a slip of paper with the ten points printed on them. Like everything else on camino, some things will resonate and others won’t so these may or may not be your groove.

Me?

I liked the message and I carried that slip of paper all the way to Santiago, and home, in case it took on a monumental significance with time.

I think the exact wording of these threw me off somehow but in my own way, I came to similar understandings and insights. I resonate with the sentiment. And I even resonate with the sentiment of sharing these because they might encourage reflection and compassion along the way. Camino is so much more than a budget walking holiday or a boozy way to see Spain. I’d like to contribute to the more reflective side – the side that encourages personal change in a positive way.

So, without wanting to be too religious-y, here they are. Just because.

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

  1. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” opens your eyes to what is not seen.
  2. Blessed are you pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others,
  3. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you contemplate the “camino” and you discover it is full of names and dawns.
  4. Blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered that the authentic “camino”begins when it is completed.
  5. Blessed are you pilgrim, if your knapsack is emptying of things and your heart does not know where to hang up so many feelings and emotions.
  6. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that one step back to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without seeing what is at your side.
  7. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you don’t have the words to give thanks for everything that surprises you at every twist and turn of the way.
  8. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you search for the truth and make of the “camino” a life and of your life a “way”, in search of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  9. Blessed are you pilgrim if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image in your heart.
  10. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” holds a lot of silence; and the silence of prayer; and the prayer of meeting with God who is waiting for you.

My Camino Prayer

When I walked the camino, I did so with a deeply-held prayer in my heart. It was a prayer that I said quietly, with all the sincerity that my tired & sore self could muster.

Now, those who know me well that I rarely speak of prayer or “the G word“. I almost never speak of these things aloud because, for me, belief systems are a very private affair. I don’t resonate with the public bells and whistles, I prefer the quiet connection.

So, to speak of prayer is not my usual comfort zone. My camino prayer began before I ever flew to France to start my walk. And it ended? Well, honestly I think it’s still echoing through my life.

The prayer?

It was simple, really.

You’ll remember that I landed in France with a quickly cobbled plan to walk 500 miles to Santiago. On my first night in St. Jean Pied de Port, I met pilgrims who’d spent two years physically training, and assembling and testing their gear. They’d read blogs and books. They prepared for all sorts of scenarios. They raised their eyebrows at my rash impulsiveness and I imagined that they judged me for being a reckless fool.

Thing is: they had a point.

I had done none of their preparation and boy, I felt that lack. But what I *did* have, was a strong heart and a strong spirit for the quest ahead. There was no doubt that I was doing the right thing. The doubt was in my ability to rise to the challenge before me.

So every day on camino, this was my prayer:

“I want to keep going. Please. Give me whatever it is I need to keep going.”

Give me the ability. Give me the stamina. Give me hope. Give me sunscreen. Give me blister-free feet. Give me lightness and calm. Give me all the things I-don’t-even-know-I-need, because I don’t even know what lays ahead.

Every night, I needed a safe place to sleep. I needed food. I needed proper walking shoes. I needed dry socks and clean underwear. I needed the strength to carry my backpack. I needed help putting one foot in front of the other. These were all very physical and practical needs.

But the other things I needed? Well, I found tremendous hope in my conversations with Kevin & Liz, Madonna & Brian. I found great relief in my chats with Peter. I found generosity with Barb and Dave. I found lightness and laughter with Marco and Ricard. I found the unspoken truth with Margaret.

We all need hope, relief, generosity, lightness and laughter. We all need truth.

On camino, I knew that I faced an unknown challenge. I couldn’t plan for every eventuality and I knew I would need help. So, I bowed in to the greater forces of this world and I asked for help. I didn’t know what I needed, so I also asked that my needs would somehow be anticipated and somehow be met.

And they were.

Every day in life, we need countless supports to get up and engage with the world. Every day, a bunch of our needs are met without us ever thinking about it. If you’re anything like me, you don’t go around with a list of hourly requests but yet, a flurry of your needs are anticipated and met, each and every day. And again, if you’re anything like me, you don’t always remember to count out each of those successes and give thanks for them.

On camino, my attention and focus were different. I was acutely aware of my needs being met and I was acutely aware of giving thanks. And still, every day, I walked out of my hostel in the early morning light with the same, humble prayer:

“I want to keep going. Please. Give me whatever it is I need to keep going.”

I walked. I did my utmost each day to “show up” and do as best I could. The greater forces “showed up” too and took care of the behind-the-scenes details. Between us, there was a sort of magic and I came home a profoundly changed woman.

The prayer worked and it’s worked ever since, too.

So, I share it with you in case you’re going through trials with your own camino or your own life right now. Maybe it will bring luck and light to your life too. I hope it does. 🙂

 

 

 

Passing the Half Way Point on Camino Francés…and Still Going

Distance walked: 23.7km

Distance to Santiago: 360.6km (Despite what the photo says!)

Walking the Camino de Santiago on a Sunday is a bit different to walking any other day of the week. Shops and supermarkets are closed so if you need to buy a new rain jacket or some picnic supplies on a Sunday, you might find yourself disappointed. Generally, I discovered the shutters pulled and the front doors locked. Smaller village shops *may* open for a couple of hours in the morning so you might be lucky in buying a few basic supplies but otherwise, you’ll have to wait.

This makes small villages particularly quiet on a Sunday. Depending on your preference, you might find this stifling and dull or delightfully relaxing.

Me? I had no reason to hang around San Nicolás del Real Camino that Sunday morning so I enthusiastically walked on to Sahagún 6-7km away. I was hungry and in search of breakfast, and while I walked I imagined plates of fresh fruit, with pancakes and syrup and pots of hot coffee and bowls of oatmeal. After weeks of baguette, I wanted something different. My taste buds cried out for berries and pears and pineapple. As I walked, I convinced myself that Sahagún would have such a feast on a Sunday morning. There’d be some quirky café open for breakfast and brunch, and I’d sit in, listening to funky music, eating my (no doubt) organic, sustainably sourced feast.

And it would be *am-a-zing!*

Right?

Ha ha….nope!

On the way in to town, I passed through these beautiful markers, reminding me that I was half way between St. Jean Pied de Port and Santiago. In some ways, I felt I  had already travelled more than that but I stopped for a break and aired out my feet. When other pilgrims came up behind me and wanted to take photos of the monuments I had to shuffle out of their view. Hence, I never got around to taking photos of my own 🙂

Click to image to see the photo credit

Sahagún has a population of some 170,000 people so I imagine that some version of my (imaginary) pancake & granola café is there somewhere. In a town that size, there’s surely some potential for it. On that Sunday morning, however, I didn’t find it. I didn’t come even close. Every little café and corner shop I passed on my way in to town was firmly closed up. My dream for pancakes and oatmeal seemed increasingly absurd. I’d be lucky to get breakfast of any sort, never mind my imaginings! Walking camino is not like everyday life and even though I craved a bit of normality that morning, it just wasn’t happening. So, when I finally happened on an open café I was thrilled. And I was happy to eat the baguette, the chocolate croissant, the eggs, and two cups of coffee. Hunger is a great sauce 🙂 And across the road? A small corner shop was open so I stocked up on baguette, tinned tuna, and fruit. I was set.

Sahagún is remarkably historical and significant and others have written about it far more than I ever could. If I had stopped off some other day of the week I might have made an event of it but that Sunday morning at 8am, everything was closed and looked like it would be for the remainder of the day. I crossed over the river Cea and walked on.

Making my way to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos was mostly uneventful. The day was hot and dusty, and I was hopeful that there’d be space for me in the 22-bed hostel. I had chosen to walk 8.7km of an old Roman road as part of my journey to get there so the walk was tiring and sore, and I didn’t really have it in me to go on any further.

In the last 2-3km, a woman appeared suddenly at my shoulder. She’d come up from behind without me even knowing she was there, and she started to chat.

Where had I come from?

Where was I going?

I revealed that I hoped to stay in the hostel up ahead. She too, hoped to stay there but then revealed all the fear. She’d heard that there were no beds left. She’d heard that they didn’t open on a Sunday. She’d heard that if there was no space there that we’d all be stuck because there’s not another hostel for more than 20km!

And then she abruptly ended the conversation with me and ran off ahead.

Why?

To beat me to the hostel.

To get a bed before I arrived.

To maybe take the last one available.

And not for the first time while I walked camino, my heart sank.

Maybe I am foolish and naïve but in *my* head, I would have thought we could walk those last 2-3km together, continue the chat, and investigate the hostel together. If there were beds available, great. If not, then we could unite in finding alternative accommodation or in taking a taxi to the next spot, 20km away. She wasn’t my friend but she wasn’t  my enemy, either. I had no reason to not walk and talk with her, and share some of the journey.

But how sad that she saw me as a threat and literally ran ahead of me. What would she have done if, after all that running, there was no space for either of us? What would she have done then? Would she have pretended to befriend me again or would she have ignored me while pursuing her own agenda? I’ll never know.

As it happened, there was plenty of space for both of us and for everyone who turned up after us, too. Our hospitalero was warm and generous in his welcome, and greeted everyone with a wide smile. He exuded positivity.

So all that fear and all those rumours about there being no space? Most of the time, the rumours weren’t true. There was no need for the fear. And there *really* was no need to outrun and outdo each other.

But that’s my feeling on it all. What’s yours?

 

 

Camino Continues Westwards

Distance walked: 36km

Distance left to Santiago: 369km

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Not a lot of clothes line space in the hostel!

My evening and night at the Santa Maria hostel in Carrión de los Condes was happily uneventful. No crazy snoring. No crazy traffic outside the window. No stress. The nuns requested that we each contribute some food towards the evening meal so in the hours before dinner, the small kitchen filled up with a random display of watermelon, baguette, and chorizo. Always, everywhere, chorizo 🙂 The nuns added fresh vegetables and salad from their own garden and created an evening meal for everyone to share. Communal meals like this are really nice on camino. I had a share of them along the way in various hostels (whether religious or privately-owned) and I appreciated the sense of community that they created.

The next morning, I made my way from the hostel out into the countryside by the light of the moon and the rising sun. I didn’t have a set plan for the day, as usual, but I’d hoped to walk 26.8km to Terradillos de Templarios that day. It seemed like a reasonable distance to cover, especially as there were no coffee stops for the first 17km. I didn’t want to overstretch myself.

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My guidebook informed me that 70% of the route followed natural paths, most of which are part of the Via Aquitana, the paved Roman road that connects to Astorga. It also informed me that the landscape was flat and featureless, so it was another day of ambling along under the searing hot sun. My day was uneventful and I settled into the rhythm of walking westwards. My average walking speed on level ground is somewhere between 4-5km per hour. So, the 26.8km took between 5-6 hours that day, with extra time for breaks along the way. By the time I got to Terradillos de Templarios, the hostels were all full. All 83 beds had been taken already even though it wasn’t yet lunchtime.

This is okay, I thought. I’ll just walk on to the next village.

I walked 3.2km onwards to Moratinos, just under an hour away, but the hostels there were all full there, too. I didn’t even get a chance to investigate that for myself: some pilgrims shouted the information to me from across the road. You’d think that after my experience in Carrión de los Condes I would have taken the time to verify the facts for myself but honestly, it seemed like too much effort to walk from one doorway to the next. Rightly or wrongly, there were days on camino where I felt I didn’t have the extra time, energy, and footsteps required to walk from one hostel to another. In Moratinos, I trusted the pilgrims when they told me everything was booked up, even though they shouted it with big smiles while they went to get cold beers!

By now, I’d been walking nearly 7 hours, the temperature was over 30 degrees C. and you know what? I was tired. I was sweaty. I was very, very dusty. And I really wanted to find a bed for the night. I needed to get in to the shade, have a shower, take a break, but until I found a hostel there was no chance of any of those things. In Moratinos, I assessed my options. I would walk a further 2.8 to San Nicolás del Real Camino in the hope that the 20-bed hostel there would have some space.

That 2.8km was filled with anticipation and nervousness. As the day wore on, the heat increased to near unbearable levels. If there was no bed for me, I was going to have to stop for a few hours anyway. Maybe I could rest for a while and resume walking later in the evening when the day had cooled down. I observed the countryside around me and for the first time in all camino, I seriously considered sleeping outdoors that night. I didn’t have the energy to walk an additional 7km to the next village and even if I did, it would be early evening by the time I’d arrive. That meant there’d be little chance of getting a bed. But out there in the farming countryside, I peered at the enormous bales of straw and thought about sleeping underneath them that night. They were dry, they’d offer some sort of warmth from the cool night air. There were no washing facilities or privacy but I could get over that. I needed somewhere to sleep and those straw bales were a viable option. I wouldn’t rule them out.

When I arrived in Albergue Laganares in the small village of San Nicolás del Real Camino, I expected to hear the worst. The village was eerily quiet and the hostel didn’t even look like it was open for business that day. I tentatively asked for a bed, while thinking of the straw bales down the road.

Sure, we have a bed, the hostel-owner said. Would you like something to drink? You look tired!

Hallelujah! I rejoiced inside. I wouldn’t have to walk another step! After 36km and searing heat, I was finally able to relax for the evening. A shower. A bed. A place to rest for the evening.

And what a fabulous little hostel this was. Quirky with tonnes of personality and care. And couches! Oh my goodness but I hadn’t even seen a couch in weeks, much less sit in one. I sat luxuriously, indulgently on the cushioned seats and felt the weight of my nomadic existence just melt away. Having a couch felt like having a home. It was one of the sweetest moments in all camino!

That night, a feast with pilgrims from all over the world but most of them from Spain. And afterwards, shots of potent desert wine from Madrid – a heady rush of giddiness before falling happily, drunkenly, gratefully into bed.

And how lovely that it was a bed and not a bale of straw after all 🙂

 

 

What Camino taught me about Friendships

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Before I walked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago route in Spain, I felt a bit stuck when it came to friendships. Stuck and sad.

In the years prior, I’d noticed that certain friendships were dwindling or dying. After university, people had scattered to all corners of the world. They had busy jobs, as did I. They had partnered off, as had I, and maybe had new families of their own. They were trying to squeeze a lot of living into a small amount of time, and keeping in touch fell by the wayside. Logically, I got it, and in many ways I was in the same boat. But on a heart level, I missed my longterm friends badly. I missed the fun of hanging out, the spontaneity, the travel, and the parties. Most of all, I missed the connection.

I asked around and I was told it was all normal. It’s a life phase, apparently. Except, it wasn’t just a life phase. Some of the people in my life loved me for sure but didn’t prioritize friendship. Take for example, my friend Bendy (not their real name!). I’d call Bendy and say:

Hey friend, how you doing?

Bendy and I would have a big old chat for two hours and catch up. We’d laugh. We’d swap war stories and it felt great to connect. But at the end, Bendy would always say:

We must do this more often. We must make more of an effort.

I was heartened. It seemed Bendy and I both wanted to stay friends and stay in touch. And I agreed: Yes, we must do this more often.

Only, 6 months would go by with no word from Bendy, no reply to emails, no reply to text so I’d call again:

Hey friend, how you doing?

The cycle would begin again. After 2-3 years of this, I noticed an increasing upset within myself. It felt like I was the one initiating all the contact. It felt like I was the one making all the effort. Just like Bendy, I too was busy with a career and a relationship, but I still found time to reach out to my friends and check-in. I felt alone in my efforts, though. I felt Bendy was taking but not giving in return. Was that just a feeling or was there some truth to it? In 2010, Bendy and I were wrapping up a phone call when the usual script came up again:

We must do this more often. We must make more of an effort!

I was prepared for this and I wanted to do an experiment. I wanted to see what effort ‘we’ were willing to make to keep the friendship alive. I replied by saying:

Yes, we must! Next time you make the phone call!

Bendy laughed a hearty laugh and said goodbye down the phone line. And I didn’t hear from Bendy again for over two years.

I hadn’t imagined the one-sidedness of our friendship. I hadn’t imagined the imbalance of effort. I was the one initiating the contact and when I stopped doing it, Bendy and I had no contact at all. Turned out, there were lots of Bendy friends in my life. They loved me, for sure, but they weren’t ‘there’ any more. That sadness I felt? It was real.

By the time I walked Camino, my heart was heavy and sore from the loss of friendships in all corners of my life. Sometimes I took it personally, other times I brushed it off as normal but either way, I still felt sad.

Everyone who’d walked camino before me (or who’d known someone to walk it) all swooned in telling me:

You’ll meet so many great people along the way!

They imagined that I was worried about walking alone and this was their way of reassuring me. Only, I wasn’t afraid of walking alone. Honestly, that sounded like total bliss! Being an introvert, I didn’t really want to meet lots and lots of people every day. All that small talk made me sweat just thinking about it. Sure, I could do it but the very idea of it was exhausting. So, their reassurances had the opposite effect. But I did meet lots of great people along the way and over the course of those 500 miles, I learned some deeply-felt lessons for my heart and my life, too.

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For a start, I met far too many people who were self-absorbed and insensitive, and they reminded me of all the people like them in my ‘real life’ back home. They were the kind of people I didn’t want to hang out with in Spain and as it happens, I didn’t want to hang out with them at home either. What a revelation to finally and unapologetically realise that.

Secondly, camino helped me get really clear about the different levels of friendship I had in my real life. Not everyone was a close friend and not everyone should get a prime time slot of my time and energy. I hadn’t told anyone when I would return from Spain so I was ‘off the radar’ for a few weeks after I returned. I did this on purpose. I didn’t want the pressure to meet up with all the acquaintances in my life and tell them stories about the cheap wine and great sunshine in Spain. I was on a retreat even when I returned home. And in that quiet, still time, I sort of ‘graded’ my friendships, and gave my time and energy in accordance with the grading. The people I reached out to and met with first were the ones I really, genuinely, heartily wanted to see. All the rest came after. Again, what a revelation to finally and freely prioritize people in this way.

Perhaps the biggest lesson was this:

Camino taught me that people come and people go. And that’s okay.

Every day, I met lots and lots of great people on the trail. People who were open, friendly, generous, and good. People I loved spending time with. It was easy to make friends with these people and I was delighted with the connection. Only, there were some I never saw again.

I met people on my first 1-2 days of walking, had a fabulous connection, assumed I would bump into them further along the way, but never saw them again. Not once! To this day, I have no idea whether they lived, went home early, or ever made it to Santiago. My heart was sorry to have missed out on getting to know them.

And I also met people on my first 1-2 days of walking who appeared on my camino over and over again at the most unexpected and delightful times. We shared dinner and coffee. We connected, we chatted, we swapped stories. Every time we parted, we bade each other a Buen Camino, never quite sure if we would see each other again. But some of these friends met me in Santiago with warm smiles and hugs, and we are in touch ever since.

What was the difference between some friendships ‘sticking’ and others not?

Timing, for sure.

Intent? Yes.

But I’m gonna say that some of them worked because we were in each others’ orbit. Roughly speaking, we were doing the same thing, at the same time, in a roughly similar way, and we had a lot in common. Seeing each other regularly gave us a continuity that made connection easier. And rightly or wrongly, spending time together is important. Without that, some connections just fade away. And that’s what had been happening in my life at home.

On camino, some friends left early. Other friends stayed to the very end.

My heart was soft for them all but slowly, I really came to understand that friends come and friends go. And that’s okay.

So, all that sadness and hurt and anger I had felt over my dwindling friendships at home?

Let it go.

And all that fear I’d felt about not making new connections?

Let that go, too.

The Beatles said it far more poetically and sweetly when they sang, ‘In My Life’ but the sentiment is the same. We are all on a journey. Literally as well as figuratively. We change. We move. We meet people and lose people. Maybe we meet further down the line or maybe we never meet again, but we carry a softness of heart for them as long as we live.

Camino taught me all this. I forget it, sometimes, but I’m remembering again. And remembering the friends and strangers who were so kind to me along the way.

Thank you all.

 

 

 

 

The Camino Provides in Carrión de los Condes

When I arrived in the town of Carrión de los Condes, I was sweaty and dusty and tired. A seemingly helpful woman told me the church hostels were all full, but kindly directed me towards a private hostel that still had space.

At least, she seemed kind and helpful, and I assumed her office attire and clipboard meant she was from the local tourist office or some other professional organisation. My mistake.

When the private hostel staff refused to give me a bed, I stood in the street feeling speechless and numb. I understood being refused a bed because of no space…but this? Being refused because I was a solo traveller was alien to me on camino. And it was a bitter blow after the immense kindness and welcome shown me just a day earlier in Boadilla del Camino. So, what would I do – would I try to find a private B&B? Or would I walk on to the next spot, some 17km away?

I walked through the town for 20 minutes and found a park bench in the shade. Grateful, I removed my sweaty backpack and my even sweatier shoes, and sat to gather my thoughts. I really didn’t have the energy to walk on to the next town so I’d either have to get a taxi there, or I would have to find somewhere to stay in Carrión. The town was busy and popular, and I felt a deep dread at the thought of finding private accommodation. The shoals of people following Brierley’s guidebook would have started in Frómista that morning and ended their day’s walking in Carrión de los Condes, just like the guidebook instructed. They would have checked into the hostels early or booked private B&Bs in advance. The Brierley brigade were good at following instructions and staying organized. They made it difficult for free range walkers, like me, to show up unannounced and find somewhere to stay.

After half an hour in the shade, I re-read my (Brierley!) guidebook and reviewed the options. I still wanted to stay in the Santa María hostel, if possible. You’ll remember that on the trail, I had stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, and they had recommended this particular hostel in Carrión. IMG_0797

Even though the “helpful” woman had told me all the hostels were full,  I decided to walk over there and see if they could squeeze me in.

And boy was I glad that I did!

I arrived at the heavy wooden door expecting to be told that all beds were taken. I stood on the threshold uncertainly but a gracious young nun gently ushered me in the door. From behind the desk, she welcomed me in with a warm smile.

By now, it was mid-afternoon. Most hostel beds fill up by noon so I had arrived at least two hours later than everyone else. And I had spent one of those hours following the misdirection of other people who’d convinced me that all beds in the town were taken. Asking for a bed here, now, seemed like a ridiculous long shot.

Hello, I said, do you have any beds? I need a bed for one, please.

I held my breath.

, she replied casually, as though they always have beds. No biggie.

I exhaled! Oh my God!

There is only one thing, she said tentatively.

Oh, here we go, I thought to myself.

It is up high, yes? Is that okay?

She was trying to tell me that my bed was at the top of a bunk. I suppose some pilgrims don’t want (or maybe can’t quite make it to) the top of a bunk, so she was mindful enough to mention it to me in advance – just in case. Thankfully, it was no problem for me. High, low, in beside the washing machine, out in the back garden…I didn’t care where I slept. I was just massively relieved to have found somewhere to stay…and in my choice hostel, too.

That night, I slept soundly in my upper bunk beside the window. Glad, grateful, and in awe of how simple it was to get a bed – again. I say “simple” because the beautiful nun made it seem like an effortless and easy process. And maybe to her, it was. But for me, securing that bed required me to “simply” sidestep the mistruths I’d been told. Securing that bed required me to have a bit of faith.

My takeaway things-to-remember that day?

  1. Don’t believe everything you hear – even people who seem professional and helpful can mislead you.
  2. Go for the thing you want. Be brave and give it a shot. Even if you’ve been told it’s unavailable, you never know what might happen. There might be a way of simply squeezing you in 🙂