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. 😀

 

 

Walking 4 hours for my morning coffee…

Distance walked: 24.5km

When I arrived in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos on a sweaty, dusty, Sunday afternoon, I was hugely relieved to get a bed in the hostel. There wasn’t anywhere else to stay for another 17km and I was tired enough from walking 24km already. The ground seared from the heat and it was a relief to get in to the shade. I have to thank my fellow pilgrims for pointing out that the local shop was open for only an hour that afternoon. If I needed food or drink, I’d need to be quick. Just as well because not only was there nowhere to stay for another 17km, there was also nowhere to get food, either. Without that pilgrim’s advice, I would have missed out on the shop’s opening hours and I would have had nothing to eat for breakfast the next day.

The next morning, I ate my breakfast baguette sitting on the side of a corn field, with the morning sun in my face. I did some stretches. I drank some water. I gazed out on the flatness of the landscape and enjoyed that there were almost no trees, no shady spots from the rising sun. It’s one of my favourite memories of all camino, probably just because it is so simple.

That morning, I salivated in anticipation of a coffee. I would have to walk for hours to get one and I realised just how privileged I was, and am, in my everyday life. In my day job before camino, I often got a morning coffee to drink while I worked. The walk from my desk took all of 30 seconds and I did it without really thinking. Here I was, in the hot meseta, walking 4 hours to get my morning coffee. It felt incredible. And I thought of all my former colleagues who were surely at work that morning, perhaps walking 30 seconds to their morning coffee, and perhaps not quite realising how comfortable their lives were. They had no idea the efforts I was going to that morning but you know, my life was comfortable too. I didn’t, and don’t, have to walk hours every day to secure fresh drinking water. Compared to millions of others, I have a dream life. I’d do well to remember that more often.

I did do something rather stupid that day, though. I carried 4 litres of water in my backpack, which added a staggering 4kg of weight to my load.

Why?

Well, the previous evening I chatted with a pilgrim who allegedly cured her tendonitis and plantar fasciitis by drinking lots of water. I mean, 7-8 litres a day. On the surface this sounds plain ridiculous because it puts pressure on the kidneys and one spends the day looking for toilet stops. She insisted it worked though, and I was so sore and so reluctant to take painkillers that I thought I’d try it out. There were no water stops for at least 17km that morning so I filled my water bottles at the hostel before I started out.

Big mistake.

The extra weight hurt my shoulders and back. I drank all morning and even filled up along the way in an effort to hit the 7-8 litre target. Sure, the more I drank, the lighter my pack became. Great. But by the time I arrived in Mansilla de las Mulas that afternoon, I was sore in a whole new way. A word of advice? Don’t carry 4 litres of water at any one time, it’s really not a smart move.

As for drinking 7-8 litres of water each day to cure tendonitis? Well, I tried it for a few days with no notable results only that my feet were even more sore from carrying the extra weight on my pack and I needed to pee every 20 minutes. Medics have since explained to me that consuming that much water throws the body’s salt/water balance out of whack. Drinking that much water, even when walking 30km a day in 30-something degree heat, isn’t necessary. It also isn’t helpful. And carrying that much extra weight? Well, that was was definitely one of my dumb-ass days on camino!

Still, that morning coffee was AM-A-ZING. So good, in fact, that I had two…and you would too if you’d walked 4 hours to get it! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections for walking the Camino de Santiago

When I stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, I received a slip of paper containing The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim – ten reflections for pilgrims walking the way.  I shared them here recently and on the back of that slip of paper, there was another reflection. I’m copying this straight from the page so language or grammar oddities are not my own 🙂

“The Way: Parable and reality

The journey makes you a pilgrim. Because the way to Santiago is not only a track to be walked in order to get somewhere, nor it is a test to reach any reward. El Camino de Santiago is a parable and a reality at once because it is done both within and outside of the specific time that takes to walk each stage, and along the entire life if only you allow the Camino to get into you, to transform you and to make to a pilgrim.

The Camino makes you simpler, because the lighter the backpack the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive.

The Camino makes you brother/sister. Whatever you have you must be ready to share because even if you started on our own, you will meet companions. The Camino breeds about community: community that greets the other, that takes in interest in how the walk is going for the other, that talks and shares with the other.

The Camino makes demands on you. You must get up even before the sun in spite of tiredness or blisters; you must walk in the darkness of night while dawn is growing, you must just get the rest that will keep you going.

The Camino calls you to contemplate, to be amazed, to welcome, to interiorize, to stop, to be quiet, to listen, to admire, to bless…Nature, our companions on the journey, our own selves, God.”

 

 

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

I had never heard of “The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim” before I started walking camino. I never knew there were such things and to this day, I’m not sure how widely these are circulated or known. I’m also not sure whether these have been passed through the years or they are a recent creation, and that lack of knowledge may be relevant to some. You might not want to embrace something that’s hundreds of years old. You might not want to embrace something that’s been around only twenty years.

Still, let me continue.

When I stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, I received a slip of paper with the ten points printed on them. Like everything else on camino, some things will resonate and others won’t so these may or may not be your groove.

Me?

I liked the message and I carried that slip of paper all the way to Santiago, and home, in case it took on a monumental significance with time.

I think the exact wording of these threw me off somehow but in my own way, I came to similar understandings and insights. I resonate with the sentiment. And I even resonate with the sentiment of sharing these because they might encourage reflection and compassion along the way. Camino is so much more than a budget walking holiday or a boozy way to see Spain. I’d like to contribute to the more reflective side – the side that encourages personal change in a positive way.

So, without wanting to be too religious-y, here they are. Just because.

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

  1. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” opens your eyes to what is not seen.
  2. Blessed are you pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others,
  3. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you contemplate the “camino” and you discover it is full of names and dawns.
  4. Blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered that the authentic “camino”begins when it is completed.
  5. Blessed are you pilgrim, if your knapsack is emptying of things and your heart does not know where to hang up so many feelings and emotions.
  6. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that one step back to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without seeing what is at your side.
  7. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you don’t have the words to give thanks for everything that surprises you at every twist and turn of the way.
  8. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you search for the truth and make of the “camino” a life and of your life a “way”, in search of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  9. Blessed are you pilgrim if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image in your heart.
  10. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” holds a lot of silence; and the silence of prayer; and the prayer of meeting with God who is waiting for you.

My Camino Prayer

When I walked the camino, I did so with a deeply-held prayer in my heart. It was a prayer that I said quietly, with all the sincerity that my tired & sore self could muster.

Now, those who know me well that I rarely speak of prayer or “the G word“. I almost never speak of these things aloud because, for me, belief systems are a very private affair. I don’t resonate with the public bells and whistles, I prefer the quiet connection.

So, to speak of prayer is not my usual comfort zone. My camino prayer began before I ever flew to France to start my walk. And it ended? Well, honestly I think it’s still echoing through my life.

The prayer?

It was simple, really.

You’ll remember that I landed in France with a quickly cobbled plan to walk 500 miles to Santiago. On my first night in St. Jean Pied de Port, I met pilgrims who’d spent two years physically training, and assembling and testing their gear. They’d read blogs and books. They prepared for all sorts of scenarios. They raised their eyebrows at my rash impulsiveness and I imagined that they judged me for being a reckless fool.

Thing is: they had a point.

I had done none of their preparation and boy, I felt that lack. But what I *did* have, was a strong heart and a strong spirit for the quest ahead. There was no doubt that I was doing the right thing. The doubt was in my ability to rise to the challenge before me.

So every day on camino, this was my prayer:

“I want to keep going. Please. Give me whatever it is I need to keep going.”

Give me the ability. Give me the stamina. Give me hope. Give me sunscreen. Give me blister-free feet. Give me lightness and calm. Give me all the things I-don’t-even-know-I-need, because I don’t even know what lays ahead.

Every night, I needed a safe place to sleep. I needed food. I needed proper walking shoes. I needed dry socks and clean underwear. I needed the strength to carry my backpack. I needed help putting one foot in front of the other. These were all very physical and practical needs.

But the other things I needed? Well, I found tremendous hope in my conversations with Kevin & Liz, Madonna & Brian. I found great relief in my chats with Peter. I found generosity with Barb and Dave. I found lightness and laughter with Marco and Ricard. I found the unspoken truth with Margaret.

We all need hope, relief, generosity, lightness and laughter. We all need truth.

On camino, I knew that I faced an unknown challenge. I couldn’t plan for every eventuality and I knew I would need help. So, I bowed in to the greater forces of this world and I asked for help. I didn’t know what I needed, so I also asked that my needs would somehow be anticipated and somehow be met.

And they were.

Every day in life, we need countless supports to get up and engage with the world. Every day, a bunch of our needs are met without us ever thinking about it. If you’re anything like me, you don’t go around with a list of hourly requests but yet, a flurry of your needs are anticipated and met, each and every day. And again, if you’re anything like me, you don’t always remember to count out each of those successes and give thanks for them.

On camino, my attention and focus were different. I was acutely aware of my needs being met and I was acutely aware of giving thanks. And still, every day, I walked out of my hostel in the early morning light with the same, humble prayer:

“I want to keep going. Please. Give me whatever it is I need to keep going.”

I walked. I did my utmost each day to “show up” and do as best I could. The greater forces “showed up” too and took care of the behind-the-scenes details. Between us, there was a sort of magic and I came home a profoundly changed woman.

The prayer worked and it’s worked ever since, too.

So, I share it with you in case you’re going through trials with your own camino or your own life right now. Maybe it will bring luck and light to your life too. I hope it does. 🙂

 

 

 

Passing the Half Way Point on Camino Francés…and Still Going

Distance walked: 23.7km

Distance to Santiago: 360.6km (Despite what the photo says!)

Walking the Camino de Santiago on a Sunday is a bit different to walking any other day of the week. Shops and supermarkets are closed so if you need to buy a new rain jacket or some picnic supplies on a Sunday, you might find yourself disappointed. Generally, I discovered the shutters pulled and the front doors locked. Smaller village shops *may* open for a couple of hours in the morning so you might be lucky in buying a few basic supplies but otherwise, you’ll have to wait.

This makes small villages particularly quiet on a Sunday. Depending on your preference, you might find this stifling and dull or delightfully relaxing.

Me? I had no reason to hang around San Nicolás del Real Camino that Sunday morning so I enthusiastically walked on to Sahagún 6-7km away. I was hungry and in search of breakfast, and while I walked I imagined plates of fresh fruit, with pancakes and syrup and pots of hot coffee and bowls of oatmeal. After weeks of baguette, I wanted something different. My taste buds cried out for berries and pears and pineapple. As I walked, I convinced myself that Sahagún would have such a feast on a Sunday morning. There’d be some quirky café open for breakfast and brunch, and I’d sit in, listening to funky music, eating my (no doubt) organic, sustainably sourced feast.

And it would be *am-a-zing!*

Right?

Ha ha….nope!

On the way in to town, I passed through these beautiful markers, reminding me that I was half way between St. Jean Pied de Port and Santiago. In some ways, I felt I  had already travelled more than that but I stopped for a break and aired out my feet. When other pilgrims came up behind me and wanted to take photos of the monuments I had to shuffle out of their view. Hence, I never got around to taking photos of my own 🙂

Click to image to see the photo credit

Sahagún has a population of some 170,000 people so I imagine that some version of my (imaginary) pancake & granola café is there somewhere. In a town that size, there’s surely some potential for it. On that Sunday morning, however, I didn’t find it. I didn’t come even close. Every little café and corner shop I passed on my way in to town was firmly closed up. My dream for pancakes and oatmeal seemed increasingly absurd. I’d be lucky to get breakfast of any sort, never mind my imaginings! Walking camino is not like everyday life and even though I craved a bit of normality that morning, it just wasn’t happening. So, when I finally happened on an open café I was thrilled. And I was happy to eat the baguette, the chocolate croissant, the eggs, and two cups of coffee. Hunger is a great sauce 🙂 And across the road? A small corner shop was open so I stocked up on baguette, tinned tuna, and fruit. I was set.

Sahagún is remarkably historical and significant and others have written about it far more than I ever could. If I had stopped off some other day of the week I might have made an event of it but that Sunday morning at 8am, everything was closed and looked like it would be for the remainder of the day. I crossed over the river Cea and walked on.

Making my way to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos was mostly uneventful. The day was hot and dusty, and I was hopeful that there’d be space for me in the 22-bed hostel. I had chosen to walk 8.7km of an old Roman road as part of my journey to get there so the walk was tiring and sore, and I didn’t really have it in me to go on any further.

In the last 2-3km, a woman appeared suddenly at my shoulder. She’d come up from behind without me even knowing she was there, and she started to chat.

Where had I come from?

Where was I going?

I revealed that I hoped to stay in the hostel up ahead. She too, hoped to stay there but then revealed all the fear. She’d heard that there were no beds left. She’d heard that they didn’t open on a Sunday. She’d heard that if there was no space there that we’d all be stuck because there’s not another hostel for more than 20km!

And then she abruptly ended the conversation with me and ran off ahead.

Why?

To beat me to the hostel.

To get a bed before I arrived.

To maybe take the last one available.

And not for the first time while I walked camino, my heart sank.

Maybe I am foolish and naïve but in *my* head, I would have thought we could walk those last 2-3km together, continue the chat, and investigate the hostel together. If there were beds available, great. If not, then we could unite in finding alternative accommodation or in taking a taxi to the next spot, 20km away. She wasn’t my friend but she wasn’t  my enemy, either. I had no reason to not walk and talk with her, and share some of the journey.

But how sad that she saw me as a threat and literally ran ahead of me. What would she have done if, after all that running, there was no space for either of us? What would she have done then? Would she have pretended to befriend me again or would she have ignored me while pursuing her own agenda? I’ll never know.

As it happened, there was plenty of space for both of us and for everyone who turned up after us, too. Our hospitalero was warm and generous in his welcome, and greeted everyone with a wide smile. He exuded positivity.

So all that fear and all those rumours about there being no space? Most of the time, the rumours weren’t true. There was no need for the fear. And there *really* was no need to outrun and outdo each other.

But that’s my feeling on it all. What’s yours?

 

 

Camino Continues Westwards

Distance walked: 36km

Distance left to Santiago: 369km

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Not a lot of clothes line space in the hostel!

My evening and night at the Santa Maria hostel in Carrión de los Condes was happily uneventful. No crazy snoring. No crazy traffic outside the window. No stress. The nuns requested that we each contribute some food towards the evening meal so in the hours before dinner, the small kitchen filled up with a random display of watermelon, baguette, and chorizo. Always, everywhere, chorizo 🙂 The nuns added fresh vegetables and salad from their own garden and created an evening meal for everyone to share. Communal meals like this are really nice on camino. I had a share of them along the way in various hostels (whether religious or privately-owned) and I appreciated the sense of community that they created.

The next morning, I made my way from the hostel out into the countryside by the light of the moon and the rising sun. I didn’t have a set plan for the day, as usual, but I’d hoped to walk 26.8km to Terradillos de Templarios that day. It seemed like a reasonable distance to cover, especially as there were no coffee stops for the first 17km. I didn’t want to overstretch myself.

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My guidebook informed me that 70% of the route followed natural paths, most of which are part of the Via Aquitana, the paved Roman road that connects to Astorga. It also informed me that the landscape was flat and featureless, so it was another day of ambling along under the searing hot sun. My day was uneventful and I settled into the rhythm of walking westwards. My average walking speed on level ground is somewhere between 4-5km per hour. So, the 26.8km took between 5-6 hours that day, with extra time for breaks along the way. By the time I got to Terradillos de Templarios, the hostels were all full. All 83 beds had been taken already even though it wasn’t yet lunchtime.

This is okay, I thought. I’ll just walk on to the next village.

I walked 3.2km onwards to Moratinos, just under an hour away, but the hostels there were all full there, too. I didn’t even get a chance to investigate that for myself: some pilgrims shouted the information to me from across the road. You’d think that after my experience in Carrión de los Condes I would have taken the time to verify the facts for myself but honestly, it seemed like too much effort to walk from one doorway to the next. Rightly or wrongly, there were days on camino where I felt I didn’t have the extra time, energy, and footsteps required to walk from one hostel to another. In Moratinos, I trusted the pilgrims when they told me everything was booked up, even though they shouted it with big smiles while they went to get cold beers!

By now, I’d been walking nearly 7 hours, the temperature was over 30 degrees C. and you know what? I was tired. I was sweaty. I was very, very dusty. And I really wanted to find a bed for the night. I needed to get in to the shade, have a shower, take a break, but until I found a hostel there was no chance of any of those things. In Moratinos, I assessed my options. I would walk a further 2.8 to San Nicolás del Real Camino in the hope that the 20-bed hostel there would have some space.

That 2.8km was filled with anticipation and nervousness. As the day wore on, the heat increased to near unbearable levels. If there was no bed for me, I was going to have to stop for a few hours anyway. Maybe I could rest for a while and resume walking later in the evening when the day had cooled down. I observed the countryside around me and for the first time in all camino, I seriously considered sleeping outdoors that night. I didn’t have the energy to walk an additional 7km to the next village and even if I did, it would be early evening by the time I’d arrive. That meant there’d be little chance of getting a bed. But out there in the farming countryside, I peered at the enormous bales of straw and thought about sleeping underneath them that night. They were dry, they’d offer some sort of warmth from the cool night air. There were no washing facilities or privacy but I could get over that. I needed somewhere to sleep and those straw bales were a viable option. I wouldn’t rule them out.

When I arrived in Albergue Laganares in the small village of San Nicolás del Real Camino, I expected to hear the worst. The village was eerily quiet and the hostel didn’t even look like it was open for business that day. I tentatively asked for a bed, while thinking of the straw bales down the road.

Sure, we have a bed, the hostel-owner said. Would you like something to drink? You look tired!

Hallelujah! I rejoiced inside. I wouldn’t have to walk another step! After 36km and searing heat, I was finally able to relax for the evening. A shower. A bed. A place to rest for the evening.

And what a fabulous little hostel this was. Quirky with tonnes of personality and care. And couches! Oh my goodness but I hadn’t even seen a couch in weeks, much less sit in one. I sat luxuriously, indulgently on the cushioned seats and felt the weight of my nomadic existence just melt away. Having a couch felt like having a home. It was one of the sweetest moments in all camino!

That night, a feast with pilgrims from all over the world but most of them from Spain. And afterwards, shots of potent desert wine from Madrid – a heady rush of giddiness before falling happily, drunkenly, gratefully into bed.

And how lovely that it was a bed and not a bale of straw after all 🙂

 

 

What Camino taught me about Friendships

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Before I walked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago route in Spain, I felt a bit stuck when it came to friendships. Stuck and sad.

In the years prior, I’d noticed that certain friendships were dwindling or dying. After university, people had scattered to all corners of the world. They had busy jobs, as did I. They had partnered off, as had I, and maybe had new families of their own. They were trying to squeeze a lot of living into a small amount of time, and keeping in touch fell by the wayside. Logically, I got it, and in many ways I was in the same boat. But on a heart level, I missed my longterm friends badly. I missed the fun of hanging out, the spontaneity, the travel, and the parties. Most of all, I missed the connection.

I asked around and I was told it was all normal. It’s a life phase, apparently. Except, it wasn’t just a life phase. Some of the people in my life loved me for sure but didn’t prioritize friendship. Take for example, my friend Bendy (not their real name!). I’d call Bendy and say:

Hey friend, how you doing?

Bendy and I would have a big old chat for two hours and catch up. We’d laugh. We’d swap war stories and it felt great to connect. But at the end, Bendy would always say:

We must do this more often. We must make more of an effort.

I was heartened. It seemed Bendy and I both wanted to stay friends and stay in touch. And I agreed: Yes, we must do this more often.

Only, 6 months would go by with no word from Bendy, no reply to emails, no reply to text so I’d call again:

Hey friend, how you doing?

The cycle would begin again. After 2-3 years of this, I noticed an increasing upset within myself. It felt like I was the one initiating all the contact. It felt like I was the one making all the effort. Just like Bendy, I too was busy with a career and a relationship, but I still found time to reach out to my friends and check-in. I felt alone in my efforts, though. I felt Bendy was taking but not giving in return. Was that just a feeling or was there some truth to it? In 2010, Bendy and I were wrapping up a phone call when the usual script came up again:

We must do this more often. We must make more of an effort!

I was prepared for this and I wanted to do an experiment. I wanted to see what effort ‘we’ were willing to make to keep the friendship alive. I replied by saying:

Yes, we must! Next time you make the phone call!

Bendy laughed a hearty laugh and said goodbye down the phone line. And I didn’t hear from Bendy again for over two years.

I hadn’t imagined the one-sidedness of our friendship. I hadn’t imagined the imbalance of effort. I was the one initiating the contact and when I stopped doing it, Bendy and I had no contact at all. Turned out, there were lots of Bendy friends in my life. They loved me, for sure, but they weren’t ‘there’ any more. That sadness I felt? It was real.

By the time I walked Camino, my heart was heavy and sore from the loss of friendships in all corners of my life. Sometimes I took it personally, other times I brushed it off as normal but either way, I still felt sad.

Everyone who’d walked camino before me (or who’d known someone to walk it) all swooned in telling me:

You’ll meet so many great people along the way!

They imagined that I was worried about walking alone and this was their way of reassuring me. Only, I wasn’t afraid of walking alone. Honestly, that sounded like total bliss! Being an introvert, I didn’t really want to meet lots and lots of people every day. All that small talk made me sweat just thinking about it. Sure, I could do it but the very idea of it was exhausting. So, their reassurances had the opposite effect. But I did meet lots of great people along the way and over the course of those 500 miles, I learned some deeply-felt lessons for my heart and my life, too.

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For a start, I met far too many people who were self-absorbed and insensitive, and they reminded me of all the people like them in my ‘real life’ back home. They were the kind of people I didn’t want to hang out with in Spain and as it happens, I didn’t want to hang out with them at home either. What a revelation to finally and unapologetically realise that.

Secondly, camino helped me get really clear about the different levels of friendship I had in my real life. Not everyone was a close friend and not everyone should get a prime time slot of my time and energy. I hadn’t told anyone when I would return from Spain so I was ‘off the radar’ for a few weeks after I returned. I did this on purpose. I didn’t want the pressure to meet up with all the acquaintances in my life and tell them stories about the cheap wine and great sunshine in Spain. I was on a retreat even when I returned home. And in that quiet, still time, I sort of ‘graded’ my friendships, and gave my time and energy in accordance with the grading. The people I reached out to and met with first were the ones I really, genuinely, heartily wanted to see. All the rest came after. Again, what a revelation to finally and freely prioritize people in this way.

Perhaps the biggest lesson was this:

Camino taught me that people come and people go. And that’s okay.

Every day, I met lots and lots of great people on the trail. People who were open, friendly, generous, and good. People I loved spending time with. It was easy to make friends with these people and I was delighted with the connection. Only, there were some I never saw again.

I met people on my first 1-2 days of walking, had a fabulous connection, assumed I would bump into them further along the way, but never saw them again. Not once! To this day, I have no idea whether they lived, went home early, or ever made it to Santiago. My heart was sorry to have missed out on getting to know them.

And I also met people on my first 1-2 days of walking who appeared on my camino over and over again at the most unexpected and delightful times. We shared dinner and coffee. We connected, we chatted, we swapped stories. Every time we parted, we bade each other a Buen Camino, never quite sure if we would see each other again. But some of these friends met me in Santiago with warm smiles and hugs, and we are in touch ever since.

What was the difference between some friendships ‘sticking’ and others not?

Timing, for sure.

Intent? Yes.

But I’m gonna say that some of them worked because we were in each others’ orbit. Roughly speaking, we were doing the same thing, at the same time, in a roughly similar way, and we had a lot in common. Seeing each other regularly gave us a continuity that made connection easier. And rightly or wrongly, spending time together is important. Without that, some connections just fade away. And that’s what had been happening in my life at home.

On camino, some friends left early. Other friends stayed to the very end.

My heart was soft for them all but slowly, I really came to understand that friends come and friends go. And that’s okay.

So, all that sadness and hurt and anger I had felt over my dwindling friendships at home?

Let it go.

And all that fear I’d felt about not making new connections?

Let that go, too.

The Beatles said it far more poetically and sweetly when they sang, ‘In My Life’ but the sentiment is the same. We are all on a journey. Literally as well as figuratively. We change. We move. We meet people and lose people. Maybe we meet further down the line or maybe we never meet again, but we carry a softness of heart for them as long as we live.

Camino taught me all this. I forget it, sometimes, but I’m remembering again. And remembering the friends and strangers who were so kind to me along the way.

Thank you all.

 

 

 

 

The Camino Provides in Carrión de los Condes

When I arrived in the town of Carrión de los Condes, I was sweaty and dusty and tired. A seemingly helpful woman told me the church hostels were all full, but kindly directed me towards a private hostel that still had space.

At least, she seemed kind and helpful, and I assumed her office attire and clipboard meant she was from the local tourist office or some other professional organisation. My mistake.

When the private hostel staff refused to give me a bed, I stood in the street feeling speechless and numb. I understood being refused a bed because of no space…but this? Being refused because I was a solo traveller was alien to me on camino. And it was a bitter blow after the immense kindness and welcome shown me just a day earlier in Boadilla del Camino. So, what would I do – would I try to find a private B&B? Or would I walk on to the next spot, some 17km away?

I walked through the town for 20 minutes and found a park bench in the shade. Grateful, I removed my sweaty backpack and my even sweatier shoes, and sat to gather my thoughts. I really didn’t have the energy to walk on to the next town so I’d either have to get a taxi there, or I would have to find somewhere to stay in Carrión. The town was busy and popular, and I felt a deep dread at the thought of finding private accommodation. The shoals of people following Brierley’s guidebook would have started in Frómista that morning and ended their day’s walking in Carrión de los Condes, just like the guidebook instructed. They would have checked into the hostels early or booked private B&Bs in advance. The Brierley brigade were good at following instructions and staying organized. They made it difficult for free range walkers, like me, to show up unannounced and find somewhere to stay.

After half an hour in the shade, I re-read my (Brierley!) guidebook and reviewed the options. I still wanted to stay in the Santa María hostel, if possible. You’ll remember that on the trail, I had stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, and they had recommended this particular hostel in Carrión. IMG_0797

Even though the “helpful” woman had told me all the hostels were full,  I decided to walk over there and see if they could squeeze me in.

And boy was I glad that I did!

I arrived at the heavy wooden door expecting to be told that all beds were taken. I stood on the threshold uncertainly but a gracious young nun gently ushered me in the door. From behind the desk, she welcomed me in with a warm smile.

By now, it was mid-afternoon. Most hostel beds fill up by noon so I had arrived at least two hours later than everyone else. And I had spent one of those hours following the misdirection of other people who’d convinced me that all beds in the town were taken. Asking for a bed here, now, seemed like a ridiculous long shot.

Hello, I said, do you have any beds? I need a bed for one, please.

I held my breath.

, she replied casually, as though they always have beds. No biggie.

I exhaled! Oh my God!

There is only one thing, she said tentatively.

Oh, here we go, I thought to myself.

It is up high, yes? Is that okay?

She was trying to tell me that my bed was at the top of a bunk. I suppose some pilgrims don’t want (or maybe can’t quite make it to) the top of a bunk, so she was mindful enough to mention it to me in advance – just in case. Thankfully, it was no problem for me. High, low, in beside the washing machine, out in the back garden…I didn’t care where I slept. I was just massively relieved to have found somewhere to stay…and in my choice hostel, too.

That night, I slept soundly in my upper bunk beside the window. Glad, grateful, and in awe of how simple it was to get a bed – again. I say “simple” because the beautiful nun made it seem like an effortless and easy process. And maybe to her, it was. But for me, securing that bed required me to “simply” sidestep the mistruths I’d been told. Securing that bed required me to have a bit of faith.

My takeaway things-to-remember that day?

  1. Don’t believe everything you hear – even people who seem professional and helpful can mislead you.
  2. Go for the thing you want. Be brave and give it a shot. Even if you’ve been told it’s unavailable, you never know what might happen. There might be a way of simply squeezing you in 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Dick Measuring – On Camino & In Life

I had an unfortunate encounter this week. I crossed paths with someone I didn’t want to see. She isn’t part of my inner circle but she’s someone I have known a long time so I was obliged to say hello.

Exchange pleasantries.

Pretend to be interested.

I did all that and expected our conversation to wrap up quickly but before I knew it, she started asking more detailed questions. About what? About my plans. Career. Childcare. Things I don’t want to talk about right now. Things I am still figuring out. Things that take time to explain and require great listening, understanding, and trust. Just some of the things that are lacking between us.

I wasn’t prepared for the inquisition. She’s one of these people who hasn’t learned how to ask open-ended questions in a neutral tone. I didn’t want to get into details so I fudged a vague reply. She didn’t take the hint. She asked more questions. Pointed ones. The kind of questions that indicate judgement about my choices, my priorities, my heartfelt journey through life.

And I came home feeling sh*t about myself.

Sound familiar?

We all have people in life that rattle and upend us. The holiday season shakes up our social circle in all sorts of ways and we often come face-to-face with people we’d much rather avoid. It’s part of life.

And it’s part of camino, too. Every day that I walked, I met people who needled me for specific information: How many kilometers had I walked that day? How much money did I earn? What hostel would I stay in that night?

Sometimes these questions were just conversation starters. Most of the time they were benign and meaningless. But all along camino, I met people for whom these questions were far more important. They asked them as a means to gather information about me, often without answering them in return. Or they asked them so they could brag about their own achievements (in life, on camino, whatever). They asked them so they could judge me. Was I as rich as them? As fast as them? As fit as them?

I’m told this is called “Dick Measuring”.

And just as it happens in everyday life, so too on camino. You’d think all those pilgrims would know better.

They don’t.

They walk 500 miles asking pointed, nosey questions that undermine the people around them. They needle for binding, yes/no answers that are easy to catalogue. But I didn’t abide by the black/white rules of life: I was living proof of grey.

It took me a while to figure this out on camino. I went to France/Spain with my heart on my sleeve. I was open. I didn’t have a strategy in my conversations or in my everyday walking. I assumed that the people around me were wholesome and open-minded.

Sometimes, I was wrong.

I learned to keep some details to myself – mostly because they were irrelevant but sometimes because my honesty was used against me.

I had only one true plan: I would do my very best to walk all the way to Santiago. After that, I hadn’t a clue where I would sleep each night or how far I would walk each day. Some people thought I was being difficult or cagey when I didn’t answer their questions. They thought I had something to hide but the truth was less dramatic: I just didn’t have the answers. And I didn’t pretend otherwise. And that was an almighty liberation from my everyday life where I felt this ongoing, immense pressure to always have a plan and always be “on track” with that plan.

As soon as I started seeing a guy, people wanted to know when we would marry.

As soon as we married, people wanted to know when we’d have kids.

As soon as I had a kid, people wanted to know when I’d have another, return to work, and get the first child out the door already.

All this push push push to get to the next thing. And for what?

We’re all going to die. Fact. So why the rush to get through all of life and get to that end point already?

Truth is, I don’t really have a plan. I have aspirations and intentions, and sometimes they merge into a sort of plan. But that’s as organised as it gets around here. I don’t really get into Dick Measuring because it’s absolutely unhelpful in my life. Actually, genuinely unhelpful. And unhealthy too.

I’d like to be asked different questions, like: When did I last get a good look at the sky? What was my favourite thing to happen this week? What am I enjoying these days?

I walked my camino with a deep need to walk with trust instead of fear. And I try to carry that through to my everyday life, too.

So.

To all the people who have needled and pressed me for information: I’ll tell you if there’s something worth sharing but in the meantime, let me be. The answers will come when you stop harassing me with questions.

Just as it was on camino, so it is in life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Things You Remember (and Forget)

IMG_1003.JPGIt’s been a while, I know.

Every day, I’m “writing in my head” and coming up with things I want to share here. That’s fine for a while but I need to write “outside of my head” every now and then, too.

So here I (finally) am.

And lately, I’ve been thinking about the Camino de Santiago in a new way and how I write about it. Let me explain:

A lot of camino blogs seem to act as digital postcards for friends and family back home. They list place names and hostel stops. The photos show smiling faces and plates of food. The blogs don’t give a lot of detail and they don’t get reflective. They are just a note to say “Hi, I’m still alive”.

I didn’t write a blog while I walked across Spain. I didn’t expect to write a blog at all but after I’d been home a while and the dust had settled, I discovered I had a lot to say. I decided to write. As time has progressed and my life has become busy with…well…everything, I can’t help but notice what motivates me, or blocks me in writing.

For example, you might have noticed that I had quite a bit to say about the small village of Boadilla del Camino. I wrote four posts about walking to, and staying in this tiny village:

That’s an awful lot of words for a village that (according to my guidebook) has only 140 residents. The reason? The day I walked to Boadilla del Camino was a day when my body felt supremely strong and capable. That day was a high. And everything that happened in the village that evening changed my perspective on my life at home. Outwardly and inwardly, the day affected me deeply. And that was easy to remember. It was easy to get excited about. It was easy to write and write and write.

But the next leg of the trip?

Oh, I hate to admit it but there’s a chunk of the day I just can’t remember. I look at the map and I don’t recognise the place names. I don’t remember the countryside. There are hours in the middle and I don’t remember a thing. I don’t know if that’s because I found the landscape fairly forgettable or if it’s because I was so content with the walking that I didn’t record anything to memory. Either could be true. But whatever the case, my lack of memory has been a block to my writing.

What do I write about when I can’t remember huge chunks of the day? I run the risk of creating a blog post that is just like the ones I mentioned above: brief, vague, and fairly dull. So, what should I write?

Maybe I should come clean and admit it: I can’t remember huge chunks of the day I walked from Boadilla del Camino to Carrión de los Condes. Even though walking the camino was one of the most outstanding and memorable events in my life, there are sections of the trail that I just don’t recall. Of course, I could never remember all 500 miles equally: that wouldn’t make sense. I forget bits. I remember bits. I guess certain bits were uneventful and forgettable. And the bits I remember? Well, those were the bits that changed and re-wired me from the inside out. Those were the bits that have stayed with me every day since.

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Here’s what I remember:

I left Boadilla in the early morning darkness after thanking the hostel owner for my bed & meal. He told me that out of 70 pilgrims who’d dined there the previous evening, I was the only one to thank him personally.

His comment was both saddening and sobering.

I walked westwards. I avoided conversation with Lucy* when I saw her in a café later that morning. It was awkward, for sure, but to resume company with her would have made me murderous: I was better off alone. I walked just over 20km that day through flat, sunny farmland. I took almost no photos but for some reason, I took this one:

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When I arrived in Carrión de los Condes that afternoon, I quickly learned that all the hostels were full. Or so it seemed. Strangely, as I entered the town, a woman in a smart blouse and skirt stood beneath a street sign that directed pilgrims to the different hostels. She spoke to me in English and asked me where I was staying.

I haven’t booked anything, I replied.

There are no beds left in these hostels, she said, and she listed the names of the hostels I had hoped to stay in. But then she (kindly? helpfully? deceptively?) told me the name of a private hostel that happened to have free space.

Disheartened but sort-of grateful, I found the hostel she had mentioned and rang the buzzer from the street. A raspy, muffled voice came through the speaker and I struggled to hear it over the sound of the loud traffic.

In my rusty Spanish, I asked for a bed.

How many?

One bed, please. I am alone.

Just one? No. We have a room with four beds so we will give it to a group of four people. Not one.

And the line went dead.

I stood on the busy street, soaked with sweat, tired, and suddenly disheartened.

That woman had told me all the hostels were full. She’d told me that these guys had space, but the greedy jerks were holding out for a bigger group and more money. I couldn’t blame them but still, there’s supposed to be an understanding that if a pilgrim shows up and needs help of some sort, that help is given.

So, I stood in the shady side of the street and I wondered:

What should I do? Spend valuable time searching the town for a free bed that may/may not exist? Or should I walk out into the countryside again and on to the next village, hoping for a bed there?

On camino, as in life, here’s something I should remember:

Don’t believe everything that you hear.

It turned out that the woman in the skirt & blouse might not have been telling the truth!

 

 

 

 

The Cost of Camino: Is it *Really* that Cheap?

When I first heard about the 500-mile walk in Spain, I was still a student at university. My mountaineering friends talked about the open landscape and the physical challenge….oh, and the affordability of everything along the way. Unlike other long-distance hikes that I knew across the US and Europe, walking the Camino de Santiago seemed surprisingly cheap. Could it be real?

When the time came to walk, I didn’t know how to budget for it. I’d heard and read the stories of people who walked it spending only €20 a day (paying for accommodation, food, and sundries) and I wanted to do the same. I’d just quit my job and didn’t have another one on the horizon so getting the budget right was a necessity. But still, €20 a day, every day, in Europe seemed unrealistic. Would it be enough? And if not, how much extra would I need for 6 weeks of walking?

During my journey, I met a couple who’s combined total spend was €10 per day (wow). I met alleged millionaires who spent thousands of Euro on their trip. And I met every sort of person in between.

Me? I spent more than the rumoured €20 a day. I averaged closer to €35 per day. If were on a super strict budget, that kind of increase would have been a major stress for me. It’s nearly twice the amount that other pilgrims and guidebooks claim is average. So what happened? Did I lose the run of myself and squander my savings on fine dining and lavish spa treatments?

Ha! Not a chance.

From what I could tell, the €20 per day spend was possible only if one did the following:

  1. Walk fast so you can arrive at a town/village early and nab one of the €5 beds before other pilgrims *or* camp out
  2. Cook evening meals in the hostels instead of eating out
  3. Split the cost of private rooms with other pilgrims

Can’t do these things? Don’t want to do these things? Then €20 per day is not feasible and you need to put more money in the purse.

So what did I get for €35 per day?

Things I did:

  • Paid for flights within Europe
  • Slept indoors every night (mostly in dorms)
  • Bought footwear & clothing beforehand and en route
  • Bought pharmacy items en route (Compeed plasters, Ibuprofen, sunglasses, etc.)
  • Sent 1.5kg of belongings home in the mail
  • Contributed to the cost of 2 taxis with other pilgrims
  • Paid for 2 return bus tickets
  • Paid to have my laundry washed & dried in machines on a few occasions
  • Gave between €10-20 to ‘Donativo’ hostels (I could have given less but that was my choice)
  • Stayed in private hotel rooms by myself for 5 nights en route
  • Bought postcards, chocolate gifts, and earrings
  • Bought food in corner shops, supermarkets, and the occasional stall
  • Ate out for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner every day
  • Ate picnics
  • Donated to a photography exhibition & church collections
  • Bought beers & coffee for other pilgrims

Things I didn’t do:

  • Camp or sleep outdoors
  • Plan my route around cheap hostels
  • Book a room in advance (not even my first night in St. Jean or my finish in Santiago)
  • Stay in any of the Parador hotels (alas!)
  • Buy fashionable clothing or anything made of Spanish leather
  • Cook my own food (with the exception of 3-4 occasions)
  • Order the cheapest item on the menu
  • Skimp on pharmacy supplies, food, or a place to sleep
  • Go to bed hungry

All in all, my experience wasn’t overtly decadent but it wasn’t all frugal hardship either.  I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, and in the quantities I wanted. I didn’t hold back on the coffee or wine! And I bought whatever clothing/medical supplies I needed along the way. Maybe it was just me, but I didn’t really see much that I wanted to buy en route. Sure, I could have bought fashionable jeans and winter sweaters in Leon….but then I would have had to carry them all the way to Santiago. There wasn’t a hope in hell I was going to do that, so the temptation to buy frivolous items disappeared quickly.

I bought what I needed and some of what I wanted, and I did just fine.

And you know, the differentiation between my ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ has never been more clear. It was an eye opener for me, not just while I walked but for everyday life too. It’s just another way in which camino changes those of us that walk it.

🙂

 

The Secret to Happiness

I don’t know if people say this very often but here, let me say it:

Walking the Camino de Santiago wasn’t always a barrel of laughs.

A lot of the time, it felt like a tough grind from one dusty day to the next. Am I a bad sport for saying that? I don’t know. I walked and walked and walked, and I wasn’t always sure that there was a point to my efforts. My body hurt in a gazillion different places and I was upset by the competitive race for everything….beds, wi-fi, even a free spot on a clothesline. Maybe I was ‘doing it‘ wrong but I found it immensely physical to walk 500 miles in less than six weeks. I found it emotionally taxing, too. I met pilgrims who swooned about feeling immense joy. Often, I felt I couldn’t relate to their fervent excitement.

But the day I walked from San Bol to Boadilla del Camino (I know, I know, quit talking about this one day already!) I had real, emotional breakthroughs. Yes, I learned to follow my own impulse instead of following anyone else’s pace. And yes, I learned that my social circle needed some heavy pruning. But I also learned something I had forgotten: I learned the secret to happiness.

At this stage in the journey, I’d already been walking for about three weeks. That was long enough to have experienced some rain, some frustration, and lots of tears. It was also long enough to have experienced some solid connection and tender kindness. Walking through the Meseta gave me a chance to put these things in some sort of order. I think the flat, open landscape was so under-stimulating that my mind had a chance to do some internal processing. As I walked, I found myself giving thanks for…well, everything.

I gave thanks for the new, lightweight shoes that were just *so* comfortable compared to my hiking sandals.

And I gave thanks for the fact that I didn’t have any blisters.

I gave thanks for the Factor 50 sunscreen that was protecting my skin from going lobster red.

And I gave thanks for my healthy body that somehow carried me from place to place.

Hour after hour, I ran through lists of things for which I was thankful. I gave thanks for everything I could think of, from my sunglasses to my healthy knees. I gave thanks for every hot shower along the way. I gave thanks for all the coffee, all the clean bedding, all the yellow arrows that pointed me in the right direction. I gave thanks for having the health and finances and impulse to go walk camino. Millions of people would never know that triage of good luck in their life: I was very blessed to have it in mine.

By now you’re thinking: What, that’s it? That’s your big, ‘A-Ha’ lesson? And I bet you’re thinking you’ve heard this kind of thing before. You’ve read this kind of thing before. Blah blah blah.

Right?

If you’re like me, you breeze through your day with a certain confidence about things going a certain way. There’s food in the cupboard. There’s hot water in the shower. There are clean clothes in the closet. Me? I don’t think to give thanks for these things every day, I just assume (and expect) them to be there. They are the baseline, the starting point to my day. I take them for granted.

But on camino, I didn’t have my own cupboards so I didn’t know when, or what I would eat. Similarly, I didn’t know if I’d ever have a hot shower. After all, when sharing a hostel with dozens of other people, there was always the possibility that the hot water would run out just before my turn. On camino, I couldn’t assume anything. I didn’t book my accommodation in advance so from one day to the next, I never knew where I would sleep. Other people were stressed by my lack of planning but I did it by choice: it kept me from getting complacent. And I was grateful for every single bed, regardless of its state.

I had six weeks in my own company so I noticed certain trends. There were days when I gave thanks throughout the day, dozens, if not hundreds of times. Those days were light and full of serendipity. Other days, I felt burdened by all the aches and pains. I felt burdened by disappointments. I didn’t give thanks for much and consequently, felt beaten down by both the camino and by life.

There’s a connection there. It sounds trite but really, giving thanks and literally counting my blessings made me a happier person. I felt light. I felt capable. I felt confident and playful and free.

It really was that simple. The secret to happiness? Give thanks for what you’ve got.

I say all of this because it’s relevant on two fronts:

  1. Giving thanks was a potent experience for me on camino and in my everyday life since then. Quite literally, it transforms the seemingly banal hum drum into something exquisite and profound. I can always use more of that 🙂
  2. When I left the albergue in Boadilla del Camino, I sought out the owner to say thanks to him in person. You’ll remember that he took me in even though he had no room and later, found a bed for me. He cooked a superb meal the evening before for everyone in the village…not just the pilgrims in his own hostel but the other ones too. He was the personification of a generous host. I was full of sincere and heartfelt thanks, and I wanted to say it to him before I walked off into the 6am light. The hostel was full of people putting on their boots and zipping up their packs for the day ahead. I found him in kitchen, already preparing for the day ahead. In my rudimentary Spanish I thanked him for being *such* a nice guy and for being so kind to me. And you know what he said? Of the 70 people who’d eaten his meal the previous evening, none of them had said thanks. And of all the pilgrims who’d slept on beds, sofas, and the floor, none of them had said thanks either. That morning, I was the only one who sought him out. We stood there, thanking each other.

I was glad I’d made the effort to reach out and say a nice word. But I was disappointed and saddened too. So many of my fellow pilgrims barreled through camino with a sense of entitlement. They assumed that the dinner would appear just because they were paying for it. They didn’t think of the people who spent the day planning and cooking it for them. They didn’t think to say thanks. Worryingly, they didn’t think they had to.

Walking to Santiago isn’t just about the cheap wine or the interesting people from all over the world. It isn’t life-changing if you spend your days racing for beds and being a dick to the hostel owners along the way. Everyone wants the adventure and the glory. Everyone wants the ‘A-Ha’ experience but to get it, we have to exercise a bit of kindness. Humility. Gratitude. Decency. They’re simple concepts but not always easy to put in practice. But when we do? Wow, what happiness awaits. So today, give thanks. Count your blessings. And tell someone just how much you appreciate something they’ve said/done that made your life easier. *This* is what camino is all about.

 

 

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago: A Turning Point

When I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage route in Spain, I knew I’d have time to reflect. I knew I’d see my life differently. I knew the experience was going to change me. Six weeks of walking will do that to a person.

The evening I arrived into the small village of Boadilla del Camino, I had no idea that I was on the cusp of a major turning point, not just for camino but for my “real life” too.

Backtrack a bit: Lucy* (not her real name) and I had walked together earlier on the trail. She was a native English speaker, travelling alone, and she walked at the same pace as I. We fell into each other’s company easily and I enjoyed the chat. That is, until I didn’t. Over the space of a few days, I slowly realised that I didn’t want to spend so much time with her any more. Our values felt very different. Our intentions around the camino felt very different. I felt increasingly miserable in her company. I decided to continue on alone, so I bade her a Buen Camino and never expected to see her again. Sweet relief! Bumping into her in Boadilla del Camino was a surprise. Her excitement at seeing me was a surprise, too.

From the minute she spotted me, she stuck to my elbow for the next couple of hours.

I went to find somewhere to stay, she followed.

I went to light a candle in the church, she followed.

I went to hang laundry on the line, she followed.

All the while yapping about herself, and her trials and tribulations over the intervening week.

Nothing wrong with that, you say.

For two hours, I nodded, I oohed and ahead, and felt my initial interest drain away from me like blood. Truth is, I was dog tired that evening, and being on the wrong end of a monologue sapped my remaining energy. I didn’t really care about the food she ate three villages back on the trail. I didn’t care about the amputee she’d met somewhere on the route. I didn’t even care about the conversation she had with the hairdresser when she decided to have her hair styled into a long-lasting blow dry.

I just wanted to chat with other pilgrims, eat some dinner, and get to sleep.

Lucy* wanted to monopolise my energy and my evening.

Countless times, I tried to steer the topic to me…just so we might have an actual conversation. Every time, she steered it back to her. Only once in the two hours did she ask:

So, how are you?

Well, since I saw you last I….

She cut across me and steered the chat back to her again.

Sigh.

We sat together over dinner and I watched her actively ignore the two German women sitting at our table, as she wanted to talk to me only. She couldn’t share the table with strangers. She couldn’t share general conversation. By the time we finished our evening meal, I was truly exhausted from five hours of being targeted. The next morning, I avoided her.

Over the next three days, I noticed myself getting angry every time I thought about Lucy*. I walked out of Boadilla del Camino with speed, determined to put some space between us but still, my mind kept tossing over the events of the evening.

Why am I so upset about this, I wondered. She’s gone, I may never see her again, why am I getting angry?

And then it hit me: I knew a whole list of people just like her in my real life at home.

Friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues…I knew too many people just like her. People who took advantage of my empathy, my listening skills, and time. People who, in theory, were contributing to a relationship but in reality, took my kindness for granted. For years, I had felt the imbalance of our conversations and time together but I gave everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Everyone was busy.

Everyone had stuff going in their life.

It was understandable that people neglected to ask me about myself, or listen when I offered to share. They just didn’t notice but next time we’d rectify that, right? For years, I had felt the hurt of being overlooked and unappreciated. I thought that if I invested more time in these relationships they’d balance out a bit.

I was wrong.

After spending the evening with Lucy*, I finally got some perspective on how these other relationships affected my life. I had felt hurt and lonely and ignored for too long. Spending more time with these people wasn’t the answer: I needed to spend *less* time with them.

Like everyone else, I too was busy. I too had stuff going on in my life. And I was as deserving of a listening ear and support as much as anyone. Relationships are supposed to go both ways. I decided to give less to the ones that were stuck at the end of a one-way street.

So, the friend who promised for three years that they’d call next time they were in town…but didn’t?

That’s okay. I’m not upset, just don’t expect me to keep initiating contact.

And the family member who expected me to visit them all the time?

Sorry, the road goes both ways. Next time it’s your turn to travel.

After the evening with Lucy*, I felt agitated and angry for three days until I realised that she was an echo of my real life at home. I could walk away from Lucy but I never realised that I could walk away from other defunct relationships, too. That surprise, unwelcome, and monopolizing encounter was a turning point: it gave me the strength to evaluate my relationships with less hurt and more pragmatism.

Does the person initiate contact with me? Yes/No

Does the person respond to me? Yes/No

Does the person take an active interest in me? Yes/No

Do I feel valued in this relationship? Yes/No

Do I see a future for this relationship? Yes/No

Do I want to keep this relationship? Yes? ? ?

No.

I never knew I could say that.

Friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues…all of these relationships changed after camino.

Thanks, Lucy* for driving me so crazy that I changed my life 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boadilla del Camino and the Hostel of Plenty

When I waved goodbye to Denis and Fred in Itero de la Vega, I didn’t realise that I wouldn’t see the pair of them again. Camino is like that: people come and go all the time and you never know if you’ll ever meet them again. The day would prove that in more ways than one.

I arrived in Boadilla del Camino at five in the evening, covered in sweat but energised from a day of fabulous walking. My guidebook informed me that there were 76 beds on offer between the various hostels. At that late hour in the day, would there be a bed for me? If not, I would have to walk another 6km to Frómista, knowing that to arrive after 6 in the evening would really limit my prospects.

On the door of the first hostel I saw the sign: they were full. Sitting out front, reading a book, I recognised Lucy* (not her real name) whom I’d walked with days earlier. She leapt excitedly from her chair to come greet me. With her arms waving and her hair flying, we were suddenly in a hug with squeals of surprise. She was clearly delighted.

But is it awful to admit that I wasn’t delighted…not even a little?

We had spent 2-3 days in close orbit further back on the trail but I had been happy to part ways when we did. I hadn’t expected to see her again so soon. Or at all. I especially didn’t expect to hear that she had taken a bus to bridge the 100km distance that would otherwise be between us.

Drat.

Oh, and she had found the time to go to a hairdressers along the way to get some sort of permanent blow dry in her hair. Apparently she was having trouble managing the frizz.

<Insert my withering (and yes, judgemental) smile here>

Considering I had abandoned my fashion sense *entirely* on camino, this news of hairdressers was stunning to me..literally. I was speechless, even though I admit her hair looked great.

Without haste, she informed me that every bed in the village had been taken hours earlier. While she sat reading a novel, I had walked a sweaty, speedy 6km per hour and totalled nearly 35km that day. The difference between us stung a little. She advised that I would need to get a taxi to Frómista, or maybe even the next village after that. There was simply nothing on offer here.

Still, I pottered up to the doors of En El Camino to see whether they could help and was happily surprised to bump into Barb and Dave, who welcomed me with warm smiles.

“It’s all booked up’, they confirmed, ‘but go inside anyway and ask”.

Within, I got chatting to Hugo who initially looked helpless when I asked for a bed. He stared down at the ledger in front of him and confirmed what everyone else had told me: they were all full up. Not only was every bed taken, but all their floor space in the sleeping areas was taken too. The armchairs were taken. The couches were taken. There was nowhere he could put me. He was very sorry.

But a little bit of magic caught us both by surprise:

I found myself saying, “Do you have anything at all? I’m only little and I’ll be very quiet!”

He laughed.

His eyes twinkled.

There was a moment of playful sparkle in the air…and he said to me:

“We will serve dinner in the dining room this evening but when it is over I can put a mat down on the floor for you. That’s the best I can do.”

HURRAH!

I thanked him profusely 🙂

I’m not usually a person who blags my way into VIP areas or asks for discounts on my bill. I’m generally uncomfortable with asking for special treatment but somehow it was easy that day. I was filled with contentment. I found fun in the asking.

I had walked my furthest and fastest. I had also walked with a heart full of gratitude and joy. Getting a mat on the floor meant I could rest for the evening. I had somewhere I could take a shower, wash my clothes, get some dinner. Even better, this was a hostel that had a grassy lawn out front where pilgrims sat in the sun, chatted, played guitar, and dipped their feet in the water fountain. It was like an advert for a holiday resort.

As dinner progressed, Hugo kept me updated on their ever-changing lodging details. He had found a floor space in one of the dorms so he would put a mat there instead of on the dining room floor.

Awesome! I wouldn’t have to wait for everyone to finish their post-dinner drinking before I could go to sleep.

Later again, he came to find me and share that a bed had become available. The pilgrim that had booked it never showed up. It was after 9pm and they were unlikely to show at that late hour.

“It’s on the top [of a bunk]”, he half apologised. “Is that okay?”

I was thrilled!

Every day on the trail, people around me talked nervously, excitedly, and authoritatively about the availability of beds. Everyone understood that hostels filled up by lunchtime or even earlier. It was nearly pointless to try finding a bed later in the day.

Yet, that’s exactly what I did. I had rocked into the village after 5pm and gone from having nowhere to sleep,

to a mat on the floor,

then a mat on a quieter, nicer floor,

to having an actual bed.

All this without reserving anything in advance, without perpetuating the fear that others felt, and without pushing my body to walk any less or more than it wanted to walk that day.

The goodness had fallen sweetly, gently into my lap.

When I fell into bed that night, I felt fit to burst. It wasn’t just from eating a feast of lentils and hake, it was from the joy of living a full and generous day.

They say, “The camino provides”. Indeed it does 🙂