Camino Continues: Navarette to Azofra

Distance walked: 23.2km

In Navarette, I woke at 5:30am, to a room filled with noisy alarm clocks, mobile phones, and rustling sleeping bags. The small space was filled with bright LED torches bobbing left and right, as people packed up their gear. I lay in the warm comfort of my bed but eventually realised there was simply no getting back to sleep.

I’m not a morning person, and I didn’t really support the ethos of rushing out the door before dawn, but here I was:

Awake and with a day of walking ahead of me. I decided to get up and go. I decided to start walking as soon as the front doors opened at 6am.

Downstairs, I put on my walking shoes, grabbed my walking poles out of the basket, and secured the backpack across my shoulders. Outside the door, the others walked off quickly into the early morning, and I slowly walked along behind them. Before long, they’d rounded a corner and were out of sight.

I tried to leave Navarette – really, I did.

But the morning was dark and I couldn’t distinguish any yellow arrows against the dark footpath.

I couldn’t distinguish any yellow arrows on the side of buildings, either.

The town was small, so the Camino signs were handmade and irregular. There were no formal signposts, or symbols embedded into the footpath. There was no one on the streets either, and that concerned me more.

I knew that dozens of pilgrims had poured onto the streets only minutes beforehand, but I couldn’t see any of them. There are always pilgrims around somewhere, so I doubted my sense of direction. I thought I’d taken a wrong turn.

I doubled back, and started again but still, there was no-one around, and I was sure I had missed a turn somewhere.

I walked to the edge of the small to town – to the point where the street lamps ran out, with only dark countryside ahead.

As a woman walking alone, I took stock. I didn’t feel I was in any danger – my gut instinct indicated that it was safe to proceed. But my mental training kicked in: Don’t risk it. It’s not a good idea to walk off into the unknown darkness alone. So I turned around, and went back towards my hostel.

I spent nearly an hour doubling back on myself. I walked the stretch of road several times – back and forth – trying to find arrows or yellow paint anywhere along the way. I could see nothing.

From an upstairs apartment window, a local shouted out to me in Spanish and confirmed which way to go.

Another local looked like he was just returning home (from working a night shift job? from a night of heavy partying?) and confirmed which way to go.

Eventually, I heard the tap, tap, tap, of walking poles behind me. I couldn’t see anyone in the darkness but I could hear the sound of footsteps and could see the bobbing of a head torch. The Korean pilgrims confirmed which way to go.

After three confirmations I felt more confident of my direction, and was glad of their warm assistance.

And wouldn’t you know it: I had been going the right direction all along 🙂

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In Ventosa, I stopped for morning coffee, breakfast, and free wi-fi.

In Nájera, I stopped in a small corner shop to buy postcards and stamps, and found a sunny bench on the side of the street. There, I took off my socks and shoes, and felt entirely comfortable in my bare feet – even though busy traffic and pedestrians bustled all around me.

The Camino passes through so many towns, villages, and cities along the way, and there is a steady stream of pilgrims en route. Pilgrims need to tend to their feet – so this means taking off socks and shoes, bursting blisters, applying ointment and bandages – all in plain view. It becomes normal to see people on the side of the trail, tending to their feet. I don’t know what the locals think of all this but I imagine it’s become a normal sight for them, too.

I sat on the bench and took a few minutes to apply sunscreen, drink water, and let my feet cool down. I wrote a postcard, and listened to the sounds of children shrieking and laughing in the nearby schoolyard. I also observed the only Chinese restaurant I saw on my whole Camino, and it made me realise that I hadn’t seen very much non-Spanish food on the journey to date. Funny, I hadn’t noticed that and hadn’t missed it, either.

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Crossing the river in lovely Nájera

I arrived in Azofra at 1pm, and hoped I was early enough to secure a bed in the hostel with 60 beds.

Thankfully, I was.

To boot, I would share my room with only one other person! After so many noisy, busy dorms, the prospect of such (relative) privacy was intoxicating, and I delighted at the prospect of getting some decent sleep.

Outside, pilgrims sat in the afternoon sunshine, bathing their feet in the cold, outdoor fountain. What luxury! I happily bumped into Barb and Dave, whom I hadn’t seen in days, and it was a joy to see their friendly faces. Dave even helped me find an empty sunny patch on the clothes line, for my newly-washed clothes 🙂

It might sound ridiculous now but with dozens of others competing for the same patch of sunshine, in the same courtyard, and at the same time, free space on a clothesline was precious. Inherently, I would have tried to find a free spot without moving anyone else’s belongings. It’s polite and respectful, sure, but I would have sooner denied my own need for dry clothing than presume it was okay to move someone else’s stuff.

(Maybe I needed assertiveness training?)

My reserve would have been a problem because at the same moment I was needing a sunny space, three other pilgrims emerged beside me with armfuls of dripping, wet clothes. They too were looking for a spot and there was no way the four of us could squeeze our gear onto the existing line space. This might have turned into a “survival of the fittest” moment except that Dave magically and effortlessly found space for all of us! He took care of me first and pointed out a free patch. The three women beside me started to get a bit edgy in seeing that I would need every bit of that space. No fear, Dave jumped in with news of another free spot, and he led them down to the far end of the courtyard.

Without being any way pushy or domineering, he found prime sunny space for all of us. He made it look easy and effortless. To him, it probably was. He took care of each of us in the most natural and gentle way, and we all got what we needed. I’m pretty sure he won’t even remember this incident but without realising it, he got me out of a tight spot that afternoon. You see, I’d decided to wash almost all of my clothing that day, including my sweatshirt that I hardly wore but which had become really grimey nonetheless. I needed a lot of sunshine and heat to make sure everything was dry before evening. I wouldn’t have pushed my way onto the clothesline by myself, and Dave’s generous intervention meant that I found a way – and got what what I needed.

I’m pretty sure you don’t remember any of this but Dave, Thank You!

For the second day in a row, I had covered a considerable distance (Brierley would approve!) and had arrived into town early enough to secure a bed. I’d even arrived early enough to wash everything and ensure it was dry before nightfall – no more grimey sweatshirt!

Those new shoes truly changed my Camino.

Navarette

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16th Century Church of the Assumption (heavily covered in gold on the inside)

I was delighted to secure a bed in the main hostel in Navarette. Brierley’s guide-book tells me that it sleeps 40 people, and I was assigned a bed in the attic. I carried my dusty, sweaty self up the steep stairs, with details of my bed number in my hand. The dorm was a mixture of single beds, bunk beds, and mats on the floor. I didn’t know what had been assigned to me but I made my way around the room, scanning the numbers on the bedposts as I went.

I found my bed tucked against the back wall of the room and thankfully, it was a bottom bunk.

Hurrah!

Bottom bunks are a blessing for sore feet.

The only snag was this: Someone had already taken my bed and laid their things all over it.

Not this again!

After my experience of pinching beds in Puente la Reina, I had mellowed a bit. Back then, someone had stolen my bed and tried to play innocent. I sent him packing, without feeling even the smallest bit of apology. He’d found a bed somewhere else in the hostel and I reclaimed that which was “mine”. Admittedly, it was awkward to bump into him around the albergue that evening, the next morning, and on the trail the next day. I bumped into him several times over the following 1-2 days. Though we were surrounded by countless new faces, he and I had a history and there was no easy escape from it. We were definitely not friends.

In the intervening days, I’d had a chance to reflect on my behaviour and I thought: maybe I shouldn’t have kicked him out so quickly. Maybe I should have shown some patience and care to this elderly man – this was the Camino, after all. Maybe I could have expressed more tolerance? And anyway, it’s not like I really owned the bed back in the hostel – I was lucky to have loan of it for the night. Maybe I should have been the one to go looking for another place to sleep?

I bumbled along the trail every day, and I reflected on such things.

By the time I arrived in Navarette and discovered someone had taken my bed, I felt more Zen.

I thought: No worries, I’ll just pick some other bed!

Before I had time to turn around, the woman from reception was right beside me. She’d come to see how many free beds were left in the room and took stock of everyone in it. In an instant, she realised my predicament:

I still wore my backpack but there were belongings all over “my bed”.

Clearly, someone had taken my spot.

She seemed to be more upset by the mix-up than I was, and instantly wanted to know what was going on.

Of a sudden, 4 women jumped up from a bed in the corner and started speaking loudly and quickly. They wore lots of Lycra and discussed distances covered. They’d been looking at photos on an iPad and uploading them to Facebook…

Ah, you again.

She had arrived with her 3 friends and laid claim to the best beds in the room. They had all chosen lower bunks against the wall, and had marked their territory clearly. My appearance seemed to complicate things, especially because the staff seemed to be on “my side” and demanded to know why someone was on my bed.

If ever there was a moment on Camino when I could say “All hell broke loose” – this was it!

The women argued loudly that they had arrived first and were entitled to choose whatever beds they liked. Our hospitaleria (volunteering staff member) argued that everyone had been assigned a certain bed number, and that no one got to choose their bed. She demanded that they move their belongings and take the beds they’d been assigned. The women shouted at the injustice of the situation; the hospitalerio shouted back.

I stood in the middle of all the shouting, feeling amused and self-conscious.  Personally, I didn’t actually care what bed I slept in. Sure, a bottom bunk beside the wall was a dream situation, but I’d have happily taken whatever was going. After all, the place slept only 40 people and I was one of them – I was lucky to be there at all.

Everyone else in the room looked on at the argument in silence. Whether they’d been sleeping or unpacking their gear, everyone stopped to watch the spectacle. We witnessed a clash between (what I call) “Old Camino” and “New Camino”.

“Old Camino” consists of those who understand that a bed is not a guaranteed thing, so they accept whatever kindness is offered – gladly and humbly. They walk for the journey, and don’t count miles or kilometres as badges of honour. They allow the unexpected to unfold.

“New Camino” consists of hikers, backpackers, and  holiday-makers, who walk for the physical challenge or adventure. They might even walk it because they want to “Do the Camino” and cross it off the Bucket List. They expect Camino to be like every other holiday – one where reservations are made and kept – otherwise someone is compensated.

These are not official names and I agree, they are unforgiving generalisations.

But you get the idea: the Camino has become fashionable and very popular in recent years. It attracts a new crowd and not all of them treat it with the same expectation or attitude. Rightly or wrongly, people have different agendas.

That evening in Navarette, we witnessed the uncomfortable clash of such differences.

In the end, the hospitaleria “won” and I got my bed back.

Gracias!

I shrugged my shoulders and smiled at the 4 women in an effort to say: I have nothing against you, this is just how things have turned out.

Only one of them smiled back. The others scowled and broke eye contact, and returned to their Facebook page.

Ouch.

Later that day, I happily bumped into Kevin and Liz again and feasted on some of the most delicious tapas of my whole Camino. They’d discovered the best eatery in town (this was to become a pattern) and I found them tucked inside, making friends with the whole place and drinking generous glasses of vino tinto.

I lit candles in the church, chatted with (some of) my roommates, and fell into a deep and grateful sleep. My new shoes had carried me many miles, I’d secured a good bed, and had a belly full of great food.

What more could you ask for?

 

Thanksgiving and Spiritual Inspiration for Camino de Santiago

I heard a prayer recently that really struck a chord and made me think of Camino.

I’m not kidding when I say I know about five prayers in total and I’m not usually fluent in this sort of thing. But I heard this prayer from Teresa of Avila in recent days and it really resonated…especially all the references to feet.

It made me think of Camino and of the walking I did every day over six weeks. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of walking – it kind of defies belief. Somewhere along the way, I realised just what a profound gift it was to be there at all. I don’t just mean that I was lucky to have the time off or that I could afford the air fare to get to France/Spain. Of course, those things are relevant.

But what a tremendous gift it is to have a body that works, a body that moves, walks upright, and is capable of covering such impressive distances. The world is full of people in various states of ill-health and disability. Some day, I may be one of them. But right now, thankfully, I am healthy and strong. On Camino, my body rose to the biggest physical challenge I’d ever presented, and it carried me across Spain the old-fashioned way – on my own two legs.

How amazing to have such awesome legs!

Hearing the prayer below, I thought of some of the people I know who are disabled or unwell.

I wondered: What would it be like if they could manifest themselves through my hands, my eyes, my feet, and live in my body for a day?

What would they do?

Would they go dancing? Would they drive a sports car? Would they bring the dog for a walk?

It’s a tremendous gift to stand upright and go for a walk. Those of us who can do it every day probably take it for granted.

I know I do.

But on Camino, I developed a growing sense of this profound blessing – that of a healthy body, and the blessing of an open road and an open sky. It was a gift to be there at all and to be able to experience any of it. Lucky me, I was able to experience all of it – day after day, week after week.

I did the best I could at the time. A year later I’m inclined to think I did quite a bit of whining about my sore feet. Only those who walked with me can confirm or deny the volume of my whining. To those of you who were there: I’m sorry if I went on a bit.

Hearing the prayer below has given me a different perspective. It has made me want to go walk Camino again, and this time walk it with more grace and less whining. I think that was my aspiration the first time round too, and I guess I had a sort of “hit-or-miss” success rate with that. But hearing this prayer has stirred my heart-strings in a new way and makes me want to go again, but in a better way.

It’s not that I am having a religious epiphany.

But I’m re-remembering this simple reality: No matter how hard it gets, we all have something to be thankful for.

Even if we ache and hurt, there are parts of ourselves and our lives that still work, still move, still rise to the challenge of being alive in the world. Those parts of ourselves and our lives are a gift.

On Camino, my feet hurt like hell but you know what?

They still carried me 500 miles across Spain.

They did everything I asked of them.

To celebrate Thanksgiving, I am thanking my feet for rising to the Camino challenge. I am thanking my body for carrying me (and my belongings) every day across all sorts of terrain. I am thankful for the gift of Camino, and all that it entailed.

And in the meantime, a word from Teresa of Avila (from Spain):

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

St. Brigid in the Rioja Region

At different points in walking the Camino, I passed chicken wire fencing along the side of the trail.

Usually, the fencing was festooned with ribbons, photographs, and miscellaneous keepsakes – pieces of clothing or prayers written on paper. People also wove lose grasses or twigs through the fencing to make crucifixes. Depending on the length of the fence, there could be dozens or even hundreds of crucifixes lining the trail – big and small, some neatly constructed, some roughly assembled.

People wanted to leave a marker, whatever their reason.

Walking from Viana to Navarette, I passed through miles of vineyards. The Rioja region is famous for its red wine and the chicken wire fence separated me from the vines, at least some of the time. In the photo below,  you’ll see brown twigs woven into the wire, to make the shape of a cross. Some of them are more crude than others. And above them all, there’s something uniquely Irish – St. Brigid’s Cross, woven in straw – evidence that another Irish person had walked the Camino before me!

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St. Brigid’s Cross

 

Camino Continues: Viana to Navarette

Distance walked: 22.7km

I left Viana and its resident population of 3,500 in the early hours the next morning.

After a short walk the previous day and an afternoon of rest, I felt physically stronger. My new shoes allowed my feet to feel wonderfully cushioned, and my clothes were newly washed and dried. I felt good to go!

My fellow pilgrim and I walked in the early morning light, with the sound of the gravel trail crunching beneath our feet. There wasn’t much to say in the early hours and neither of us had eaten yet, so we enjoyed the quiet. I kept pace with her for most of the 10km to Logroño and there, we stopped in a café bar for breakfast, while the cathedral bells beside us rang out for early morning mass.

Beautiful!

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We feasted on several rounds of coffee and tea, and gorged ourselves on sticky pastries and savoury tapas, draped in roasted, sweet peppers. Wonderfully, the guy behind the bar offered us glasses of wine at the early hour of 11am. The two of us were in a giddy mood and would have loved the chance to sit drinking vino, while people bustled their way to work. We were tempted, but we playfully declined.

Walking the Camino sort of normalises early-morning drinking. Back in the “real world” you’d look like an alcoholic to open a bottle of wine at 10am but on Camino, the attitude is different. When you’re up at 6am and have walked a few hours already, a beer or wine at 10-11am seems entirely reasonable!

Personally, I liked to wait until 12 or 1pm to have my wine. It was probably a psychological ploy to convince myself that drinking in the afternoon was less shocking than drinking in the morning – but you know, the results would probably have been the same either way!

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Embedded into the pavement, yellow arrows point the way to Santiago. Each region uses a different style of sign.

On the far side of town, we bumped into 2 Canadian ladies we hadn’t seen since Zabaldika. One of them had just bought a new pair of hiking shoes and like me, was breaking them in while she walked.

She’d travelled to Spain with a pair of sturdy hiking boots – a pair she’d owned for less than a year and had already broken in. The boots had been the correct size to begin with, but her feet had swollen in the heat and with the exertion of daily walking.

This is normal for Camino.

The steep descent of the Pyrenees had caused her toes to press against the front of her boots for hours on end. This had led to bruising and blisters so by the time she reached Logroño, her toe nails were starting to fall off.

Ouch!

She’d just purchased a pair of lightweight walking shoes and had abandoned her boots back in the city.

“My husband will kill me!” she said, knowing the €200 boots would never be seen again.

She didn’t care at all – those boots were killing her toenails and they were too heavy to mail home: let some other pilgrim make use of them.

And she practically skipped her way out of the city, along the tree-lined pavements, and out into the open countryside!

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Rioja vineyards 🙂

I gently separated myself from the group to walk on ahead, alone, for a few hours. That afternoon, I passed through miles of vineyards where the soil was truly reddish-brown, and gave its name to the regional wine: Rioja. Funny how I’ve drunk it for years without ever really considering its origins. Only then, walking through the region and watching the red soil cover my fresh new shoes and socks, I realised that all of these things I consume each day, have an origin.

I know this, of course. I buy organic vegetables in farmer’s markets and I read the labels on things. I know where my food comes from.

But I don’t really consider what that place looks like or smells like.

I don’t really consider just how far my food travels before it appears on my supermarket shelf, and just how exotic it is to have global food available at arm’s reach.

When I bought Rioja wine at home, I never imagined that I would one day walk through that very region – maybe even the very vineyards that produced the bottled goodness.

And yet, there I was – happily plodding along, putting one foot in front of the other, and breathing in the smell of earth, vines, and live, growing grapes. How utterly exotic and yet, from a Spanish perspective, how utterly normal.

Truly, a gift experience.

When I arrived in Navarette later that day, I was thrilled to get a bed in the main albergue. It holds only 40 pilgrims and was the only albergue in town to run on a first-come, first-serve basis. All the others were privately owned and were probably already booked up.

Getting a bed in the main albergue, early in the day, felt like a new pattern for me.

Unlike previous days, I’d covered quite a bit of distance without feeling defeated by the effort. The new shoes had transformed my walking experience and I was in an unusual position:

I’d just walked nearly 23km but felt like I could go on further.

Hurrah!

I booked myself into the hostel and asked the staff if they could reserve a bed for my fellow pilgrim, who was somewhere behind me on the trail. They spoke no English and I had only a spattering of Spanish but we managed to come to some agreement:

They would keep a bed for her, but only for another 2 hours. If she didn’t arrive by then, they’d have to give the bed to someone else.

Fair enough, I thought, that sounds like a reasonable deal.

I paid my fee, they stamped my pilgrim passport, and I made my way upstairs to find a bed.

 

Pilgrim Blessings on Camino de Santiago

In Viana, I bumped into Kevin and Liz outside the cathedral. The warm evening sunlight turned the building a golden brown, and we delighted in seeing each other again. As ever, they enquired about my feet and how I was getting on with the sandals. I confirmed that I’d just bought new hiking shoes that very day, and the sandals were getting the heave-ho and would be sent home in the mail.  They looked relieved and glad that I’d finally come to my senses in deciding to walk in shoes!

Though we’d chosen to stay in different hostels, we attended 8pm mass that evening and availed of the special blessing for pilgrims afterwards. By then, I felt enormously grateful to have survived those early days of the Camino – the Pyrenees, the issues with beds, and the distance I had already walked. I’d resigned from my job to walk the Camino and I really wanted to walk the 800km to Santiago.

Ego didn’t want for me to get so injured that we’d have to go home early, and face an audience who might judge me, and call me foolish and reckless.

Left a permanent job to walk the Camino, only to come home after just a week?

Fail!

In  reaching Viana intact, and in sourcing a new pair of walking shoes, I felt I was really making progress. I felt renewed.

The very least I could do was attend mass, give thanks, and avail of the pilgrim blessing. I’ve been reared a Catholic but by my own admission, I’m not a poster child for organised faith of any kind. Still, I’ve been reared to say “Thank You” and I felt strongly about doing that – even if the world disagrees about who, or what, to thank. I was delighted to have made it that far but there was still over 600km to go and I would need all the help I could get. I didn’t expect to do it all on my own.

Back in St. Jean Pied de Port, I attended a mass and gladly received the pilgrim blessing before I ever started walking. There, it was spoken in French, and I managed to understand only bits of it. Crossing over the Pyrenees meant we had all arrived into Spain, so the blessings from there on were spoken in Spanish. I hadn’t a clue what was being said, and some online research reveals that there several versions of the blessing. There may not be one exact prayer that’s said in all instances but this is one below is at least one version, and I’m presuming the sentiment is the same across all versions – even if the translation varies a bit:

O God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, protecting him in
his wanderings, who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, we ask that you watch over us,
your servants, as we walk in the love of your name to Santiago de Compostela.

Be for us our companion on the walk,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our albergue on the Camino,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.

So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and enriched
with grace and virtue we return safely to our homes filled with joy.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Apostle Santiago, pray for us.
Santa Maria, pray for us.

I popped in and out of churches a lot in my time walking the Camino. I do this in “real-life” too, and leave a trail of burning candles in my wake. On Camino, I liked the cool shade of the churches and they were a welcome reprieve from the heat. Conversely (given the Camino’s Christian tradition), the churches were often the quietest places to sit and take stock. I found the albergues loud and busy, and the café bars were equally packed. Thankfully, the churches offered some breathing space and an opportunity for quiet reflection, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs.

I attended mass in a sporadic fashion, and availed of pilgrim blessings whenever they were offered. Some priests rattled through the blessing with perfunctory speed and little heart. I had no problem with that – sometimes priests are men who need to get home and eat some dinner, like the rest of us. I don’t expect them to infuse every day with divine significance! Still, I was glad to receive whatever blessings they offered – regardless of their delivery.

Of all the pilgrim blessings I received along the way, this one in Viana was truly tear-jerking and I came away from it feeling choked up. Whoever he was, the priest that evening brought a tender humanity to the proceedings, and caught a few of us off guard with his warm humour. At the end of the mass, he gathered all the pilgrims together to the front of the church. We stood in a semi-circle in front of the alter, in our dusty shoes and hi-tech clothing. We were a mixture of young and old; women and men; Catholic and not, but we stood there united in our pilgrim status.

We all hoped to walk to Santiago.

We all intended to give it our best shot.

We all hoped to make it safe and sound.

Usually, we were blessed in a group and as a group.

This particular evening, the priest took the time to bless each of us individually. He asked each of us where we were from, and found something small and encouraging to say to each of us – whether it was about the football teams, the weather, or the music from our home countries. That small gesture was profoundly powerful. Of a sudden, we weren’t just a random scattering of alien pilgrims. Instead, we were people with homes, lives, and loves – all acknowledged by a simple question and warm comment.

Magic!

With each of us, he gently placed his hands on our shoulders and, looking straight into our eyes, said a blessing. He spoke softly. The whole thing was over in seconds. I want to say that he made the sign of the cross on my forehead but I don’t know if this is a real memory or an imagined one. Either way, the ceremony of blessing us was deeply moving. It took only a few minutes to make it personal, and I came away with tears in my eyes.

Total wuss!

I’m not sure what exactly brought me close to tears:

Was it because he spoke to each of us individually?

Or that he placed his hands on my shoulders?

Was it because he joked about football and made each of us smile?

I have no idea.

All I know was the pilgrim blessing gave me a few moments of gentle, mindful, connection. In that exchange I felt welcomed and acknowledged. Here I was, entirely human:

Sore

Floundering

Emotional

Stubborn

Grateful

Proud

Pilgrim

I was doing my best, but I was less and less sure what my “best” actually was, or what that even meant.

Without any flash dramatics, this priest had gently gathered us all together and shown us a few moments of gentle compassion and humour. With that, he infused our hearts with a little bit of hope for the days ahead, so even if our feet failed us, we felt blessed. That counted for something. I came away from the church feeling that my Camino was bigger than me, and stronger than my sore feet. Some deeper part of myself had just been fortified.

The woman who’d walked with me over the previous 2 days was not Catholic but admitted that something special had just happened. Even she felt the sincerity of the blessing and took it to heart, with renewed hope.

Pilgrim blessings – I’m a fan 🙂

 

 

Camino Challenge: Go at my own pace

In the early days of walking Camino, I struggled to find my own rhythm and pace. There seemed to be a real pressure on beds and if I didn’t walk fast enough or far enough, I would be left without one. That had happened twice and inwardly I felt:

I’m not walking fast enough.

I’m not walking far enough.

I’m not quite keeping up with “the done thing” here.

Even though I talked about going at my own pace, the truth is, I didn’t do it.

I talked the talk but literally struggled to walk the walk!

At the time, I couldn’t quite tell whether the “race to keep up with everyone” was my own personal sensitivity , or if others felt the same. Was it my perception or was it reality? I don’t know if others experienced that same inner push and shove, but I would love to know.

I came across a piece in my journal from the time, and it reads as follows:

“I understand that people have jobs and families to fly home to but if everyone is goal-orientated, then the journey itself is lost–

If the priority is to reach Santiago in 5 weeks or less (as Brierley’s book will have you do), then the spontaneity, reflection, and inner journey is pushed aside in the name of scheduling.”

I was very upset about the pressure to keep up with a set schedule – whether it was imposed by Brierley or airline companies.

I met people along the way who naturally, happily, and easily walked 30+ km every day, and just so happened to reach Santiago in a month or less. One of them was a woman I met on my very last night before reaching Santiago itself. She started walking later in September than I, and had covered longer distances each and every day. I might have sat there, feeling inadequate about my own performance, except that she was entertaining, heartfelt, bright, and sassy. She was great company over dinner.

Some had criticised her for going too fast and for “missing out” on the real Camino. I guess there were people like me who were slower, and who looked on with the idea that she wasn’t “doing it right“. She explained that she naturally woke at 4-5am and was restless in bed, so the only thing she knew to do was to walk. She wasn’t trying to prove a point or rub anyone’s nose in it – she just happened to be very fit and very fast. And as it happened, she was reflective, articulate, and spoke of having a transformative experience along the way.

So it would seem, she didn’t ‘miss out’ on the inner Camino after all.

I started out wondering if the people with schedules, plans, and daily targets, were an enemy in some way. No doubt, the Camino was far more commercial and goal-orientated than I ever expected. I wasn’t sure whether I was overly sensitive, or was really inadequate and naïve.

Was Camino to be like “the real world” – a competition for the survival of the fittest?

Sometimes it felt like it, despite also feeling the sense of community and camaraderie.

I didn’t know what my own pace was, but I seemed to have little consistency from one day to the next. Some days were 25km in length, then others were only 8-10km. I wasn’t sure where my happy medium lay. And I wasn’t sure whether the Type A pilgrims were creating a standard that was atypical for the “true Camino”. They were able to walk fast enough and far enough to secure beds early in the day, and spend their afternoons drinking beers and sightseeing. Surely the trick was to set my own pace rather than try keeping up with them – right? And yet, there seemed to be so many of them, and they seemed to set the tone for so many things.

Were they a hindrance or a help?

Were they the true representation of Camino and life, or were they destroying the Camino spirit with their ambitious targets and KPIs?

I couldn’t quite tell.

“This walk is a pragmatic lesson in pacing. Quite literally, there is always someone ahead of me and always someone behind me. Quite literally, there is no winner or loser. We are each doing our best. We are each making our own way.”

“On more energised days, I have collected litter along the way. I have been able to make people laugh…I’ve picked up peoples’ washing off the ground and re-hung it for them, without them knowing. I’ve prayed for Handsome Husband and given thanks for the people who have supported me.

The quality of what I do is enormously important. Yes, I would love to energetically bounce along 25km every day without issue. But when I can’t do that, I like that my slower pace allows me to do other things – and that I do them.

There is tremendous power in the small gestures, the intention, the quiet support. For me, this is Christian living….I am only partially interested in Santiago as a destination and even less interested in the certificate. I am more interested in the process.”

By the end of  it all, I came to realise that we all have a different pace and rhythm – on Camino and in life.

I forget this far too easily and quickly, negatively comparing myself to others and their progress.

Mental note to self: Remember to respect my own pace in life.

 

Inspiration for Walking: Henry David Thoreau

Years ago, I came across a famous quote about walking, by Henry David Thoreau.

The quote comes from an essay that I haven’t yet read, so I’m guessing I saw it on a greeting card or in some other book. I feel like buying a copy of the essay soon and reading it over the dark, rainy winter – I’m in that kind of mood!

The quote rattled around my mind a lot before I left for Camino. It’s been rattling around my mind a lot lately too, as I prepare for an upcoming trip to India. I don’t expect to walk another Camino across Indian soil but still, the quotation rattles around my heart.

I have a conflicted feelings about this trip, even though I’ve wanted it for 10-15 years. I remember feeling conflicted before I left for Camino, too. It wasn’t easy to wave off Generous Husband, and leave behind my home and my familiar life. And yet, I felt entirely compelled to go. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I was called to walk the Camino. I knew on a gut level, absolutely and completely, that it was something I had to do – no delay, no excuses. To ignore the calling would have been a mistake.

It was a leap of faith it was for me to heed that impulse, and go.

I can’t overstate that enough.

At the same time, I had mixed feelings and thoughts about the whole thing. I had (and have) a lot of greatness and love in my everyday life. I’m very blessed in a myriad of ways. I was leaving a lot behind, and hoped that all of it would still exist when I came home. It’s a lot to ask for.

Preparing for Camino instilled excitement and fear into my heart. In the month beforehand (and remember, I planned everything in only a month) I often woke in the middle of the night,  filled with anxiety. Leaving everything – Handsome Husband, my home, my job, my plans, etc. was terrifying, even though it would only be for a few weeks.

What was I doing?

I kept thinking of Thoreau.

I wasn’t ready in any of the ways he suggests being ready. I’m not ready now, either! But there’s something compelling about this piece of writing that allowed me to think of my Camino journey as a pilgrimage or retreat – not a walking holiday or backpacking adventure. His choice of language is striking and strong, and there’s a certain purity to his proposal.

Only when you have let go of your past and have settled your present affairs, can you be truly open and receptive to life, and to the future.

Is that what he’s saying?

I’ve pulled this quote from the web so if you think it’s incorrect in some way, please let me know. I’d hate to misquote, when the whole point of this post is to share the quote.

It goes like this:

“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walking

I’m not ready in any of these ways but still, I’m taking a leap of faith as I prepare for my trip. It’s an itch I have to scratch.

But what about you – were you ready when you walked your own Camino?

Do you feel ready now?

Can we ever be ready for such a walk, I wonder?

Blogging the Camino

As I said in my “About” page, many people asked in advance whether I would blog my Camino experience live from Spain. Others suggested I should do it and told me they’d happily follow my reports. I was flattered by their interest but ultimately, I had no interest in blogging as I walked.

Why?

I didn’t want the pressure of finding decent wi-fi and providing daily updates. I carried a smart phone with me but couldn’t be bothered squinting into its small screen and trying to write anything coherent. Writing a blog from a desk, where I have access to internet, a monitor, and a proper keyboard, is relatively easy. Anything other than that felt like a lot of work, especially while also trying to walk 800km and carry all my belongings on my back. Having walked it, I can say that trying to find decent wi-fi and provide daily updates would have driven me to drink. And you’d have had nothing to read in the meantime!

I met people en route who did blog as they walked. I can only applaud them from afar – they must have been more organised than I. 🙂

In Viana, I met a woman in our albergue who spent an hour sitting on the floor in the reception area, inches from the Internet router. She carried a full-size iPad to take photos and later upload them to her Facebook page. I’d seen her days earlier taking quick snaps at the top of Alto del Perdón. She walked with 3 friends but didn’t stop long enough to take in the view with her own eyes. Instead, she unleashed the iPad to take a panoramic video of the windmills and iron sculptures, and was gone. Back then, I looked at that block of technology and wondered how she carried the weight of the thing – those babies ain’t light!

But in the albergue I noticed something else: in the hour that she sat on the tiled floor, that machine took all of her attention. The device allowed her to send photos and messages to people back home. It enabled connection with them, thousands of miles away. But she was oblivious to the people standing next to her, just inches away. Watching pilgrims do their laundry or smoke a cigarette are hardly the height of entertainment, I admit.

But the point remains: that machine discouraged connection with the people standing right next to her.

She reminded me of myself, and of an imbalance in my own life.

There’s something unnatural about that, don’t you think? That we could all stand so close to each other and not make eye contact, not say hello, not connect in some basic, human way.

And I’m upset that it has become an accepted norm.

In terms of walking the Camino for weeks at a time, I understand that email updates provide reassurance to loved ones at home, who may be worrying. Writing blogs and sharing photos are a good way of including loved ones in the excitement.

I get it.

But every hour spent uploading photos to Facebook is one less hour ‘in the present’. You do that every few days over an 800km journey and you’re bound to miss out on some real-life people. You do that over a lifetime, you find yourself documenting life instead of being moved by it.

Before I departed for Spain, I couldn’t articulate my disinterest in blogging but these were some of my reasons:

I didn’t want to ignore real people in favour of virtual ones.

I didn’t want to treat Camino, or life, as one big broadcasting opportunity.

I wanted to be moved by the experience of being there in real-time. I wanted to feel the rawness of that exposure. Sure, it meant that some days I was a ball of tears, and others I felt frustrated by my fellow humans. More often, I felt gratitude. I felt an ever-growing contentment. I felt a freedom in my own skin that I hadn’t known in years and with it, a deep-rooted sense of being truly alive.

I wanted to walk for myself – not for other people. Being asked (or told) to blog my experience was flattering in some ways, but largely misguided.

I wasn’t walking for the entertainment or excitement.

I didn’t really think of Camino as an adventure holiday or long-distance hike.

I don’t consider myself religious in any organised way but I inherently understood that my reasons for being there were bigger than needing writing material, or a public audience.

I went on retreat.

Mine was a retreat from scheduling, planning, and trying to control my everyday fate. I retreated from the voices that told me what I ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’:

do,

want,

or

be,

in life.

I went on a retreat from spending my days looking at a computer screen, conversing with people around the world and ignoring the ones sitting next to me. I took a retreat from worrying and instead, learned how to trust myself and my gut instinct even more. I retreated from technology and found a deep-rooted delight in looking at the open sky every day. Selfishly, I did it for myself and I didn’t want an audience interfering with, what was, a profound and personal experience.

Over a year later, I wish I could remember more of the plant life and sunlight so I could write evocative and picturesque blog posts. I’m sure you would love to know more about the terrain and the countryside. I may get to that – I haven’t really decided yet. By all means, tell me what you’d like to hear more of – this whole endeavour is a work in progress and I’m open to suggestions!

I wish I could give more accounts about the architecture and history, or even share wild stories from nights’ spent drinking the plentiful bottles of wine. I have some stories but they don’t dominate my journey (thankfully, as I’d never have managed to walk if I were hung over every day! :-))

Blogging my journey now, over a year later, has its limitations.

That said, it’s easier for me to write about my experience now. I’m following a gut instinct on this – it’s a leap of faith. Despite the personal stretch, and the fact that I’ve forgotten some things, I’m finding it easier to blog now than I would have, live from the trail.

And you know what?

I’m delighted with my decision.

Walking the Camino is one of the best things I have ever done for myself in life. Walking it without a live, virtual audience was a liberation. Would I choose the same decision again?

Absolutely.

Camino Footwear: Do my feet look big in this?

Choosing your Camino footwear is a big decision.

Every year, hundreds of pilgrims log on to online forums to discuss this very thing – along with the weight of their backpacks and how to prevent blisters. First timers like me want to know what they should wear on their feet.

Boots or walking shoes?

How heavy or light?

Waterproof or not?

Should you wear the pair you’ve owned forever or invest in a new pair?

Everyone wants to talk about footwear.

 

A lot of people thought I was crazy to walk in hiking sandals.

Maybe I was.

In terms of footwear, I already owned a pair of 3-season, GORE-TEX, leather hiking boots from a German company called Han Wag. They were sturdy and reliable on wet, unsteady ground. I loved those boots. I thought about bringing them with me but they were too heavy and strong for gravel trails. They were also too warm for walking in September and October.

I crossed them off my list.

Next, I had a pair of hiking shoes from a company called Keen. I’d had the shoes for years and they were well broken in, but they scraped my heels after just a few hours’ wear. If I wore them more than one day at a time, they gave me blisters. There was no way I could walk 800km in them.

I crossed them off my list, too.

The only other thing I had left were a pair of hiking sandals from a company called Chaco. I’d had them even longer than the Keens. Parts of the straps were starting to fray, and if I wore them in the rain they sometimes sliced my skin, which hurt. On the plus side, they had pretty good arch support and they would keep my feet cool. The week I started walking in France, the temperatures were in the mid-30s (Celsius). I needed to keep my feet cool for as long as possible, and minimise the risk of developing blisters.

The sandals were the most likely contender.

Honestly, I tried to figure out a more sensible option before I departed for France, but it just didn’t work out. I planned my Camino in just a month, while at the same time resigning from my job. My days were busy, my weekends were packed, and I had a head full of ‘to do’ lists. I didn’t have much time to find a new pair of shoes and I had almost no time to break them in before departure.

A small aside: ordinarily, I’m supposed to wear custom-made orthotic insoles in my shoes. It’s something to do with having overly flexible feet. I’m not flat-footed and I don’t have fallen arches, but apparently I’m somewhere on the scale towards being double-jointed. So, my joints and ligaments are just a bit too stretchy and when I go walking long distances, it can affect my gait, my knees, hips, and overall alignment. I like to walk long distances but I don’t like having sore knees. So, some years back, I was fitted out for a very practical pair of insoles to keep my feet in a steady position within my shoes. They aren’t sexy and they make shopping for shoes rather tricky.

So, when it came time to look for Camino footwear I was looking for something:

Durable

Comfortable

Lightweight

Possibly waterproof

Affordable

Supportive

Blister-free

Cushioned

Trustworthy

and

Orthotic-friendly

 

I’m not joking when I say I found only one pair of hiking shoes that accommodated my orthotics properly. They were waterproof, sturdy, and trustworthy. They were relatively comfortable but heavy. They also looked remedial and made me look more club-footed than I wanted.

The shoes were ugly and ‘too much’ commitment when I was under time pressure.

So, I started Camino in my Chaco sandals and I wore them for the first 154km to Viana. All things considered, I think that was pretty good going – especially since those kilometres had included the ascent and descent over the Pyrenees. I knew my shoes weren’t perfect but I was open to buying another pair if necessary.

I don’t need to be perfect: I’m willing to change and I will figure this out as I go along.

The benefits of wearing my hiking sandals:

  1. I’d already broken them in
  2. They kept my feet cool
  3. They allowed my feet to swell without giving me blisters or chafing

The downside of wearing my hiking sandals:

  1. They had no cushioning
  2. They had limited support
  3. The straps cut into my skin a bit, even when dry, which hurt. I wore socks to minimise the abrasion and keep my feet clean. That was one of many fashion disasters 🙂

In the evenings, I wore a pair of newly purchased Crocs:

IMG_1116

The plus side:

They were really light

The holes allowed air into my feet

I could wear them in public showers and they drained out pretty quickly

 

The minus side:

They were bulky and took up quite a bit of space in my backpack

The occasionally scraped the skin off my toes. Ouch. But this was because the skin on my feet grew softer over time, from wearing shoes and socks every day. Not exactly the Crocs’ fault.

 

Why didn’t I wear flip-flops?

I thought I might need to wear socks in the evening and if I did, they would fit better in a pair of Crocs than in a pair of flip-flops.

The few times that I did wear socks, the Crocs allowed me to do so without having a thong thingie between my toes. That would have been another level of fashion disaster!

Flip flops seemed to be more popular but one woman told me that the thong between her toes gave her chafing and blisters. Like me, the skin on her feet had grown soft over time and the flip-flops seemed to dig in and cause problems.

I’m sure there’s some way around that.

 

Would I recommend walking the Camino in hiking sandals?

Not really.

They served me well in the first few days – particularly in the heat – but by the time I’d reached Viana my feet were horribly sore from over-stretching and flexing. I needed better support and structure. That said, by the time I’d reached Viana, my feet had swelled so much that I needed shoes that were a full size bigger than normal. I wouldn’t have known that if I’d bought my footwear before departure.

A lot of people thought I was crazy to buy shoes on Camino and break them in while I walked.

Maybe I was.

But I was delighted to find an outdoor gear shop in Viana, and deeply grateful to have a range of shoes available to me. I tried on everything in the shop – with my hiking socks and swollen feet, and in the end chose these, a pair from a company called Solomon:

IMG_1038

The upside:

LOADS of cushioning – they were like walking on springy mattresses!

Great support

Lightweight

Breathable

Non-remedial in appearance 🙂

 

The downside:

They didn’t accommodate my orthotics

They weren’t waterproof (time would tell whether that was an issue)

 

When I walked out of Viana in them the next morning, I knew a transformation had taken place. My first week or so of Camino had been painful and had taken a lot out of me. I thought I was being soft or whiney. I didn’t like that about myself, and thought I should shut up complaining. No one else seemed to be whinging, even though many people had nasty blisters by then. I’d come away without a single blister to date: what was I complaining about?!

When I put on the new shoes, I realised that the walking was instantly easier. No more screaming tendons, no more overly stretched ligaments – my feet felt comfortable and supported for the first time. Comparing the two sets of shoes:

Walking in the sandals felt like walking on cement in my bare feet

Walking in the shoes felt like bouncing on mini trampolines

It just goes to show: getting the right footwear makes all the difference.

Choosing your Camino footwear is a big decision but you don’t necessarily have to get the perfect gear before you depart: you can buy footwear along the way and break it in as you go.

 

 

Viana: Camino Begins Again

Distance Walked: 8.8km

IMG_0858

After the previous day’s physical struggle to get to Los Arcos,

And the logistical issues with finding a free bed,

This day’s walk was short and sweet.

Days earlier, I had to take a taxi from Zubiri to Zabaladika, just to find a free bed. It meant ‘losing’ or ‘cheating’ on 12km of trail. I agonised over whether to go back and walk those missing kilometres but in the end, decided not to.

There was no going back: there was only forward.

So, when I ‘skipped’ another 8km days later, I was not entirely pleased. I hadn’t intended to taxi my way through the Camino. Even though I’d genuinely been stuck for a bed on both occasions, I didn’t want to get into a pattern of taking taxis. That wasn’t why I’d travelled to Spain.

A Scandinavian woman in my company was very displeased at missing those 8km. She’d spent years planning her trip and reading her guidebook in advance. She wanted to ‘do it right‘ and wanted to experience every inch of the trail for herself. She wanted to experience everything listed in the guidebook. She also wanted to ensure she stamped her Pilgrim Passport in every coffee shop or bar she stopped at along the way. Those rubber stamps of coloured ink were proof that she had walked the distance. A break in the narrative – even 8km of a break – was truly upsetting for her. So much so that she swore loudly and spent the night feeling too annoyed to join the rest of us for dinner.

I can understand her frustration, and at the same time wondered if she was so strict with herself in all areas of life. I imagine she was. She had a plan for how she wanted to experience and achieve Camino. Taking a taxi and missing any of the trail was literally intolerable.

Sometimes, life throws an unexpected curveball and our plans go out the window. What do we do? Do we dig our heels in, rigidly arguing for the plan? Or do we open our arms to the unexpected and abandon the plan in favour of the new reality?

A good friend had told me before I started: ‘You can’t prepare for Camino’. I was delighted at the time, and thought she confirmed I didn’t need any physical training. In retrospect, I think she was telling me: ‘So many unexpected things happen on Camino, whether you want them, and you can’t prepare yourself for every eventuality. The best thing you can do for yourself is go with the flow of it. Make it up as you go along, and see what happens. Be open, be flexible, and be willing to change.’

When we woke in Torres del Rio, our group of 4 people divided:

2 decided to take a taxi back to Los Arcos and pick up the trail. They wanted to cover the 8km they’d skipped the previous evening.

2 of us decided to walk onwards to Viana. We needed to re-group and take care of some errands. We also decided there was no going back.

We arrived into Viana in the late morning, and delighted at arriving early enough to secure a bed in the Albergue Municipal. After days of staying in private accommodation, we welcomed the opportunity to stay at a cheaper place – €6 for the night! The staff assigned us to different numbered beds and we made our way upstairs to find where we’d sleep.

The funniest thing about this hostel was that the dorms contained triple bunk beds.

That’s right: not double, but triple.

I’d never seen such a thing before. And as it happened, I’d been assigned a bed right in the middle of the bunk. There’d be someone sleeping above me and someone else below me.

Getting into my bed was easy enough – climb up the metal ladder on the side, and propel myself forwards and sideways at the same time – think ‘Bruce Willis jumping onto a moving truck’.

Easy!

Getting out of that same bed was altogether more complicated.

The space between my mattress and the one above me wasn’t big enough for me to sit upright. I had to sit hunched over, like Quasimodo.

From there, I wriggled along the mattress until I got to the ladder, and made my attempt to climb down, backwards. Naturally, I needed to steady myself somehow but I couldn’t grab the bed above me – there was someone in it and that was their ‘private space’. I also wanted to stabilise myself by stepping on the mattress beneath me but I couldn’t do that either – there was also someone there, and I didn’t want to disturb them.

Getting out of my bed meant I had to get both hands and both feet onto the ladder, without putting a foot or hand out-of-place, and without losing my balance. The trick? Stick my bum way out (like doing a standing half forward bend in yoga) and move quickly!

Viana was a sweet reprieve and it gave me a chance to begin my Camino again.

How so?

I bought new hiking shoes, and they transformed my feet. After days of painful tendonitis and small sprains, the shoes offered me cushioning and support. Hallelujah!

I also splashed out on an Altus poncho, as recommended on Jen’s Camino blog. The previous days’ rain made me realise that I needed something that would cover my whole body, not just my torso, and keep me dry. If I was going to walk the remaining 630km or so to Santiago, I wanted to stay dry as much as possible. My raincoat was too short, so a poncho was the most sensible alternative. I had a choice of colours: Fanta Orange or Fluorescent Lime Green. I chose the orange, and paid €45 for the privilege. It was the most hideous and most expensive poncho I’d ever known, but it had come recommended and I decided to give it a go. I found myself half wishing it would rain, just so I could get my money’s worth. And at the same time, I didn’t want it to rain at all while I walked my way across Spain.

Fickle Pilgrim wants the best of both worlds!

That evening, I joined a pilgrim mass in the Viana Iglesia de Santa María, and gave thanks for arriving in Viana safe and sound. My timing there was fortuitous – just when my sandals were really starting to give me grief, I’d arrived in a town that was large enough to have a shop for outdoor gear and footwear. Not every town on Camino has such a shop, despite the thousands of pilgrims needing gear along the way.

I’d prayed for the resources I needed to keep going and in a very practical way, my prayers, and needs, were fulfilled.

That night, my fellow pilgrim from Torres del Rio and I feasted on steak and chips, and were given a bottle of wine each with our meal. God bless the 3-course, €10 Pilgrim Menu, with baguette and wine! The pilgrims around us were jovial and in a party mood, drinking brandy and laughing loudly. I fell into bed that night feeling satisfied and fortified, in one.

There was no going back – there was only forwards.