Camino Challenge: No Beds (again)

Arriving into town and learning there were no available beds, was disheartening.

At the end of a long, sweaty, dusty day of great physical exertion, it was particularly gutting.

If, like me, you’d plan to spend the night in such a town, then the news is rather problematic.

Finding a bed doesn’t just mean having somewhere to sleep that night. Finding a bed also means:

  • You can have a shower, at last!
  • There’s somewhere you can wash and dry your laundry
  • You may have wi-fi contact or phone coverage – and let your loved ones know that you’re still alive
  • You can settle somewhere for your evening meal and a beer
  • You can relax into conversation and friendship
  • Your day’s effort is done. There is nothing to do but rest.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

In everyday life, it is the equivalent of going home after a long day. Except, I was a long way from home. Life on Camino is transient and temporary, and not having a place of rest was the closest I’ve known to being homeless.

Not so much fun.

Arriving into Los Arcos only to learn that there were no available beds, was terribly disappointing. Priority 1 was to find a bed. Everything else came after that. The shower, the laundry, the dinner and drinks, were all delayed. There would be no resting until I’d secured a place to sleep.

I was just over a week into walking Camino and this was the second evening I’d arrived too late for a bed. In case you missed it, I wrote about my first experience of it here: A Day of Ups and Downs.

Certainly, the volume of people walking Camino in the past few years has sky-rocketed. I read somewhere recently that a few years ago there were 35,000 – 45,000 people walking the route each year.

In 2013, those numbers had risen to over 200,000.

Of course, that kind of increase puts pressure on everything – accommodation, water supply, waste disposal, cafés – you name it. I didn’t take it personally that I was left without a bed. If those numbers are true then it’s likely on a given day that someone gets stuck for a place to sleep – why shouldn’t it be me?

Still, getting stuck for a place to sleep (twice) coincided with pushing my body extra hard, on days that were very hot. I did wonder if there was a correlation there, and maybe something to be learned from it all.

The four of us went from hostel to hostel across Los Arcos and everywhere the message was the same:

No room at the inn.

At the last hostel, the staff confirmed that not only were all the beds taken, but every inch of floor space was full too. There wasn’t enough room to take in a stray cat.

Before I’d even had time to think: “What now?” my fellow-pilgrim from Australia said one word:

Taxi.

There wasn’t even a moment of hesitation. She said it with absolute confidence and conviction. She spoke it clearly and immediately. She had created a plan. She spoke for all of us.

Ordering a taxi was entirely practical:

We had to get a bed

We had to go to another town

There was no way we were able to walk it

 

I wouldn’t have thought of it, and I was thrilled that she did.

Quick as a flash, the hostel-owner jumped into her mini-van parked outside the front door, and ushered us in. We had no idea where she planned to bring us, but we also didn’t really care. I trusted her local expertise and knowledge, and felt confident that she’d help us figure out a place to stay. Plus, I felt relieved that I could hand over this task to someone more knowledgeable than me.

Complete surrender.

I was thankful too that we were in a group. Not only did it equate to a cheaper taxi fare for each of us, but it meant that she would take our request seriously. It can be easy to turn away one solitary pilgrim. It’s harder to ignore a group of them.

Just as it is in life, there is strength in numbers.

After a few minutes of driving, she stopped at the first albergue and found it was full.

She stopped at the second and found they had space. Yay.

Until the guy stamped my Pilgrim Passport, I didn’t know where we were. It tells me that I was in Torres del Rio, some 8km outside Los Arcos. Those were 8km I didn’t walk, and would have to decide on the next morning.

Our albergue held a bar and restaurant on the ground floor, with bedding and bathrooms upstairs. They even had a swimming pool! The bar was loud with metal and punk music, with medieval-looking armour and crossbows on the walls. The courtyard in front was full of people drinking beer in the cool evening shade. They didn’t wear quick-drying sports gear or zip-off hiking pants, but instead, were covered in black clothes, with lots of tattoos and chains.

My guess? They weren’t pilgrims 🙂

How great we were getting to “mix with the locals” a bit!

And like an old woman, I found myself thinking: I hope they’re not going to stay out here all night making noise!

That evening, I filled my belly with paella, delighted to take a break from baguette. I felt profoundly grateful for my bed. I shared an open dorm with the 3 women, in a room with low ceilings, exposed wooden beams, and very few bunks. I slept like a rock, and when I woke the next morning, I hadn’t changed position at all. I’d heard snoring and people going to the bathroom but I had been so tired, I hadn’t stirred an inch.

But here’s a thing:

The hostel was privately owned, and they told us that some of the beds in the dorm were reserved. When we arrived at 6pm there was no sign of our roommates but we presumed they’d show up later. By 9pm the beds were still empty. Given that the hostels had a “lights out” rule for 10pm, these pilgrims were cutting it fine.

When we awoke the next morning, we discovered the beds were still empty. They had never been slept in at all.

6 pilgrims had reserved beds in a private hostel and for whatever reason, didn’t show up.

By the time the staff realised this, it was too late in the day to accept replacement pilgrims.

I wondered:

How many people like us, had arrived in Los Arcos to find there were no available beds?

How many of them took a taxi – alone or in groups – to Torres del Rio and were told that there were no beds there either?

And how many of them would ever guess that upstairs there were 6 available beds, with clean sheets, lying empty all night?

How many of them had to travel further, when what they needed was available right in front of our eyes?

Yes, 200,000 people on Camino puts pressure on services. But making private reservations and not keeping them has an impact too. I’m pretty sure there were pilgrims who could have used those beds that night but were never given a look-in.

It was a sort of Camino Capitalism.

Not cool.

Some Weary Walking: Villatuerta to Los Arcos

Distance walked: 24.8km

My longest day’s walking so far.

The stretch from Villatuerta to Los Arcos was a sort of “make or break” day of walking.

The first half of the day was rather delightful. I stopped in Estella to buy new sunglasses and replace the pair I’d already broken. Helpful Husband will tell you this is a relatively common occurrence in life. I also bought some sort of anti-inflammatory cream for my aching feet. In my rudimentary Spanish, the pharmacy staff were endlessly patient and obliging. No doubt, they see thousands of limping, hobbling, sunburnt pilgrims like me passing through town every year, with little or no Spanish, but with immediate medical needs. This sunny morning, all I could do was point at my feet and say “Owwww” a lot. The three women stood behind the counter in their white coats, looking a little dubious.

Here we go, another pilgrim with sore feet and no Spanish.

Of course my feet hurt: that was to be expected. But specifically where, and how badly, and why?

Had I pulled something?

Had I stepped on something?

Had I fallen, strained, twisted, or sprained?

Oh, those were questions I couldn’t even begin to answer!

Already, I’d met people who were rubbing ibuprofen creams and gels into their legs, and popping ibuprofen pills to keep inflammation at bay. I didn’t like the idea of medicating myself to the point of numbness, but I looked at their pill-popping with a sort of starry-eyed fascination: the drugs looked good. And lots of people were able to walk faster than me, and go farther than me, so maybe if I drugged up I too would start making some headway. I thought the drugs could give me a speedy Camino.

So, when I was handed a tube of arnica cream I admit, I was a bit doubtful. I think I am in more pain than this. I’m really not sure this stuff is strong enough. But I was too shy to say “Ibuprofen” and instead, accepted the arnica cream with gratitude. I decided I’d give it a go. If it didn’t work, there’d be another pharmacy somewhere else within a couple of days walk.

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Lovely Estella

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For those who don’t know, about 3km outside of Estella, the Bodegas Irache has a famous wine fountain for pilgrims.

I didn’t know it was there, either.

My friends who’d walked Camino before me had mentioned something about free wine on tap, but I’d never thought to ask them where it was. A week into the trip, I’d stopped reading the text in my Brierley guidebook and only looked at the maps – mostly to confirm how far I’d have to walk for a coffee, a sandwich, and a bed. The rest of the details, I reasoned, would unfurl along the way.

So, what a delight then to find myself walking through vineyards at 9:30 in the morning, and to bump into Barb and Dave outside the gates of this famous fountain. I didn’t know to expect it that particular day, and certainly not at that hour of the morning. If anything, I probably expected a medieval, wooden wine barrel with a simple tap on the end, but what we found was altogether more commercial, with its stainless steel tap and a large museum next door. It’s a self-serve operation and the wine wasn’t that bad. While pilgrims are encouraged to drink in moderation, I could have easily poured out my bottle of water and replaced it with a bottle of wine. Imagine the hangover though, walking around in 30-something degree heat, and drinking wine along the way?! It would have certainly taken my mind off my aching feet 🙂

Looking at the website now, I’m informed there’s “a web cam pointing at the fountain where you can see pilgrims in real time.” I wonder if anyone spotted us that particular morning, huddled around, giggling and fidgeting as we lined up for our free vino. It felt like we were back at school again, skipping class, smoking behind the sheds, and doing something wonderfully bold. What a sweet novelty, and a very welcome break from talking about beds, feet, and kilometres covered.

Just over 6km later, I reached the small village of Villamayor de Monjardín. If you look at the map, you’ll see it has a population of 150, and 2 albergues – one with space enough for 22 people, the other with space enough for 25. You’ll also see that to walk from there to Los Arcos is another 10+ kilometres and there is nothing along the way – nowhere to stop for coffee, a bed, or a get-out clause.

When you plan your walking for the day, this kind of thing becomes very relevant.

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By the time I reached the village, the sun had really started to swelter and I was beginning to flag. I had walked only 13.3km but the heat made those kilometres seem like more than they were. On top of that, my feet were getting the better of me. I thought I couldn’t really do much about them. Walking in hiking sandals had been great in many ways – the sandals gave my feet the space they needed to swell, without restriction. The sandals also helped regulate the temperature so they didn’t get too hot or sweaty, and I hadn’t developed any blisters.

So far, so good.

The problem was, they didn’t offer my feet a huge amount of support. Every step took a lot of flexing and gripping. I had an image of someone playing the piano, with their fingers stretching wide across the keyboard, flexing and reaching for the keys. My feet were doing something similar. On uneven ground, my feet had to flex to stay secure within the sandal, and then flex again to keep the sandal secure on the earth. I couldn’t afford to slip around, fall over, or lose my grip, especially on steep descents. So, apart from the fact that I’d scaled the Pyrenees and covered over 100km already (in their own right, those were great achievements for my poor paws), my feet were working extremely hard to stay secure in my choice of footwear. A pair of boots or hiking shoes would have done the work for me. But in my case, my feet were having to do all the work.

All the muscles in my feet were crying out for a break. I had pain:

across the tops of my feet

across my toes

up the backs of my heels

along my arches

and

on the undersides of both feet

Every step hurt, and the wise choice would have been to stop walking for the day, get a bed, and rest up for the afternoon.

I didn’t really consider it.

I stopped in the village and happily had a picnic with Barb and Dave, who generously shared fat, ripe tomatoes and crusty, fresh baguette with me. I bought a tin of tuna, swimming in olive oil, and dropped the whole tin onto the fresh bread. The combination of salty fish, juicy tomatoes, crusty bread, dripping in oil makes me salivate even now – that was probably one of the most delicious sandwiches I ate on all of Camino. We sat in the shade of the church, chatting and musing about life, relationships, and the road ahead. They’d booked into a private B&B for the night so had an afternoon of leisure awaiting them. I could have joined them and stopped walking for the day. At that hour, there were still available beds in one of the albergues, and I could have taken the afternoon to wash my clothes, have a nap, enjoy the cool shade, and join my friends for a beer.

I did consider it, but I didn’t give it enough consideration.

Instead, I decided to push ahead. I thought:

“Another 10km to Los Arcos is fine. It’s not that far. I’ll be there in 2-3 hours.”

And I strapped on my backpack, waved goodbye to Dave and Barb, and headed west.

This is what awaited me:

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The day was searing hot. Unbearably so.

About  half an hour outside the village I looked at the path ahead and couldn’t see a single person. I turned to look at the path behind me and it looked the very same. In every direction, I was alone and exposed to the relentless heat. Everyone else had already stopped walking for the day, or had stopped in the shade for a beer. They had done the right thing, while I felt like I was crossing the Sahara. There were no animals, there were no houses, and there was very little shade. I had a belly full of high-carb, high-protein food, and plenty of water, but I thought about turning back to the village.

Something in me said: This is madness.

Some other part of me said: No, there’s no going back. If you’re going to spend time walking, at least walk forwards.

So I kept going.

Damn Ego!

The minutes turned into hours as I trudged along in the heat, with increasingly sore feet, and making very slow progress. Fool, fool, fool, I should have turned back.

Eventually, three women caught up with me and it turned out, we knew each other from our night in Zabaldika. I was delighted to bump into them again and they kept me company on the long walk in the heat. By the time they’d passed through the previous village, the albergues were full and there was (seemingly) nowhere to stay. That’s how they’d decided to walk the remaining 10km to Los Arcos. Days later, I met a woman who came to the village even later that afternoon after walking 40-something kilometres, only to be told the same story. For her, walking the 10km to Los Arcos was unfeasible so she asked the locals for their advice.

Someone said: I have a spare garage: you can sleep there, if you like.

Someone else said: I can give you some cardboard and old sacks to put on the ground.

Some pilgrims who’d secured beds in the hostel said: We have camping mats and I don’t need them tonight: you’re welcome to use them.

And so, this woman joined 14 other pilgrims who’d made it as far as Villamayor de Monjardín, but couldn’t go any further, and slept on the ground in someone’s open garage. She admitted it wasn’t very comfortable and it wasn’t the best night’s sleep, but they were safe and dry. She said it beat trying to walk the remaining 10km to Los Arcos.

I hadn’t walked even half the distance she’d walked that day but I could only agree: those 10km nearly broke me.

Mental note to self: Buy hiking shoes at the next available opportunity.

Arriving into town, I was beyond weary. Bumping into Kevin and Liz was a nice surprise but they confirmed what we already feared: all the albergues were full.

I bumped into a sprightly 70-year old from Australia whom I hadn’t seen in days and all she said was, “You’re late!

I didn’t realise it was a race.

I didn’t realise there was a timer on my every move.

I’d just spent 9 hours trying to walk some 25km and my feet were beyond repair – I didn’t appreciate her throwaway comment.

Still, we had bigger matters to tend to. The four of us walked from one albergue to the next, only to find that all of them were full. They’d even put down mats on the floors to accommodate extra pilgrims. There wasn’t space to budge.

Again, there was no room at any of the inns.

What would we do?

(And are my blog posts too long?)

Blogging about a Blog

So, I just updated my “About” section – you should check it out 🙂

And now I’m thinking of changing the blog address from “gerscaminoblog….” to something else. I might want to talk about some things other than the Camino every now and then. I’m still researching whether changing the address is as easy as it looks, and how to make sure all you lovely people continue to follow me and my musings.

Anyone ever done this and care to share their experience?

I’m now blogging about the technicalities of producing a blog – this all gets a bit “meta” and post-modernist, doesn’t it?

But really, I appreciate your thoughts and advice here, if you’ve ever done this yourself.

Thanks!

Camino Francés: The First Week

A week in to the journey, I started to figure out which way was up.

Walking the Camino without any physical training was an optimistic endeavour. I look back on it now and think it was beautifully optimistic – what trust, what faith, how sweet! Some people would say it was foolish or irresponsible, but I had done enough cross-country walking in my life to know that I could do it. I can “do” stamina and endurance, I’m not afraid of roughing it, and I am happily myself in the great outdoors. The 8-year old in me was delighted to be outside every day, playing in the sun. Still, I had never attempted to walk so far before and I didn’t take any of it for granted. Every day, I prayed I would be given the resources I needed to keep going. Even though I missed Supportive Husband, I wasn’t ready to wrap up and go home. The fact that he cheered me on from a distance made him even more awesome.

After years sitting at a desk and staring into a computer screen to do virtual work, the daily exertion of walking felt real. It was real effort, with a real sense of progress. I’d replaced full-time working with full-time walking, and my slow progression over land was the stuff of legend.

I was on walkabout

I was on a quest

I was on pilgrimage

I was crossing a country on foot

In our escalating race for speed, there’s something primal about using your body, instead of a machine, to get from place to place. Walking Camino was a great way of getting back to basics.

It also was all-encompassing: my agenda every day was simple: walk as far as I can, find a bed, sleep in it. Eat, drink, and wash, too. There were no politics, no mind games, and no corporate ladders to contend with – all of those things just fell away. The rules for survival had changed and some part of me delighted in recognising them: Ah, I know how to do this. I know how to walk and I know how to keep going. This stuff makes sense.

A week into it, my major concerns had already been addressed and dismissed:

  • Worried about getting stuck for a bed? It happened, but everything worked out okay anyway.
  • Anxious I had too much weight in my backpack? I’d taken some of it out and mailed it home.
  • Concerned about not speaking very much Spanish? No need, I’d already learned a few key phrases in asking for coffee, bathrooms, and beds.
  • Apprehensive about the steep ascent and descent of the Pyrenees? No need, it was tough but the views were stellar and I survived without injury.
  • Worried about being over-stimulated with people everywhere? Well, that happened but I’d learned to walk alone for at least some of the day, and take a private room one night. Problem solved.

To my delight, I had already covered over 100km and had crossed over the Pyrenees on foot, in hiking sandals. Already, I felt I had succeeded within myself. I had slept in a different bed every night, I’d paced myself, pushed myself, cried like a child, and pulled myself together. I’d already met hundreds of people from all over the world. There was no week in the office that could compare!

Would I recommend some physical training beforehand? Absolutely. I may have survived my first week but I probably could have spared myself some of the pain if I had been in better physical shape. Would I recommend crossing the Pyrenees in hiking sandals? No, not really. There were benefits and drawbacks to wearing the sandals but on such steep ground, they weren’t the best. Would I recommend walking with an open heart full of trust, instead of a guidebook full of plans and schedules? Yes, I would, but there are challenges to that, too.

Going on Camino without a lot of physical preparation was somewhat innocent, and I really didn’t know what lay ahead. Still, I knew two friends who separately walked the Camino Francés in the six months before me and they both told me the same thing: You get stronger as you go on.

Whatever else happened, I had crossed the Pyrenees and I’d survived the first week.

And prayed there was more to follow.

Camino Continues: Puente la Reina to Villatuerta

Distance to Santiago: 678.5km

Calf muscles finally beginning to feel normal after the Pyrenees 🙂

The walk out of Puente la Reina the next morning was grey. The clouds hung low and just as it had done in Pamplona, the sky spat irregular, cold blobs of rain. My shorts were still damp from the previous evening, as were the socks I’d worn. I might have dried them in the albergue except that there were 99 other pilgrims trying to do the same thing at the same time, so the tumble dryers were fully occupied for hours on end. I left my shorts to hang indoors overnight and hoped for the best. The narrating Swede tossed and turned all night, shaking the frame of the bunk bed violently. The only image that came to mind was that of a dog, shaking himself off after getting wet. It felt like the Swede was shaking himself with the same force and when he did, he shook me awake too. Still, the mattress was dry and thankfully free from someone else’s foot skin, so I couldn’t complain!

This was one of the few albergues to offer breakfast, so for €3.50 I was given a hot coffee, an orange juice, and a crusty baguette with butter and jam. It was already becoming the standard fare and it would become a staple in the 5+ weeks to follow. Baguette, baguette, and would you like some baguette with your baguette?!

Stepping out the front door of the albergue that morning I looked at the sky with trepidation. The rain was heavy enough to soak my shorts and socks a second time, and I thought about walking a shorter day if the rain persisted. I had only three pairs of socks with me and I tried to keep a dry pair in reserve, especially for the evening time.

One pair were already wet from the previous day and were packed away in my bag.

The second pair were on my feet, in the process of getting wet.

Walking in wet socks can lead to blisters.

The third pair were still dry but I was reluctant to put them on because then all three pairs would be wet.

So I wondered:

Am I better off walking in wet socks all day, possibly getting blisters, and keeping a dry pair in reserve?

or

Should I walk in the second pair until they become really soaked, and then change into the dry pair? Would doing that prevent me from getting blisters? And if all three pairs are wet, will I be able to dry out any of them before I start walking again tomorrow morning?

When you’re hoping to walk 800km and keep going for a few weeks, foot care becomes a high priority. I reckoned getting blisters was inevitable but I wanted to avoid them for as long as possible. Walking around in wet socks didn’t really help my case, but I’d chosen to walk in hiking sandals so this was one of the downsides. (In retrospect, the hiking sandals posed very little threat for blisters because they gave my toes plenty of space to move about – unlike boots and shoes. So I probably didn’t need to ruminate on the socks quite so much – I’ll know for next time!)

I decided to figure it out as I went along and made a mental note to self:

Must investigate a pair of hiking shoes soon, especially if the rain keeps up.

There was no point hanging around Puente la Reina. After watching the rain for 10 minutes with a group of other pilgrims I realised it wasn’t going to ease up. I’d either have to stay put for the day or get walking.

I chose to walk.

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The morning was damp and heavy for hours, and we spent the day passing through farms, vineyards, and olive groves. This section of the Camino includes one of the best examples of Roman road (yes, that’s some 2,000 years old), which is impressive, but a killer on the feet. I walked with a 22-year old Italian who, like me, had resigned from her job just before walking Camino. She was petite, with perfect olive skin and cropped pixie hair, and told me she spent about €500 a month on clothing and make-up. It wasn’t by choice – she was a manager in her company and her manager had pulled her aside and ordered her to wear more make-up, dress smartly, and make more of an effort. She admitted she earned good money but €500 a month was a lot to spend. There was an endless pressure to have the latest gadgets, the most stylish clothing, the designer handbags. True, it was a cultural thing, but even she could tell that at the age of 22 the pressure was only going one direction: up. So, she packed in her job, decided to walk Camino, and her mother joined her for the first week of walking. The two of them beamed from ear to ear, clearly relishing the freedom, the time together, and the whole endeavour (and not a scrap of make-up in sight).

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When I stopped in Lorca that afternoon for a break, I was unsure which coffee shop to stop in. There were only two, and they sat on opposite sides of the small street, facing each other. The menu outside the first one included paella but the place was packed and there was nowhere to sit. I dropped my bag on the footpath and walked into the second café. The menu consisted largely of Spanish omelette, bocadillo jámon (cured ham on baguette), or bocadillo tortilla (Spanish omelette on baguette). There wasn’t much else on offer but there was free space, so I ordered a coffee and a bocadillo jámon, and sat to gather my thoughts. The rain had cleared up and I looked at my map for the day, trying to decide how far to go. The Brierley Brigade would no doubt walk the 21.9km to Estella. I decided to stop at the previous village in the hope there’d be a bed for me in the 42-bed private hostel. If so, I’d stay there for the night. If not, I would walk on to Estella as my backup plan.

After coffee, I walked back across the street to reclaim my backpack and bumped into:

  • Canadians, Barb and Dave, whom I’d first met in Orisson, who had saved my socks from blowing away on the grassy Pyrenees, and whom I hadn’t seen in days!
  • 2 other Canadian ladies whom I’d met in Zabaldika, and who’d lost their friend – the one who sat on my legs while I was asleep in bed!
  • Kevin and Liz, who’d been lucky to get the last hotel room in rainy Puente la Reina, and wondered where I would stay that night
  • The delightful Champagne Camino ladies, whom I hadn’t seen since Zubiri, when the town had no free beds (ahem!)
  • Along with others

The coffee shop held maybe 30 seats and I knew half of the people sitting in them – talk about high school reunion!

Celebrations all round.

Though I’d already had my coffee and lunch, I sat for a second serving and reasoned that I’d have the calories burned off by bedtime. Bumping into the Champagne ladies was an absolute joy, and a timely one too. They’d planned to walk for only a week and as it happened, they were on their last day of walking that very afternoon. If I hadn’t met them in Lorca – in that very coffee shop –  we might have missed each other forever, and I would never have had the opportunity to say hello again, and goodbye. I didn’t even know their last names and wouldn’t have known how to track them down in the real world.

Last time we’d seen each other, Amanda had generously carried my backpack and they’d all buoyed my heavy heart as I trudged towards Zubiri. But of course, we’d lost track of each other in the intervening days – I’d been with the nuns in Zabaldika, a private pensión in Pamplona, and a rather industrial hostel in Puente la Reina. Those had been three rather full days and nights, and we had lots to catch up on. I still remember introducing them to someone else I knew in the café and accidently saying, “I met them a few years ago…” Of course, I had to catch myself and think: no, I met them only a few days ago. But a few days on Camino translated to a few years in the ‘real world’ and already, they felt like familiar friends.

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The Champagne Camino: Beverley, Marian, Amanda, and Jenny

We spent another hour together over lunch, this time swapping contact details, and we later walked the 4.7km to Villatuerta together. Swapping contact details, for me at least, was a good sign of friendship and intention. By the time I’d reached Lorca, I’d already met hundreds of new people on Camino. I chatted with some of them for only minutes, and others for hours, sometimes spanning across several days. I’d made great connections with people while still in St. Jean Pied de Port but had never seen them again. So too for every single day since. So, I’d already come to realise that everyone on Camino was transient and there was no telling where we’d all end up. If I wasn’t that interested in spending time with someone, I could wave them off and there were no hard feelings. Similarily, if someone wanted to shake me off, they could stop to take a break and we might never see each other again. I’d begun to realise that friendships needed more than just a spark of connection or shared interests – they needed time together. In such a transient experience, bumping into each other over and over was our equivalent of amassing time — time that, in the ‘real world’ would be spent growing up in the same neighbourhood, working together as colleagues, or spent partying in pubs and clubs. So, though I knew most of these people only a few days, we swapped contact details because we wanted to, and have stayed in touch – that’s why I’m allowed call them by name 🙂

These women had taken me under their wing on my very first evening in Orisson, as we all sat looking across the mountains. In Roncesvalles, we’d shared bottles of wine in the warm evening sunlight, and on the way to Zubiri they’d literally shared my loaded backpack. We’d only known each other a few days but they had seen me through some of my (literally) highest points and (figuratively) lowest points in all of Camino, and I was thrilled to bump into them again. Our last hour walking together was bittersweet, knowing we were coming towards the end.

In Villatuerta, they waited on the street while I ran in to the private albergue to ask if they had any habitación. The building smelled of incense, and large hammocks hung from the ceilings. This was like no albergue I’d ever seen and I thought: I have arrived! This is my kind of place. To my surprised delight, the lady told me that Kevin and Liz had booked in earlier and asked her to save a bed for me too. So yes indeed, they did have habitación for me.

Cheers Kevin & Liz!

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Out on the street, I hugged the ladies goodbye. We were all glad to know I had a great albergue for the night but disappointed that I wouldn’t be walking on to Estella with them. Thinking on it now, we could have had dinner and drinks together. Why didn’t I go the extra distance? I have no idea, but it was probably to do with the time of day and the likelihood of getting a bed later on down the road. Fingers crossed we’ll have dinner and drinks another time.

That evening, our albergue hosts cooked dinner for us – paella in a special pan that was about 1m in diameter – I’m not kidding. We scooped huge spoonfuls of the flavoured rice, peppers, onion, and chicken, onto our plates, and poured heavy-handed glasses of wine. Buen Camino, indeed!

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Stairway to Heaven(ly) Bed

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The albergue’s stamp on my pilgrim passport

Pinching Beds in Puente la Reina

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Only 696.7km to Santiago!

Brierley’s guidebook tells me that Puente la Reina (the Queen’s Bridge) is named after Doña Mayor, wife of Sancho the 3rd. “She commanded the magnificent Romanesque bridge to be built to support the safe movement of the increasing number of midieval pilgrims who joined the route at this stage from both the camino francés and camino aragonés.” I have no head for remembering the dates and details of history, but I’m surprisingly tender about the building of the bridge – she built it for pilgrims hundreds of years ago and there I was, getting to use it hundreds of years later. Cheers, Doña Mayor!

I had to cross this bridge to get to my albergue on the far side of town. Descending from Alto del Perdón, I’d walked with Kevin and Liz for a few hours, discussing the problem of exploding water melons in China, but we had parted ways en route. By the time I got into town, I’d spent the last hour getting wet in the rain, and feeling the cold water drip from my raincoat down my shorts, my bare legs, my socks and hiking sandals.

I needed to find somewhere to stay and change into my long (and thankfully, dry) hiking pants, but learned that the first hostel I approached was already full.

So was the second one.

I worried about getting stranded again and especially in the cold rain – I didn’t have the option of sleeping outdoors. People talked about a third hostel on the far side of town. It was an extra 1.1km and dozens of us stepped through the narrow cobblestone streets to find our way. The rain was truly bucketing down on us by then, with flashes of lightning across the sky. Wherever we were going, we needed to get there quickly and hope for the best.

The albergue holds up to 100 people and it was spacious and modern.  It even had an outdoor swimming pool, though it wasn’t at all tempting in the middle of a lightening storm. The design of the building (with plastic door handles and indoor picnic tables) reminded me of public swimming pools and large-scale youth hostels – it was built to ‘get us in, get us a bed, and get us out again’ with swift efficiency. The place had no soul. It did, however, have available beds and a roof, so I was guaranteed a dry place to sleep for the night.

Hurrah!

I picked my bed in the corner (lower bunk, nice) and laid my sleeping gear out on the bed, put my water bottle down by the side, and left some small belongings on the pillow to mark the space as mine. I didn’t wanted to leave out anything that might be stolen, but I needed to mark my territory (so to speak). Bottom bunk beds are in high demand among people with very sore feet, and this bottom bunk was clearly taken.

The guy in the bunk above me must have been nearly 7 feet tall – a Swede, I think – and liked to narrate his movements.

Now we take this out of the bag and put it here…

Oh and that must go over there..

And we fold that up and put it like this for later…

On and on, for twenty minutes, he narrated his every move.

The guy seemed harmless enough but he challenged me about stretching my hamstrings. He proudly declared that he never did any stretches and he was fine.

Did I ask for your commentary? Did I ask for your judgement? No, I don’t think I did.

But clearly, I was a wuss.

He hung his wet rain pants from the frame of his (upper) bunk bed. In a room with 20 other people it wasn’t the smartest move – we all had wet clothes and the collective dripping meant the floor was already slippery and wet. But he had failed to notice that his pants weren’t dripping down on to the floor – they were dripping directly onto my mattress. I was only a few days into the whole Camino but already I’d become a bit tetchy about my bed space. God knows, it was hard enough to come by. It was a small token of personal space in a chaotic stream of people, and I felt a bit sensitive about protecting that small boundary line between me and the hundreds around me.

A few mornings previously in Zabaldika, I’d been awoken by some woman actually sitting on my legs, while I was still in bed, fast asleep! She’d been trying to put on her pants and decided to do so sitting down. My bed was the closest thing to sit on so she used me as her stool. She didn’t even aim for the corner or the end of the mattress – she plonked herself right in the middle, squashing my legs, and woke me with an almighty start and a growl. I bolted upright, she lost her balance, and she fell all over me, while I struggled to figure out what was happening. Whatever about being woken by LED torches, chatter, and the zipping backpacks, this was a new low. Handsome Husband will tell you I’m not a morning person, and this woman did herself no favours by waking me up so suddenly. She limply apologised but I was furious at being awoken in such a careless way – no wonder I needed a private room in Pamplona!

So, I was a bit tetchy about bed space, and I didn’t appreciate the Swede’s lack of attention with his rain pants. I took the liberty of readjusting them, and went about my business,  having a shower and finding some dinner. I didn’t want the confrontation and instead, decided to walk away.

An hour later, I returned to my room only to find some old guy sitting on my bed. I’m guessing he was in his 70s, brown as a nut, and bald as an egg. The shape of his veins and muscles was clearly visible, and he looked like he was all sinew and gristle. He was wet, sitting there in his green shorts and t-shirt, dripping water onto my bed, as he pulled the dead skin from his feet and popped his fluid-filled blisters. He smelled of rancid sweat – at least a few days’ worth – and of unwashed clothes. The wet boots and socks were strewn on the floor beside him, and his water bottle, sleeping bag, and clothing were spread across the mattress behind him.

<This blog is going to a public audience and I don’t want to upset anyone so you can insert your own expletive here!>

My sleeping gear was nowhere in sight. My water bottle was gone. My belongings that had laced the pillow only an hour earlier, were gone.

This guy had taken my bed.

I didn’t hesitate in confronting him.

This is my bed. What are you doing here, where is my stuff?

He looked at me blankly. He spoke no English and hadn’t a clue what I was saying. I didn’t have enough Spanish and didn’t care about his blank gaze. I was livid. The cheek of him, stealing my bed!

Again I challenged him: What are you doing? This is my bed! Where is my sleeping gear? Where are my things? This is my bed!

Goddammit but I walked more than 25km for that bed – some of it in the rain. It was mine – I’d earned it fair and square, and I wasn’t giving it up for anyone.

Christian generosity, indeed!

He continued to feign ignorance, but I found my belongings thrown to the side and gestured that they had actually been on the bed to begin with. I could see the understanding sweep across his face.

Ah, those are her things.

So this must be her bed.

She knows that I moved her things.

She knows I took her bed.

Okay, I’ll move.

He took his time as he reluctantly packed up his bits, and gave me a few dirty looks in the process. He didn’t appreciate a witch like myself hunting him out. I’d never heard of anyone on Camino stealing someone else’s bed, and I wasn’t going to let him start a tradition with me.

Take my bed? This means war.

I can put up with a lot of things but I won’t put up with this. I’m a big fan of watching out for fellow pilgrims but sorry, this is a step too far. This time, I’m watching out for myself.

The Camino is a great opportunity for human connection and humble gratitude, sure.

In my case, it was also a great opportunity to get tough!

 

 

Pamplona to Puente la Reina

Distance walked: 24.1km  25.2km

Waking up in Pamplona, my room was still dark and I could hear the sound of light rain spitting against the window. Surprisingly, I was awake before my alarm sounded, and even more surprisingly, I was ready to go walking. I probably could have stayed in my private “B” until 10-11am but the thought never crossed my mind. Already, I had adapted to the daily routine of Camino – getting up early (without question) and going for a very long walk. It was quite a change from my lifelong habit of clutching the warm bedcovers for another five minutes.

The arrival of rain meant that the morning was a bit chilly but I had only one pair of long hiking pants in my possession and no rain pants to wear over them. If I walked in my hiking pants by day and they got wet, then I would have no dry clothing to change into later that evening. It was a luxury I couldn’t afford, so I put on my shorts – pretending it was a sunny morning – and braced myself for the worst. The goose bumps and shivering motivated me to move quickly 🙂

Outside, the streets were quiet and the sky was heavy with rain as I made my way out of the city. My map from the tourist office clearly directed me across the lanes of traffic, past early-morning coffee shops, and children on their way to school. Occasionally, a yellow arrow would appear, spray-painted onto a random wall or signpost and I knew I was going in the right direction. The footpaths were marked with scallop shell symbols and again, I knew I was on the route towards Santiago, and not towards the nearest IKEA store!

Many people think that walking the Camino means spending endless hours in the countryside on gravel trails, with big horizons, and blue skies. Walking Camino also means walking through towns and cities with concrete footpaths, loud traffic, graffiti, and general pedestrians going about their ‘real life’ business. Many people told me had gotten lost in Pamplona, and spent up to two hours going around in circles, trying to find the way out. In the early morning light, they found it frustrating and disheartening, and they felt the passing of time without the passing of kilometres. I understand how it can happen. Even after only a couple of days walking, we had become familiar with the country setting and having just one path ahead. In a city, there are countless roadways, footpaths, and alleyways to navigate – it’s easy to get disorientated and spend time cursing the map. That morning, I was thankful to find my way out of town easily and was even more delighted when it stopped raining.

A year later, I have to admit that I don’t remember all of the sights between Pamplona and Puente la Reina. I wish I did, but honestly, there were long stretches of Camino that I just experienced, without mentally recording them. I walked on my own, I didn’t wear earphones, and I didn’t consult my guidebook, so now, some of the place names are entirely unfamiliar and I have no memory of ever passing through.

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What I do remember though, are these small events because they shaped my day:

Stopping at the side of the trail to look at a tree festooned with ribbons, photos, and holy medals…We weren’t quite sure what we were looking at until we got closer and saw that it was a memorial to someone who had died while walking the Camino. I’m sure that like us, they set off walking full of hope and great intention, and never expected to die on the way to Santiago. I’m no theologian and I don’t know the ‘rules’ of Camino very well, but I still hope that their pilgrimage brought them a sense of peace and joy before they died. And maybe some bonus points in getting into heaven.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few of these sites along the way – some of them with small headstones or wooden crosses. Some of them are decades old while others have been there only a few months. They’re a sober reminder that any of us could befall the same fate – sometimes all it takes is some unsteady ground for us to lose our balance, trip, and bang our head.

Mental note to self: take care on downward slopes and loose ground.

I think this is the first memorial I saw on Camino and while we stood there, contemplating the precariousness of our own pilgrimage, a young American guy came along to join us. Is it relevant that he was American? Probably not, but I can’t call him by name so I have to call him something.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked

Oh, we’ve just stopped to have a look at this…

Without coming any closer to take a look at the memorial, he asked:

So, what is it, like a good luck thing or something?

Erm…no…it’s a memorial to someone who died while walking the Camino

Without missing a beat he replied:

Ah okay, I thought it was some special good-luck thing – thought I was ‘doing it wrong’ there for a minute

And without further pause, he was gone.

A year later, I still find this memory stunning. I was simply flabbergasted to witness his insensitivity and disinterest. I was even more rattled with his choice of language in our short exchange – this whole idea of “doing the Camino” (and doing it “right”) resurfaced, and I was quietly horrified. He would have come closer to the tree if we told him that tying a ribbon on its branches was a tradition for safe arrival in Santiago. He had no interest in pausing for a moment to reflect on the person who had died, and even less interest in speaking with us. Alas, this is the difference between “doing the Camino” as a physical challenge, and going on pilgrimage. I hate to say it but there is a distinction between those who treat it like one long-distance hike with cheap wine, and those who open themselves up to human connection and vulnerability.

How depressing.

I also remember sitting on a bench, eating a pack of chocolate biscuits, and watching the world go by. Two men approached, and though I’d never seen either of them before, one of them took a look at my hiking sandals and socks (a fashion disaster, I readily admit) and exclaimed:

‘You’re Ger!’

I am, but who are you and how do you know my name?

I’ve met Kevin and Liz – you know them, right? Great guys! They told me all about this girl who’s out here walking in hiking sandals instead of boots. They hadn’t seen you in a few days and they were hoping you were okay and that your feet were holding up. How are your feet holding up?

And so, we spent the next twenty minutes eating chocolate, catching up on people we knew, and talking about our feet – a beautifully normal day on Camino.

A bit of background:

Kevin and Liz are a couple I met on my first night at Orisson. We shared dinner and laughter, and the next morning we walked together up into the grassy Pyrenees full of horses and sheep. They were open, generous, and great fun, and I liked them a lot. I’d known them only a couple of hours but it felt like months’ worth of time in the ‘real world’.

The thing is, I met other great people on my first day of walking, shared a great connection with laughter and heart, and then never saw them again. Ever. Not once, in 6 weeks. I enjoyed Kevin & Liz immensely but wasn’t sure I’d ever see them again either, so to meet one of their new friends was a sweet surprise. I was thrilled to know that they were still holding up, and were somewhere within 1-2 days of walking from where I stood.

Walking the Camino is like one big high school reunion. The disadvantage is that sometimes you run into people you would happily never see again. They’re the ones who like to remind you of all the ways in which their life/pilgrimage is far more exciting/successful than yours. They’re a pain in the neck and you need to keep a wide berth from them. However, the great advantage of the high school reunion is bumping into people you haven’t seen in ages, sharing genuine warmth and kindness, catching up on the state of your feet/heart/spirit, and sharing a meal together. That stuff is wholegrain magic!

The second man also knew Kevin & Liz so we walked together to the top of Alto del Perdón (Hill of Forgiveness), through the windmills, and through the men who were out hunting wild boar. I’m not kidding when I say the wind carried the sound of gunshot and excited hunting dogs, and we reasoned it was best to move quickly and get out of there as soon as possible. This guy ran marathons (plural) for fun, so he was strong, fast, and fit. I walked as quickly as my little legs could carry me but I felt I was holding him back all the way to the top of the 790m hill. Still, he never once indicated that I was cramping his style and I appreciated that enormously.

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Alto del Perdón, featuring a wronght iron represntation of midieval pilgrims, heading westwards

He walked the Camino to raise funds for an Irish charity called Pieta House, and was averaging more than 40km each day with enough time to spend his afternoons drinking beer in the sunshine. When we got to the top of the hill, he bought me a coffee from another “banana man in a van” and within minutes, was gone. I needed to rest, he needed to walk, and we parted ways with a wave and a smile. I assumed I would see him again and wanted to sponsor him for his fundraising but I never saw him after that day.

While I rested at the top of the hill and took in the landscape below me, Kevin and Liz appeared from around the corner.

Yay!

What a great surprise, and what a sweet delight to be reunited.

Photos for everyone, and some great company for the remaining walk to Puente la Reina 🙂

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The Lovely Liz

Pamplona

In Pamplona, the staff at the main tourist office helped me find private accommodation for the night. I had just done my 4th day of walking and it had been a short one, at only 10km. If I kept up that pace, I’d never reach Santiago. But I hoped that taking some time out to rest and reconfigure would help me start again with renewed strength.

In looking for a bed, I wanted something central and cheap. Nothing was going to be quite as cheap as the main albergue but I didn’t fancy sharing with 113 other pilgrims. The woman behind the desk pointed out a few options from a list and after a little bit of sweet-talking, agreed to phone the establishment and book the room for me.

When would I like to check in?

Oh…in about ten minutes!

I followed the map and walked around the corner, down the street, and found myself at the front door of a non-descript building with the name of the pensión over the door. I’m guessing the building also held private apartments because my sort-of B&B was on the third floor (though, given they didn’t serve breakfast I really should just call it a “B”). Outside, the sun was bright and white hot but the inside of my “B” was dark. The wooden hallway was narrow, and the space inside the door was barely large enough for me to stand there with my backpack on my shoulders. I had to squint my eyes to adjust to the artificial lighting. Without any major welcome or ceremony, the woman took my cash and handed me a bunch of keys. My room was the last one down the hall. And she went back to watching TV.

Initially, I was relieved to have found a private room – especially with such ease. The place was quiet, and after the daily scramble and hustle of the albergues, I was glad. Getting a private room in a busy city for such a price was great, and I was delighted to keep the costs down. But when I turned the key the lock and opened the door to my room, my heart sank: the space was tiny. I had never thought to view the room before committing to pay. Had I done so, I might have seen the chipped paint, the exposed wiring, and the metal bars on the windows. The single bed was backed into a corner. There was maybe 30cm of floor space at end and maybe a metre of floor space to the side, which somehow included a wardrobe, a small table, and a beside locker. There was enough room to turn around, but there was nothing to spare. Thinking back on it now, I’m inclined to think it was fine – I mean, how much space did I really need? At the time, however, I took it personally.

There’s a saying that goes something like this: The way you do anything is the way you do everything. I don’t think that’s the exact quotation but I first learned this saying nearly 20 years ago and it’s been churning away in the back of my mind ever since. I’ve spent the years analysing it and trying to establish whether it is really true. The moment I walked into my private box room, I had an immediate thought:

Is this what I have amounted to?

After all the ups and downs of my life, is this the best I can do?

And if I were to die here, is this a reflection of my life, my achievements, and my worth?

The thought had slipped in so quickly that I might have missed it. I felt I had failed again and looking around, I was rather miserable. I guess I had expected a bit more space, a bit more modernity, and something that looked more like a hotel, as I know it. This room was rough around the edges and oppressively small, and I suddenly felt lonely. Surprisingly, I found myself missing my fellow pilgrims and imagined they were all back in the albergue, chatting, laughing, and making plans to explore the city together. I thought: I’ve made a huge mistake, coming here. I missed the sense of community that I’d come to know. I still remember feeling hugely conflicted about how to proceed, and how best to take care of myself on Camino. Being in loud hostels and being around so many people had reduced me to tears, but removing myself from the crowd and taking time to rest also reduced me to tears. I wasn’t usually so teary-eyed and I was really unsure about how to mind myself. What should I do?

Thankfully, I remembered another saying.

‘HALT’ stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and it’s an acronym for a sort of emotional stock-take. When life is busy or intense, it can be easy to get swept along and lose track of how we’re feeling. Being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired can make us vulnerable and extra-sensitive, and lead to further problems. So taking a minute to stop and check whether we’re feeling any of these things gives us information to make informed, supportive decisions. The man who taught me this has a lovely way of explaining it and encourages us to, “Take it easy. Don’t make any big decisions. Stay in out of the cold and mind yourself.” Simple advice, but a revelation for the likes of me, who spends a lot of life living in my head.

On quick reflection, I seemed to be:

somewhat hungry

not at all angry

quite lonely

and very tired

So, instead of looking for another room or regretting that I wasn’t in the main albergue, I decided to make the best of what I had. Yes, the room was cramped and a bit dingy but it was mine. It allowed me more personal space than I’d known in the previous five days. It was quiet, it was central, and from what I could tell, the sheets on the bed were clean. Heck, there’d been no sheets at all the previous few days and sheets were a luxury! The bathroom down the hall was spacious and clean, and I had the comfort of washing both my clothes and myself without a line of people waiting outside the door. There were certain benefits to the place, and I had to remind myself that this was one day and one night in my life – it wasn’t a reflection of my entire experience.

However, the attitude I applied to myself was an accurate reflection of my everyday experience. I’d walked for only four days but I’d spent a good chunk of that time comparing myself to others and deciding I was a failure. I was too slow, too emotional, and too sensitive. They’re rather damning judgements, really. I don’t know whether I had a great realisation then, or if it came later, but somewhere over the course of Camino I realised that being really harsh with myself wasn’t going to give me the desired results. Somehow, I had to befriend myself and support myself a bit better. Otherwise, I’d end up crying myself all the way home. So, the room was a dump and my friends would be horrified if they saw it – so what? It would give me a chance to rest and to wash my clothing. That’s what I needed, and once I was asleep, I wouldn’t have to look at the bad décor. I made a decision to stay and my Ego just had to suck it up.

Out on the street, I enjoyed the buzz and the colour of downtown Pamplona. The winding streets were busy with tapas bars and tourist shops, and I felt that there were possibilities there – things to see, things to do, things to buy. I could feel the hive of activity. Pilgrims were easily recognisable with their hiking gear and backpacks, and just seeing them on the streets helped me to relax. It was reassuring to know that I wasn’t entirely isolated and that if I wanted to join them, I could. I was still part of the community.

At the post office, I decided to send a few of my belongings home in the mail. My bag was too heavy, so I cleared it out and waved goodbye to my long-sleeved thermal top, some pages from my guidebook (paper is heavy to carry), and my waterproof rain pants. All week, the weather had been hot and sunny, with cloudless skies at night. I felt confident about not needing raingear for the next phase of walking, and gladly sent the pants away in the post.

That afternoon, I bumped into some pilgrims I’d met on my first night in St. Jean, before we’d started walking at all. One of the German women had injured her knee rather badly in descending the Pyrenees and was hobbling along the street. Frustrated, she told me that it had been very steep and she’d twisted it somehow, and now the doctor wanted her to rest it for a couple of days before going on. She was pragmatic and sensible about her predicament, but grumpy and unhappy. She’d taken time off work to walk the Camino and couldn’t afford any time delays – the knee injury messed with her plans and she didn’t like it. On top of that, her new friends had decided to walk on ahead so she was facing an extra day in Pamplona, alone. This didn’t sit well, either.

Another German, a student we’d both met in St. Jean had also injured himself crossing over the mountains. He’d decided to walk the long stretch from St. Jean to Roncesvalles, up, over, and down the far side of the Pyrenees, all in one day. He was feeling healthy and strong, and was up for the challenge but by the time he’d arrived in Pamplona, he’d injured his feet so badly that he couldn’t walk at all. I never learned the details here but she told me that he was grounded: he would have to stay in Pamplona all weekend and see the doctor again on Monday, but already it was looking like his Camino was over. The doctor already wanted to send him home.

Together, we were disappointed for him–he was excited and hopeful, just like us, but had pushed himself too hard. After just 3 days, it seemed his Camino was cut short. What a loss. That’s among the worst news we could have heard and in the afternoon sunlight we hoped he was ok. Any of us could sustain the same injuries at any time: any of us could be sent home early. All we could do was to take it one day at a time. To this day, I’ve no idea what happened to him next. We didn’t meet in Pamplona and I never saw him again. It’s part of Camino–connecting with people and somehow never seeing them again, but wondering months later how they are getting on in life. I may never know but I still hope he is ok.

That evening, I ate a picnic of chorizo, cheese, and grilled asparagus on the grassy grounds of the citadel (La Ciudadela). Above me, a leafy tree provided shade and sent dappled light dancing across the grass. The wasps wanted my pineapple juice and I wouldn’t give it up, but I sat for an hour quietly content. It was the space and alone-time I needed, and I could feel my batteries recharge. That night, I relished the clean sheets and privacy of my own room, and closed my eyes to the world.

The rain fell heavily and unexpectedly, with loud claps of thunder and bright flashes of lightening. It sounded wild outside and I could think of only one thing: my rain pants are in the post office, waiting to go home.