Losing Weight on Camino

As recently as yesterday, someone asked me:

Did you lose weight on the camino?

(As if my reason for walking 500 miles in the sweltering sun was to get in shape for the Christmas party season!) I know it’s a logical question to ask – after all, you do a lot of exercise and you lose a lot of weight – that’s how it works, right?

I’ve been asked this question almost as much as “How long did it take you?” and the two questions often go together. I don’t mean to sound like a snob but my camino experience was *so* much more than a fitness program.

You want to know how much weight I lost?

You’re kind of missing the point.

And yet, I understand that most people don’t want to get into a deep conversation about something that is kind of abstract.

I get it.

In the years before my camino, I remember meeting people who’d already walked. I often asked them:

How was it?

And they often replied with something along the lines of:

Amazing! But tough!…But amazing!…And tough…

And then they’d kind of trail off and I’d stand beside them feeling confused.

Their response told me nothing and I didn’t really know where to go from there. No doubt, I asked about the cheap wine and the weather, and eventually changed the conversation to something more tangible. It was easier than trying to understand the hazy lightness in their eyes, or trying to figure out what exactly was so amazing and what exactly was so tough. I didn’t understand that contradiction and I didn’t know how to ask for more specifics.

After *I* came home, I experienced that conversation from the other side as everyone asked me:

How was it?

And you know what? I found myself saying:

Amazing! But tough! …But amazing!…But tough!…and then I’d kind of trail off in a nondescript way.

And I watched *their* eyes glaze over, just like mine had done years before! 😀

I can only assume that they struggled to find a way in to my vague reply and didn’t know how to direct the conversation. Invariably, they picked out the things they felt most comfortable chatting about: the weather, their surprise at how I walked it alone, and the names of people they’d known to walk some/all of it before – people I’d never met but with whom I had something in common. I sometimes feel that people ask about my camino experience as a way of cataloguing me rather than trying to understand me.

A lot of the time, people have a vague and passing interest in this camino thing and it’s just a piece of news that gets passed around without a lot of substance. The questions are brief and light. There’s very little probing. We talk around the subject but often don’t get into the meaty parts of my experience.

This happens on camino as well as off camino:

When I was on my last week of walking between Sarria and Santiago, I met a couple who walked roughly the same pace as me. We crossed paths several times over the course of a few days so we had lots of opportunity for small talk and chatter. Walking camino was their first-ever holiday alone as a couple. They’d left their 3 teenage children at home and spent 10 days walking together, relishing the freedom and the friendly community around them. By then, I’d been walking for 4-5 weeks and I was a transformed person. Those weeks and miles had changed me on a fundamental level, even though I was only beginning to articulate those changes. I assumed everyone around me had also been transformed on a fundamental level. I assumed this couple had experienced some sort of revelation about themselves or their life – after all, it was their first holiday alone and they’d chosen to walk instead of sit on a beach – that’s got to have an impact, right?

Over lunch I asked them: So how has the camino changed you?

They looked at me with panic in their eyes. They glanced sideways at each other and shifted uncomfortably in their seats. They wanted to talk about cheap wine and the friendly pilgrims but I’d upset that easygoing balance by asking such a loaded question.

They looked *so* uncomfortable, I may as well have asked them their favourite sexual position!

They stumbled, they stuttered, and eventually came back with a well-worn platitude as a response. They didn’t really have a transformative experience and looked truly distressed by my question.

I came to realize that most people don’t really want to talk about the nature of spiritual wellbeing after walking 500 miles. Largely, they want anecdotes and details they can relay to someone else. They don’t really care whether I feel more comfortable in my own skin and am more content in myself as a result of camino. They also don’t care that I gently, unexpectedly, stopped stressing and fretting over things that had dogged me for most of my life.

So, they ask me about my weight loss program instead.

The funny thing about being asked this question is that most of the time, people have a sort of breathless anticipation as they wait for my reply. There’s a lightness to their expectation. Their heads lift a little higher as they wait for my response. They really want to know if I lost some extraordinary amount of weight while also having fun and being on vacation.

That’s the dream scenario, right?!

And I wonder, if I told them that I did lose some extraordinary amount of weight in such a short amount of time, would they consider walking camino for themselves? Would the great tales of weight loss seduce them into doing something they’d never otherwise pursue?

I’m amused by the question for all sorts of reasons and I always answer it the same way:

I weighed exactly the same after camino as I did before camino.

I stood on the bathroom scales out of curiosity and was genuinely surprised I weighed exactly the same – pound for pound.

So, I can’t claim to have experienced a Camino Slim-Fast Plan!

But I did notice that my body shape changed a lot. My clothes fit me differently and sat differently on my frame. My body toned up. I guess I probably did lose weight but gained muscle mass. And one day, very close to the end, I recall looking down at my legs and actually failing to recognize them. After nearly 6 weeks of walking, they looked like they came from someone else’s body instead of my own. That was the strangest moment of all – literally not recognizing myself.

I came home feeling more fit and toned than I’d ever felt in my adult life. I’m not a runner but I felt like I could take up sprinting, I was that fit. I didn’t run, though, and within a few weeks my body shape returned to its former self. I missed that wirey strength and energy in my body but at the same time, my feet were too sore for walking such long distances every day. And anyway, it was autumn by then and I wanted to curl up beside a warm fire and hibernate.

But next time, I’m totally going to lose an extraordinary amount of weight and get a Slimmer of the Year award! 😀

Did you lose weight on camino or get asked the same questions I did? Are your loved ones as fascinated with weight loss or is it just me?!

Camino Francés: How Long Does it Take to Walk 500 Miles?

Before I walked the French Way (Camino Francés), I knew two friends who walked the route just months before me. Lovely Jen walked in the spring of 2013 and spread her trip over 7 weeks, walking the extra 100km to the coast. Amiga Number 2 walked in the summer of 2013 and spread her trip over 4 weeks. They both very kindly gave me similar advice for my own journey:

  • Pace yourself
  • Your body gets stronger as you go

Different women, different trips, taken at different times of the year. There’s no comparison between them but they were the people I knew to walk it most recently so I couldn’t help but pitch myself against them in some way – rightly or wrongly.

I certainly wasn’t physically fit enough to follow in the footsteps of Amiga 2 – that would have meant walking 30km every day for 30 consecutive days, in 40 degree heat. (Celsius).

No way!

But I didn’t want to be away for 7 weeks, either. Somehow, it felt like just a bit too long for me. I had a strong inkling that I needed 6 weeks away so I was willing to heed that – but what amount of time *should* I have taken?

How long does it really take to walk 500 miles?

In the month before I flew, I scrambled around trying to get my gear together, while packing up a job, and saying goodbye to friends I wouldn’t see for a while. I clearly remember bumping into a former boss who, as it happened, walked the French Way years before me, over two summers.

How long are you going for?

I’m hoping to go for 6 weeks, all going well. (Inside, I realized that if I broke an ankle on Day 3 that would be the end of it, so I rarely spoke about what I planned to do but more so about what I hoped to do.)

Ah, you’ll do it in 5, he replied.

Without realizing it, he’d set a bar for me and I could feel myself rising to the challenge. From that moment on, I still felt I needed 6 weeks but silently hoped to “do it” in 5 weeks so I could fulfill that expectation.

But why?!

Logically, I knew that he wouldn’t care how long it took me. I’ve never seen him since so it’s not like we’ve had that conversation where he might have quizzed me and judged me on my performance. So why did I care about fulfilling his expectations? I still wonder.

I booked a one-way flight to France without knowing when I would return. I wanted to be sure I got over the Pyrenees alive and well. I wanted to be sure I really could walk for miles and miles, day after day, before I booked my return flight. So, flying on a one-way ticket was a prudent move in that regard. It also meant that I didn’t have the same pressure as other people around me to arrive in Santiago by a certain fixed date. In theory, I had all the time in the world. Husband encouraged me to walk comfortably and safely, and not worry about how long it took me. And because I’d resigned from my job, I couldn’t say that I had to get back to work by a certain date. True, the finances were carefully planned but I had a bit of wriggle room if I needed it.

I’m sure there were people who wondered whether my marriage with Handsome Husband was on the rocks after a few short months – after all, why else would I book a one-way flight to another country and leave him home alone for weeks on end?! If anything, Happy Marriage got stronger because of the camino experience, so I didn’t care what anyone else thought. Husband and I knew the real reasons for my walking and I had his full support. I didn’t need anyone else’s approval.

Himself and I were to celebrate our *first* wedding anniversary in early October. If I took anything longer than 5 weeks to walk, I would miss that special date. I felt I really, really needed more than 5 weeks, but was it right to celebrate our anniversary apart, with me rambling around in Spain?

I asked Handsome Husband what he thought.

Being the cool and unflappable guy that he is, he told me:

Don’t worry about the wedding anniversary – we’ll have fifty more of them!

And with that, he sent me packing!

We talked about maybe meeting in Santiago for the anniversary. Wouldn’t it be great to be reunited after all those weeks apart? Wouldn’t it be cool to be in a vibrant, colorful city? Wouldn’t it be a massive high for me to walk all that way to join him? There were lots of reasons why it was a great idea and the pilgrims around me latched on to the romance of the story.

Every time I’d bump into my new friends, they’d ask about Husband and our anniversary plans in a few weeks. And without realizing it, this was the raising of a second bar – another challenge to walk the 500 miles in 5 weeks.

I felt the pressure of it.

And honestly, that pressure followed me every day across Spain. Himself told me not to push myself to hurting, but I felt the pressure to get to Santiago by a certain date – and that depended on me covering an average of 25km every day, whatever the weather, whatever my physical condition. There was no wriggle room.

Separately, some of my camino friends told me I was too hard on myself and pushing myself too much. I didn’t agree. Some part of my psyche took over and my mission was one of endurance, not enjoyment. I wasn’t so happy with that attitude at the time. And yet, if I hadn’t been bull-headed and hard on myself, I’m not sure I would have made it to Santiago.

I wanted to walk it all. I didn’t want to take buses or trains to help with timekeeping or even with injury. I met people who took buses because of tendonitis and I thought they were being far too soft on themselves.

I wanted to carry my backpack myself. I didn’t want to avail of the mini bus services that carry backpacks for a fee. And in the meantime, my left arm went numb with the pain of carrying a pack that was clearly too heavy.

Why did I put myself through all that?

I just wanted to “do it” a certain way, but there were times that “my way” was unforgiving on my body. I had limited patience for self-pity and pain, and I felt that the only way I would get to Santiago was to keep going – whatever the weather, whatever my condition.

So every day on Camino, I walked with a medium-to-high level of inflammation – all day, every day, for weeks on end. I woke to it in the morning, I walked through it all day, and fell asleep to it at night. Pilgrims around me took pain relief even in the early days. I never really considered taking anti-inflammatories until 200km from the end, when I reached a breaking point. By then, I’d done so much damage to my feet that there was no way I’d complete camino unless I had some medicinal support. By the end, I didn’t care how many horse tranquilizers I took – I just needed to keep going.

I felt the pressure to “do it” but I didn’t walk 500 miles in 5 weeks.

I did walk 500 miles in 6 weeks, and that included 4 rest days along the way.

I couldn’t compete with the people who walk it in a month. I couldn’t compete with the Brierley Brigade. I shouldn’t have tried to compete at all but I felt a judgement on my shoulder all the same – whether it was my own or someone else’s.

I didn’t make it all the way to Santiago in time for our wedding anniversary. I also didn’t fulfill the challenge my former-boss had unknowingly set.

And most of all, I didn’t walk at *my* leisure. I didn’t walk according to my body’s preferences. I walked 500 miles in five and a half weeks because my mind whipped me to do so. I walked it in this time because my spirit urged and pulled me on. I walked it in that time frame because I didn’t know how to stop and I didn’t want to stop. I am proud of my walking but I pushed my body way too hard. A recent injury reminded me what it feels like to be in pain and inflammation every day. It’s not fun – and I did that to myself every day across Spain.

If I’d stopped every time I felt tired, or sore, or because I just felt like it, I think I might have needed more like 8-12 weeks to walk those miles. That would have been a more comfortable pace for me. That would have minimized the injury and inflammation. That would have been a very different experience – so different, that I can’t even imagine it.

How long would *you* need to walk 500 miles? How long would you need to *comfortably* walk them?

And what are your experiences of pushing your body too hard?

 

Why did I Walk? (Part 2: A Divine Decision)

IMG_1038

Walking 500 miles of Camino transformed me – and that transformation started before I ever stepped onto the trail in the south of France.

Deciding to walk camino was only partially *my* decision. There were other factors and forces at work.

Part 1 of the decision was the back story. It was all the ways I was generally unhappy with my life direction but without any real plan for how to change things.

Part 2 was more sudden, more profound, and dare I say it – divine. I don’t necessarily mean that in any religious sense but I do mean that it had everything to do with spirit, and that some sort of behind-the-scenes magic that took over.

Without that divine decision, I wouldn’t have been able to keep going on those days when I was sore and exhausted.

Without it, I probably wouldn’t have walked at all.

Let me explain…

At different points in my life, I’ve had experiences that very clearly led me towards or away from certain things. I don’t know what language to use here because the word choice might make some of us twitchy, but I’m talking about a fundamental, core-level, knowing that said:

Ger, we’re done here. It’s time to go.

Was it a booming voice from above? Sometimes, it felt like it.

Was it a quiet, inner understanding? Sometimes it felt like that, too.

Whether we call this God or The Universe or whatever, I don’t really mind. I’m just going to call it “knowing” or “gut instinct” in the name of being all-inclusive.

This knowing has prompted me to resign from jobs, leave relationships, and de-tangle my heart from defunct friendships. It’s helped me distinguish, very clearly, when it was the right time for me to change direction. In these situations, it was not my mind making the decisions – it was some other force at work.

In the years leading up to camino, I had a dozen reasons to leave my job and a dozen more to stay. The lists cancelled each other out so *my* plan was to make the best of my situation until the economy turned  around and I found a better fitting role. It was the most sensible and responsible plan that my mind could come up with. I didn’t know when I would leave my job or what I would do instead but I had faith that      whatever knowing spoke to me in the past would speak to me again:

I will get the nudge – that deep knowing from within or that booming voice from above – when the time is right to change direction. Until then, I won’t make any sudden moves.

Did I believe in fate? Maybe.

Was it a prayer of some sort? Yes, it actually was.

And in the meantime, I just got on with my daily life. I didn’t consciously know that I would walk the Camino in 2013 but there were breadcrumbs that led me in that direction all the same. I didn’t see them at the time but I could see them clearly afterwards.

Like what?

Part A.

In October 2012 my friend told me she planned to walk the French Way the following spring – in 2013. She and I very rarely get to hang out so I offered to join her for a week or two. I thought it might be a nice way to spend some time together and tend to a “Bucket List” dream that we both held. My mind thought it a great idea but as I spoke my words of offering, this one word came up as a thought and a feeling at the same time:

September

That was all.

I didn’t know what it meant – after all, that was a whole 11 months away and I didn’t plan that far ahead. But still, the word surfaced from within me and left that lingering message:

        September

That was the beginning of the magic though I didn’t know it.

Part B.

In the summer of 2013, my friend returned from her camino experience – warmly radiant. After dinner one evening she presented me with a scallop shell – I believe, the same one that she had strapped onto her own backpack as a pilgrim. I knew the shell was symbolic but in all honesty, it didn’t have any special resonance for me (yet).

She offered her shell to me and said,

I know you’ll walk the camino some day, Ger.

I was touched and accepted her lovely gesture. I agreed with her – I too knew that I would walk it some day. And yet, it was summertime and I was distracted by sunny weather. Accepting the shell was like buying an evening gown for a black tie event but years in advance. It felt premature and it felt somewhat irrelevant. And even though I hung the shell on a prominent wall in my home, I didn’t give it another thought.

Until this happened:

Part C.

A month later, a particular conversation highlighted clearly, and unequivocally, that I had outgrown my job. Not only that, but it was *definitely* not going anywhere and it was *definitely* stopping me from progressing – personally as well as professionally.

I’d felt all this for years but didn’t have the factual confirmation to back it up. The first 5 minutes of this hour-long conversation revealed the facts and my heart sank. Those were the moments where I actually lost heart in my work and all that it entailed. After years of frustration, tears, and trying to make it work, that deep knowing had blossomed from within and I just knew I was done.

I had received the nudge – no doubt about it.

That evening I said to Handsome Husband: I think I’m done with my job.

We were married only a few short months and I felt a massive conflict between taking care of my own needs and our needs as a couple. If I left my job, how would we pay the rent? Was I terribly selfish? And what about our future plans?

My happiness or misery affected us both. There was more to this decision than finances and grown-up plans.

But I knew I was truly, finally, and completely done with that job. I just didn’t know what to do next.

So, I threw it upwards as a prayer and put someone/something else on the job of figuring that out. As a child, I learned the concept of Guardian Angels and I liked the notion that I had a personal bodyguard in life. I even imagined I had a few of them. I imagined them as a gang, bored, and sitting around playing card games to pass the time. I wasn’t giving them enough to do and they were growing idle in the meantime.

So I threw it upwards with the thought:

Ok you guys, I know I’m done with the job. I get it. What I don’t know is what happens next so I need your help with that. Reveal the path to me. Tell me what I’m supposed to do here. I can’t see the big picture and I need a bit of help figuring this out.

The answer I got was simple (but not easy):

Go walk the camino.

Uh…what?

Go walk the camino.

For the next 3 weeks of July, I wrestled with this reply over and over. It woke me in the middle of the night. It sat on my shoulder at work. It prompted a dozen conversations with Husband.

I hadn’t planned to walk. I wasn’t prepared – in any way. I wasn’t ready.

I said:

That’s a great idea and I see how it would work, but I’m too scared.

And every day the response was the same:

I know you’re scared – but go walk.

In fact, there were very clear instructions to go with the response, specifically:

  • Go in early September – on the 1st if you can get a flight (a nice tie-in to my moment with the September prompt months earlier, don’t you think?)
  • Go for 6 weeks – no more, no less. Go from early September to mid-October only. No earlier, no later.
  • Don’t wait.

These specifics were *so* absolute that they led me to say I was called to walk the camino.

I really was – and not just sometime or any old time – but at a very specific time, for a very specific length of time. My *mind* didn’t decide those dates at all – it really was some other force that took over.

Every day, my fear ran riot and I’d ask:

What if I wait until the following spring? The weather will be good then too.

The response was always the same: DON’T wait.

I said: What if I go for 2-3 weeks only instead of the full thing? (and keep my job in the meantime?)

The response was always the same: Go for 6 weeks between early September and mid-October. No earlier and no later. Only this time. No other time.

I said: But I haven’t planned for any of this financially!

The response was always the same: The money will be fine.

Now, I don’t really know the bible stories or mythological traditions from around the world but I will say this much:

Something big had taken over. It felt like a “Hand-of-God-comes-down-from-above-and-directly-rearranges-my-life” kind of moment. Religious references aside, something huge was at work.

Whatever the language, I *had* asked for guidance and I definitely received it loud and clear. I couldn’t ignore it. But I struggled to follow it. I was paralysed with fear and my mind was a flurry of ideas and counter-proposals. One weekend, I lay on the floor with sheets of flipchart paper and I drew out a mind map.

On one side I wrote the word:

“Stay”

On the other side I wrote the word:

“Leave”

And I spent the next few hours scribbling out every thought, feeling, and counter-plan I could think of to figure out whether I would resign from my job and go walking in Spain. I needed to see everything laid out on paper in one place, in the hope it would help me some sort of perspective.

For hours, I poured out every anxiety, every consideration, every reason why I should follow the nudge – and not.

At one point, I asked: If I leave my (permanent) job and go walking, what happens when I return? What about all these grown-up plans – how will I finance any of them?

The reply was always the same: Ger, if you trust me on this and go with it, everything will be taken care of.

It gave me goosebumps.

I went back and forth, wrestling my head and my heart. In the end, it all boiled down to this:

Did I trust the voice I’d heard? Did I trust that knowing?

Did I trust that it was the right time for me to walk camino, even though I felt unprepared in every possible way?

Was I willing to trust that my future work, finances, and grown-up plans would, indeed, be taken care of – even though my *mind* had no idea how to make them happen?

*I* didn’t decide to walk Camino. Something else made that decision for me but I *did* decide to follow the calling. My challenge was to trust – everything.

Have you experienced anything like this? I’d love to hear!

Why Did I Walk? (Part 1: The Back Story)

IMG_1116

I’ll admit, this “camino thing” kind of caught me by surprise.

When I rang in the new year in 2013, I didn’t know that I would walk this ancient pilgrimage route later that year. I didn’t know I’d resign from my job either, or leave behind my new husband whom I’d married only months before.

Heeding the impulse to go walking was one of the best things I have ever done for myself.

Hand on heart, my camino experience transformed me on a fundamental level. And I’m certain it repositioned the chess pieces of my life into a healthier, happier arrangement – a repositioning that wasn’t *my* plan.

But even though my decision to uproot and go walking was sudden and impulsive, it wasn’t entirely surprising. There are 2 parts to the story that lead up to my camino journey. Overall, it’s too much to explain in just one blog post (and you’d be bored to tears reading *so much text*) so I’m splitting it into two to make for easier reading.

This is part 1: The back story.

Years ago, I was an active member of a mountaineering club and I spent every Sunday hiking cross-country. Most of the hikes were off trail, all of them required map and compass work, and the majority of my walking companions were men – so we walked fast, we climbed high, and we pushed ourselves. Every week, the open hills gave me an “escape valve” that satisfied my most primal core. It was one of the happiest times of my life.

My hiking friends were among the first people to mention the camino route in Spain. Some of them had walked parts of it, at least. Their stories planted a seed and I knew I wanted to go see for myself. Back then, I just liked the idea of a good long walk. My life felt well-balanced and I didn’t need “time out” for any particular reason. There was nothing religious or mid-life-crisis-y going on. I didn’t even care about being a tourist or experiencing “real life” Spain. I just wanted to go stretch my legs. But I also knew:

  • I wanted to walk alone
  • I wanted to start in the French Pyrenees
  • I wanted to walk all the way from the French Pyrenees to the west coast of Spain, all in one go

I didn’t want company. I didn’t want to walk for a week here and there, spread out over years. And I didn’t want to miss out on the experience of the French Pyrenees. But otherwise, I didn’t have any sense of when I would walk, or why.

I figured I could walk any time. I figured I would walk it some other time.

And life ticked along.

In the intervening years, I got a sensible, grown-up job in an office and learned just how short the weekends sometimes feel.

People told me: Ah, but this is what it means to be a responsible adult.

I waved off friends who went to live in faraway places, and even though I drove and flew across countries to see them, the distance took its toll. Everyone was busy, everyone had other things going on, and the spontaneity of just spending time together was difficult to achieve.

People said: This is what happens when you reach a certain age and everyone goes their own way in life.

I understood what they were saying, but the idea of working a 40 hour week for the next 40 years (in an industry where people burn out after only 5 years) and losing my friendships along the way, didn’t seem like a dream life.

Things didn’t feel so promising.

On the plus side, I met Handsome Man who later became Handsome Husband, and I became a wife though I never expected to marry at all. I came to realise that my decisions weren’t just my own any more. There were two of us, and my happiness or misery, affected us both.

You have to think beyond yourself now, they advised.

I was blessed to have a steady income while others lost their jobs. Lots of grown-up things were possible and I wanted them, but my job was getting to the point where it took more from me than it gave to me. With each passing year I felt that my situation was corrosive – spiritually corrosive. I needed the job to pay for the home, but I didn’t want to commit to the home while I felt so morally uneasy in the job.

And I had to wonder:

How good was the dream home if I had to stay in a toxic job to pay the mortgage?

The job might have been a means to an end but more and more, it was also an end to my sense of self.

That didn’t feel good.

I thought it was because of the office I worked in.

I thought my job wasn’t creative enough.

I thought I was in the wrong industry.

But they quipped, You’re lucky to even have a job, quit complaining.

So I changed my attitude, re-invented my role, and carried on as best I could.

But I felt conflicted. Even though many parts of my life worked smoothly and beautifully, I often felt:

Is this it, then? Is this what the next 40 years of my life look like? Chained to a desk, stressed out about someone else’s agenda in a job that strips away my integrity, and then I die?

I didn’t know *what* needed to change but I knew something had to change – and not just my attitude any more.

All of these things bubbled through my system, persistently and not always quietly.

***

When I walked camino, I met people of all ages, all backgrounds, from all over the world – every day. We asked each other a lot of the same questions:

How are your feet?

How far did you walk today?

and

Why are you walking camino?

I had several answers to the last question, in particular. Most people reacted warmly to my story and commended me for leaving a job that no longer felt good. Others were baffled by my decision to leave my job, my husband, and go walking without a plan, so I used this story as a way of explaining what was going on:

Earlier in 2013, I reached out to a friend to meet up for a coffee or lunch. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and I wanted to catch up. She didn’t live nearby but I offered to drive and meet her, or host her in my home instead.

Whatever worked – I was flexible.

Except that she couldn’t meet for at least 6 weeks. She had plans and commitments every day, and every weekend, in the meantime. If I wanted to see her, even for an hour-long cup of coffee, I’d have to schedule it at least 7 weeks in advance.

That seemed like an awful lot of scheduling.

Her response echoed an emerging pattern in my life:

Everyone was busy. Everyone had a packed timetable. Everyone was booked out in advance – even for cups of coffee and lunch breaks.

I thought to myself:

No wonder people feel isolated in the modern world. No wonder people feel left behind and alone. No wonder so many people take their own lives and when they do, everyone is surprised by their actions. We’re too busy to really connect.

If I had wanted to share good news, or sad news, or just needed to lean on my friend’s shoulder for an hour, I would have been very upset by her response that day. In a time of celebration or grief, who can afford to be told:

“I don’t have time to listen to this right now, make an appointment to come back to me in 7+ weeks.”

I looked around and realised I was stuck on some sort of hamster wheel: I was giving my best energy to a job that brought out the worst in me, and afterwards felt too depleted to nurture my heart’s desires. My friends were too busy to connect. And things weren’t going to improve any time soon.

People told me: This is normal, this is grown-up life – get used to it.

I understood, but didn’t agree.

I felt a massive imbalance in my life and figured there had to be a better way to live.

I was surviving but not thriving.

I needed to step away from the computers and the scheduling. I needed to go back to basics, somehow. I didn’t know what to change but I knew *something* had to change and I would know what to do, and when to do it, when the timing was right…..which brought me to Part 2….a divine decision!

 

Food and Drink on the Camino de Santiago

Paella....yuuummm

When I wrote about the things I missed while walking the camino, I mentioned missing vegetables and a kitchen. I wasn’t alone in this – you’d be surprised how many people talk about missing vegetables when they’re out there walking the trail for weeks on end. Fruit is pretty easy to find but somehow the veg was a bit trickier to locate – I guess it takes a bit more effort to provide plates of roasted squash or broccoli.

Oh man, I don’t think I even saw broccoli on my camino journey, never mind ate it!

Green vegetables were sorely lacking.

People talk about the food being basic and repetitive on camino. Breakfast was much the same every day, like a coffee with some toasted baguette or a croissant (tough life, I know!):

IMG_1065

Spanish omelette in the background, chocolate croissant in the foreground!

IMG_0965

A big breakfast: baguette with ham, chocolate croissant, and coffee

Even if I wanted a bowl of oatmeal or muesli, they were nowhere to be found. Suddenly, my not-so-fancy choices in “real life” seemed stupidly, ridiculously indulgent in rural Spain.

Still, this is a first-world problem and you’ll notice, I didn’t die of starvation at any point! 🙂

With more than 150,000 people on the route in 2013, feeding people was surely an exercise in efficiency – time efficiency as well as economic efficiency. Carbohydrates are cheap and easy to prepare. Protein is guaranteed to sell – after all, people are walking many miles and need high-energy foods to sustain them, so sandwiches usually consisted of dry baguette with either Spanish ham, chorizo, or Spanish tortilla. No additional lettuce or tomato or whatever other sandwich-like fillings you usually have – it was bread and meat – no more, no less. I learned afterwards that you can ask for sachets of mayonnaise separately so I’ll pass on that nugget of wisdom to those of you who’ll walk the way soon! I ate chorizo, ham, or some other pork product every day – and often 2-3 times a day.

By the end, I thought I’d had my fill of chorizo and would never touch the stuff again.

But surprisingly, a month or so after I returned home, I took an unexpected craving for the stuff and I threw it into every dish for about a week, delighting on the spicy, oily, meatiness. Lovely Husband was entertained by my change of heart, and watched with quiet bemusement.

Spanish tortillas (omelettes made with potato and onion) are available everywhere. With the exception of “Banana Man in a Van” in the middle of the Pyrenees, I don’t know that I saw eggs prepared any way other than in the tortilla/omelette. Boiled, scrambled, poached, with bacon and hash browns? Forget it all – it was omelette or nothing!

Lunch and dinner menus were interchangeable. Availing of the “pilgrim menu” was a cheap way to eat, as it meant getting a 3-course meal, served with baguette and wine, for just 10 Euro. I told friends about this when I came home and they swooned at the sound of it.

A 3-course meal – with wine and bread – for only TEN EURO, they cried!

Sign us up!

When I talk about bread, I mean a basket of freshly cut baguette.

When I say wine, I mean a whole bottle of wine – per person!

A bargain, for sure.

And with the exception of one glass (incidentally, pictured below), the wine was always delicious!

A glass of house wine “vino tinto” usually set me back something in the region of €1-1.50. I bought whole bottles with the price tag of just €5 but yet, I met pilgrims who bought locally-produced wine for as little as €2 per bottle. So when you crunch the numbers on that you realize that €1 per glass is a nice profit for the bar owner. Still, I was more than happy to get such a bargain, and happily handed over my Euro to drink smooth red wines from the Rioja region all the way across northern Spain.

There was no chance I’d get wine so cheaply at home so between you and me, I should have drank more of it – waaay more!

IMG_1157

But back to the 3-course meal…

In case you’re imagining fine dining with candlelight and fancy creamy sauces – forget it. Quite a lot, I ate chicken fillets that were quickly fried in a hot pan and dripping with hot oil. Nothing wrong with them, but there wasn’t always a lot of love in the cooking. Like I say, it was largely about efficiency.

Get ’em in, get ’em fed, get ’em out again!

And in case you’re imagining decadent deserts – maybe homebaked pies or creamy Black Forest Gateau – forget it. Often, dessert was a pot of yogurt (without the fruity compote at the top/bottom) so it wasn’t luxurious. I was glad of the extra sugar though, and have no complaints. And really, a 3-course meal with bread and wine for €10 – I’m surprised they offered a dessert at all!

The pilgrim menu didn’t vary much across the 800km. Over and over, I was handed a piece of paper like this one, with details of the menu printed in four languages. The first course offered more variety than the second course, and I learned that the mixed salad was a great way to get fresh vegetables into my system.

Menu

(Photo credit)

When I ordered the salad pictured below, the woman behind the bar took my order and wrote the details down in a notepad.

She then came out from behind the bar, walked away from me out the front door, and crossed the quiet country road.

Confused, I watched as she gently hopped over a low wall, and proceeded to cut two heads of lettuce – fresh from the garden!

When the leaves landed up on my plate minutes later, I thought it the most magical salad I had ever seen – and it gave me a new appreciation into just how much work goes into feeding thousands of hungry pilgrims!

IMG_1142

Egg, Tomato, Tuna, Onion, Olive, and White Asparagus

The quality of, and variety of, main courses varied from place to place. I didn’t see paella listed on the pilgrim menu that often – unfortunately. I’d have happily eaten it far more often than just 4-5 times. Some of the restaurants also had a “Menu del dia”, which listed their daily specials. If you wanted a break from the repetitive pilgrim menu, and were happy to pay a bit more, you’d get a better meal – generally.

One of the best meals I had was in a place called Mansilla de las Mulas, where my fish was battered in golden crumb and fried to perfection – it was a joy to my palate! I took a doggy bag away with me and ate it the next day for lunch, under a shady tree. The chef was delighted. He told me that too often, they have to throw food in the bin and no-one thinks to take leftovers on to the trail the next day. I was thrilled to have good food two days in a row!

One of my worst meals was in the town called Hospital de Órbigo, where I ate alone one evening. I wandered around looking for somewhere to eat at 7pm. This was way too early, as most Spaniards themselves don’t eat until well after 9pm, and many pilgrim meals don’t start until 8. I ordered a “fresh homemade” Hawaiian pizza but 20 minutes later, was presented with a rather bad frozen pizza-like-thing. The base was hard and dry, like cardboard. The sauce tasted like cheap ketchup with too much vinegar. I ate about 1/4 but eventually left it on my plate in search of something else.

First world problems, right? (eye roll at myself!)

Anyway, back to the 3 course meal…

You’ll see in the menu that they list “chicken”, “pork”, and “fish”. One day, I asked “What kind of fish?”. I’m not sure what I expected them to say, exactly, but when they rolled their eyes in return I realized I might have been asking a bit too much! I told myself to just eat it, be grateful, and shut up!

That said, the Spanish love their fish. Walking through some of the larger towns and cities, I passed supermarkets dedicated entirely to freezers full of fish – of all kinds! They sold nothing else but frozen fish – imagine!

In regular supermarkets, I passed entire aisles full of tinned fish, like the one below. I checked the labels here – there were no tins of beans, hotdogs, or sweetcorn – this was all fish!

IMG_1112

IMG_1215

Some days, dinner was heavy on the carb and light on nutrition!

If you’ve a sensitivity or allergy to gluten or to wheat, I think it’s tough going on camino. Baguette was served with every meal. Quite often, it was the main component of the meal – especially for breakfast. I met only one coeliac on my travels and she bought rice cakes in the bigger towns and cities, and carried them with her. At least they were light but she had to plan ahead in a way that most people don’t. She learned enough Spanish to be able to explain her condition to bar owners and restaurant staff, and while the rest of us munched on pastries and sandwiches, she asked for a plate of cheese or ham which she then spread on her rice cakes. She probably couldn’t eat the ubiquitous chorizo either, now that I think about it, but she seemed to find a way of managing her needs quite well.

The trick to walking the camino with special dietary needs? Learn lots of Spanish. Really.

I think vegetarians might get away okay but anything more unusual than that will require language skills. Staff are accommodating and often do everything they can to help, but they don’t always have the English (or German, Korean, etc.) to understand those needs. If you’ve got special requests, you’re better to have the language skills to articulate them.

As I progressed westwards into the province of Galicia, the food changed quite a bit. I started noticing stews and broths a lot more – and I found myself wanting them too. The northwest of Spain is said to be like the west of Ireland with stone walls, small green fields, and a chilly dampness to the air. Of course, it was early October by then so the autumn weather had an impact on things too.

I found myself desperately craving cups of hot tea, bowls of hot broth, and hearty, meaty dishes. This was such a contrast from the previous weeks, where the sun had been beating down on us every day and heavy, hearty meals were sometimes too much for my system.

Not so in Galicia though – I gorged on meat and soups as often as I could.

By the end of camino I was eating 5-6 meals a day and was still *always* ravenous – I guess walking all those miles had burned off a few calories after all!

IMG_1253

Also in Galicia, I noticed more and more donation stations along the route. The last 100km or so are the busiest along Camino Francés. Thousands of pilgrims start their camino at Sarria, just over 100km from Santiago. This is the minimum distance you’d have to walk if you want to be issued with a certificate (compostela) for completing Camino.

Thankfully, the coffee shops are plentiful along this stretch. In between, some of the locals leave out flasks of tea and coffee, with snacks and treats of all sorts, on the side of the trail. The idea is that you take refreshment if you need it – and you pay a donation into the box provided.

Some of the donation tables were a bit “rustic” and held more wild flowers and coloured pebbles than they did *actual food*. Ordinarily, I love my wild flowers and coloured pebbles but I couldn’t eat them, so I’d sometimes take the coffee and quickly move on. The flowers were lovely but they didn’t satisfy my empty belly!

This table was very impressive to me, though. It screamed of cleanliness and organization. I liked that the mugs were turned downwards, and not filled with dust or insects. I also loved that they’d thought to offer paper towel – what a novelty! I loved finding these little tables along the way and I spent the last 100km of Camino sampling my way through all of the hot coffee and home-baked pastries I could find! 🙂

IMG_1259

At different points along the way, I ate wild food and free food, too. Sometimes the local farmers generously hand out fruit from the side of their orchards and vines – so I saw pilgrims coming away beaming with glee at the handfuls of fresh tomatoes and grapes they’d been given. Very cute! Other times, I passed trees and bushes that were heavy with fruit – like the fig tree that this beauty came from:

IMG_1108

Imagine the decadence! I don’t think I’d ever had sun-ripened fresh figs before and I swear, they were a highlight in what-was-otherwise a very tough day! I can still taste the juicy sweetness – wow!

There’s one particular town in Galicia that’s famous for its “pulpo” or octopus. I heard it was delicious but I didn’t dare try it – I’ve got too vivid an imagination and I’ve watched too many low quality science fiction movies in my youth – the image of those creatures lurking in the deep has me ruined. Interestingly though, the town itself is not beside the sea. It’s not even close to the sea – so I would love to know how on earth it became famous for its octopus when the nearest coastline is more than 100km away!

By the time I arrived in Galicia it was early October and the autumn fruits were heaving from the trees. I took a shortcut from my hostel one evening in Vega de Valcarce and came upon this bounty of windfall apples – of course, I stopped to eat a few – deliciously sweet!

IMG_1153

Eventually, I came home with a renewed awe for my body. Not only was it strong enough to cross Spain the old-fashioned way (on foot!) but it did so on a very limited diet. All the knowledge and training I’ve had on nutrition went out the window in Spain. The food was basic and it was generally good, but there wasn’t a whole lot of variety.

I was amazed that my body rose to the greatest physical challenge I had ever presented it with – and on such a basic diet.

Every day, I eat food that is of better quality and higher nutritional value than I did on Camino – only to sit in an office and work on a computer!

On Camino, I carried my body and all my belongings across a country!

I climbed mountains.

I walked in the rain, the cold, the sweltering sun.

I walked for hours at a time, day after day after day.

I burned calories by the bucket load and my body needed rapid repair to cope with the physical exertion.

That’s when I needed the high-grade nutrition but I survived on copious amounts of baguette, coffee, and chorizo – AMAZING!

I came home thrilled and buoyant, and surprised that I didn’t have a cold, a flu, or some sort of low-grade malnutrition. I thought my body was truly outstanding for working so hard with such little nutritional support. It made me realize just how little I need to survive – not just in terms of physical possessions but in terms of food intake, too. Our bodies are designed to glean nutrition from the most humble food, and somehow mine had walked an outstanding 500 miles and thrived.

Love it!

I came home to kitchen cupboards full of food – so much variety! I gasped at the sight of breakfast cereals and muesli, casually sitting on the counter top, waiting to be eaten. I marvelled at the generosity of a fresh pineapple – so much sweetness and I didn’t have to worry about the weight of carrying it! I came home and gazed at the contents of my fridge in baffled wonder – so much food – what would I do with it all?

Why, eat it, of course! 🙂

What were your food & drink experiences on your travels, whether camino or otherwise?

What did you love to eat?

What did you groan at the sight of?

And if you had any special dietary needs, how did you manage them?

 

A New Beginning in Burgos

When I decided to stop in Burgos and get a private room, I knew a few things:

  • I was running on empty
  • I needed some space and time to myself
  • I needed a chance to mentally regroup

I slept soundly the first night in my little single bed. Such bliss! I planned to continue walking the next day but when I woke in the morning, my body said otherwise.

I asked if they had space to let me stay a second night.

, the receptionist replied.

Delighted and relieved, I went back to bed and slept for another 5 hours!

This was *my kind of camino!*

Even though I planned my camino journey in just a month, I knew in advance what my “challenges” were likely to be. I wasn’t that worried about breaking a leg or getting lost on the trail. I wasn’t even worried about the alleged lack of beds or the fact that I spoke very little Spanish. Before I ever strapped the backpack to my shoulders I knew that these would be my main personal challenges:

Separately, I had a sense of what my physical challenges would be but funnily enough, they tied into the personal challenges above. I guess it’s a case of:

Where the mind goes, the body will follow.

How did I know what my stumbling blocks were? Well, these were my challenges in everyday “real life”. I knew I carried them with me to France and Spain, too.

I knew who I was “going in”.

Question was, who would I be “coming out” at the end?

Time, and lots of walking, would tell.

I’m not ashamed to admit that by the time I got to Burgos, I was starting to get a little crazy around the edges. My nights in Villambistia and Atapuerca pushed my buttons and I felt frazzled almost all the time. I had a notion that walking Camino would fill me with blissful contentment and radiant connection with my fellow pilgrims: so why was I feeling grouchy and tearful?

I put it down to being exhausted and over-stimulated, and just not getting enough sleep to recalibrate. Simple as that.

I’m like this in my everyday life, too. If I work too hard, play too hard, and don’t get enough “down time” on my own, I get strung out and sick. In my “real life”, I have a private room every night. I have a front door, which keeps some of the madness at bay. When my life gets too loud, I have ways of turning down the volume.

On Camino, I didn’t have any of those things, so taking 2 nights in a private room in Burgos was my equivalent of “turning down the volume”.

I slept a lot, I explored the city on my own, and I ate a beef burger (not chorizo, not baguette, not pork!) in a trendy, hip wine bar full of young people in a party mood.

Burgos was one of the spots on my Camino where I got to hit the “RESET” button and it gave me a new beginning.

Getting some sleep helped quieten some of the crazy and I came to realize a few things:

  • I need what I need. Some days I need to walk fast, others I need to walk slow. Some days I need a private room to sleep and be quiet. Instead of judging myself and berating myself for needing these things, I’m better off just tending to those needs as best I can, and getting on with things.
  • I was roughly 1/3 of the way into my 500 mile journey. For almost 2 weeks, I’d walked with a tentative hope in my heart. I hoped to make it to Santiago and I wanted to make it to Santiago, but I was never sure I would make it to Santiago. I had done no physical training and I was never sure whether my body would continue to rise to the challenge. In Burgos, I realized I was 1/3 of the way “there” and that knowing filled me with confidence for the next leg of the journey.
  • I needed to walk more for myself. At different points up to then, I’d changed my pace and plans to suit others – usually because I didn’t want to offend them. I had a notion that walking Camino meant we were all equal, all humble, and all with the same agenda. I was a bit misguided in that belief. In Burgos, I realized I needed to get a bit more selfish about my own process, my own needs, and my own journey. I needed to “grab it by the horns” and go make it my own.

I got the rest and sleep I needed. I turned down some of the crazy. I left my little bed and the city feeling a bit tougher, a bit stronger, and a bit more focused.

I didn’t know what it would bring but I knew I felt ready for the challenge. Burgos had given me a chance to hit “RESET” and start again.

Does this sound familiar at all? What did *you* do to hit the “RESET” button in your life – whether on camino or elsewhere?