Camino de Santiago: Only 22.8km to go!

Distance walked: 24.7km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 22.8km

I hadn’t intended to walk as far as Santa Irene but the hostel I’d planned to stay in earlier on the trail had already closed up for the winter. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was one thing to deal with hostels that were full but it was something quite different to come across hostels that had already been boarded up for the winter. Even when a hostel was full, there was human contact and the possibility of asking someone for advice. A hostel that’s been closed up offers none of that comfort or connection. With each passing day, I felt (acutely) that it was time to go home. My body was tired. My mind was full of reflections I didn’t have time to process. My heart was full of immense appreciation. The landscape around me was preparing for the colder weather and it felt like the right time to leave. I was glad to have a plane ticket and a home to go to.

It was almost mid October, and the trail between Boente and Santa Irene was busy and bustling with pilgrims walking the final 100km. There in Galicia, I could smell the damp, the moss, the clay beneath my feet. I could smell the dairy cows that grazed in the small, bumpy fields around me. I could smell the oncoming winter and the occasional waft of smoke from a wood fire, somewhere. The cafés sold hearty stews full of chorizo and kale, and the food became more like north European food – perfect for warming up in the autumn chill.

The hostel in Santa Irene was clean and comfortable, and I got a top bunk in a shared dorm. Most of the pilgrims around me were fresh-faced and excitable – clearly, they were walking for just a few days at the end! In the next bunk, an older man (in his 70s) sat on the top bed, alongside mine. Is it relevant that he was dressed like a medieval pilgrim with a brown cloak and a wooden staff? Is it relevant that he was openly hostile to his walking companions but his head literally swiveled to give me 1000% attention? I was not the youngest or prettiest female in that room but he zoned in on me for some uncomfortable reason.

He wanted to chat. More specifically, he asked prying questions and when I answered vaguely and tiredly, he peered into my face as though I’d given him a fake name and was only telling lies. Maybe I would have been better off… as he then started undressing, flexing his abs, and snapping his underwear a bit too enthusiastically, looking for my reaction. He revealed a bit too much and seemed to want my approval or shocked response. He did this in full view, in a crowded dorm with all the lights on, but while everyone around us absentmindedly tended to their sore feet and dirty laundry. No one noticed a thing. He seemed rather pleased with himself.

I think he was a bit of an exhibitionist. I also think he was on some sort of weird power trip, trying to rattle me in plain view but while no one was paying attention. It was one of the most surreal moments in sharing a space with random strangers, and it was *quite* uncomfortable. If there had been another hostel or room to go to, I would have gone. I’m not sure exactly what class of “crazy perv” he belonged to but I promptly got out of there, took the evening by myself, and returned only when the lights were already off and everyone was asleep for the night. Did I feel at risk? No, not with so many people around. But I wouldn’t have liked to meet him on my own, or somewhere quieter. He was a creep – thankfully, the only creep I’d met on all camino – and I wanted to get far away from him. I ignored him the next morning and walked out of there promptly and without looking back.

With so few kilometers ahead, my thoughts drifted to Santiago itself and when I would arrive. I could walk the remaining 22.8km in one day but with my feet feeling so sore, it would be a slow walk into the city. And what then…? Unlike (what seemed like) every pilgrim around me, I hadn’t booked private accommodation in advance. I’d spend the day walking but on arrival in the city I’d have to do what I’d done every day previously – I’d have to find accommodation, have a shower, wash my clothes, go get something to eat, and only around 8-9pm would I get to relax. It would turn a very special day into a kind of routine run-of-the-mill day. After so many weeks trying so hard to get to Santiago, I was tempted to make the final push in one day and just get there.

And yet, some other part of me wanted to arrive in a different way.

Every day for six weeks, I’d lived a nomadic sort of experience and felt that everything was sort of cobbled together. I didn’t book accommodation in advance at any stage of the journey – not even in St. Jean Pied de Port, at the very beginning. For six weeks I’d walked as best I could, and trusted that I would get food and bedding when I needed it. I’d arrived at many hostels feeling beaten and sore. Pushing myself to the limit had exposed a raw vulnerability and gratitude. I’d certainly been humbled. But Santiago was my last stop. I wasn’t going to walk on to the coast so it felt important to really “arrive” in to the city in the right kind of head space. I didn’t want to arrive feeling sweaty and spent: I wanted to arrive with a certain presence. I wanted to arrive and really feel the finality and achievement of walking those 800km. I wanted to arrive well.

This was the day to finally decide: would I walk to Santiago in one final push and find my friends? Would I split the remaining distance over two days instead?

I made no plan, no presumptions, no promises. I laced up my shoes, heaved my backpack onto my shoulders, and walked out into the cool morning air. The day would reveal all.

 

Walking through Galicia: From Os Chacotes to Boente

Distance walked: 21.7km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 47.5km

It’s fun to stay at the Y…M….C…A…!

The hostel owner in Vilchá, just two nights earlier, announced that he would close up for the winter the following week. In my walk between Vilchá and Os Chacotes, just a day earlier, I saw two hostels already closed up for the winter. It was early October but everything was winding down and I was glad I was close to Santiago and “the end”. I was also glad that I wouldn’t walk the additional 100km to Finisterre. I had always imagined I would walk to the coast but I’d conceded that it wasn’t likely on that particular journey. Every time a hostel closed its doors for the winter, pilgrims had to walk further distances between one bed and the next. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but after walking 750km I was done with the uncertainty about accommodation. It was one thing to deal with hostels that were full or uncomfortably crowded, but it was another thing to deal with the end-of-season closures. I was tired of the nomadic lifestyle and endless strategizing: I wanted to go home.

Getting ready for winter

55km to go….

52.5km to go…

51km to go…

Compared to other parts of the camino, I thought the signage and distance markers in Galicia were plentiful and clear. This is the busiest section of the Camino Francés and most people who “do the camino” walk only those last 115.2km. So, the cafés, hostels,  and general services were plentiful. And yet, I met with an Australian this day who got really upset when she couldn’t see any yellow arrows. She had become so used to the plentiful directions that she panicked when they disappeared, even briefly.  She doubled-back on the trail, she contradicted me, and she even contradicted a local who gave her directions. She couldn’t trust what others told her and she couldn’t trust the markers that were available.

More tellingly, she couldn’t trust that even if she took a wrong turn, that she would cope with the outcome and figure it out.

Expecting such perfection brings a lot of pressure.

I had seen pilgrims wrongly rely on electronic devices instead of heeding the locals who gave directions. I understand the pilgrims who, like me, may not have had confidence in their language skills and may have felt more autonomous using the tech.  I get it.

But, what a missed opportunity.

Asking for directions is an opportunity to connect with another human instead of a screen – what a concept! All the talk about meeting great people on the camino is limited if all we do is meet other pilgrims. What about connecting with the café owners,  the farmers in the fields, the people standing behind shop counters? To understand a country and its people, we have to talk to the people who actually live there, work there, build their lives there. Walking the camino without engaging with the locals, especially when they have up-to-date information and correct directions, is a massive loss. We become consumers rather than pilgrims. We lose our humility.

Asking for directions allows locals to connect with us, too. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people pass through their villages and towns, crossing their land and changing the face of their communities. We don’t ask them how they feel about this: we just “do the camino” and give no thought to the consequences. It’s not right that we ignore them and prioritize our screens. Asking for directions allows them to meet us and learn a little about us, too. I think they deserve that opportunity given they open their towns and villages to the endless crowds, always on the move. It is a small way of acknowledging the disruption we cause and the change that we bring. It’s a small way of expressing our humanity instead of self-absorbed consumerism.

The days walking in Galicia were quite a contrast to the previous 700km across France and Spain. There were  more people, sure, but there was also a lot more entitlement and competition, too. I was disappointed by the amount of people wearing headphones, disconnected from even the other pilgrims around them. I was appalled by the amount of people who skipped queues in the café bars, who shouted their orders at the staff, and who barked for wi-fi codes without ever saying “Hello” or “Please”. There was a large cohort of people who behaved as though their individual experience was the only one that mattered. I don’t know which is worse: shouting orders at waiting staff or elbowing other pilgrims out of the way. I didn’t like either and I’m sorry to say I saw way too much of both behaviors on that final 100km stretch to Santiago.

And yet, seeing all of this helped highlight the goodness in my journey. My journal is full of reflections including this:

“I’m thankful to ever be here and to have been given the resources (physical, financial, mental, spiritual, emotional) and support to come this far. Over and over, I’ve put my sore and swollen feet into my shoes, and walked. It is a privilege to be given this time, these smiles and conversations, this sunshine, this reflection. Yes, it’s been tough but the strain is already wearing away as I come close to the end and as I realize what a blessing it is.”

Did I enjoy the day of elbowing, contradicting, and ignorant behavior? No. But getting a bed in Boente’s hostel was a relief, and re-connecting with people I hadn’t seen since Orisson was a lovely surprise. There was goodness to be found everywhere, I just had to pay attention to it.

Camino de Santiago: From Sarria to Vilchá

Only 100km left to Santiago

Distance walked: 19.9km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 95.3km

Handsome Husband’s trip to Sarria was at an end, as was mine, so we found an early morning café and had our breakfast of juice and croissants. The morning was dark and foggy – very foggy – and while we ate, I wondered how I’d manage to navigate the trail. Getting around town was one thing but it would be tricky in the open countryside. Suddenly, it was time to say goodbye – he had to catch a bus to the airport and I had to follow the yellow arrows back to the gravel path. Samos and Sarria had been good to us and we had a lovely first wedding anniversary, despite (or maybe because of?) the rustic facilities. I’d be home in a week and we would catch up again then but for now, it was time to go. Buen Camino to us both.

The trail was busy and noisy with new pilgrims starting out. For many, walking the camino means walking the last 115.2km from Sarria to Santiago, and their energy and enthusiasm are obvious to all. I found it a bit challenging to find my place among them. In retrospect, I’m glad I had the break with Husband in Sarria: it gave me a chance to rest and to prepare my head for what lay ahead. The trail was going to be busier and noisier than ever, but I was on the last leg of a very long journey. After all that walking towards Santiago was I really ready to arrive there?

I wasn’t sure. It was a strange sensation: after all the effort, the pain, and tears, I still wasn’t fully ready for it to be over. There’s that saying that the destination is not what matters but rather, the journey you have along the way. Suddenly, that saying made a lot of sense to me. All those weeks, I’d been walking every day towards Santiago but now that I was nearly there, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to arrive. Good thing I still had a few days to get my head around the idea.

So, I took it really slowly that morning. The darkness and fog slowly lifted, and I found myself in undulating countryside with grey stone walls and a chill in the air. The chill never really lifted in the week ahead: some of that was because I was in Galicia and some of it was because it was early October. The summer was over and the long, light days of the Meseta were all behind me.

Free fruit along the way 🙂

My walking that day was tinged with a sort of sadness. I missed Handsome Husband and hoped his journey home was going well. Strangely, about half an hour after saying goodbye to him in Sarria, I lost network coverage on my phone. I didn’t have any 3G coverage or even regular phone coverage. This meant no texts, no phone calls, no impromptu messages to let him know I was still alive. It was a strange state, and one that persisted for my week of walking through Galicia. It struck me as really odd: here was the busiest stretch of the camino trail and I had no phone network: what was that about? I couldn’t tell whether there was a limited infrastructure because it’s a poor part of Spain, or whether this imposed silence was somehow part of *my* last days on the trail. Either way, the lack of phone network made things a lot quieter for me and that was surprisingly welcome.

Hearty meaty and veggie soup: amazing!

My days walking in Galicia were strange and emotional for a number of reasons. I noticed changes in the café menus: the mixed salads had been replaced by hearty broths, and the dishes were meatier and more stew-like. It made sense to me: the climate here was different to every other region I had walked through and that damn damp was chilly. I craved the soups, stews, and large cups of tea for comfort.

The trail was loud and busy, and there was nearly always someone within sight either ahead of me or behind me. I’m an introvert and that particular day I was feeling even more insular than usual: I didn’t feel like conversing with the scores of pilgrims who’d only just started and were all chatter. Many of them were on “vacation mode” but I was in a very different head space. On top of that, I noticed quite a few women in full make-up as I stopped for coffee along the way. When I say “full”, I mean the works – the foundation, the eye shadow, the mascara and eyeliner, the lip liners and lipsticks, and even blusher – at 9am in the middle of a dirty, dusty gravel trail, looking like they were on their way to an evening gala. And with the smell of damp moss and cow manure all around us. Very odd. I’m sure they looked amazing in the photos they posted on Facebook but their appearance was so, so out of context that I recoiled even more. Make-up and social media updates held no appeal for me: I had a job to do and I wanted to keep walking.

Help-yourself coffee stop along the way with an honesty box to pay for anything taken

I stopped for the night in a tiny village called Vilchá, with a population of just 30 people and no cafés or shops. I was just 2.5km from Portomarín but I wanted to avoid the throngs of people heading for the big town. I thought I had a better chance of getting a bed in a small village like this, and it turned out to be true. Surprisingly, I bumped into some German and South African women I had’t seen since St. Jean Pied de Port, and we were all thrilled to see that we were each still alive, still walking, and in good health.

Our private hostel was a restored farm house, with solid furnishings and exposed wooden beams. There were only eight of us staying there that night – all women, too – so it was a quiet evening while people wrote in their journals and napped before dinner. Our South African host cooked a fine three-course meal for us (you can’t go wrong with Spag. Bol.!) and afterwards gave us liqueurs that smelled like rocket fuel! We talked politics, farming, and music, and I got the sense that our host would have loved a party late into the night. I was the youngest one there so he was adamant that I should sing for them or do some sort of a party piece. I squirmed at the attention and repeatedly declined his uninviting suggestion. If we had all sang together it would be one thing but singling me out like that didn’t feel right. I politely told him no, and he looked disappointed and bored with me for the remainder of the evening. I got the impression that I’d somehow defied his expectation of how camino “should” be, as though I had snubbed his hospitality and warmth, somehow. A strange way to end the day but I was glad of the warm and solid bed, and grateful for the chance to rest before going further.

Camino de Santiago: When to Walk?

IMG_0879Someone recently asked me for my thoughts on when to walk Camino de Santiago. It’s a great question. I’ve walked the French route, Camino Francés, so it’s the only route I can comment on but there are lots of other paths to Santiago. Each one brings its own set of considerations. I need to point out that I’ve walked 800km, from St. Jean Pied de Port in France, over the Pyrenees, and across Northern Spain. For some people that’s “all of it” but for others it’s only a section of the journey. The length of the walk is relevant when you have to think about weather,  accommodation, and such.

It’s very tempting to tell you about the weather and the general conditions when I walked. That’s easy to recount but not necessarily very helpful. Instead, here are my tips for trying to decide when is *your* best time to walk.

In no particular order…

  • Get informed. Talk to someone you know who’s already walked a camino – any camino. If you don’t know anyone in your inner circle, see if your friends or colleagues know anyone, ask at your local outdoor shop, or see if there are camino talks in your area where you can meet people who’ve got some first-hand experience. Ask them what route they took and when they walked (what year and months). Why did they choose that route, and was it considered quiet or busy at that time? What was the weather like? Was it typical for that time of year? Some people may have experienced unusually wet summers or surprisingly warm winters – find out when others walked, why they chose that time, and what their overall experience was.IMG_1116
  • Remember that everyone is different. One person’s best time to walk  is another person’s worst. I’ve met people who walked in the July & August heat, and others who walked when there was snow and ice. With the right gear, preparation, and common sense, they all survived just fine. So, take some time to reflect on your own happy medium in terms of temperatures, rainfall, sunshine…that kind of thing.cropped-img_0748.jpg
  • Look at your life. How much time can you give to the trail and when? I’ve met lots of school teachers who, because of their profession, could walk only at certain, very specific times of the year. Do you have similar constraints in your life? If so, how will they impact on your journey? Let’s say you have two weeks vacation (clearly not a teacher, ha ha ha), you need to take a transatlantic flight, walk camino for ten days, then fly home and jump straight back into work and your daily routine. Doable? Sure – lots of people do it because it’s the only way they can experience camino at all. Question is: is this how you want to do it? Take the time to reflect on what you can realistically give, and when. IMG_1266
  • Do some real-time research. I spent a bit of time reading through the Camino de Santiago Forum, here: https://www.caminodesantiago.me/community/. It’s a great resource full of up-to-date information about weather conditions, accommodation details, transport links, security topics…you name it. The “up-to-date” bit is relevant here. Already, my experience of camino is outdated because things have changed quite a bit since I walked. Getting information from people who are there right now is really helpful, and hopefully will help you in your own decision making.IMG_1051
  • Consider your route. The Camino Francés is hugely popular but it’s not the only route to Santiago. According to the pilgrimage office statistics page, the figures confirm that the numbers of people on camino are growing every year. In 2013 in the office received 215,879 pilgrims. In 2017, the office received 301,036 pilgrims. That’s quite a jump. Did they all walk the Camino Francés? It’s unlikely, but the growing numbers have an impact on everything – from the structural integrity of the trail to the availability of hot water in hostels. When you’re trying to decide when to walk, also think about what route you have in mind. Maybe you automatically assume you’ll walk the Camino Francés, but have you thought about how busy it may be? Consider the other routes too: they may be a better option for you given the time of year you want to walk, the amount of time you have to offer, and the experience you seek.IMG_0917
  • Don’t try to be perfect. Unexpected things happen on camino and in life, and there is no time of the year that is perfect for a walk such as this. For all the research you do, know when to pull back from it, too. Give yourself some breathing space and know that you cannot control every single detail, so don’t even try.IMG_1133
  • Last but certainly not least, follow your inner voice. It’s very, very easy to get caught up in research and preparation but that’s all “head stuff”. Pay very close attention to the “heart stuff” and “gut” too, because these parts of ourselves can be remarkably clear when it comes to making decisions. Give yourself the time and quiet space to notice how you feel and to listen to your inner wisdom. In my own experience, the call to walk camino was quite clear and I found it impossible to shake off the feeling that I needed to walk from early September until mid October. I tried talking myself into waiting until the following spring so I would have more time to save money, do some training, and do some research. The gut said “Nooooooooooo!” and the heart said it too. So, my decision to go walk 500 miles wasn’t what-you-would-call logical, but I am proud I heeded my own inner voice. I heartily encourage you to do the same! 🙂IMG_0735Whatever you decide, enjoy it  – all of it! In the grand scheme of things, deciding when to walk a camino is a “first world problem” and isn’t one to agonize over. We are remarkably privileged to have the health, wealth, and mobility to even consider such a thing. Count your blessings and celebrate it all. x

Camino Continues: Samos to Sarria

Distance walked: 15km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 115.2km

Handsome Husband’s arrival in Samos was quite the surprise. He hadn’t made a plan beyond finding me, so we had to figure out the logistics of food and a place to sleep. Given that he wasn’t a pilgrim, he wouldn’t have been allowed stay in the hostel (and I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have wanted to if he’d taken a look at the place!). Instead, we found a private room over a café across the road. For me, this was one of the few times I got a private room, although it was no 5-star suite. It was basic but clean and the cotton sheets, as always, were a sublime treat. It was good to get a break from the chorus of snoring in the shared dorms, too.

The next morning, on our first wedding anniversary, we set off on the trail towards Santiago, some 14km westwards. By then I had walked some 700km across France and Spain and I hadn’t taken a wrong turn along the way. That morning, in the company of Husband, I took a wrong turn. Fifteen minutes after we’d strapped on our backpacks and set out, we found ourselves right back where we started. We laugh about it now but at the time I was immensely frustrated. I just wanted to walk and I wasn’t used to the daily company, slowing me down and leading me astray. Plus, I wondered whether our wrong turn was a metaphor for something bigger: was married life always going to distract me in the opposite direction?!

Handsome Husband was full of enthusiasm and questions as we walked along the trail. We found wild almonds and apples, and he was like a child in his amazement. Me? I was like the wizened old dog by then, I’d already seen 700km of grapes and figs, almonds and sunflowers: I wasn’t so excited by these things any more. The difference between us struck me as really sad: I had been so absorbed in the daily “task” of walking, I thought I’d stopped being in awe of the landscape around me. I know now that I took it all in on a quieter level. I didn’t express the same surprise as he did, but I still remember the smells and the countryside as though I was there only last week. It all went in.

Husband wore jeans (jeans!), trainers, and a hoodie while he walked. He stood out like a tourist and I could barely believe he’d not brought any proper walking gear! He also very kindly carried my backpack but exclaimed how tiring it was to do so. Again, in my “old dog” mode I commented: try carrying it for 700km! We stopped for coffee and omelettes along the way, and tried to catch up on all that had happened in the weeks since we’d seen each other.

When someone asks you: “How was the camino?” it can be very tricky to answer. The obvious replies cover the weather, the food, the company. It’s easy to respond on these terms as though it’s a regular vacation. But, if you get into a different head space with all that walking, then it’s very tricky to evaluate the experience in a few sound bites. How could I tell him that I had changed on a fundamental level? How could I evaluate what that change was, or would mean, when I hadn’t yet articulated it to myself?

The 15km were among the slowest of my whole camino but I put it down to the distraction and the company! By the time we eventually arrived in Sarria, it was obvious to me that the final leg of the journey was going to be busy. The streets were full of fresh-faced pilgrims who’d very obviously just arrived and were getting ready to walk the last 100km or so to Santiago. They stood out in their pristine-looking gear and energetic strides. I met plenty of pilgrims who, like me, had been rattling around on the trail for weeks and who took a skeptical view of these new pilgrims. I don’t like to get into the “us versus them” mentality of the camino because in my experience, there was always someone faster or slower, always someone who’d walked a greater or lesser distance, and there was always someone who was more arrogant or humble. Comparing ourselves to others is a dangerous game. And yet, as I looked around the streets in Sarria, I found myself resenting these “blow-ins” who were doing the easy bit at the end, all to get a bit of paper.

Husband and I found a basic but spacious private room for the next two nights, and enjoyed the relative cosmopolitan vibe of the town. By that, I mean there was an Italian restaurant so we had an anniversary dinner that didn’t involve chorizo! That “down time” was sweet for us. I had been away for five weeks and had another week or so of walking to do. By then, I’d given up on the dream of walking from Santiago on to Finisterre. My feet were too sore, the weather was turning cold, and I’d heard that the hostels along the way were already closing up for the winter. That meant there were longer gaps between hostels and there was no way I was able to walk 30km between them. I was heavy-hearted about not being able to “finish” the way I had wanted to, but it was for the best.

So, the reunion with Husband allowed us to re-connect while I was still in Spain, still en route. I didn’t realize it at the time but it took the pressure off us having a big reunion at an airport or bus station. Like I said earlier, I was in a different head space while I was on camino, so flying home and reuniting with him all at once would probably have been overwhelming. Getting to see each other in Spain helped defuse all of that.

We drank cheap but delicious red wine and gazed out on to the night lights of Sarria. We wished each other a happy anniversary. We had a hiatus from our lives – me, from the exertion of walking and he from the exertion of work – and enjoyed being.

And then it was time to go.

 

 

 

Walking the Camino: The Wild Dogs of Villafranca

IMG_1141Distance walked: 29km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 194.8km

I left the small hotel in Cacabelos feeling renewed and optimistic again. The remaining journey, which had felt impossible only two days earlier, felt doable once more. The two nights of rest and good food had revived my flagging body, and meeting Marco and his Ricard had restored my faith in humanity. I had less than 200km to go and I was hopeful again about getting to Santiago in one piece.

Unlike earlier days on the camino, I walked out of Cacabelos with a new strategy for self-care. Specifically, I decided to take the ibuprofen tablets the pharmacist had suggested, and to build in more rest stops for my sore feet. I’d refused all pain relief up to that point but after a month of walking, I was sore. If I was going to continue, I had to do something different.

I didn’t want to take a bus and skip a section.

I didn’t want to stop for a week to rest.

I didn’t want to stop entirely and go home.

(Stubborn, me??!)

I wanted to walk the remaining distance but I couldn’t afford to overdo it so I had to get a lot more strict about my distances and rest stops. In retrospect, I should have worn some sort of arch support but I’ll know that for next time. 🙂

That morning, I was to pass through a town called Villafranca del Bierzo. All along the route, I’d heard about the wild /crazy /rabies-infested/ angry /wicked dogs in Villafranca. Depending on who I spoke to, the dogs were anywhere from mildly irritable to outright savage, chasing innocent pilgrims for miles along the trail. The thing is, there are two towns called Villafranca along the Camino Francés. Even though lots of people warned me about the dogs, no one seemed to know which Villafranca was the one to watch out for. I’d passed through one already: would this be the morning that I’d meet these blood-thirsty beasts?

As it happened, it wasn’t the morning for being ravaged by wild dogs – happily so, I might add! I didn’t see a single dog that morning (wild or tame) and passed through Villafranca without incident. Outside of town, I had to decide whether to take the “high road” into the mountains or to follow the “low road” along a national route. The former is more scenic but has more ups-and-downs. The latter is more flat but runs alongside a road full of cars.

Which one would I choose?

All the pilgrims around me that morning were asking the same thing. I’m sure some people asked just as a way of making conversation but others were just plain competitive. I met a lot of competitive people on camino – way more than I ever expected. I often wondered whether I imagined all these personalities, or maybe they were reflecting some sort of sensitivity in my personality. But when I met pilgrims who got competitive about the strength of my ibuprofen tablets (yes, I’m serious), I knew it wasn’t all in my imagination. There are always people who are “more” of whatever I am, (faster, fitter, more injured, whatever), so I learned to tune out a bit.

Unsurprisingly, I took the “low road”, alongside the roadway that everyone told me would be dirty, noisy, dangerous, and un-scenic. I wondered how all these people could know such a thing given they’d never walked it. As it turned out, the route suited me just fine. Yes, there were cars, and yes, I walked inside a metal barrier that would have offered very little protection if a truck went off the road and slammed into me. In that sense, it was dangerous. But crossing the road and walking along with my backpack was no more dangerous than any other day of walking in the previous month. There were plenty of small villages along the way so I had ample opportunity to stop for coffee and food, and I was happy to avail of fresh salad and cake! (And when I say “fresh”, I really mean it. The woman who made the salad pictured below actually climbed over a stone wall to retrieve the head of lettuce, so you really couldn’t get fresher!).

Mixed salad with a basket of bread: a fine feast for €5

Slate rooftop…getting closer to Galicia

The new motorway running through the Valcarce valley

The small village of Vega de Valcarce felt quieter than the previous villages along the way. It felt like a place that everyone had forgotten. The newly-built motorway transformed the Valcarce valley so that there was no passing traffic on the road any more. Even the pilgrims on foot were only passing through, and there was an unusual quietness in the hostel and in the streets. True, it was early October and the trail was getting quiet. The cooler weather meant that many pilgrims had gone home, and already I started hearing that the hostels between Santiago and Finisterre were closing down for the winter. I’d hoped to walk all the way to the coast but I hadn’t made any solid plans to do so. I needed to see if my feet would hold up the 800km to Santiago before committing to a further 100km. Even if they did, I’d need accommodation along the way. With hostels starting to close, it might not be a good time to walk that far. I decided to wait and see.

In the meantime, the hostel in Vega de Valcarce was a little rough around the edges but mostly sufficient. I got a bed without problem, the shower was mostly warm, and I bumped into a Los Angeles woman I’d met weeks earlier in Roncesvalles. We spent the evening swapping stories on our 600km along the way…and comparing notes on anti-inflammatory medications…ha ha ha! 🙂

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Kitchen & dining area in the hostel

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Yum!

 

 

 

Taking Stock and Starting Again in Cacabelos

Camino de Santiago: Would I stop walking or would I find a way to go on?

Distance walked: Almost none!

My quiet hotel room in Cacabelos was a real reprieve after the loud hostel the previous night in Ponferrada. I was glad to have stopped in the small town and even more glad to have had a private room for the night. There’s nothing like some sleep and some clean sheets to revive a flagging spirit.

The next morning, I sauntered downstairs for breakfast. Even that felt indulgent: instead of having to walk anywhere between 1 and 10km for my morning meal, I merely had to walk down two flights of stairs! The rain had cleared, the sky was bright again, and I had a decision to make: how far would I walk that day. As I sat nursing my coffee, I had to acknowledge that I still felt a heavy weariness within myself. I’d been walking for a month and my body was really feeling it. I could have pushed myself out the door and walked again but I didn’t want to. Somehow, I’d fallen into feeling the camino was something to be endured rather than enjoyed, and I wasn’t happy with that pattern. I needed to reclaim some joy and sparkle again. I also needed more sleep, some quiet time, and to figure out some sort of plan for my feet.

I inquired at the front desk about staying another night and to my surprise, the answer was no. I say, “to my surprise” because there seemed to be no one about and only 3-4 other guests having breakfast. I couldn’t imagine why they  couldn’t let me stay but they were expecting a tour group later that afternoon. They had no available room. So, feeling rather withered with the news, I went upstairs to gather my belongings and pack my bag. Half way through, there was a knock on my door. I hesitantly answered, wondering whether they were already kicking me out. The kindly man from yesterday stood there.

They’d made a mistake and turns out they could offer me a second night after all:

You can stay in this room, we can give the smaller room to the other person. Would you still like to stay?

Would I like to stay? YES please!

So, that’s how I stayed a second night in Cacabelos.

Tranquil ease at the archaeological museum

 

 

And to this day, the name of that small town is a sort of metaphor for me. When I hit that point of being over-stretched or overwhelmed, I think of Cacabelos. I think of what a tonic it was to get some extra sleep, to wander through the archaeological museum, and to eat a non-pilgrim meal for my lunch. I think of how it was to sit in the shade of a random coffee shop and invite a random pilgrim to join me, and of how she unexpectedly poured out her life story and camino lessons as though I were a long-trusted friend. I think of how much her story echoed mine and of how I was learning a lot of the same things as she. And then, when she was done with her latte, she gathered up her bag and was gone. I never saw her again and surprisingly, that was okay.

I think of how it “re-set” my well being to be quiet for a while, write in my journal, and wander around the town with no particular plan.

Shop window full of knitting wool

The tinned fish (and only fish) section of one supermarket

And I think, too, of going out for dinner by myself that second night, and of all the courage it took to approach a group of pilgrims I’d never even seen before, and ask to join them for dinner. Just think, a day earlier, I felt far too self-conscious and meek to spend time with Peter and Jeanne, yet there I was, boldly inviting myself into this group.  These Americans and Germans were new to me, and as it turned out, new to each other, but they welcomed me in with unquestioning warmth. And that evening, I remember the hearty bowl of broth, Marco’s rippling laughter, and his Dad’s kind smile while Marco translated for him all that I said. None of them knew that night that their company and kindness restored my faith in humanity again. And in myself, too.

Yes, there were self-absorbed jackasses on the camino. Chances are, someone thought was a jackass and all. Being sore and tired had made me cynical and weary, but taking time to rest in Cacabelos had turned things around again.

There was exceptional goodness.

There were genuine and generous people right at my elbow.

And with 200km to go, there was still everything to play for.

Fingers crossed!

 

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago: My Hardest Day

IMG_1108Distance walked: 11.4km

Remaining distance to Santiago: Just over 200km

My walk from Ponferrada to Cacabelos was, without doubt, the lowest point on my 800-km journey. I’m not saying that to depress you. I’m saying it because I think it’s important to be honest about both the highs and lows of walking the camino. Everyone talks about the great people, the cheap wine, and the fabulous scenery along the way. All those things are true. And people also talk about the “challenging” experience without necessarily going into details. So here are some of my details, and I want to point out that I also got through this dismal day!

When I woke up in Ponferrada on the morning of October 1st, I could hear the rain outside the window. Not just falling but thundering down outside. I twisted in my top bunk bed and peered out the window.

Pure black.

It was 7am – quite a lie-in by camino standards – and the sun hadn’t yet risen. On top of that, it had poured rain all night and the ground even sounded wet. It didn’t look good out there but I decided to go through the usual morning routine anyway. Pack up my gear, lace up my shoes, and go forth. That’s what it’s all about, right?

By the time it came to 8am, the sky was lighter in color but still a very dark grey. And still, it rained. Pummeled,  more like. Yesterday’s clothes didn’t dry out overnight and the tumble dryers were still going, still booked out. I’d never get my clothes dry on time before leaving, I’d have to carry them, wet, to the next hostel and hope to dry them there.

The hostel staff loudly banged on doors and turned on all the lights, threw open all the windows, and told us we had to leave. We all knew that we’d have to be out by 8.30am at the latest – this is normal on camino. No doubt the staff were thinking of their 3-hour turnaround time in which they’d have to clean and re-stock the hostel before the next 174 pilgrims would arrive. I don’t envy them that work. And yet, their approach and tone that morning was rather sharp, rather harsh.

I sat at the front door and peered out at the rain. The next coffee stop was 2.2km up the road – about half an hour away – and I hoped to get my breakfast there. The nearest accommodation was even further.

There was no mistake: a half hour in that and I would be absolutely soaked.

I still had one pair of dry socks left but otherwise, all my remaining dry clothes were on my person. If I walked out into that rain, they wouldn’t be dry for long.

I didn’t know what to do, but I knew this:

  1. I couldn’t stay in the hostel any longer
  2. It was too early to check into any other accommodation in town, so staying around for the day seemed untenable
  3. I didn’t want to “skip” a section by getting a taxi or a bus, like the women from Acebo were choosing to do

It didn’t seem like I had any option but to walk. At 8.30am, I heaved my extra heavy backpack on my shoulders (remember, it was full of wet clothes), and walked out the door. Instantly, the cold, wet rain pelted my face and was an omen of the day to come. I gingerly put one foot in front of the other.

The terrain between Ponferrada and Cacabelos is quite level – there are no major inclines or declines. The distance is quite short too, and ordinarily I would have comfortably walked it in three hours or less. That day, everything got on top of me. The rain was relentless all morning and in no time, I was soaked. The backpack was unbearably heavy and the ache along my shoulders and back were impossible to ignore. My feet dragged under the weight and the wet, and every step was an agony. And somehow, all of this got in on top of my heart, too. I dragged along at a record slow of 2km an hour, feeling disheartened in the extreme. I inquired about accommodation along the way but there were no beds. I had no choice but to keep going, even further into the rain. I bumped into Peter and Jeanne again but felt too weary and ashamed to stop for long.

Ashamed?

Yes. I hated to admit it but there I was, young and healthy and absolutely struggling that day. And I was also completely blind as to how to change my situation. From what I could tell, I couldn’t get a bus or taxi, and since there was no available accommodation, I had no way of stopping early or drying out my clothes. I presumed that Peter & Jeanne couldn’t help because their arrangements were different, so I didn’t really share just how defeated and hopeless I felt. I didn’t know what else to do except keep going, alone, and feeling rather miserable. I didn’t want to depress them but they saw it in me anyway and later confided that they were concerned about me that day.

Note to self: Had I told them about the wet clothes, the extra weight, and my extra sore feet, they might have been able to help me find a solution that I hadn’t considered. People can be good like that – full of helpful suggestions and kindness, if only I’d thought to share. I learned this the hard way.

The day was a slow, painful, drudge. The sunny and strong days in the Meseta felt like a lifetime ago and I was full of dread for the remaining 200km of my journey. If ever there was a time when I felt like bowing out, or felt truly doubtful of my ability to keep going, this was it. It was my most difficult day’s walking, for sure. The highlight of the day was to find, and eat, some fresh figs that grew on the side of the trail. I’d only ever had dried figs so these were a sweet, delicious novelty in my day, and a necessary distraction from the weariness.

 

I had no intention of staying in a private hotel that night but as I got closer to Cacabelos, the billboard signs for a pilgrim-friendly 3-star hotel were too tempting to refuse. The management was smart to advertise the nightly rate (€36 for a pilgrim) so that by the time I passed the third sign, I was sold on the idea. My daily budget was less than €36 so to spend a night in a private hotel, even at that price, was a splurge. And yet, something had to give.

I needed to stop. I needed to wash and dry every inch of clothing I carried with me. I needed a very hot shower, a very long sleep, and a hot, hearty meal. And, though I had refused for all 600km so far, I needed to take some sort of pain medication for my inflamed and swollen feet. No amount of stretches or ice water had resolved the persistent ache: if I were going to walk to Santiago, I was going to need some help.

But first: a quiet and clean hotel, with one of the nicest receptionists I’ve ever met. This middle aged man welcomed me with gentleness and warmth, and he told me everything would be okay. He must have seen the day’s despair and defeat on my face, and he assured me that they would take care of me there.

And that’s what they did. For the modest sum of €36, I was treated to a spacious room and a double bed with crisp, clean sheets. The bathroom was roomy, the towels were fluffy, and the soaps and shampoos were a dizzying indulgence. To top it off, they washed, dried, and pressed my laundry in a matter of hours and returned it to my door with a gentle knock before walking away. No drama. No demands. Just clean, dry (dry!) clothes that were a relief to behold.

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So, stopping off in that hotel was one of the smartest decisions I made in all 800km. It allowed me the chance to rest, to recover, and to get clean and dry. More importantly, it allowed me to gather my spirits for the final leg of the journey.

600km down, 200 to go!

Walking the highs and lows from Acebo to Ponferrada

Distance walked: 19.5km

Descent: Approx. 600m

My night in Acebo passed off uneventfully. Up there, some 1,110m above sea level, the air was crisp and damp, and I burrowed into my sleeping bag to keep warm. I was glad to have the loan of an extra wool blanket. It never occurred to me that the blanket might have had mites or tics from the previous pilgrim(s) so in retrospect, I was also glad that it had no hidden surprises!

I’ll admit, my memory of the day’s terrain is a little hazy. Some of that is due to the passing of time. Some of that is because I was trying to stay warm on a rocky descent into a cold landscape. This meant I looked down at my feet more so than at the sky and horizon. But separately, most of the haziness is because I happened upon Peter and Jeanne from the U.K., and I fell into happy conversation and step with them.

We had mutual Camino friends in common – people we’d met only days and weeks before – and we’d heard lots about each other. Most of it was good 😉

After the previous evening in Acebo, and the hypocrisy of pilgrims who said one thing and did another, I was feeling a bit disillusioned with the Camino and humanity.

Again.

This wasn’t the first time: I’d been upset by the pilgrims who’d left pools of water on the bathroom floors, and the pilgrims who’d shouted loud English at restaurant waiting staff. I had expected my fellow pilgrims to behave better but I was upsetting myself in the process. So, I asked Peter for his advice.

Peter had walked the first half of the Camino Francés some twenty years earlier. He confirmed what everyone else said: things had changed. Yes, there were more (and better) facilities now. The coffee stops were closer together. The navigation was much easier. And there were a lot more people – not all of them sensitive to the landscape or culture in which they walked. I felt relieved and heartened to hear him confirm all of this. Without realizing it, I had nursed a certain vision of what the Camino looked and felt like, all based on:

  1. Reports from friends, some 10-15 years earlier
  2. The many photos I’d seen of solitary pilgrims in wide open landscapes, looking entirely at ease
  3. The fact that I was walking in the off-season of September and October

*My* experience of the camino was often at odds to what I thought it would be, or should be. I found it immensely difficult to feel open-hearted and generous when there were so many jackasses about.

And yet, Peter gently pointed out that unless I spoke up at the time, there was no way of changing the events, people, or outcome of the previous evening. He was right. And since I had no way of going back in time and doing things differently, I’d have to just let it go.

His words were a balm on my agitated heart!

Quite literally, I felt the stress and tension melt away, and I felt an inner lightness again. I stopped getting so wound up about these strangers and found a way to continue on with renewed optimism. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I continue to lean on Peter’s words and wisdom to this day.

Meeting Peter & Jeanne, and sharing conversation with them was the absolute highlight. Their animated and gracious company made the walking easier and the time go faster. Later, Peter kindly treated me to coffee just the way I like it, which was a second highlight. In almost a month of walking, I hadn’t been able to convey to anyone just how I wanted my coffee so for him to breeze in with his superior language skills and make it look so easy – well, what a joy! We ate cake, took photos with friends, and eventually parted ways. I wanted to walk on to Ponferrada, so I waved them goodbye and hoped to meet them again.

By the time I arrived in Ponferrada late in the afternoon, it had already been raining for hours. The sky was heavy with even more rain, and it looked like a grim evening for the laundry. My shoes and socks were soaked through. My rain gear was wet and even my sweater and t-shirt underneath were soaked in patches. It wasn’t a good way to end the day but I was glad to get a bed in the hostel. At least it wasn’t all full up.

The hostel slept 174 pilgrims, most of them dripping wet. The queue for the shower was more than an hour long….and unsuprisingly, there were pools of water all over the floor! After, I queued to use a tumble dryer for my clothes but after 90 minutes, I gave up. They were “booked” for another three hours and I didn’t have the energy to stay up all night waiting for them. I hung my clothes on an indoor clothes line and went to bed feeling achy and cold. And just to top it off, I ended up sharing my small dormitory with some of the same personalities I’d seen in Acebo the previous evening. What luck!

Would I “speak up” at this late stage or would I keep to myself? I didn’t know what to do but decided to try and get an early night of it: hopefully the weather would be better in the morning and I could start afresh.

 

 

 

Deciding to Walk the Camino de Santiago?

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2018 is full of goodness for all of us and hopefully lots of great hikes too.  😀

It’s very early January and even though I am still finishing off the Christmas chocolates, I am looking at the year ahead and wondering what it will bring. I’m lucky to have good health so looking ahead is something that brings hope to my heart. I have options. There are possibilities. I have everything to play for.

What lies ahead?

Between you and me, I’ve been reflecting a lot on when to walk another camino.

Like countless pilgrims before me, I thought it would be enough to walk 500 miles across Spain just the once. I thought I’d “do it” and get it out of my system. I never imagined that I would want to walk again – that is, until I came home and began to reflect on the enormity of my experience. Very quickly, I realized I wanted to walk several more camino journeys in my lifetime. I even had a sense of my next route and when I would walk it but I didn’t make any commitments. I wanted to keep the planning loose until I was sure of the timing. There are lots of things to consider, like the cost, the time it takes, and the preparation it takes for a successful walk. Still, I reflected on when is a good time to walk and how to make that decision, and I wrote a little about it here.

Since then, I’m still reflecting and still trying to figure out the timing for my next journey.

Things are different now. Unlike last time round, I am not in a position to quit my job and walk away from family for 6+ weeks any more. I’m also not really in a position to bring family walking the trail *with* me either.

I know my circumstances will change and I won’t always face these hurdles so I’m not very worried about the timing just now. I just have to be patient and trust that it will come together.

But all this wondering and waiting is a curious thing. I feel my way through a lot of my big decisions and my last camino (and next one!) are no different. But  I wonder how everyone else arrives at the choice to walk camino.

Did you feel called? Was it the answer to a prayer or a heart’s desire?

Did you mentally commit to a year and a route, and then forge your life around making the plans work?

Maybe you suddenly needed a time-out and camino seemed as good a place as any to go think and “be”?

Was it a whim? Were you in Europe with a bit of free time and just decided to go check it out?

Or was it a dream you nursed for twenty years until finally the obstacles fell away?

I know that thousands of people overcome all sorts of obstacles to embark on a camino journey. People with lives far more complex than mine can make it happen. Either life bends to their will or they make it bend for them. Whatever the case, they live colorful, meaningful lives and stay connected to what has meaning and heart.

So, I’m curious. I want to know how to make it all work.

How did you come to your choice to walk camino? What were your obstacles and how did you overcome them? And what would you say to someone thinking about walking but unsure about how to start?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! 🙂

 

 

Taking a Break Before the Break Takes You…

IMG_0904One afternoon in Spain, I got chatting to a friendly South Korean woman about our camino journey so far. Like me, she was taking a break in the shade of a café bar, so we naturally fell into chat about our walking experience and our lives in general.

She told me that in South Korea, the army have a particular policy when they bring their troops on long walks for training or active service. For every four miles they walk, they then stop for a fifteen-minute break.

Whatever the weather, they stop.

Even if people feel strong enough to keep going, they stop.

Even if people don’t feel like stopping, they stop.

The logic is this:

Taking timely breaks prevents the body from getting too tired.

Taking timely breaks prevents people from getting weary and mindless.

Taking timely breaks prevents people from burning out.

Ultimately, the troops are able to walk farther for longer, and are not an exhausted heap by the time they reach their destination.

What a concept!

Her story fascinated me. I’ve never met anyone from the South Korean military to verify whether her story was true but the message really struck a chord with me that day:

Take a break before the break takes you!

While I walked all those miles across Spain, I didn’t follow this advice very well. I walked and walked and walked, and then had some really bad days where I felt exhausted and utterly overwhelmed. I experienced a sort of all-or-nothing extremism and it meant that some days were really, really hard. It wasn’t how I wanted to experience camino but I didn’t quite know how to change the pattern.

It never occurred to me that I could create a schedule of some sort and, for example, take a day off for every five days I walked. It never occurred to me to book private accommodation in advance and avail of some quiet privacy. It never occurred to me to take a break before I hit that desperate, wrecked, breaking point. As a result, I was probably more tired and cranky than I could have been. I pushed myself too hard and that sense of exhaustion was a predominant part of my camino. Rightly or wrongly, it’s a huge memory for me, too.

I say all of this now because I need to take my own advice again.

The blog has been quiet for the past month while I wrestle with a flu and chest infection. It’s winter here, I know, but still…when sickness grinds my life to a halt like this, it forces me to pay attention. Maybe I’ve been doing too much. Maybe I’ve been pushing too hard. Maybe I should schedule breaks each week or month, just like I schedule my work meetings and grocery shopping and household chores and and and and and….

You get the idea 🙂

Even when I don’t get to write about camino, I find myself thinking about it a lot and applying the lessons to my everyday life. Honestly, the learning was so pragmatic that it’s hard *not* to apply it to my everyday life, and I take a huge amount of inspiration from that time on the trail. Quite literally, the camino continues to change my life and how I live it, usually with everyday examples like learning how to slow down a bit.

So, this weekend, I encourage you all to take a break. Whatever the weather, stop for a little while. Whether you feel strong enough to keep going, stop for a little while. Even if you don’t feel like taking a break, do it anyway.

Take a break before the break takes you.

It’s a good way to keep healthy and well! 🙂

 

Camino de Santiago & A Noisy Night in Acebo

Remaining distance to Santiago: More than 200km…still ages to go….!

 

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My night in Acebo was a bit of a strange one. After walking in the cold and rain to Cruz de Ferro, I was glad to get a lower bunk bed in a private hostel. The place seemed clean and rustic, and I gladly changed in to some dry clothes. Still, I felt chilled and couldn’t quite shake the feeling of flu, so I asked the volunteer staff member (hospitalerio) if I could make a cup of tea in the kitchen. It was about 4pm, so not quite lunch time and still hours away from dinner. I had my own green tea and I just needed to boil a mug of water…I was already day dreaming of curling up in one of the woollen blankets to write in my journal and look out at the rain…it was going to be great!

But if ever there was a guy having a bad day, this was the guy!

The poor man snapped at me and fiercely told me, NO! He then gave me a long lecture about it being a private kitchen and if he let everyone in there to make a cup of tea then he’d never be able to prepare the evening meal that we would all eat later on…this wasn’t one of those self-catering hostels, and people couldn’t just walk in and out when they liked…

So, no way was I allowed to make a cup of tea. That was his decision and the answer was no!

His abruptness caught me off guard and I have to say, I felt rather meek after his lecture. I apologised. I understood his situation. And I explained that I was feeling very cold and I just wanted to warm up, but again, I was sorry for interrupting. I didn’t know the kitchen was out-of-bounds.

And I backed out of his way, feeling rather deflated.

How was I going to warm up now?

A minute later, he ran after me to apologise and tell me of course I could  make some tea if I was feeling unwell. He didn’t mean to lose his temper. He was very sorry. And he explained that he was under such pressure to check-in the new pilgrims while simultaneously prepare an evening meal for us all. He was struggling with the multi-tasking. But he was a flood of regret and sincerity as he apologised, and I was on the edge of tears as we hugged and reconciled.

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It’s hard to articulate it now but there were points on camino when I felt as though all of my nerve endings and sensitivities were on the outside of my body, instead of neatly tucked away inside. In my everyday life, a random stranger losing their temper isn’t usually something to cry about. On camino, his harshness and quick temper really took me aback. The cup of tea represented warmth, wellness, and self-care. In that cold and rainy place, miles and miles from home, I just needed a bit of everyday comfort to ground myself. While I walked those 500 miles, I desperately missed having my own kitchen and the freedom to prepare my own food when, and how I like. So, when this guy chided me for wanting a cup of tea it hit a very frayed nerve.

That evening, our generous hospitalerio announced that he needed help with doing the dishes afterwards. It was only fair, given that he’d prepared a feast for us and shouldn’t have to clean up after 20+ people by himself. I observed the show of hands around the table as people offered to help.

Sure.

I can do that.

No problem.

And then I observed a curious dynamic unfold.

Pilgrim 1 called the room to silence so she could make a speech. This didn’t ordinarily happen on camino but was clear that she was used to commanding attention and speaking to groups. Everyone at the table quietened to a hush, and she publicly thanked our host for all his hard work and great food. She smiled, she charmed, and she publicly offered to help with the clean-up afterwards.

And then we all happily clinked our glasses of wine and toasted our hospitalerio.

Later, when the time came, I observed her hone in on a physiotherapist for an intense conversation about her feet, while a dozen pilgrims around her carried plates and moved the chairs. She didn’t even look up when someone cleared away her plate, too. She had publicly offered to help but when the time came, she ignored the hullaballoo and all the people in it.

Did she help with the dishes?

Nope.

Did she do what she had so publicly offered to do?

Nope.

All talk, no action.

Pilgrim 2 sat quietly at the table and like the rest of us, ate a hearty meal and drank more than one glass of wine over the course of the evening. When our hospitalerio asked her directly, and publicly, to help with the 6-7 other people who’d volunteered to do the dishes, she said Yes. But when the time arrived, I watch her quietly slink away to a corner chair with a glass of wine in one hand and a paperback novel in the other. While other pilgrims carried platters and started scrubbing the saucepans, she disappeared into the half-light and ignored us all.

Did she help with the dishes?

Nope.

Did she do what was asked of her?

Nope.

Says one thing, does another.

For days afterwards, I struggled with a response to the evening’s events.

Should I have said something and if so, what?

I didn’t want to label the women as selfish asses but I also couldn’t understand how they had turned their backs. Maybe they didn’t know that our hospitalerio was under stress but still, shouldn’t they have done their bit to help?

That night, I curled up in my lower bunk bed glad of the warmth, the dry clothes, and the feast in my belly. Unlike countless nights before, there was no one snoring, no one getting up to the bathroom every five minutes, and no one packing their backpack at midnight. There was, however, a couple in the bunk above mine, and they didn’t let the lack of privacy interrupt their…ahem…cuddling!Even though I heard lots of things about camino, I had never heard about *that*.

In Acebo I heard it all!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A High Point on Camino de Santiago

Distance walked: 17km

Elevation gain: 355m

Remaining distance to Santiago: 225.7km

When I left Rabanal at 6:30am, the ground was still wet from heavy rain overnight. Thankfully my socks and shoes were dry but as I peered out from under my dripping wet poncho, I felt a bit dubious about how the day would hold up. The poncho didn’t cover my bare legs and already they were feeling a bit chilly. Up there at 1,150m above sea level, the air was definitely colder than it had been in the meseta, just days earlier. I was a long way from where I started and I was edging further into Autumn. I already felt that all this larking around in sunny Spain was coming to an end!

For many of the pilgrims around me, a high point of their camino was only a few kilometers up ahead: La Cruz de Ferro. Literally, this iron cross stands 1,504m above sea level and, in the words of Brierley, “…has become one of the abiding symbols of the pilgrim way of St. James. Pause a while to reconnect with the purpose of your journey before adding your stone or other token of love and blessing to the great pile that witnessses our collective journeying.”

When I packed my bag weeks earlier, I included a small token to place at this famous landmark on the Camino Francés. Friends had told me that this was a nice symbolic moment on their camino journeys and I imagined that it would be a resonant moment for me, too. After all, I’d walked all that way, I’d done a whole bunch of reflecting and resolving…surely I would want to mark all of that with the placing of my “stone”, right?

In between the showers and the drizzle, the rain clouds hung low and heavy. I knew I was up high but I never considered that the wind would pick up so it was a shivery walk for me. The trail was slippery underfoot and the cold motivated me to keep moving. In retrospect, I probably should have put on some long pants when I realised, even after an hour of walking, that my body wasn’t really warming up. Instead, I shivered along the trail that morning and tried to keep some dry clothes in my pack for later that evening. Was it a smart move on my part? Maybe not the smartest!

*My* high point that day wasn’t the iron cross standing tall in the landscape. It wasn’t even the thrill of reaching the summit of Puerta Irago. Surprisingly, my high point was stopping for coffee at Albergue Monte Irago. That morning, any sort of shelter from the rain and cold would have been welcome, but I was entirely tickled with delight to wander into this place.

Amazingly, a wood fire crackled and burned in the stone fireplace inside the door. How perfect on such a day! Second, I drank my coffee from a *mug* rather than a small cup, as was the standard everywhere else on camino. I don’t know about you but for me, there’s nothing like curling up with a mug of hot coffee on a wet day…I don’t want a measly cup that’s going to run dry after three mouthfuls. I want a generous and comforting mug: I want to know that the warmth will last a bit longer!

The rustic benches were filled with pilgrims in animated laughter. The air smelled of coffee and sweet cake and, unsurprisingly, wet clothes, steaming in the warmth of the fire. In the corner,  bars of fair trade chocolate and baskets of organic fruit were available to buy and given there wasn’t another coffee stop till the far side of the peak (some 11km away with ups and downs), it was a great opportunity to replenish my sugar supplies. 🙂

This little café was a personal highlight. It’s not just that it was warm and cosy on a particularly drippy morning. Anywhere would have given some shelter but the wood fire was a particularly nice touch. I appreciated that they went to the bother of it. I also loved that the place was full of heart and charm and a quirky décor. By then, I’d stopped in countless cafés along camino and even though I was always grateful for the break, *this* place felt different. The staff weren’t harried, the furniture wasn’t made of formica, and there were hearty mugs of coffee all round.

There was lots to love! 🙂

With a warm belly of coffee and cake, I ventured out into the bleak drizzle and walked the uphill 6.5km to the iron cross. My poncho was noisy with rain. My legs felt the chill of the wind. In front and behind, a slow line of pilgrims bent into the wind all heading for the same destination. I contemplated on the token I would leave there and what sentiment I hoped to leave with it. I really wanted to imbue it with great personal meaning but the sentiment kept escaping me, like some sort of slippery fish.

I walked with Kevin and Liz and was glad of the company but I wasn’t prepared for how suddenly the cross appeared. I literally rounded a bend and there it was. Casual as you like! I also wasn’t ready to “let go” of the sentiment I thought I would leave behind. Even after all that time, all that walking, all that reflection: I could leave the physical token, sure, but the emotional one was a bit harder to drop.

Up close, the rocks were strewn with laminated photos, ribbons, and holy medals. In the rain, I spotted handwritten notes and memorial cards for the dead, and countless pebbles in different colours and textures. Thousands of pilgrims before me had carried those stones from all around the world: from beaches, from woodlands, from their own back yards. They’d carried them across Spain and left them all here as a testament to their journey. And what else did they leave with them? Grief? Gratitude? I’d never know.

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I imagined I might linger a while, reflect, and really commit it all to memory but honestly, the cold and the wet were so miserable that I got moving again as quickly as I could. I left my physical token. I didn’t manage to really leave behind the emotions or conflict I wrestled with, but standing around in the cold and rain wasn’t going to change that. I walked onwards toward the peak (1,515m) and then down the far side of the mountain.

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Thankfully, the sky in the distance looked lighter. The rain cleared. And what was that up ahead? A cluster of houses marking the small village of Acebo and hopefully, some warm soup for lunch. And depending on what the weather did, maybe a bed for the night too.

So glad!

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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. 🙂