Camino de Santiago: A Lesson in Self-Care

In Hospital de Órbigo, I took stock of where I was on my camino journey.  I had walked about 500km by then – an astonishing amount. Roughly speaking, the city of León had opened up the final third of the journey so it felt like a good time to reflect on what I was learning along the way.

My journal is full of conflicts about how I wanted to walk. It was one thing to put “one-foot-in-front-of-the-other” but I was concerned too about the state of my heart. Was I feeling impatient or compassionate? Was I being judgemental or open-minded? How had I been for the 500km already walked and how did I want to be for the remaining 300km ahead?

There was lots to reflect on.

In Hospital de Órbigo, I met a pilgrim who referred to her tendonitis as a disability (I kid you not), and planned to take buses for the remainder of the journey.

I felt a knot of conflict in my chest.

Personally, I don’t think swollen tendons are a disability.

Is the condition painful? Sure.

It it as life-changing as a disability and as significant as all that the term entails? Hmmm…no.

So, I thought this woman was a bit dramatic and self-absorbed.

And then I felt guilty for judging her because really, what right did I have to pass comment?

And *then* I felt conflicted about whether I should, like her, “take care of myself” and take a bus and give my body a break? Should I take ibuprofen every day like so many of the other pilgrims around me? Should I rest more, go to a doctor, and find a massage therapist?

My answer to all of those things was an emphatic No.

I didn’t think my pain was serious enough to merit intervention of any kind. I knew that once I got home, had a bit of sleep, and stopped walking 25-30km every day with a heavy bag on my back, I’d be fine. So my plan was to “get through” my discomfort until then. I didn’t think much of alleviating that discomfort or, perish the thought, omitting it entirely! That decision was a conflict for me throughout my camino. I felt rather purist in my intention to walk every step but there was no denying that other pilgrims seemed to be in less pain or seemed to be having a lot more fun.

I couldn’t ignore the fact that there might be some good in taking pain relief and/or buses: I just couldn’t bring myself to avail of that goodness.

On reflection, that mindset permeated my camino journey: my emphasis was on enduring it rather than enjoying it.

I was somewhat aware of it at the time and regretted it, but also didn’t know how to change it.

I met countless pilgrims from around the world who had spent years preparing, researching, and anticipating their camino journey. Compared to me, they seemed to lap up every sunrise and every cup of coffee with a sort of marvelous wonder. I was ashamed of my attitude and at the same time, felt immense pressure to keep going. Handsome Husband had made plans to meet me in Santiago and somehow, I needed to arrive there by a certain date. I didn’t want to take a bus. I didn’t want to take a train. If I was going to walk it, then I wanted to walk it well.

That all sounded fine and dandy but I just couldn’t figure out my definition of “well” and what it meant for my walking journey.

In Hospital de Órbigo, I took the time to rest and reflect. I took the time to figure out what I needed for the remainder of my walk. I had pushed hard for three and a half weeks already and I had often felt over-exposed and emotional. For the remainder of my journey, I wanted to feel more centred and calm. I wanted to feel more generous of heart. I wanted to walk well and I wanted to arrive well, too. And that last point, right there, is a whole other philosophy for life. Camino, like life, isn’t just about the destination: the journey itself (and how you live it) is key.

So, Handsome Husband and I cancelled our plans to meet in Santiago. I couldn’t sustain walking 30km every day for the following 10 days: I needed another rest day somewhere along the route. I needed to take better care of myself. I needed to go a bit more gently. What a liberation to say all of this aloud and feel heard! Handsome Husband took the news with a gracious heart and assured me there was no pressure: he only wanted for me to be well. He’s a good man, that one! ;-D

And so, unexpectedly, my two nights in “Hospital” were a chance to rest and recover in all sorts of ways. I left with renewed strength and optimism, and some lessons for the rest of my life.

My point in all of this?

If you’re like me, you might not know how to get what you need. Heck, maybe you’re so busy “enduring” life that you don’t even know what you need sometimes. And maybe you feel the twinge of conflict when you see someone else getting (or indeed, taking) what they need. Those twinges are uncomfortable but also informative. Those twinges can help identify what you value, what’s lacking, and what you want to do differently.

Don’t ignore the twinges of conflict: investigate them and learn. Take the time to rest and reflect. Allow yourself to discover what you need in your life to take it. You might just find, like me, that your life involves a little less pain and a lot more fun!

 

 

Camino de Santiago and 2 Nights in Hospital (de Órbigo)

Distance walked: 28.5km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 303.4km

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When I got to León, I thought the city marked the end of the Meseta region in northern Spain. After a week or so of walking through wheat and corn fields, I thought the landscape would turn into something more leafy, just like the first 300km of my walking journey. I thought the wheat and corn fields were a thing of the past.

I was wrong!

When I left La Virgen del Camino, a suburb of León, the streets were quiet. The wave of pilgrims leaving León hadn’t yet arrived that morning and the quiet created a bit of a reprieve. I felt I was “ahead”, somehow.

Later, I used my phone to record videos for Handsome Husband at home. He and I had kept in touch every day while I walked, but just as I was starting to feel that I had been a nomad for months already, so too for him. He cheered me on from afar but was looking forward to my return. So, I recorded some videos from the trail that day: corn fields on the left and corn fields on the right…and a video of a farm irrigation canal just to break up the boredom! Brierley’s book says, “…once you leave Virgen del Camino, on the recommended route, there are few facilitates along this relatively isolated stretch.”

He wasn’t lying!

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Sometimes you have to look *really* closely for signage!

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I’d set my sights on Hospital de Órbigo, which has one of the “longest and best preserved medieval bridges in Spain dating from the 13th century and built over an earlier Roman bridge.” My map showed plenty of accommodation options and I figured my chances were pretty good of securing a bed for the night.

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In retrospect, I would have done well to stop a bit earlier that day. Or maybe I would have done well to stop in León the previous day and rest a bit extra. I hadn’t quite recovered from my folly of carrying four litres of water, days earlier. My body was still tired and sore, and by the time I arrived in Hospital de Órbigo that afternoon, I was feeling a bit burnt out. I arrived during siesta, when all the town’s shutters were down and the streets were quiet. I was thrilled to secure a bottom bunk bed in Albergue Karl Leisner, the parish hostel in a historic building that had been renovated by a German Confraternity. I washed my clothes and hung them to dry on a sunny clothes line. I sat and brushed my feet against the newly-cut, short, sharp grass. Pilgrims played guitars, cats lazed in the sun, and white clouds raced through the sky overhead.

I liked the hostel but I felt out of place in the town. As with a lot of restaurants along the way, dinner wasn’t served until 8pm and by then, after I had finished attending a pilgrim mass, I was very nearly too tired to eat. I wandered the streets looking for somewhere wholesome and lively but struggled to find anywhere. I met only a handful of pilgrims on the streets and they were faces I didn’t recognise. I’d fallen out of step with the people I knew, so eating alone in town that evening was rather lonesome. I didn’t know where everyone was but it sure felt like they weren’t eating out like I was that evening.

In the end, I settled for a café offering “homemade pizza” but when they produced a not-quite-defrosted pizza base cooked with ketchup on top, well, I cut my losses and left early. The TV screen in the corner blared with football and the old men at the counter didn’t notice that I left. I quietly paid and went on my way: that was probably my most dismal dinner experience on camino and I was glad to go back to the hostel, to bed.

It only occurred to me when I returned home that while I walked camino, I didn’t do a very good job of building in rest days along the way. If, like me, you work Monday-Friday, then your weekly pattern looks something like this:

Work for five days…

Rest (or do other things!) for two days…

Week in, week out, there is a rhythm there, allowing the body and mind a chance to rest, regroup.

On camino, I kind of walked and walked and walked and only took a “rest” when I was in a lot of pain or extremely exhausted. I didn’t have a rhythm and I didn’t really recover as I walked from one place to the next. In Hospital de Órbigo, I took some time to rest and recover. I didn’t feel actively “sick” but I didn’t have the heart to walk on, so I asked to stay a second night. Ordinarily, this isn’t the norm: the arrangement is to stay one night and then move on before 8am the next day. Pilgrims don’t tend to hang around any longer unless they are injured or sick in some way.

The volunteer behind the desk very kindly ushered me into a “private room” where I could sleep in peace…and I did. That saint of a woman even made me some green tea with honey, and assured me that she was nearby if I needed anything at all. I was so overwhelmed with the kindness that I bawled my eyes out crying…and then fell quickly to sleep! 😀

Private room…not exactly private but certainly quieter than the dorms

Looking back, I needed the rest and was thrilled to have it. But you know, I am sorry I didn’t keep in closer contact with my friends along the way. Even though I needed to walk camino on my own, I later learned that Kevin and Liz were in town at the same time as I. Had I known, we might have had dinner together. Kevin had a great skill for finding the most delicious tapas and gourmet feasts along the way: I might have enjoyed chat and laughter, and actual food, instead of sitting alone in a loud, flourescent-lit café bar, trying to eat frozen pizza. Of course, they might have had other plans and might not have wanted me tagging along, but I didn’t reach out to them so we’ll never know!

So, let that be a reminder to us all: keep in touch with the good people in your life, they add the colour and heart that we all need. 🙂

Camino de Santiago: Deciding whether to stay in León

A girl could get used to this…

Distance walked: 26.4km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 309km

The walk out of Mansilla de las Mulas was flat and happily uneventful. After the previous day’s walk,  my feet and shoulders were exceptionally sore and I walked a bit more gingerly than usual. As the morning wore on, my muscles warmed up, the coffee worked its magic, and I found a pace I could comfortably sustain. Like all the days before me, I just put one foot in front of the other.

By then, I’d already covered nearly 500km of the route so I was well and truly past the half way mark. Honestly, I felt it. I felt like a bit of a nomad. All that open landscape and blue, blue sky had altered my sense of…everything. Surprisingly, I enjoyed that the trail was significantly quieter than every other stretch of the camino. Similarly, I enjoyed the expansiveness of such a flat landscape. And even though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, a week of walking through the Meseta really made me feel like I was a long way from home – not just in terms of miles, but in terms of mindset, too. Everywhere else on camino, supermarkets and people and newspaper stands reminded me that I was effectively on holidays in another country. Out in the Meseta though, I felt different. I don’t know if it’s because farming towns and villages are different, or because there were so few people, or because of the landscape itself, but I really felt I was on a journey, not just on holidays. And that wasn’t a bad thing.

All the pilgrims planned to stop in the city of León later that day. After a week of wheat and corn fields, they were looking forward to a cityscape again, with the famous cathedral and some fine dining. Me? I was kind of “done” with the Meseta too. I’d seen enough wheat and corn, and I needed a bit of visual diversity again. But honestly, I wasn’t ready to be in a city – even one as small as 130,000 people. I didn’t care about the cathedral. I didn’t care about shopping or restaurants or staying in a nice hotel. I was happier out in the countryside.

León was bustling with energy and spirit. Natives, pilgrims, and regular (by that I mean non-pilgrim) tourists poured through the cobbled streets, filling the air with laughter and chat. I followed the yellow arrows through the streets, all the while trying to decide whether to stay in the city that night. Though I had started camino on a one-way ticket and had no planned return date, things had changed in the meantime. I had booked a return flight home and so, I needed to be in Santiago by a specific date.

Did I feel pressured by that timeline?

Absolutely.

And yet, I felt that I didn’t want to stay in Spain for more than six weeks. I might have felt greatly detatched from my life at home but I didn’t want to make that a reality by staying any longer.

So, I wandered through León, feeling the atmosphere as I went, and tried to decide what to do.

I wanted to stop for some food and a rest.

I wanted to stop and reflect a little while.

I wanted to decide whether to push on to Santiago for a specific date, or to go a bit more slowly.

I rounded a corner and came into an open square, filled with outdoor tables and chairs in anticipation of lunchtime. Delighted that they were all in the shade, I pulled up a chair and removed my sweaty backpack, and consulted the menu. And then, with no forewarning or pre-planning, I spotted someone I knew: Kevin! The same guy I’d met way back on Day 1 in Orisson, and whom I’d bumped into countless times since, was in León! We hadn’t seen each other in days, but it felt like months or even years. We hadn’t planned to meet so to spot him right there, right then, was such a joy.

Amazing serendipity!

He ran to retrieve Liz and together, the three of us sat for lunch in the shady square. I feasted on paella and wine, and considered my options for the road ahead. Liz, a great listener, helped me articulate my reservations about staying in León. I might have been the only pilgrim that day who didn’t want to stop in the city and take in its sights, but Liz gently coaxed me to do what I wanted to do. And so, when the food was eaten and the wine was drunk, I stood up to bid them farewell. I’d have loved to stay on for dinner  that evening but the road called: I wanted to keep walking. Right before I left, Liz undid a delicate scapular from around her own neck and gently placed it around mine. I’ve never been one to wear religious tokens but she hoped that it would help me with the decision-making that lay ahead. I hoped so too, and I gladly wore the piece for the remainder of my camino, and beyond.

And then, I walked out of the shady square into the bright afternoon sunlight, leaving Kevin and Liz behind me, again, until God knows when.

Other blogs and guidebooks are filled with criticism for the walk out of León, towards La Virgen del Camino. They talk about poor signage and an ugly landscape. I suppose, after the beauty and grandeur of León, those 6km are a bit rough. That day, I didn’t see that at all. I felt lighthearted and happy to be on the move so those 6km, while searingly hot, were some of the happiest kilometers in my camino journey. That’s what happened when I walked camino in my own way. 😀