Camino de Santiago: The Things Strangers Say…

On my walk from Burgos to San Bol, I stopped for a few minutes to take off my backpack and stretch out my shoulders. The morning was warm and bright and though we’d never met before, an older Australian woman stopped beside me to chat. She was full of loud enthusiasm while I felt more subdued.

I could sense that she mistook my quiet responses for disinterest or plain rudeness. What she didn’t know about me that morning was that I was on my second day of bad cramps and I was tentative about being on the trail at all. In Burgos, the private room, extra sleep, and heavy pain meds had got me through the worst…but I wasn’t out of the proverbial woods yet. I wasn’t sure about my body’s ability to carry a backpack long distances and walk in the searing heat. So, I followed my body’s needs that morning – walking slowly and gently. I wanted to at least try walking some of the trail but decided that if my body needed to stop after just a few kilometers then that’s what I would do.

For once, I was willing to go a bit easier on myself. I didn’t care about covering a certain distance or the speed of my walking: I was doing well to stand upright!

She said two things to me that morning that rattled around in  my system for weeks and months to follow. Without ever realizing it, she sparked a new direction for my inner camino.

She enquired: Are you going all the way to Santiago?

That’s the hope, I replied.

Well you don’t sound very positive! she snorted.

I thought my response was honest and realistic. Given the morning that was in it, I thought it an accurate sentiment. I wanted to walk all the way to Santiago. I intended to try walking all the way to Santiago. But I never knew whether I would walk all the way to Santiago. I couldn’t guarantee anything. Her impatient dismissal caught me off guard and I spent the rest of my camino wondering which one of us was “right”. Was I lacking in confidence or was she overly so? I never could tell.

It struck me that she held a certain expectation of how I should respond, as though the conversation was tightly scripted in advance. If that’s the case, then we tell people what we think they want to hear and they do the same to us. If we do this, none of us are allowed to change, or grow, or be/do/feel something unexpected. It takes time to have a real conversation. I don’t mean that it has to be a long one, but if I ask someone how they are and I really listen to their response, I might find the conversation goes somewhere surprising. It might get uncomfortable and I might need a few extra minutes to respond to properly, instead of replying with a common platitude.

Otherwise, we’re all running the same old script day in, day out.

How are you?

I’m fine/great!

Good to hear! See you soon.

And we don’t get any deeper than that.

She was right, of course. I didn’t sound very positive because I wasn’t very positive. But on that sunny autumn morning, I had every reason to believe that my chances of making it were as good as anyone else’s. I gave an honest response but she either didn’t know how to listen, or didn’t want to. Either way, her judgement and quick scorn caught me by surprise and I instantly wanted to put some distance between us. I had enough of that BS in my life already without inviting it from random strangers!

But still….it was a remark that followed me all the way to Santiago, and beyond.

She also asked me all about my stop off in Burgos, and shared that she’d suffered some stomach troubles so she’d organized a bus to carry her backpack that day.

She declared: You have to take care of yourself!

She said it with such authority that it struck me to my core. And I instantly recognized:

I’m not doing that very well.

I was physically tender and my body really needed to be horizontal and still, but there I was, carrying a heavy bag across the countryside and hoping to walk nearly 25km to San Bol. I thought that allowing myself to stop off earlier was “taking care of myself”.  I thought that was “going easy on myself.”

It never occurred to me to stay on in Burgos until I felt well enough to walk. It never occurred to me to book a private room somewhere so I’d be guaranteed a bed, without the daily guessing game of where I’d sleep that night. It never occurred to me to have a bus company carry my bag and spare my body the extra strain.

The way she took care of herself and the way I did it, were quite different.

Honestly, I thought she was a wuss. I thought she was a cop-out. I thought she was being way too soft on herself. But her comment needled me in a tender spot and I spent the rest of my camino journey quietly reflecting on the ways in which I do, and don’t take care of myself.  I thought that eating my broccoli and getting regular exercise were enough. Turns out, I need more than that. The camino experience had already challenged me by then – I’d learned (the hard way) that I needed alone time and rest in quantities that my fellow pilgrims didn’t always share. Her off-the-cuff remark gave me a starting point to reflect on how best to take care of myself in life.

I considered it every day on the trail.

I still find myself reflecting on what it means to take care of myself. In the months that have passed since I finished walking camino, I’ve been continually surprised by what it means to take better care of myself. In some cases, it’s meant disengaging from conversations and relationships that no longer sustain me. In others, it means allowing myself to be still and wait for my inner knowing to come up with the answers to my questions. It’s an ongoing discovery. It’s one of the ways camino continues to change who I am in my own life, and in the world.

I bet she’s long forgotten me and our conversation that morning. I bet she never imagined she had such a profound effect on me, and shook me up in unexpected ways.

The people we meet on camino are not always the people we want to hang out with, but some of them have a lesson for us all the same. Gotta love it!

 

 

 

 

Camino Continues: Bye Bye Burgos!

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Distance left to Santiago: 501.2 km

After stopping off in Burgos for two nights, I felt ready to hit the road again. I had walked over 1/3 of the journey by then and found myself still up for the challenge. Sure, I was sore and tired but I wasn’t done with the walking. The city was beautiful but full of trinkets I didn’t need or want to carry. I left my private room around 7am and tentatively stepped my way down the stairs. It felt good to go.

I was surprised to find myself in open countryside in no time, and the sound of early morning traffic was replaced by birdsong and insects. The morning was cool and still: it felt ripe with possibility. My belly was still sore but emotionally, I felt robust again. Some “alone-time” and decent sleep had done me the world of good.

I hoped to walk to San Bol that afternoon and at 24km, it seemed like a reasonable distance. But with only 12 beds, I had my doubts that this private hostel would have space for me by the time I’d arrive. Pilgrims swooned about San Bol as some sort of mini-retreat or oasis spot…lots of people wanted to stop there but we couldn’t all fit. I pinned my hopes on it anyway and started walking west. In between, there were other places I could stop off if I really needed to. Having a get-out clause was important that day.

I don’t know whether it was because I had slept well, or began to find my rhythm, or what, but the next 1/3 of my camino journey was probably my favorite part of the whole thing. I was surprised by that. I knew I was heading into the Meseta region and was facing a week of flat landscape with nothing but wheat fields and beating sun. People around me had talked about skipping the Meseta region entirely because they’d heard it was “boring” or “too hard”. I’d heard that the Meseta was the mental part of the camino – all that open space and the lack of shady trees can do strange things to your mind. Apparently, it’s the section where people either:

  • Lose their minds
  • Find themselves
  • Find God
  • Start hallucinating, or
  • Give up and go home

It sounded pretty extreme.

I didn’ t believe in taking a bus or train across it just because the flat landscape sounded dull. But so far, I had enjoyed the undulating trail, with humpback bridges, woodland, and vineyards. I’d enjoyed the variety of colors and textures. The ever-changing landscape had fed my spirit, even on difficult days. So, how would it be to walk for a week across a flat, empty landscape, in 35 degree heat, for hours at a time?

Turns out, I loved it!

That morning, walking out of Burgos and into the open countryside was like being able to breathe again. The sound of my feet crunching on gravel, the sound of my walking poles tapping the earth, and the swing of my body with each step forward were, together, a liberation. I was on my third week of walking and things were starting to look up.

As early morning turned to late morning, the sunshine burned away the lingering clouds and dew to reveal yet another, azure blue sky. I could get used to a life like that!

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One thing I loved about the openness of the Meseta, in particular, was being able to see when the next town or village lay ahead. The flat, expansive landscape made it easy to spot the rooftops and shade of human habitation. With it, there might be the prospect of a coffee or some lunch, maybe the chance to sit in the shade for half an hour and air out my sweaty feet. The 100m descent into Hornillos de Camino (above) gave me a great vantage point of the village ahead. Though it has a population of only 70 people or so, my chances of getting a coffee in a half hour were good. It motivated me to keep walking.

I’ve followed other camino blogs and seen versions of the photo above, taken in the spring when the ground was lush and green. To me, it was almost unrecognizable. The day *I* walked into the village, the earth was a dusty brown color for miles around. The crops had already been harvested and only coarse stubble remained. This was the beginning of my Meseta experience.

Hornillos de Camino did, indeed, give me a chance to enjoy the shade, air out my feet, and enjoy some tasty, tuna empanadas for my lunch. Afterwards, I pottered around the Gothic church, lit some candles, and gathered my thoughts for the next leg of my journey.  There were less than 6km to San Bol but I wasn’t sure of my chances of scoring a bed there. If I couldn’t get one, I’d have to walk another 5km to Hontanas, and the afternoon was only getting more hot. I needed to make sure I had the energy to walk that far, and more, if it came to it.

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The hostel is a bit in off the roadway so you could spend half an hour walking there to ask for a room only to find none available, and have to double back to the main trail. There were days on camino when those half-hour detours were a luxury I couldn’t afford – in terms of time and in terms of minding my sore feet. This day, however, I felt good. I felt strong enough to risk it, and strong enough to walk another hour to Hontanas if I had to.

Even though two pilgrims ran past me on the trail to get to the hostel (and secure beds) that day, I kept my pace and my calm. I didn’t worry about it. Their anxiety about accommodation had dogged them every day for nearly three weeks already. We’d met earlier on the trail, chatted, laughed, and compared notes. But here they were, literally racing for beds and pushing ahead of me to do so.  I had expected (and assumed) the camino was all about camaraderie, humility, and surrender. There were days when I was surprised to find otherwise.

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As luck would have it, I made it to San Bol in the early afternoon, just in time to score the second last bed…what relief! I even got to choose a bottom bunk bed inside the cool, stone bedroom. The facilities were clean and modern, but basic. There was one toilet and one shower, so there was always a line of people waiting their turn. We were asked to wash our clothes in the ice-cold stream outside, so the scene of a dozen pilgrims rubbing their clothes against the rocks was….rustic. We sat in the shade of the tall trees, dipping our aching, blistered feet into the cold water, and getting to know each other. Somehow, the usual scramble for beds, showers, and laundry facilities was lessened here.

There was quiet.

There were pilgrims writing quietly in their journals and falling asleep under the trees. There was the sound of clothes on the line, snapping and flapping in the brisk, summer breeze. And there was a sort of idyllic calm to it all. It reminded me of childhood summers spent in summer meadows, lying in the long grass, gazing at the sky, with not a lot going on.

It was exactly what I needed that day.

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Later that evening, our hospitalera cooked up an enormous paella for us in a pan that was 1m wide, and we feasted on the seasoned rice and sticky chicken with gusto. With a green salad, lashings of red wine, and baskets of bread with olive oil, and we were happily sated. More pilgrims had arrived by then and would sleep on the tiled floor that night, but we shared a meal with merriment and laughter.

Our generator stopped working at 8pm so it was lights-out then, with no electronics, no lights, and no interruptions from the outside world. A small group sat outside by the stream to smoke cigarettes, finish the wine, and play soft guitar music while the evening sky gently darkened. I was in bed by 8:30 that evening (a record!) and fell into a deep sleep within seconds.

Bliss.

Camino Challenge: Preparing for Camino de Santiago

Before I walked the 500-mile Camino Francés, my good friend Jen told me “You can’t prepare for camino”. In essence, I think she was telling me that so much happens on camino (internally and externally) that you can’t possibly prepare for it all. At the time, however, I took her words a bit more literally. I planned my trip in just 4-5 weeks, so it suited me to hear that I couldn’t prepare because I didn’t have time to!

I didn’t do much preparation for my camino. There are pluses and minuses to that but given the circumstances in which I decided to walk, I couldn’t have planned it any better. And I wouldn’t have had the transformative experience I did have, if I’d plotted it all in advance.

But I learned that there *are* some things you can do to make things easier. And honestly, walking 500 miles is often hard, so knowing how to make your life a bit easier can be the difference between being utterly miserable, or not.

So, in no particular order, here are some of my thoughts on how to prepare for camino. I wonder whether you’ll agree!

  • Take some time to reflect on why you want to walk.

Doing the camino” is really popular right now and many people treat it as something on a “bucket list” that needs to be checked off. Others treat it as a physical challenge like a triathlon or marathon. Rightly or wrongly, this attitude creates a whole load of competitive thinking as people race to walk more quickly, or farther, than the people beside them. Take some time to reflect on why you’re there, or what you’d like to get from the experience – it will help you focus your attentions on your needs and your experience, and buffer you from some of the “group-think”.

  • Learn how to take care of your feet.

Really. Walking long distances every day cause the feet to swell by a shoe size or more. Go up a size when you buy your footwear. And know that one size up may not be enough – so be prepared to buy new shoes along the way if you need to.

You also need to know that two things cause blisters: moisture and friction. Do everything you can to minimise both of these things and you increase your odds of being blister-free. For the worst-case scenario, learn how to treat blisters so they don’t get infected. Blisters are not your friend so don’t invite them in the first place and don’t let them hang around!

On a related note, I didn’t realise until afterwards that carrying a backpack affects your posture. Walking long distances affects your energy levels. Bad posture and tiredness affect how you walk and how much pressure is on your feet. Tendons and ligaments get strained and swollen. Learn how to take care of your feet with ice packs, taping, massage, etc. *My* knowledge in this area was rudimentary. Next time, I’ll do my research in advance!

  • Research the weather forecast for your planned route and season – it dictates your packing list.

I say this because *I* live on a coast where wind and rain are a year-round reality. When *I* go hiking and camping, I need waterproof and windproof gear. All of my previous training in hiking and backpacking told me to bring thick wool socks, boots, a raincoat, and rain pants. However, the Spanish weather forecast told me that the route had been rain-free for weeks, so I knew the ground would be hard and dry underfoot. This meant lighter footwear, lighter socks, and less clothing.

Research the weather forecast for the time you intend to walk and for the weeks beforehand. Knowing how wet/dry it’s been can help you plan your gear.

  • Bring less “stuff” and bring more money.

“Stuff” will literally weigh you down but extra cash allows you to avail of an unscheduled dental visit, a private room when the hostel is full, or a new poncho in the unexpected thunder storm. Plus, carrying cash and cards is lighter than carrying gear!

  • The lighter your pack, the better.

Really. Lots of people obsess about the weight of their packed bag – and rightly so. I carried too much water and my pack often weighed 10kg, which was far too heavy for long distance. Choose lightweight gear, bring the bare minimum, and don’t get talked into carrying 4 litres of water, like I did!

  • Get active.

For most people, this means doing training hikes for weeks in advance but it’s not the only way to prepare the body. Unless you already walk 25km every day, you can’t prepare your body for walking 25km every day. But training hikes do help and being active in other ways still helps build physical strength – so get off the couch and get moving.

  • Learn some Spanish.

Anyone can learn 5-10 key phrases and it’s a small mark of respect to at least start a conversation in Spanish. It’s not rocket science. Don’t be the ass who insists on speaking English all the time: learn some Spanish (with a smile) and you’ll find transactions easier.

  • Learn some stretches.

This one was a massive benefit to me. I stretched at every rest stop and every evening when I finished walking. I imagine some people thought I did it to look sporty but I didn’t care: stretching stopped me from seizing up and getting injured. I did every yoga pose and physiotherapy pose I could think of – hamstrings, calf muscles, shoulders, and hips. Highly recommended.

  • Don’t compare yourself to others.

The camino is all sorts of things all at once but it’s not always what you expect, want, or were told it would be. There were times I walked a happy 6km per hour and times I walked a depressed 2km per hour. Both times, I did my best. My “best” was something that changed every day.

I compared myself to others and berated myself for being slow, sore, and emotionally overwhelmed.

Turns out, lots of other people were slow, sore, and emotionally overwhelmed, too – go figure!

It’s easy to find people who are having more fun, who are more fit, or who have more money for pampering treats. There is always someone faster and there is always someone slower – literally, as well as figuratively. Comparing yourself to others is a lose-lose situation – one that’s best avoided.

Next time I walk, I want to get my footwear and foot care sorted in advance. I should have worn my customized insoles and spared myself the agonizing tendonitis and swollen ligaments. Next time, getting that stuff organized in advance is number one on my list of preparations (ideally with a foot specialist who understands long distance hiking or running).

After that, I’d plan my rest days in advance and book private rooms with crisp, clean sheets and luxurious hot baths. I didn’t do that enough last time round…I know better for next time!

But what about you? How did you prepare for camino or how would you prepare? What points would you add? What points do you disagree with? And do you think it’s possible to prepare at all?