“Doing the Camino”

I’ve debated whether to write this post but for a few minutes, I really want to explore the notion of “doing the Camino”. People say it all the time: “Oh, I’ve a friend who did that” or “Did you do the whole thing?” I’m trying to figure it out: what do we mean when we talk about doing the Camino?

I may be showing my age here but when I hear the phrase, I imagine Beavis and Butthead, sniggering and snorting, “Um…yeah…doing it…huh huh huh…” (That’s probably the first time that Beavis and Butthead have made it into a blog about the Camino de Santiago 🙂

I probably used the phrase myself before I packed my bag and went to Spain, but on my second day of walking, I met a woman who’s use of the phrase really challenged my thinking. She and I met in Roncesvalles, sitting in a restaurant with probably 70+ other people. We’d never met each other before, so we passed the next two hours eating fried fish and chips, drinking wine, and making small talk with the six other women at our table. For what it’s worth, the fish and chips were truly delicious, smothered in grease and salt.

This particular woman struck me as a real go-getter: ambitious, outgoing, and an achiever in life. She had travelled extensively to offbeat places like the Galápagos Islands. I found her stories interesting until she said things like:

“I’ve done South America. I’ve done Asia. Last year I did Kilimanjaro: now I’m doing Camino. After I finish Camino I’m doing the New York marathon.”

Or maybe it was Boston.

But you get the idea: everything was already “done” or on the “to do” list. And ideally, in quick succession.

Over time, I felt uneasy listening to her because her list was extensive. She had lots of stories and factual information, but had very little to say about how these things made her feel or had influenced her life. I wasn’t looking for a big Oprah revelation (or maybe I was) but it just seemed she had done all of these things and not reflected on any of them.

Had a trip to the Galápagos Islands been a childhood dream come true, for instance?

How did it feel at the top of Kilimanjaro?

Had these experiences changed her in any way or made her life richer?

I hadn’t a clue.

She had done lots of impressive and awesome things, but the way she listed them off made them sound trivial. I didn’t want to challenge who she was in the world, but internally, I found myself challenging her choice of language.

What is this fascination with “doing” all the time? Is it a western preoccupation? Do we have a fear of idleness? Maybe a fear of our own mortality? Is it a way of padding the job applications to demonstrate just how fabulous and qualified we all are, all the time? Maybe it’s a way of standing out in a world full of seven billion people?

There was something about her story telling that made me think of this:

Consuming, without engaging.

It’s like eating a meal without letting the taste of the food register in your mouth.

Consuming the experience, the travel, the mountain, the pilgrimage, whatever, without engaging with it or reflecting on it in any great detail. Consuming it, without even noticing it. Consuming it without acknowledging how magical it is to be alive at all, and in a position to experience such wondrous treats.

You know those books that list off 5,000 places to see before you die? Well, it felt like she was making her way through that list with great efficiency but with very little joy or wonder.

Galápagos Islands? Check!

Camino? Check!

Lived, died, dead, and buried? Check, check, check, check!

 

I really didn’t know, but I could imagine the rest of her script looking something like this: “I did Camino. I did the New York marathon. I did the old age thing. I did life.”

By all means “do the dishes” or “do the laundry” but don’t “do Asia” or “do Kilimanjaro”.

Save a bit of space for feeling delight or awe now and then. Please.

 

I reflected on her words for weeks afterwards. Do, do…done, did, did…everything sounded like a check box item, neatly ticked. Trying to equate this with Camino was unsettling because I met hundreds of people “doing it” in different ways.

For instance: I walked 800km between France and Spain, but I met a guy who walked from Prague. That’s right: he started walking six months before I did so by the time we met, he’d already crossed through the Czech Republic, Germany, France, and then Spain. Could you equate our walk in any way? Was he “doing the Camino” better than me, or more fully than me because he walked further, for longer? Compared to him, was I even “doing it” at all?

Were the mass-going Catholics “doing it” better? Were the people who walked only 100km from Sarria “doing the Camino”? What about the people who walked for a week at a time now and then – were they “doing the Camino” for just a week, or for years?

I met people walking and cycling. I had a group of people go by me on horseback. I heard of a guy who was “doing it” on a unicycle. One day, I saw two people on quad bikes! Were we all “doing” the same Camino?

Personally, I wanted to walk the Camino for more than ten years. I knew I wanted to walk westwards from the French side of the Pyrenees for 800km, alone, carrying all my belongings on my back, and in one full run. I didn’t want to do a week at a time or make do with a shorter version. Don’t ask me why but that was always my aspiration, and with the exception of two short and unplanned taxi trips, I “did” the Camino as I had hoped. I was very happy about fulfilling the dream with its detailed specifications. But in all my time walking, I met hundreds of people who were experiencing the same route in different ways. I couldn’t figure out who was “doing it” properly or truly, or how we would ever calculate that measurement to begin with.

So the only thing I could come up with was to change my choice of language. I stopped talking about “doing the Camino” and instead, talked about “walking the Camino”. I expect most people don’t notice the difference and don’t care either way but for me, my change of language marked a change in my thinking. That dinner in Roncesvalles, so early in the whole journey, reminded me of why I was there. I didn’t want to consume without engaging: I wanted to be open to the experience and even be changed by it. I wanted it to touch my heart. I wanted it to fill me with feelings of delight and awe. I wanted to live it and celebrate it, not just do it.

So, in all my writing and rambling, I’m aiming to keep that phrase to a minimum. It’s not my phrase and it’s not my preference, and I really need to explain my distinct reasons for rejecting it.

Phew.

So glad I got that off my mind, it’s been rattling around in there for quite a while!

That’s my thinking on the matter, but what’s yours? When you think of “doing the Camino”, what do you think of?

Camino Challenge: Go forwards or go backwards?

Waking up in Zabaldika, I had a few decisions to make for the day ahead.

Even though I’d walked on my own a lot of the time, keeping company with dozens of people and following their schedule wasn’t working for me. I needed to minimise the pressure I felt in the race for beds. I’d started pretty well but if I were to continue, I needed to recalibrate. I needed to find a new way of being on Camino and to follow my own rhythm.

At the same time, I kept thinking of the 10-12km that the taxi had covered the previous evening: should I get a taxi back to Zubiri and pick up where I left off? Was I “cheating” if I didn’t walk every inch of the trail on my own two feet? I really didn’t know. I was surprised to feel so sore after the steep descent from the Pyrenees and knew that if I insisted on walking 22-23km that day, I was going to be slow. That was going to put me in the same position I’d known the previous day, and I’d be right back to square one.

It was clear that my fellow pilgrims had no intention of getting a taxi back to Zubiri to pick up those missing kilometres. They were delighted to be closer to Pamplona, and were excited about arriving into town early enough to secure a bed and enjoy some tapas. They relished the thought of extra time in such a colourful city.

Chatting to them, I realised I had all sorts of conflicts about how I wanted to walk the Camino. I didn’t feel a need for self-flagellation but I wasn’t sure that taking a taxi to cover some of the trip was entirely wholesome. Were we lesser pilgrims if we availed of transport and creature comforts? Weren’t we missing out on some greater, metaphysical learning experience if we took the “easy option” instead of walking on foot? I wasn’t sure.

For thousands of years, people walked the Camino without access to the comforts we know today –no taxis, no private B&Bs, and no minibus service to carry the bags. Many people think that these modern services pollute the very essence of Camino. They think that people who avail of these conveniences are (negatively) interfering with the ethos or the true way to “do the Camino”. (I deeply object to that very phrase, but I’ll go into that at some other time!). So, I met lots of people who had strong opinions about the pilgrims availing of taxis and buses, and who didn’t carry their bags on their own backs. Personally, I felt it was important to walk on my own merit and carry my own bag, and in an ideal scenario everyone else would do the same. I liked the idea of a level playing field (so to speak) and that we would all be equally humbled in our journey across Spain. That said, I wanted to be diplomatic and restrict my judgement of others because I realised this:

Pilgrims from medieval days didn’t have taxis and minibuses, but they also didn’t have daily hot showers or café con leches. I didn’t hear anyone complaining about these comforts. I also didn’t hear anyone propose that these modern conveniences were interfering with the ethos of Camino. It’s funny, that!

It’s easy to judge the person who’s having their bag carried on a bus but for all we know, that person could have cancer in their upper spine and be physically incapable of shouldering the weight. I met a woman who was in that very situation. So what would we propose – that she shouldn’t have had a bag, and be denied a change of clothing and toiletries? Or would we propose she shouldn’t be on Camino at all, but instead sit at home and let cancer eat her insides until she died? I knew nothing of her life but thought she was entirely generous to walk 800km when she was so unwell. That was a Camino within a Camino. There was nothing about her choice to have her bag carried that was “wrong” or “less than” my choice: it was just different and it was appropriate for her circumstances.

Judging her would have made it impossible for us to become friends. Judging her would have kept us apart, feeling defensive and self-righteous about our respective lives and experiences. Judging her would have created a very anti-Christian sentiment while we both walked the same route towards the same destination.

I don’t know what “true Camino” is but I’m pretty sure that’s not it.

So, for all my idealism about levelling the playing field, I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about the people around me, the lives they lived, the struggles they’d known, or the reasons they were walking. Personally, I was glad of the hot showers and the hot coffees along the way, and I was equally glad of the taxi that had saved me in Zubiri the previous evening. Had it interfered with the ethos of Camino? Not really, because it had brought me to a place of kindness and support that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. It had also enabled me to feel vulnerable, humble, and deeply grateful. I imagine those feelings are part of the Camino spirit.

So, I made a conscious decision that morning: Accept the help I’d been offered and use it to keep going forward, not back.

The walk to Pamplona was only 8-10km and I did it slowly, with definite plans for when I arrived. I would use the city’s services to my benefit, and I would take some space to take better care of myself. I wanted to find a post office so I could post home some of the things in my backpack that were weighing me down. I wanted a private room so I could sleep in peace. I wanted a private bathroom so I could take my time without feeling the impatience of 50 people outside the door, waiting for their turn. The city offered me all of these possibilities and I was delighted to have access to it so soon. I arrived into town at the unprecedented hour of 11am and followed street signs to the central tourist office, where the staff kindly helped me find a cheap, single room in a B&B.

The previous day had been tough but this one was going to be better: I decided to Make it So.

From Zubiri to Zabaldika

Zabaldika is one of 26 small villages, stretched out along the Esteribar Valley. Apparently, it consists of only 13 homes, 40 neighbours, and a community of Sacred Heart nuns. I didn’t know any of this at the time, given I arrived there by taxi and hadn’t been reading my guidebook very closely. This wasn’t because of negligence or disinterest in the Spanish countryside, but because I hadn’t caught up with myself yet. My Camino and my arrival in Zabaldika came about rather quickly, and reading up on tourist information was low on my list of priorities.

The village is about 10km from Pamplona so I imagine many pilgrims don’t stop at all, but keep going to Hemmingway’s old haunt instead. In my short time there, I didn’t see a coffee shop or bar, and unless a person wanted to stop off at the 13th century church, they might not have given the place a second thought. Rightly or wrongly, the availability of food, drinks, and a place to sit determine the daily schedule for pilgrims, and the absence of these things probably mean that Zabaldika is rather quiet.

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The Church at Zabaldika

I remember stepping inside the front door of the albergue, to the cool, clean, interior. We had arrived unexpectedly, covered in dust and weariness from the day, yet the woman greeting us at the door welcomed us warmly and sincerely, with a wide smile and open arms. Literally. She seemed glad to have us, despite our state.

Within minutes, we realised we had arrived somewhere special. A living room space with armchairs and couches, books and magazines, was a sweet reminder of the everyday comforts we had all left behind at home. The nuns could have easily converted that space into a downstairs dorm to pack in more pilgrims and bring in more money. The fact that they hadn’t done this was telling, and I welcomed the conscious decision to create a space that was both communal and restful.

It was a bit of breathing space from the racing and competition.

The second thing to surprise us was that our host didn’t ask us for payment upfront.

In fact, she didn’t ask for payment at all.

There was a bed for each of us and we would share a communal dinner later that evening. If we wanted, we could join a session of prayers and singing afterwards in the church. They hadn’t put a price on anything but welcomed donations, and she pointed to the donation box placed discretely in the corner. I already felt humble gratitude for the bed, but their unconditional generosity marked the distinction between “doing the Camino” and “being on pilgrimage”. Their support wasn’t dependent on money. They thought of it as a vocation and were glad to be of service to our journey. If we couldn’t afford to pay, we’d still be given the same warm welcome, the same food and shelter, the same kindness. Their insight and mindfulness created a shift of energy in the group, and there was an immediate lightness to our mood.

You mean you’re not trying to rip us off because we happen to come from another country and have money in our pockets?

You mean to tell us that pilgrimage has nothing to do with profit?

You mean to tell us that our presence here is measured not just in terms of the Euro we spend?

How wonderful!

While the rest of the hostel scrambled for showers and a space at the sink to wash their clothes, I lay down on my bed for an hour to rest. I was enormously grateful to get a bed in the corner and with it, some small opportunity to turn my back on the roomful of strangers. I didn’t mean to be anti-social but in the previous three days and nights, I met dozens and dozens of new people and I was worn out from all the talk. I’m simply not used to talking from 6am until 9pm every day.

On top of that, I felt over-stretched from the noise that accompanied life on Camino. All the photos I had seen were of vast stretches of countryside, with big, open skies, and a gravel trail reaching to the far horizon. The pictures implied a life harmony with nature, and I’d thought my days would be full of quiet reflection. The photos didn’t show the crowded cafés, the queues for bathrooms and showers, or the harried-looking restaurant staff, trying to feed the ongoing crowds of hungry pilgrims.

They also didn’t show the rustling of plastic bags, and the zipping and unzipping of backpacks every morning for an hour, and every evening for another hour. That’s two hours of every day, listening to the noise of people:

packing their bag,

zipping up the bag,

unzipping the bag,

unpacking their bag, and

rooting for something in their bag that may/may not actually be there

Only to pack it up and zip it up all over again.

Added to that, there was the noise of:

doors opening and closing,

phones ringing,

alarms sounding,

things falling on the floor,

chatter about blisters and bedding….

You get the idea.

Getting to bed early or sleeping in late were impossible. Lying there, I realised just how over-stimulating the whole thing had been. That evening, I cried because of everything. I was just like a small child, over-stimulated and up way past my bedtime. But there was no way I was getting any sleep, so I resigned myself to going downstairs to wash out my clothes and eventually get some food.

Walking down the stairs was torture on my calf muscles. Those damn Pyrenees had me ruined! My hamstrings felt like badly rusted wire, ready to snap. The last thing I wanted to do was hand wash my clothes in an outdoor sink, but I did it anyway and cried my eyes out from beginning to end. I might be a bit embarrassed to admit it all now, but at the time, it was an escape valve. They say that when you’re on Camino you don’t always get what you want, but you do get what you need. I definitely needed some way to decompress and in the absence of a bottle of wine, crying my eyes out did the trick.

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Over dinner, the head nun joined us for courgette soup and chicken stew, and explained a little about their ethos and missionary work around the world. Their local community was elderly and small in number. In previous years, the declining numbers attending church had led to diminished funds for them, so they’d opened an albergue as a new source of revenue. If I were very cynical, I might have decided she was on a moneymaking agenda, but I think that would have been an unduly harsh judgement, and a very one-sided one too.

It’s true that many people make their living through the Camino Francés, in providing food, accommodation, or transport to the (hundreds of) thousands of people who pass through every year. That’s the practical reality, and every Euro that pilgrims spend, contributes to the economy in some way. At the same time, the Camino is a pilgrimage route, pre-dating even the Christian tradition. People walk it for a variety of reasons, some of which are religious or spiritual in nature.

At the dinner table that evening, we were a mixture of nationalities and backgrounds, and no doubt, we were a mixture in terms of our religious or spiritual zeal, too. When I arrived, I felt over-stretched and somewhat cynical about the whole enterprise. I was running low on reserves, and I felt heavy-hearted after the effort of the Pyrenees. That wasn’t a religious experience: it was a physical reality and I had a very emotional response. My spirit was flagging.

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Put Your Prayers on a Post-It Note

I cried my eyes out while washing my clothes and again, when the group sang hymns in the church. I cried the next morning when we had a misunderstanding about breakfast. In fact, I could barely keep the tears inside. I doubted whether I had the stamina to proceed. I felt rather bleak.

The nuns at Zabaldika welcomed me with warmth and tenderness. They didn’t ask for money, they didn’t push an agenda or schedule on me, and when I broke down in tears, they offered hugs and reassurance.

They willed me to be well.

They willed for me to have a Buen Camino.

And they meant it.

They gave me a bed, a homemade meal, a community of people to eat with, and somewhere to wash. More than that, they showed me that the Camino I was searching for, did exist.

I felt like my heart had cracked open and some gooey liquid had unexpectedly leaked all over the kitchen floor. They’d helped me mop it all up, put it back in its rightful place, and reinforce my heart with an extra layer of sealant and love.

They gave me hope for the next phase of the journey. I don’t know how to explain that without using the word “spirit”, because what they gave me was spiritual sustenance. And I took on the next leg of the walking with a little more lightness in my heart and understanding of my needs. They helped me find a way to go on.

The funny thing about my Zabaldika experience is this:

Days later, I happily bumped into the four lovely ladies again – they called themselves “The Champagne Camino” in honour of all the wine they were drinking along the way. When they found their private accommodation in Zubiri, they’d discovered that one of their rooms had an extra bed. They went back out on to the streets to find me, and offer me the spare bed. I could have stayed with them and shared an evening of dinner and vino. How wonderful! But I had been told that the town of Zubiri was completely full (ahem!) and had taken a taxi to Zabaldika. The rest is history, but I learned two things:

  • When someone tells you that the town is completely full, they might not have all their facts straight.
  • In the words of Mick Jagger: You can’t always get what you want but you might just find you get what you need.

I would have gladly shared the evening with the ladies but had I done that, would I have found the non-commercial, vocational Camino I was looking for? Probably not. So they may never know the true extent of their influence, but those nuns changed everything for me. I felt it then, and I feel it now: I got what I needed. Exactly and entirely.

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Other albergues with the same spirit/sentiment as Zabaldika – sorry it’s a bit blurry

Surrendering to the Unexpected

A word or two about beds:

Before walking the Camino, I read a few online forums and discovered people were concerned about the shortage of beds along the way. Many of the hostels (albergues) run on a first-come, first-serve basis and cannot be booked in advance. Traditionally, this is how things worked on Camino: millions of pilgrims made the journey across Spain relying on the kindness of the locals, availing of food and shelter where, and when, they could. I can imagine the warm beds and hot dinners were inconsistent, so going on pilgrimage was a leap of faith – not just spiritually, but physically too. Relying on the locals, and trusting that there would be food and shelter was a real practice in letting go, trusting humankind, and trusting God.

The state-run and church-run hostels continue to operate on a “first-come, first-serve” basis to this day. During the winter months, the supply outweighs the demand. During the summer months, the opposite is true. I planned to walk in autumn and didn’t know what to expect, but it seemed that lots of others felt the very same. The forums were full of anxiety and fear, and much discussion about the limited number of beds.

Many people were afraid of becoming stranded and needed reassurance.

Others took control of their fate by booking private accommodation in advance.

Personally, I didn’t want to walk the Camino in a state of constant fear. Equally, I didn’t want to control my experience or put myself under pressure to keep to a set distance each day. I figured that three things were true:

  1. After several hundred years of hosting millions of pilgrims, the locals would have far better knowledge about sleeping facilities than I ever would. Even if all the hostels in a town burned down, I knew the locals would know where to find a spare couch, a living room floor, or a barn that might be free. I decided to defer – completely – to their expertise. I wasn’t asking for luxury accomodation and I knew I wouldn’t be left to go hungry or without a safe place to sleep.
  2. Walking alone meant I only ever needed to find space for one person and I can fit on an armchair if I have to. I figured my chances of getting something were pretty good.
  3. All going well, I expected to walk for 6 weeks and realised that I could control only certain aspects of my journey. I could control how much sunblock to put on my face, or how closely I tended my feet: these things were within my remit, but the availability of beds was not. There was no way I could organise and pre-book a new bed every night for 6 weeks so I didn’t even want to try.

When it came to sleeping arrangements, I surrendered the whole thing to God/Divine/Guardian Angels/Universe and thought, “This one is waaay beyond me; this one is up to you”. I consciously decided, “I am not going to worry about beds.” I didn’t have the energy for it, I didn’t have enough Spanish for it, and I couldn’t control it anyway, so I purposefully decided that I wouldn’t give it any headspace. Ring fencing my mind in this way was a liberation. Somehow, it would all be fine.

Still, I felt absolutely gutted to learn that there were no free beds, couches, or floor spaces in Zubiri. I was so disheartened I could have wept. I was so physically exhausted I could have slept on the street.

Honestly, I was too disheartened to worry about my state. I needed to wash, to eat, and to find somewhere to sleep, but I really didn’t care where I slept that night. The woman running the albergue made some phone calls – to taxi companies, to other nearby albergues, and private accomodation, trying to find space for the growing number of stranded pilgrims. For nearly an hour, we sat on the dusty footpath, waiting for more people to arrive so we’d have a critical mass and hopefully, some influence. It was a wearisome experience. Suddenly, a taxi van appeared and three women jumped to their feet.

“Do you want to join us?” they asked.

“Where are you going?”

“To another hostel, they’ve organised somewhere for us to stay”.

If you can believe it, I actually hesitated in responding.

I’d just been offered transportation and a bed, without having to organise either of them myself, and I felt reluctant about accepting. Why? My aspiration (and intention) was to walk all 800km on my own feet, carrying my bag all the way. I didn’t want to “cheat” on the experience in any way, and taking a taxi to another albergue felt like a cheat. Never mind that I was physically spent, that there were no beds in Zubiri, and that I didn’t have the strength to walk another step: I still wanted a purist Camino experience. Yep, this is why Handsome Husband calls me “willful”!

I hesitated just long enough to realize this:

When I started, I knew there was a risk of being without a bed at some point and I’d already decided that if such a thing happened, I would defer to the locals for a solution. They were offering it, right there, right then, and I was genuinely in need of their help. If I didn’t allow myself to accept their help, I would surely have a terrible Camino. (Plus, Ego was happy that I was without a bed because of the local fiesta, and not because of my lack of training or my snail’s pace.)

So, quick as a flash, I came to my senses and jumped into the taxi.

Hurrah!

Silently, I felt relief to know that I’d get a shower, some food, and a bed, instead of sleeping on the riverbank that night. As the taxi bumped along the road, I chatted with my fellow pilgrims, relieved to have their company while we made our way to the next albergue. After a day of struggle, it was a sweet relief to be carried some of the distance, even though I wondered about getting a taxi back the next morning to pick up where I left off. I was surrendering and planning at the same time! Still, when the taxi pulled up outside a parochial albergue minutes later, I felt a flood of gratitude. The locals had provided the help that I needed and I had arrived at my bed for the night.

Where was I?

Somewhere called Zabaldika.

 

 

A Day of Ups and Downs

The hostel at Roncesvalles was the largest one I stayed in while walking Camino. It housed close to 200 pilgrims. People had talked about the enormity of the hostel in advance, with rumours that it was impersonal. True, it was big and bustling, but also clean, well equipped, and efficient. The large space was divided into cubicles and each one contained only 4 beds. They weren’t soundproof (so I could hear the snoring of dozens of people further down in the room) but they provided privacy. I didn’t have to look at nearly 200 other people when I sat on my bed. That helped things considerably.

My 3 “roommates” were friendly but spoke no English so our conversation was limited to smiling. They were awake before me the next morning and again I woke to bright headtorches. Only then did I realise that these strategic pilgrims had slept in their hiking clothes the night before. I can’t imagine sleeping with t-shirt, shorts, and socks all underneath the sleeping bag in a warm hostel but these guys had done just that. It meant that they were ready very quickly the next morning but I felt unsettled.

They might have chosen to sleep in their clothes so they wouldn’t disturb me.

They might have chosen it for reasons of privacy.

They didn’t have English and I didn’t have Spanish, so I’ll never know what their reasons were.

It did seem, however, that they’d slept in their clothes so they’d save time. They packed their sleeping bags and were gone before 6am, and had surely saved a few minutes by being pre-dressed. It unsettled me to think that the race for beds had turned into one big race for everything, and that people might shave off the minutes wherever they could. I hadn’t joined the Olympics but still, I began to feel I was in a competitive race of some sort.

The staff roused us from our beds by playing Gregorian chants across the stereo and switching on all the lights, so I was out the door around 6:30am. I didn’t avail of the vending machines with coffee and snacks before I left – that would mean being out of bed some 15 minutes earlier, and bed time is too precious. So, this was the first day to start walking without food in my belly. An early-opening supermarket allowed me to stock up on fruit, and the nearest coffee stop was only 3km away. The café solo was a bitter jolt to my system and I sampled my first (and most delicious) empanada.

Mental note to self: don’t order café solo again but do eat empanadas.

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Early morning and getting a tan on the back of my legs

Like the days before it, this day was a swelter. I remember sitting on the side of the trail at one point in the early afternoon, dying to take a nap in the ditch. Really, I was looking at the grassy edge as though it was a king-size bed in a four-star hotel, and imagined all sorts of lovely sleep. Sleeping on the side of a dirt gravel trail is not a classy look, and I realised that if I stopped then I’d never arrive at my destination. Instead, I sat for a while in the shade, trying to plan my energy for the afternoon. After the steep descent from the Pyrenees, my body was both painful and slow, and I was concerned about my lack of progress.

John Brierley’s guidebook breaks down the 800km walk into stages, with each day (or stage) averaging around 25km. Some days are longer, others are shorter, but if you keep to Brierley’s plan every day, you’ll reach Santiago in just over a month. His plan for this particular day was to walk 27.4km but I decided to go 22.2km to Zubiri instead, in the hope that I’d find it easier to get a bed there. Plus, my calf muscles were really sore, and those extra 5km were beyond me.

Sometime around 3pm I was still shuffling along with my very sore calf muscles, my very heavy backpack, and my very tired body. The trail had quietened down considerably but I felt embarrassed to be still walking so many hours after leaving Roncesvalles. I started with a small group of Canadians that morning but they had a quicker pace and had gone on ahead hours earlier. No doubt, they were sitting in a town square somewhere, enjoying a beer, and taking it easy. It sounded good.

Behind me I heard chatter and laughter as a group of pilgrims approached. I felt too tired to turn around and instead, kept putting one foot in front of the other, focusing on my eventual destination. I didn’t expect to meet anyone I knew (and I knew 20 people or so at that stage in the trip), and I didn’t have the energy to strike up conversation with new faces. But as happens so often on Camino, the four women approaching were not new – I actually knew them. We met initially in Orisson, and the next evening they invited me to join them for a bottle of wine (or two) as we sat in the evening sunshine in Roncesvalles. They were buoyant, beaming, generous women with warm laughter and hearts. I was happy to see them and at the same time, felt deeply ashamed.

Ashamed? Isn’t that a strong word?

Yes, and yes.

Let me explain.

I left Roncesvalles hours before them, but I was walking so slowly they caught up to me. How embarrassing. They were still joyous and energetic but I was feeling over-stretched and tearful. I felt like a failure standing beside them because I was slow and I wasn’t feeling very gracious about it. Earlier in the day, I shared with someone that I was very tired. The guy was twice my age, walked twice my speed, and seemed very surprised to hear that I was struggling. In that split second, I felt judged and ashamed, and the feeling lingered with me for the day. So, by the time the 4 lovely ladies came along, I had already spent a few hours ruminating on my inadequate performance. I felt exposed somehow, as though they were seeing me at a low point. I didn’t want anyone to see me at a low point.

I don’t know if they saw any of this when we met on the trail but if they did, they handled me with great sensitivity. They exclaimed with excitement when they saw me and again, they took me under their wing. Since we were all heading to Zubiri, we would walk together. And so, for the rest of the day’s walking, they kept me distracted with their laughter and chatter. Of course, my calf muscles still ached but their warm company meant that I kept walking in the right direction. Their timing was sweet and it totally transformed my day.

Now, here’s a small Segway: Anyone who knows me knows that I am rather independent, maybe even fiercely so. I like being capable and self-sufficient. I consider it a strength to be independent. I have little patience for getting sick. Apparently, I’m stubborn and I don’t always accept help. Lovely Husband calls me “willful”. I think he’s being very kind in his choice of words.

I knew all of this going on Camino and knew that it would come up – after all, how do you walk 800km in a different country and not ask for, or accept, help at some stage? I’d already experienced spontaneous (and delightful) kindness in my previous 3 days, and I was very grateful for the Camino magic. But this particular day I was feeling sore and rather sorry for myself, and I was not so enthusiastic about having anyone witness me in that state. On the last stretch into Zubiri, when my body ached so badly I thought I couldn’t go on, something beautiful happened out of the blue:

One of the ladies spontaneously asked if she could carry my backpack.

Umm…what?

“Can I carry your backpack?”

I thought she was taking pity on me, or that maybe she was getting impatient with my slow progress and wanted to speed things up a bit. That thought is more of a reflection on me than on her, because there was nothing to suggest that she was impatient with my pace. I struggled to understand her request. Internally I thought: This backpack is heavy and it’s been hurting my shoulders all day, so it’s not fair to put that burden on anyone else. Anyway, she’s only saying it to be nice because I’m a mess.

So I said, “Ah no thanks, you’re okay.”

It’s an Irish thing – someone offers you a cup of tea and you decline it at least once, out of politeness and not wanting to be an inconvenience.

Someone offered to carry my bag and I said no. And the bag felt twice as heavy as it had felt a minute earlier.

She went on to explain that they were having their bags transported by van from town to town. On top of that, they were walking for only a week so she didn’t have as much stuff to carry. Her small daypack probably weighed 1-2kg compared to my bigger 8-9kg. She was thinking of returning to Spain to walk the full Camino with a bag on her back at a later stage. So, she wanted a test run. She wanted to carry my pack to see what it felt like. Her request had nothing to do with getting impatient or taking pity on me. Instead, it was an experiment, motivated by her own needs and request for information, and I would be helping her if I let her carry my bag.

Ahhhhh…..that changes everything.

She asked me again and this time, my self-sufficient, willful self was happy to hand over the weighty beast. Secretly I was thrilled and could hardly believe my luck. Before we knew it, we’d swapped bags and I was securing the light little daypack across my shoulders. There was no comparison between the two, and hers was feather light. I felt my eyes well up with tears out of sheer relief and gratitude. Without me asking, and without her knowing it, she had spared me from reaching a breaking point and totally transformed my day – again.

I don’t consider myself a religious person but I’m going to say that it felt like a “Hand-of-God-comes-down-from-above-and-directly-changes-the-course-of-events” kind of moment. There I was, shuffling along all day, alone, sore, tired, and feeling too ashamed of myself to make eye contact or conversation with anyone. There was no option of hitch-hiking but still, there might have been some other way to approach the day only I didn’t know what it was. Unexpectedly, these newfound friends came along with warm hearts and moral support. Just when I was at a breaking point (and I do mean I was moments away from crying like a baby) they offered unconditional and practical assistance. I would never have thought to ask anyone to carry my bag: that’s an enormous request but it was exactly what I needed. Having that weight lifted from my shoulders gave me enough energy to make the final stretch to Zubiri. I ached, I was exhausted, I was covered in sweat and dust, but I was also humbled in a most extraordinary way. Those 4 ladies, collectively, and individually, saved my sorry ass and gave me hope.

We arrived in Zubiri and went in different directions – they in search of their pre-booked accommodation and I to the nearest hostel. I was relieved to arrive at last and looked forward to meeting with them later in the evening for dinner and a drink. I knew I arrived hours later than most but I was still hopeful of a bed, or a mat on the floor, or a mat on the ground in the back yard. I didn’t really care where I slept, I just needed a shower and a snooze. So imagine my heartbreak when I learned that there were no free beds in that hostel, or in any of the hostels in town. After walking for nearly 9 hours, I learned that every bed in town had been taken hours beforehand. The next town on the trail was having a fiesta and all of its hostels were closed, so people had stopped off in Zubiri instead. Every hostel bed and B&B were fully booked. They’d even put mats on the floor of the local gymnasium and all of those were taken too. There was, quite literally, nowhere to sleep.

I thought back to the bridge I’d crossed only minutes earlier.

Beneath it, there was a river and I thought: I can wash myself there.

Beside it, there were grassy banks and I thought: I can sleep there.

I was that tired.

It was close to 5pm and I was close to tears. My new friends were nowhere in sight and I didn’t have a plan.

There was no room at the inn.

The Road to Roncesvalles

 

John Brierley‘s guide and maps plot the route between Orisson and Roncesvalles as (more or less) like this:

Distance: 15km

Elevation Gain: 750m

Descent: 500m

When I woke in the hostel at Orisson in the very early a.m. I knew that all of this lay ahead of me for the day. It was still dark outside (and inside) so my roommates got good use out of their headtorches while they packed up their sleeping bags and got ready to go.

I don’t remember my reaction but I imagine it was a shock to my system: I am not a morning person and being woken by bright, bobbing LED torches in such a small space is not my ideal way to wake up. It doesn’t exactly bring out the best in me. It’s part of the Camino culture that people are out the door by 6am, so nocturnal people like me are at a bit of a disadvantage. I lay in bed for another few minutes, trying to mentally prepare for the day ahead.

I’m not in the habit of walking 15km on a given day but I know I can do it. I’m also not in the habit of climbing up 750m and/or down 500m but again, I know it’s within my physical capability – I’ve done it before and know I’m able.

In some ways, the prospect of climbing up and over the Pyrenees was less daunting to me when I crunched the numbers re: distance, elevation gain, and descent. I realised it wasn’t impossible. But I had to factor in the gradient on the way up and down (very steep), which adds strain to the body and tires out the legs more quickly. The gradient can determine whether the 15km feel like only 8km or more like 37km, and even in the early morning half-light I realised that these 15km weren’t going to be the breeziest of my life.

Like many pilgrims, I carried too much weight in my backpack despite my best efforts to keep it to a minimum. I had about 7kg worth of ‘stuff’ but carried another 2L of water, which added an additional 2kg to my load. 9-10kg is not a lot by regular everyday standards but carrying it up the side of a steep mountain, over distance, in mid-30-something-degree heat made it a lot more “challenging”. It was too much but I didn’t know that then.

My breakfast in Orisson was brief and consisted of strong, bitter coffee in a bowl (first time I’d ever done that) and baguette with butter and jam. I was half asleep while I ate it but realised my body would need the sustenance later, so I ate and drank as much as I could comfortably manage.

All around me, the bustle of pilgrims filling up their water bottles and lacing up their boots added noise, laughter, and an excited tension to the room. Today would be a big day – today was crossing the Pyrenees and making our way across the border from France into Spain. It was important to get on the road early so we could beat the heat of the sun.

Added to that, I’d heard that the hostels didn’t /don’t allow pilgrims to stay later than 8am so there was no option of sleeping in and starting the day later: I simply had to get out the door.

On top of that, the people around me had some concern about “getting a bed” in our destination later. Many of the hostels run on a first-come, first-serve basis so once the beds are taken, any late-arriving pilgrims have to make alternative arrangements.

At the beginning of the trip, the fear of being without a bed was real and regularly spoken about. While I’m not an early-morning lark, I realised that the sooner I left Orisson then the sooner I’d arrive in Roncesvalles, and the better chance I’d have of getting a bed. I felt I couldn’t walk further, so going on to the next town or village wasn’t an option that day.

I was also on a budget for the whole trip, and foregoing the hostel for a more pricey hotel was beyond my price point for that stage of the trip. There was no where else to stop off en route and I didn’t feel like sleeping outdoors that night. So, I felt I simply had to make it to Roncesvalles in time to get a bed.

Whether we ever admit it, that means walking to a set pace instead of having a leisurely stroll, and it changed the emotional energy of the hostel in the half-light at Orisson.

The Pyrenees were far more grassy and open than I had expected. For hours, I pottered along putting one foot in front of the other, with a chorus of bells sounding on the wind. They sounded like Swiss cow bells but all I could see were horses and sheep – dozens and dozens of them, munching the grass and running across the open landscape. It was one big advert for “Black Beauty” with cowbells, and it was a romantic bliss.

The early morning light cast golden shadows across the hills and to this day I remember the expansiveness – so much horizon, so much sky.

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I found the walking steep that day, but the incline and decline were both managable. They weren’t easy breezy but with the weather, the good company, and some strategic breaks, I’m happy to report that I managed just fine.

In advance of my Camino I’d read forums with countless people wondering and worrying about how bad it would be, and always wondering whether they’d be able for it. I wondered the same thing – after all, some people say that it’s truly terrible but are they the exception or the norm?

It’s hard to tell.

I went into it knowing that my body, while generally unprepared, was strong.

I also went into it knowing that I really, really wanted to cross the mountains and see the views from a height, so my mental and emotional fortitude was strong too.

I knew the weather would be dry so I wouldn’t have slippery paths underfoot or any dangerous winds to contend with, but I’d have to be careful to stay hydrated and not get sunburned.

My body was only sort of prepared and I knew there was no going back and there was no way out – there was only one option and that was to go forward. Lack of choice in the matter was a great motivator!

My highlights included “banana man in a van”, whom appeared like a mirage on the side of the road and provided timely sustenance to weary pilgrims like myself. This enterprising man drives up into the mountains each day, parks his little van on the side of the road, and sells coffee and fruit juice to passing pilgrims. He was a pure delight to our day.

He also sold Lidl-brand chocolate at a highly-profitable price, bananas, hard-boiled eggs, and locally-made cheese. The bananas were welcome freshness.

Even in those very early days of the trip I felt I was deprived of fresh fruit and veg compared to my usual routine, and I was thrilled to eat something fresh, other than bread. The eggs in particular, struck me as a mark of genius!

I was impressed by his insight – boiled eggs are very portable so it’s easy for pilgrims to buy a few and eat them later.

They don’t even need refrigeration, which was a “win” for everyone in that heat.

They’re packed with protein (handy for long-distance endurance), and they’re cheap and quick to prepare.

From a business perspective, he was on to a definite win-win, and even had salt and pepper to hand for flavour.

I toasted his business excellence with coffee, bananas, and chocolate, (but no eggs) and sat on the grass to take off my socks and air out my feet.

Big thanks to Canadians Barb and Dave, who kindly collected my socks after they blew across the grass in the breeze – it wouldn’t have been fun to lose them down the side of a mountain so early in the trip!

Crossing from France into Spain was also a highlight, though I’m not sure exactly when it happened that day. We crossed under a makeshift-looking iron archway of sorts, with plastic flag-like bits attached to it. It wasn’t fancy or formal but rumour had that it was the official border line between the two countries.

Some non-EU pilgrims around me wondered if they’d be asked to show their passports but there was no one there to show them to, and I didn’t see any marker to confirm that this was indeed the boundary line.

I took a photo of it but I might have taken a close-up if I’d known for certain that it was the boundary line. Maybe someone more knowledgable can confirm either way?

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Banana Man in a Van (but I’m sure he has a real name)

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Is that the border up ahead?

I enjoyed the decline to Roncesvalles through the woods and relished the cool shade. I walked in hiking sandals and didn’t relish the steep gradient, so I walked slowly, mindfully, and with a lot of weight on my walking poles to help me keep my balance and stability. Thankfully the preceeding days had been equally dry and bright, so the ground underneath was stable (though my calf muscles still had some complaints to make).

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Shady Woodlands

In the end, I made it to Roncesvalles in enough time to secure a bed in the hostel, wash my dusty clothes in the sink, hang them out to dry, and find new friends for a glass of vino and dinner.

I was sore and spent, but delighted that I’d covered the distance without breaking any bones, and was still intact.

For the second time in three days, I wasn’t in time for the full pilgrim mass but I heard afterwards that it was emotional and moving. I’d managed to attend a bit of a mass in St. Jean (by happy accident rather than any pre-planning) so I didn’t feel so bad that I had missed one in Roncesvalles. I hadn’t thought about attending mass at every stop,  or even at all. I had only planned to walk my best each day and let the rest unfold. Sometimes, that meant being open to a mass. Other times, it meant spending my time differently.

Roncesvalles gave me a hot shower, great laundry facilities, a safe, secure bed, and friendly people with whom to share wine and food. As days go, it had been a good one.

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These boots were made for walkin’…

Staying in Orisson

I forgot to mention (forgive me, I’m new to this) that when I left St. Jean to cross the Pyrenees, I had a choice of two routes: the Napoleon route, which followed high mountain paths, or the Valcarlos route, which followed lower mountain paths. Both go from St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side but obviously, they each have different scenery and different stopping points along the way. But they both begin at Point A and end at Point B, so you would think that there’s not much difference between them.

You would be wrong.

It seems that people can spend a long time debating which path to choose and trying to determine which one is the “true Camino”. Whether we admit it, the ego can influence this decision: we all want to demonstrate that we’re fit, strong, and totally able to cross up and over the Pyrenees on the high mountain route. No problem! Many of us start out full of energy and excitement, and want to prove our enthusiasm and commitment by choosing the high Napoleon route. Crossing from St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles is just over 25km in distance and if you factor in the ups and downs of the hills, the distance amounts to 32km. That’s not a walk in the park. On the Napoleon route, the altitude goes from less than 200m (at St. Jean) to a high of 1450m, before it steeply descends down into Roncesvalles. I don’t know about you, but I’m not used to climbing 1200m every day and then having steep descents too. So the Napoleon route is both steep and long, and it requires fitness and stamina, especially if you’re to walk it all in one day. Many people do, and they experience what’s known as the “baptism of fire”. Many people sprain or break their bodies on the way over. Others survive relatively intact but find themselves unable to walk 2-3 days later, either through exhaustion or delayed injury. Many people survive it and find it genuinely comfortable, and come away neither injured nor exhausted. I met all sorts on the Camino.

I walked in early September when the weather was good and the paths were free of snow. I also walked at a time when it happened to be sunny and clear. It’s not always this way. I met a person who left St. Jean a week after me and found the Pyrenees to be so foggy and misty that she couldn’t see a thing. So, people use their ego, their level of fitness, and the weather report in deciding which route to choose. I’ll say it now: forget about the ego and use common sense. There is no “true path” if you break your ankle on Day 1 from over exertion. There is no admiration for anyone who gets lost in the fog on Day 1 and puts their life in danger from hunger and exposure. Mountains are mountains, and they don’t care whether you live or die, make it to Roncesvalles or collapse in a heap. They don’t care about keeping up with other people or being embarassed. They don’t care whether you cover the same distances as your friends or enemies. The Pyrenees are beautiful and expansive, and more grassy than I expected, but they don’t have any ego about your Camino. The track is the same length and the same steepness every day of the year and those things are not changing. The weather, however, does change, along with one’s level of fitness and stamina, so these are the best measures for deciding which route to take. The Pyrenees are what they are and there is no “easy route”, there is only the route you feel most equipped to handle.

I chose the Napoleon route. I wanted to have the view and in my heart of hearts I knew I wanted that experience. I made the decision with a lot of humility, and a prayer for the necessary stamina and strength. There was no way I could cover the full distance and altitude on my first day out, so I decided that the most sensible thing to do was to pace myself and to stop in Orisson for the night. Ego was not entirely happy – I walked (only) 8km and climbed 600m and by noon I was finished for the day. Ego thought I was being soft and that I should join the dozens of others making their way to Roncesvalles. I even met people who were going further than that, so Ego told me I was definitely a wimp when compared to them. Once I’d confirmed my reservation at Orisson, Ego had to just shut up becasue there was no way I was turning down that bed. I wasn’t tired enough but I’m delighted I stayed because:

  • It was a definite act of self-care, pacing myself, and listening to my own body
  • It was very, very hot that day and I was glad to get in to the shade
  • It gave me a chance to process the fact that I had arrived, I was there, and I was on my way
  • I had dinner with the entire hostel and I met some of my best friends from the whole trip
  • The food was great and the wine delicious

In the middle of the night, a group of 100 or so pilgrims passed outside our window in the dark, walking from St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. I already thought that walking that distance and covering that altitude was pretty extreme, but to do it in the dark seemed even more dramatic. Even in my state of half-sleep, Ego really thought I was a wuss. I woke long enough to hear the sound of boots, walking poles, chatter, and laughter pass outside my window. They stopped to have coffee and drinks, knowing that there was no where else to stop in the next 15km. Head lamps broke through the darkness and I thought the light would wake me entirely, destroying my beauty sleep. No fear, I was asleep again in seconds. I thought they were kind of crazy but from my bottom bunk bed I silently wished them a Buen Camino. Walking in darkness? Well done to them. Maybe I’ll do it next time.

Orisson was a chance to catch my breath and ease in gently. Stopping off was the right decision for me.

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The view from Orisson: I expected the Pyrenees to be rocky – who knew they were so grassy?!

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A year ago today…

A year ago today, I set out walking from St. Jean Pied de Port for my grand adventure on Camino Francés. I remember the morning sunshine and the sounds of walking poles tapping on cobblestones. After all the packing and re-packing of backpacks, with bellies full of coffee and bread, we were on our way.

Happy anniversary, fellow pilgrims from September 2013!

Unlike many people on Camino, I left my hostel at the late hour of 8-8:30am, more nervous than excited, and not really sure how far I would have to walk that day. I thought I’d made a reservation at the albergue in Orisson, but my school-level French was so bad that I couldn’t be sure of a bed. I’d heard “You can’t book the hostels in advance” but two days before I started, I learned that Orisson was an exception because it was in France, not Spain, and because it was a privately-run hostel (as opposed to a state-run or church-run one). So I could and indeed, should reserve a bed unless I was definitely going the full distance to Roncesvalles, up, over, and down the far side of the Pyrenees. I was doubtful of making the trip on my first day and prayed that the lovely people at Orisson had understood my request.

Unlike many pilgrims, I’d planned my trip in only a month and hadn’t had time to physically train my body for what was to come. The previous evening, I told a group of people over dinner that I was relying on “muscle memory” to get me through the physical challenge. I said it with a smile but I wasn’t joking – I’d come from a desk job and I wasn’t that fit; I hadn’t done any training; I had no idea if I could walk the 800km to Santiago. The German man sitting across the table from me shook his head and looked utterly unimpressed.

Without ever asking him, I had a good idea what he thought of me and my plan. I couldn’t disagree with him if he thought me a fool.

But, I also felt that if I could pace myself and let go of trying to plan for every eventuality, I would be fine. My Camino was a daily exercise in letting go. I wanted to “Lean In” (as Sheryl Sandberg would say) and trust that somehow, I would figure it out as I went along. I purposefully and consciously decided to “do the Camino” without planning and pre-booking. I wanted to see how it would unfold and how I would manage. In a world full of sat-nav, social media, and endless wi-fi, I wanted to wander without a schedule. I wanted to test myself.

So, on the morning of September 3rd, 2013, I followed dozens of other pilgrims down the hill, over the bridge, and out into the countryside beyond St. Jean.

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No excuse for getting lost

I’d put on too much clothing, my bag was too heavy, and my hamstrings were shocked at the effort of walking steeply uphill to Orisson. I heard afterwards that it was about 34 degrees Celsius that day, and I was a sweaty mass while others skipped past me in effortless style.

In St. Jean, I’d been so nervous about my reservation that I asked a Dutch man, who spoke great French, to phone the hostel at Orisson and confirm my details. He kindly agreed to make the call but wasn’t leaving St. Jean for hours – how would he relay the message to me? By happy coincidence, we met on the side of the road hours later and he told me I had a sort of tentative reservation – if I got there by 1pm they would give me a bed but if I arrived later, they might be full up and I would have to walk on to Roncesvalles. What relief! And what gratitude to him for his kind help. Oh, to live in central Europe and to be fluent in many tongues!

Late morning, I arrived at the famous hostel and gladly stopped for a coke and my first of many, many ham sandwiches. In poorly-accented French I asked the lady behind the bar about a bed. “I have a reservation”, I explained, or at least, I hope I do. While she fumbled in a ledger for my details, I stood nervously, hoping that it would all work out. She looked at me, looked back at the book, looked up at me again and said something that I took to mean: “A guy phoned earlier this morning about this reservation and I told him the details but you’re not him – so who are you?” I explained as best I could and we managed a giggle, before she confirmed my reservation that was not-so-tentative-after-all . Maybe my school-level French wasn’t so appalling after all. She handed me the gold metal token I’d need to use the shower, and told me which dorm I would sleep in.

Hurrah! I had a bed and a dinner for the night, and I didn’t have to walk to Roncesvalles in the heat. It was a good beginning. A year ago today, I walked my first 8-10km, up the steep hillsides, following the friendly yellow arrows as the track passed through lush green fields in the golden morning light. I remember thinking to myself: “I’m not in the office now!” and being delighted.

My leap of faith had begun in earnest.

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Early morning on the way to Orisson