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 Carri贸n 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 馃檪 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 Carri贸n 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 Nicol谩s 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 Nicol谩s 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 馃檪

 

 

The Camino Provides in Carri贸n de los Condes

When I arrived in the town of Carri贸n 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 Carri贸n. 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 Fr贸mista that morning and ended their day’s walking in Carri贸n 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 Mar铆a 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 Carri贸n. IMG_0797

Even though the “helpful” woman had told me all the hostels were full,聽 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.

S铆, 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 馃檪

 

 

 

 

 

Losing Weight on Camino

As recently as yesterday, someone asked me:

Did you lose weight on the camino?

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

I鈥檝e been asked this question almost as much as 鈥淗ow long did it take you?鈥 and the two questions often go together. I don鈥檛 mean to sound like a snob but my camino experience was *so* much more than a fitness program.

You want to know how much weight I lost?

You鈥檙e kind of missing the point.

And yet, I understand that most people don鈥檛 want to get into a deep conversation about something that is kind of abstract.

I get it.

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

How was it?

And they often replied with something along the lines of:

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

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

Their response told me nothing and I didn鈥檛 really know where to go from there. No doubt, I asked about the cheap wine and the weather, and eventually changed the conversation to something more tangible. It was easier than trying to understand the hazy lightness in their eyes, or trying to figure out what exactly was so amazing and what exactly was so tough. I didn鈥檛 understand that contradiction and I didn鈥檛 know how to ask for more specifics.

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

How was it?

And you know what? I found myself saying:

Amazing! But tough! 鈥ut amazing!…But tough!…and then I鈥檇 kind of trail off in a nondescript way.

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

I can only assume that they struggled to find a way in to my vague reply and didn鈥檛 know how to direct the conversation. Invariably, they picked out the things they felt most comfortable chatting about: the weather, their surprise at how I walked it alone, and the names of people they鈥檇 known to walk some/all of it before 鈥 people I鈥檇 never met but with whom I had something in common. I sometimes feel that people ask about my camino experience as a way of cataloguing me rather than trying to understand me.

A lot of the time, people have a vague and passing interest in this camino thing and it鈥檚 just a piece of news that gets passed around without a lot of substance. The questions are brief and light. There鈥檚 very little probing. We talk around the subject but often don鈥檛 get into the meaty parts of my experience.

This happens on camino as well as off camino:

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

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

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

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

They stumbled, they stuttered, and eventually came back with a well-worn platitude as a response. They didn鈥檛 really have a transformative experience and looked truly distressed by my question.

I came to realize that most people don鈥檛 really want to talk about the nature of spiritual wellbeing after walking 500 miles. Largely, they want anecdotes and聽details they can relay to someone else. They don鈥檛 really care whether I feel more comfortable in my own skin and am more content in myself as a result of camino. They also don鈥檛 care that I gently, unexpectedly, stopped stressing and fretting over things that had dogged me for most of my life.

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

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

That鈥檚 the dream scenario, right?!

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

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

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

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

So, I can鈥檛 claim to have experienced a Camino Slim-Fast Plan!

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

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

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

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

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

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I鈥檒l admit, this 鈥渃amino thing鈥 kind of caught me by surprise.

When I rang in the new year in 2013, I didn鈥檛 know that I would walk this ancient pilgrimage route later that year. I didn鈥檛 know I鈥檇 resign from my job either, or leave behind my new husband whom I鈥檇 married only months before.

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

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

But even though my decision to uproot and go walking was sudden and impulsive, it wasn鈥檛 entirely聽surprising. There are 2 parts to the story that lead up to my camino journey. Overall, it鈥檚 too much to explain in just one blog post (and you鈥檇 be bored to tears reading *so much text*) so I鈥檓 splitting it into two to make for easier reading.

This is part 1: The back story.

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

My hiking friends were among the first people to mention the camino route in Spain. Some of them had walked parts of it, at least. Their stories planted a seed and I knew I wanted to go see for myself. Back then, I just liked the idea of a good long walk. My life felt well-balanced and I didn鈥檛 need 鈥渢ime out鈥 for any particular reason. There was nothing religious or mid-life-crisis-y going on. I didn鈥檛 even care about being a tourist or experiencing 鈥渞eal life鈥 Spain. I just wanted to go stretch my legs. But I also knew:

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

I didn鈥檛 want company. I didn鈥檛 want to walk for a week here and there, spread out over years. And I didn鈥檛 want to miss out on the experience of the French Pyrenees. But otherwise, I didn鈥檛 have any sense of when I would walk, or why.

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

And life ticked along.

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

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

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

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

I understood what they were saying, but the idea of working a 40 hour week for the next 40 years (in an industry where people burn out after only 5 years) and losing my friendships along the way, didn鈥檛聽seem like a dream life.

Things didn鈥檛 feel so promising.

On the plus side, I met Handsome Man who later became Handsome Husband, and I became a wife though聽I never expected to marry at all. I came to realise that my decisions weren鈥檛 just my own any more. There were two of us, and my happiness or misery, affected us both.

You have to think beyond yourself now, they advised.

I was blessed to have a steady income while others lost their jobs. Lots of grown-up things were possible and I wanted them,聽but my job was getting to the point where it took more from me than it gave to me. With each passing year I felt that my situation was corrosive 鈥 spiritually corrosive. I needed the job to pay for the home, but I didn鈥檛 want to commit to聽the home while I felt so morally uneasy in the job.

And I had to wonder:

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

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

That didn鈥檛 feel good.

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

I thought my job wasn鈥檛 creative enough.

I thought I was in the wrong industry.

But they quipped, You鈥檙e lucky to even have a job, quit complaining.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

How are your feet?

How far did you walk today?

and

Why are you walking camino?

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

Earlier in 2013, I reached out to a friend to meet up for a coffee or lunch.聽We hadn鈥檛 seen each other in a while and I wanted to catch up. She didn鈥檛 live nearby but I offered to drive and meet her, or host her in my home instead.

Whatever worked 鈥 I was flexible.

Except that she couldn鈥檛 meet for at least 6 weeks. She had plans and commitments every day, and every weekend, in the meantime. If I wanted to see her, even for an hour-long cup of coffee, I鈥檇 have to schedule it at least 7 weeks in advance.

That seemed like an awful lot of scheduling.

Her response echoed an emerging pattern in my life:

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

I thought to myself:

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

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

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

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

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

I understood, but didn’t agree.

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

I was surviving but not thriving.

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

 

Food and Drink on the Camino de Santiago

Paella....yuuummm

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

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

Green vegetables were sorely lacking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign us up!

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

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

A bargain, for sure.

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

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

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

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But back to the 3-course meal…

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

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

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

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

Menu

(Photo credit)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, back to the 3 course meal…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I climbed mountains.

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

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

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

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

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

Love it!

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

Why, eat it, of course! 馃檪

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

What did you love to eat?

What did you groan at the sight of?

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

 

The first woman to walk the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada 鈥 and back

PCT Logo

With all this talk of Reese Witherspoon and the movie adaptation of聽Cheryl Strayed’s memoir (Wild), I’m feeling kind of giddy.

I’ve hiked in California, Oregon, and Washington states and loved them all. Expansive vistas, big sky, the smell of pine trees, and the reflections on deep blue lakes…my heart flutters at the thought of it all.

Two years ago, Strayed’s memoir聽of walking聽(part of) the Pacific Crest Trail through California and Oregon stirred my heart strings. Two weeks ago, the movie adaptation stirred them again. I remember my 500-mile Camino experience聽with聽deep gratitude. I came home exhausted, but daydreamed of more long-distance walking.

My family asked: Isn’t it enough to go off wandering once? Is it out of your system now that you’ve “done it“?

No, and no.

Whether聽I would聽walk another Camino or in some other part of the world, I came home聽feeling strong聽in my heart’s desire:

I want to do this again…and again…and again! (But with physical training beforehand!)

Handsome Husband needn’t worry – life is long and I am in no rush for my next big walk. There’ll be time in the future. And聽I think聽the next few years will see a massive upsurge in people walking the PCT anyway. I’m sure the movie will have that effect, just like The Way (starring Martin Sheen) influenced the number of people walking Camino.聽You know my feelings on walking among crowds of people, so I’m happy to bide my time and wait until the crowds subside! 馃槈

But in the meantime, I’ve just read an article about Olive McGloin聽from Dublin, Ireland, who聽is the first woman to walk the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada 鈥 and back.

I feel giddy at the thought of it!

She walked聽the 2,650-mile route (each way) that Strayed walked聽(only?!) 1,000 miles of.

I was (and am) impressed by Strayed’s mileage.

But Olive McGloin walked more than聽5 times聽Strayed’s distance.

And she聽walked more than聽10 times the distance that I covered when I walked Camino across Spain!

I Love It!

More details here: http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/a-walk-on-the-wild-side-meet-the-first-woman-to-yoyo-the-pacific-crest-trail-1.2071182

Wild: The Book or The Movie?

In early 2013, I happened to read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of walking the Pacific Crest Trail. This was months before I knew I would walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but I knew on a gut level聽that Wild聽was a book for me.

I’ll admit, the front cover helped.

That simple image of a hiking boot on a white background grabbed not just my attention, but tugged at my fundamental core, too.

Hiking is hardwired into my heart and I can’t help but turn my head when I see a pair of hiking boots. Images of nail polish and designer perfume don’t excite me. Images of hiking boots, however, do. 馃檪

Like the author, I’ve walked and camped alone. The world tells us that, as women, this is dangerous and reckless.聽The world tells us that we are under threat of attack, and that聽hiking alone聽isn’t safe. I understand that there are聽real dangers聽in the world but you know, I don’t believe in shying away from the great outdoors just because I’m a woman.聽That mind-set聽only perpetuates the myth that women shouldn’t be physical and strong.

That makes no sense to me at all.

And it only makes me more determined to disprove the myth. So, my mentality is to be sensible, organised, and mindful. Know how to stay safe in the outdoors. Learn how to navigate and survive. Then go enjoy the world’s biggest playground!

Strayed walked 1,100 miles, alone,聽along the west coast of the United States. Here was a woman I could relate to. Here was a woman I could understand. I wanted to know what she had to say.

The trail passes through states I have visited and loved – including California, Oregon, and Washington. The Pacific Northwest is a corner of the world I聽cherish dearly. Think of big landscapes: giant redwood trees, expansive lakes, coastlines with yellow sand beaches that go for miles and miles.

Not everyone visits this part of the country.

Even fewer聽backpack across it.

Fewer again write about the backpacking.

And the amount of people who have the writing skills to recount their experience in an engaging, funny, and humane way, are few and far between.

But I think Cheryl Strayed managed to do all of the above in a most beautiful and seamless way.

Quite simply, I loved聽her book.

I relished every page and when I got to the end, I wanted to start all over again. I stopped myself from doing that, but I’ve held on to my copy so I can read it again sometime in the future. The book feels like a close聽and intimate聽friend.

So, I’m feeling conflicted and confused about聽whether聽to see the movie version, which was released recently. The world is full of movies based on books. Sometimes the adaptations are great. Sometimes they are a heartbreaking disappointment. How can you tell in advance which it will be?

I’ve noticed that when the author is involved in the screenwriting, the book and film seem to compliment each other nicely. It makes sense – the authors聽get to influence the tone and integrity of the script. They聽have some control of聽how closely it resembles their original work.

In the case of Wild, I’m heartened to see that Strayed herself has written the script. So has Nick Hornby, whom I also enjoy. Both authors write in a style I find immediate and entertaining. I could read them all day.

So it bodes well for me that they’ve both been involved with the screenwriting and I’m hopeful that it makes for a good film adaptation.

But still, I’m not quite sure. I really loved the book. Would I also really love the movie?

What about you? Have you seen it?

Do you plan to?

Do you think the movie version ever lives up to the book?

And what would you do?

 

 

 

“Doing the Camino”

I鈥檝e debated whether to write this post but for a few minutes, I really want to explore the notion of 鈥渄oing the Camino鈥. People say it all the time: 鈥淥h, I鈥檝e a friend who did that鈥 or 鈥淒id you do the whole thing?鈥 I鈥檓 trying to figure it out: what do we mean when we talk about doing the Camino?

I may be showing my age here but when I hear the phrase, I imagine Beavis and Butthead, sniggering and snorting, 鈥淯m鈥eah鈥doing it鈥uh huh huh鈥︹ (That鈥檚 probably the first time that Beavis and Butthead have made it into a blog about the Camino de Santiago 馃檪

I probably used the phrase myself before I packed my bag and went to Spain, but on my second day of walking, I met a woman who鈥檚 use of the phrase really challenged my thinking. She and I met in Roncesvalles, sitting in a restaurant with probably 70+ other people. We鈥檇 never met each other before, so we passed the next two hours eating fried fish and chips, drinking wine, and making small talk with the six other women at our table. For what it鈥檚 worth, the fish and chips were truly delicious, smothered in grease and salt.

This particular woman struck me as a real go-getter: ambitious, outgoing, and an achiever in life. She had travelled extensively to offbeat places like the Gal谩pagos Islands. I found her stories interesting until she said things like:

鈥淚鈥檝e done South America. I鈥檝e done Asia. Last year I did Kilimanjaro: now I鈥檓 doing Camino. After I finish Camino I鈥檓 doing the New York marathon.鈥

Or maybe it was Boston.

But you get the idea: everything was already 鈥渄one鈥 or on the 鈥渢o do鈥 list. And ideally, in quick succession.

Over time, I felt uneasy listening to her because her list was extensive. She had lots of stories and factual information, but had very little to say about how these things made her feel or had influenced her life. I wasn鈥檛 looking for a big Oprah revelation (or maybe I was) but it just seemed she had done all of these things and not reflected on any of them.

Had a trip to the Gal谩pagos Islands been a childhood dream come true, for instance?

How did it feel at the top of Kilimanjaro?

Had these experiences changed her in any way or made her life richer?

I hadn鈥檛 a clue.

She had done lots of impressive and awesome things, but the way she listed them off made them sound trivial. I didn鈥檛 want to challenge who she was in the world, but internally, I found myself challenging her choice of language.

What is this fascination with 鈥渄oing鈥 all the time? Is it a western preoccupation? Do we have a fear of idleness? Maybe a fear of our own mortality? Is it a way of padding the job applications to demonstrate just how fabulous and qualified we all are, all the time? Maybe it鈥檚 a way of standing out in a world full of seven billion people?

There was something about her story telling that made me think of this:

Consuming, without engaging.

It鈥檚 like eating a meal without letting the taste of the food register in your mouth.

Consuming the experience, the travel, the mountain, the pilgrimage, whatever, without engaging with it or reflecting on it in any great detail. Consuming it, without even noticing it. Consuming it without acknowledging how magical it is to be alive at all, and in a position to experience such wondrous treats.

You know those books that list off 5,000 places to see before you die? Well, it felt like she was making her way through that list with great efficiency but with very little joy or wonder.

Gal谩pagos Islands? Check!

Camino? Check!

Lived, died, dead, and buried? Check, check, check, check!

 

I really didn鈥檛 know, but I could imagine the rest of her script looking something like this: 鈥淚 did Camino. I did the New York marathon. I did the old age thing. I did life.鈥

By all means 鈥渄o the dishes鈥 or 鈥渄o the laundry鈥 but don鈥檛 鈥渄o Asia鈥 or 鈥渄o Kilimanjaro鈥.

Save a bit of space for feeling delight or awe now and then. Please.

 

I reflected on her words for weeks afterwards. Do, do鈥one, did, did鈥verything sounded like a check box item, neatly ticked. Trying to equate this with Camino was unsettling because I met hundreds of people 鈥渄oing it鈥 in different ways.

For instance: I walked 800km between France and Spain, but I met a guy who walked from Prague. That鈥檚 right: he started walking six months before I did so by the time we met, he鈥檇 already crossed through the Czech Republic, Germany, France, and then Spain. Could you equate our walk in any way? Was he 鈥渄oing the Camino鈥 better than me, or more fully than me because he walked further, for longer? Compared to him, was I even 鈥渄oing it鈥 at all?

Were the mass-going Catholics 鈥渄oing it鈥 better? Were the people who walked only 100km from Sarria 鈥渄oing the Camino鈥? What about the people who walked for a week at a time now and then 鈥 were they 鈥渄oing the Camino鈥 for just a week, or for years?

I met people walking and cycling. I had a group of people go by me on horseback. I heard of a guy who was 鈥渄oing it鈥 on a unicycle. One day, I saw two people on quad bikes! Were we all 鈥渄oing鈥 the same Camino?

Personally, I wanted to walk the Camino for more than ten years. I knew I wanted to walk westwards from the French side of the Pyrenees for 800km, alone, carrying all my belongings on my back, and in one full run. I didn鈥檛 want to do a week at a time or make do with a shorter version. Don鈥檛 ask me why but that was always my aspiration, and with the exception of two short and unplanned taxi trips, I 鈥渄id鈥 the Camino as I had hoped. I was very happy about fulfilling the dream with its detailed specifications. But in all my time walking, I met hundreds of people who were experiencing the same route in different ways. I couldn鈥檛 figure out who was 鈥渄oing it鈥 properly or truly, or how we would ever calculate that measurement to begin with.

So the only thing I could come up with was to change my choice of language. I stopped talking about 鈥渄oing the Camino鈥 and instead, talked about 鈥渨alking the Camino鈥. I expect most people don鈥檛 notice the difference and don鈥檛 care either way but for me, my change of language marked a change in my thinking. That dinner in Roncesvalles, so early in the whole journey, reminded me of why I was there. I didn鈥檛 want to consume without engaging: I wanted to be open to the experience and even be changed by it. I wanted it to touch my heart. I wanted it to fill me with feelings of delight and awe. I wanted to live it and celebrate it, not just do it.

So, in all my writing and rambling, I鈥檓 aiming to keep that phrase to a minimum. It鈥檚 not my phrase and it鈥檚 not my preference, and I really need to explain my distinct reasons for rejecting it.

Phew.

So glad I got that off my mind, it鈥檚 been rattling around in there for quite a while!

That’s my thinking on the matter, but what’s yours? When you think of “doing the Camino”, what do you think of?