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.

Walking through Galicia: From Vilchá to Os Chacotes

Distance walked: 26.1km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 69.2km

The walk out of my hostel in Vilchá was the most uneventful departure of all my camino hostels. Given that there was no village cluster or even a café, I just walked out the door of the hostel, turned the corner, and lo, I was back on the trail and in a field again. The morning was foggy and later, as I crossed the high bridge at Portomarín, it was difficult to make out any real view. I knew that a town of 2,000 people would have facilities and services but in that damp chill, I didn’t feel like stopping just for the sake of it. I marched on.

I thought a lot about dinner the previous evening and the host’s expectation that I would sing for everyone. I felt edgy and agitated by his assumptions and I was miles along the trail before I realized this:

It was in the past.

Quite literally, the hostel, the event, and the man himself were all in the past. I had zero intention of going back so there was no reason to keep thinking about it all and tormenting myself with my lack of showbiz skills.

Let it go.

And I did.

I look back on my journal for this section of the journey and notice that I’d already started to account for what I had learned along the way. I suppose it was inevitable given that I was so close to “the end”. After five weeks on the move, some things had begun to crystallize for me.

Like what?

Well, the simple fact that I could walk away from people.

Before camino I would have thought it exceptionally rude to do such a thing but while I walked, I found myself hanging out with some people who were hard work to be around.

I mentioned Lucy* (not her real name) in one of my earlier posts and strangely bumped into her almost every day for a week in one section of the trail. It was suffocating. I also kept bumping into two other characters who were unknown to each other, had traveled from different parts of the world, started walking at different times, and had totally different plans…but had met and become walking buddies. They were each toxic, self-pitying, and utterly exhausting to be around. For instance, one of them talked about her tendonitis as a “disability” and I had to stop myself from slapping some sense into her!

I met each of them at completely different stages but when I saw them walk into a hostel one evening together with Lucy, well, I knew the rains really had descended. These three individuals had found each other and become a pack. The next night, they were in the very same dorm as me – there was literally no escape! Until, I realized, that there was – and I walked on alone.

The lesson isn’t new to most of you but it was particularly relevant on the last section of the trail – those remaining 115.2km between Sarria and Santiago. Some of the “new kids” were full of bright-eyed energy and enthusiasm. At random coffee stops they’d hit me with a dozen questions, eager to connect and make friends. They were at the beginning of their journey and I was coming to the end of mine. Rightly or wrongly, I wasn’t looking for new friendships by then: I was trying to get my head in gear for arriving in Santiago. I preferred to walk alone than to strike up new conversations.

Weeks earlier, other long-distance pilgrims and I discussed what day of the week we expected to arrive in the famous city. Rumour had it that there was a pilgrim mass every day but that on occasional Sundays, the enormous botafumeiro (thurible for burning insense) would swing. Apparently it was quite a spectacle and everyone wanted to be there when the event took place – but no-one seemed to know when it would happen. On top of that, most of my connections were further along the trail than I was. We may have started out in St. Jean Pied de Port around the same time but five weeks later, injury, illness, and tiredness had altered everyone’s progress. My stop-off in Sarria meant I would arrive into Santiago even later than I first imagined. Would I see any of these people again? After all the connection, the chats, and the coffee, would we even get to say goodbye to each other?

The hostel at Os Chacotes was clean, sparse, and extremely tight on space. I don’t just mean that it was busy – although it was – it was also densely packed.

Rumour had it that these state-built hostels were soulless and built purely for profit. Others told me that the hostels purposefully didn’t stock utensils in their new, modern kitchens because they wanted to discourage pilgrims from preparing their own food. Instead, they wanted to force pilgrims into buying meals from the local restaurants. I don’t know whether this is official policy on behalf of Galician local authority but this particular hostel succeeded in squeezing people where they shouldn’t have been!

All 112 beds in the hostel were taken and I shared a dorm with almost 40 people. I was glad to get a lower bunk, but the left side of my mattress physically touched the mattress of the bed next to me. There wasn’t even an inch of space between us. Overhead, a heavy-set Spaniard slept noisily. At my head and feet, the neighbouring beds touched mine. I was surrounded to my left, at my head, feet, and overhead. There was less than a metre of space between my bed and the next bed on my right. I felt a bit squeezed into place and wouldn’t want to do it ever again. Others around me tried to create a modicum of privacy by draping bath towels around their beds or by putting headphones in their ears. I was positioned in the middle of a school group that took up half the dorm so the group were *loud* and animated.

I was glad to be near the end. Before, I wasn’t sure about finishing up but a hostel like that made me keen to go home! 🙂

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 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.

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago: Nearing the End

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I would never have guessed this was in Spain!

Distance walked: 25.6km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 129.8km

Descent: Approx. 600m

After more than a month of walking, this stretch of trail was particularly bittersweet for me. On one hand, I was tired, sore, and was starting to feel the autumn chill in the air: I was ready to go home. On the other hand, I had spent every day walking west towards Santiago but curiously, wasn’t ready to get there yet. I wasn’t ready for the journey to be over but every step brought me closer to “the end”.

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These last 130km of the camino trail were different to everything that came before. Some of that is because of the geography – the vegetation is different, the smells are different, the colors are different. Galicia, as a region, is more like parts of the U.K. and Ireland than it is like the other parts of Spain, and this became hugely apparent in the last days of walking. Separately, the facilities are different because the last 115km from Sarria to Santiago are the busiest kilometers of all. This means there are more places to stop for a coffee or food, and far more people on the move, so signs like these suddenly appeared:

The highlight of the walk that day was to meet two German men walking together. Marco, like me, had just finished a job and had some time off to do something different. His Dad, Ricard, had just retired from a lifetime of work and wanted to mark the transition with something meaningful. Together, this father-and-son duo walked the camino for three weeks.

It’s such a simple concept but I get choked-up thinking about it even now. How fabulous to spend that time together! How fabulous that they were both healthy and well enough to commit to the daily walking. And how fabulous that they did this at a time when they were both in transition and available. I love, love, love that Marco and Ricard made the time for something (and someone) that really mattered, and made this memorable trip happen.

Fab!

Also fab: learning the phrase for “cheesecake”, which Marco taught me on one of our coffee stops. These two men feasted on baked cheese cake every day with their coffee. I didn’t know that such a thing even existed because it often wasn’t listed on the menu but that morning, I enjoyed a large coffee and an even larger helping of dense, sweet cheesecake: sublime! 🙂

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Marco and I stepped through the miles chatting about work and life and motorbiking around Europe and like everyone else, he wanted to know why I walked. What had prompted me to walk 500 miles across Spain, why there, why now?

When I started out, everyone knew that I had booked a one-way ticket to St. Jean Pied de Port. I didn’t know how long it would take me to walk to Santiago but the rough idea was that Handsome Husband and I would meet there for our wedding anniversary. Everyone loved the romance of the story. They thought it a beautiful way to end the journey. Every time we’d cross paths in a coffee shop or a hostel, fellow pilgrims would ask about “the plan” and as time went on, I grew more and more uncomfortable with it.

Don’t get me wrong, reuniting with Handsome Husband sounded very romantic! He had been hugely supportive of my need to walk and reuniting in Santiago sounded a lot nicer than at an airport at home. The problem was, I hadn’t been able to walk as quickly as I had hoped, so I couldn’t make it to Santiago on time. Husband and I had chatted about this weeks earlier and had decided to scrap “the plan”. However much we loved the idea of meeting in Santiago, I couldn’t walk those remaining km quickly enough. We decided to celebrate our anniversary when the walking was done and I’d return home. “The new plan” was settled.

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Outside of Triacastela, the trail split in two. In one direction, the path followed the river Oribio and passed by the doors of the Benedictine monastery in Samos. In the other direction, the path had more woodland and was shorter by 6.4km. I felt like seeing the monastery in Samos so I pitched my hopes on that and put one foot in front of the other.

By the time I arrived in Samos that evening, I was spent. The path into the monastery town was steeper and rockier than I expected, so my poor feet ached from the stones. I booked a bed in the 70-bed hostel (where I could almost “see” the smell of sweaty feet and unwashed hair – ugh) and waited my turn for a shower. After quickly washing my clothes in the sink, I went outside to hang them up only to discover that there was no clothes line in sight. Instead, everyone had draped their wet clothes on bushes across the road and they lay there, on the grass and in trees, drying in the evening sun. I did the same because there didn’t seem to be much alternative, but it was definitely odd to see the locals walking past these bushes filled with wet underwear on their way to evening mass in the monastery!

In the café, I picked up enough wi-fi to send some messages to Handsome Husband, including a photo of my evening meal.

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Where are you? he asked casually.

Oh, I’m in this little town called Samos and it has a huge monastery, I texted back.

By then, I was tucking into my carbs-with-more-carbs dinner, and not really paying attention to his questions. He seemed very interested in my day’s walking and my plans for the evening, but I thought he was just being nice.

Later, as I finished my meal, my phone rang. It was Handsome Husband calling.

Hello? I answered.

Hey, he replied, I’m outside.

Huh? I asked, confused.

You’re in Samos, right?

Yeah…

Well, surprise! I’m here!

And so he was! Handsome Husband had scrapped “the new plan” earlier that day and drove to the airport, took a flight to Spain, and then spent the afternoon taking trains and buses to the small town of Samos.

Romantic? Yes!

Surprised? YES!

That evening, it just so happened that there was a wedding at the monastery church. A year earlier, Handsome Husband and I had put on our finery and surrounded ourselves with loved ones who toasted our decision to marry. There, on the steps of this enormous monastery, another beautifully-clad couple were doing the same. Their photographer asked them to pose in certain ways, the ground was covered in confetti and flower petals, and their guests gazed on with broad smiles and glittering clothes. As a sight, it was totally different to everything else I had seen on camino but what a fitting reminder for Handsome Husband and I.

We had each come so far – him by car, plane, train, and bus, and me on the strength of my two legs. There we were, surrounded by rose petals and finery, and a crowd of loved ones that may as well have been ours.

Sweet. 

 

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago and The Highest Point

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Distance walked: 17.1km

Ascent: Approx. 700m to O’Cebreiro (1330m above sea level)

My walk from Vega de Valcarce took me from the region of Castilla Y León into Galicia: I was (finally!) officially on the home stretch into the rainy, coastal home of Santiago. The day’s walking also took me on an ascent some 700m upwards to O’Cebreiro (which is itself 1330m high). Others assured me this was even higher than our ascent in the Pyrenees only a few weeks before. Knowing all of this, I set out early in the morning with a healthy dose of humility and my new ibuprofen pills. I had been walking for more than a month already but I still felt that nothing was guaranteed. I’d do my best but like every other day before, the plan was loose and wishful.

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Gorgeous to look at, pain-in-the-feet to walk on!

There were lots of great things about this day: One, I kept dry, which was a welcome bonus at that altitude. Two, I met sunny Margaret from Australia who somehow wrangled out of me one of the deeper truths about why I was walking the camino. She also filled the walk with a rolling, hearty chuckle that comes from a woman who’s lived a big and fearless life. Honestly, I don’t know where else I would have met an Indonesian language teacher who’d worked for the Olympics in between running a dairy farm in Australia. I certainly wouldn’t have met her in my every day life. Lots of people talk about the “great people” walking the camino and they are right: there is huge kindness and compassion and heart. There are also a lot of really interesting people who just so happen to live really interesting lives, and being immersed in that wave of movement for six weeks was such a refreshment. I would never have met someone like Margaret while sitting at my work desk at home and she was a real tonic. And somehow, I got the sense that here was a woman just “doing her thing” and making no apology, no excuse, and no story about it. Really, I don’t know that many (other) motorbiking, 70-something-year-old Grandmas but boy, Margaret tops the list!

Crocus flowers (I think) but with no stem

The climb to O’Cebreiro was lush and steep, but what a lovely delight to get to the top. And what a huge surprise to see that the pubs (because by now, we had moved away from tiled café bars to rustic pubs) specialized in serving octopus. I’m not sure how this came about given that the place is more than 100km from the coast, but there you have it – another surprise for me because I still wasn’t reading the guidebook!

Like so many days before, I quickly popped into the church to light some candles and take a moment. I’m not sure I even had an active, articulate cluster of words here that might have constituted a prayer. Like so many other times, I had just the swelling contentment and gratitude for having made it that far. I say that as though that’s a simple, everyday thing but really, I often forget these very sentiments in my every day life. I walk around with all my limbs intact and totally take for granted that they are there and are performing so well. On camino, I had an acute awareness of my body’s greatness every day, and the huge privilege it was to be there.  Every day that I am above ground I have choices and possibilities. I forget this all the time but on camino, the reality of this was made clear to me countless times a day. Often, when I sat in the quiet churches, it was to just let that knowing settle for a minute. Just to acknowledge that I was healthy enough to be there, I had money enough to be there, I had a passport and an airplane that carried me some of the way, and, and, and….the list of things to be grateful for was actually endless.

And still is.

So, the church in O’Cebreiro gave me a moment to be still and silent, and let the gratitude settle into my bones a little.

And then, I strapped on my backpack and kept on walking.

A lot of pilgrims chose to end their day’s walking at this (literal and figurative) high point and I was kind of sorry I wasn’t joining them. I hadn’t booked into the hostels and I felt I was missing out on some sort of party atmosphere by continuing west. Still, I was glad to have the energy to keep moving so that’s what I did, and spent the night in a 20-bed hostel in Hospital de la Condesa.

Most of the distance was behind me and the highest point was also in the past: Santiago was closer than ever.

 

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.

 

 

 

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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Rambling onwards to Rabanal del Camino

Distance walked: 21.4km (23.4km when adjusted for the climb of 400m)

Remaining distance to Santiago: 242.7km

Walking from Astorga to Rabanal del Camino, I noticed a sharp change in the landscape and the weather. Purple rain clouds replaced the endless blue skies. The yellow sandy trail turned darker, too. The expansive landscape closed in on itself a bit: there were more trees, more walls, and more interruptions to the eye. The Meseta was well and truly behind me but what lay ahead?

Well, cold and rainy mountains, as it happens. I wrapped up in a mid layer of fleece and put on my ridiculous orange poncho in an effort to keep warm and dry. I had bought another fleece in Astorga (thanks for the tip, Kevin!) but I didn’t want to put it on unless absolutely necessary. I couldn’t risk getting all of my clothes wet: I needed to keep a few warm and dry pieces for later that evening.

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Rambling to Rabanal

All around me, new pilgrims were walking westwards towards Santiago. A fresh influx of people had joined at Astorga, so I spent the day in animated chatter with pilgrims who were upbeat in both their walking and in their mood. Initially, the incline was gentle and the weather still dry. As the morning wore on, the wind picked up, the rain clouds gathered (and emptied!), and the gradient got steeper. I felt a different sort of ache in my body: not just the ache of sore feet or shoulders, but the early presence of a cold. Nothing to panic about, but I *really* wanted to get a bed in the parish hostel in Rabanal. I didn’t want to walk on further: I just wanted to get well for the next day and for climbing to Cruz de Ferro – the highest point on my 800km journey (1505m). I spent the last kilometers daydreaming of a hot shower, a hot meal, a hot coffee, a warm bed…notice the theme?!

Rabanal, for me, was a surprise delight on my camino. I already felt I was on the final third of my walking pilgrimage and the changes in the landscape reinforced that feeling. The mountains were cooler and a bit more strenuous, and Rabanal was a gentle tonic on both my body and my spirit. By the time I arrived I was cold and wet, and I needed to stop walking for the day. The parish hostel, thankfully, had a bed, and I was especially thrilled to get a lower bunk and some wool blankets for the night. In a restaurant across the road, I ordered lunch, consisting of a bowl of “vegetarian soup”, which clearly had a very meaty stock and my God it was delicious! The portion of green beans could have easily served four, and dripped with chorizo oil and salt: AM-A-ZING!

That evening, the pilgrim mass was particularly moving. The plaster work crumbled from the walls inside the stone church, as the seats filled with pilgrims from all around the world. We sat in a sort of reverent hush. By now, everyone had heard of the Gregorian chants that made this particular mass different to all the rest. We waited in silence while candles gently flickered and burned beside us. Not a word, just gentle shuffling as more pilgrims arrived and we each moved a little to make space.

Waiting.

Quietly waiting.

And then: monks in dark robes, lowly singing. Deep, resonant, manly voices in enchanting harmonies. And Latin! Of course! And yet, such a surprise.

Each verse slowly vibrated through the small church, like a spool of thread slowly coming undone. It felt like the walls themselves could sing if only because they’d held so much song already in the years past. A few smart phones lit up as people took photos but then, they quickly disappeared again, tucked away in pockets and purses. They were too intrusive. The gentle chanting needed to be seen and breathed – not recorded.

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I imagine that the mass was no shorter or longer than any other pilgrim mass I attended along the way…but it felt timeless. The Gregorian chanting transported all of us into another time and heart space, and the experience was strangely healing. I didn’t know what needed healing (except, maybe, my head cold and my sore feet) but I came away feeling lighter and deeply calm.

I didn’t note the time when it finished: instead, I lit candles for loved ones and I quietly absorbed the stillness. The hostel would be loud and busy and I was in no rush to join the mayhem. Instead, I sat and gave thanks. I enjoyed the time out. And I recorded it all to heart. There are few places on Camino Francés that I would consider returning to, but Rabanal is one of them.

 

 

Camino Francés: Onwards to Astorga

Distance walked: 15.8km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 264.1km

Link: https://www.pinterest.com/san265/gaudi/

Gaudi Palace in Astorga

Between the towns of Hospital de Órbigo and Astorga, the camino path divides in two. One path follows the N-120 national highway for 10km or so: the other meanders through countryside and small villages. The highway route is shorter but less scenic. The countryside route is longer but has cafés and hostels along the way.

Which path would *you* choose?

Just like my approach to Burgos, I accidentally took the less-scenic path. To be honest, I wasn’t even fully aware of a “non-scenic” version because I left my guide book in my backpack and just followed the signs I saw along the way.  It was only when I was somewhere on that very long and very loud stretch of highway did I wonder:

Where *is* everyone?

I could see the outline of only 3-4 pilgrims in the far distance ahead of me and behind me. Usually, I’d see dozens of people but that morning there was almost no one around. Very strange.

It was only later in the morning when I stopped for coffee and happily bumped into Kevin and Liz that I realized what had happened. We caught up on everything that had happened since our chance encounter in León, days earlier. They excitedly asked:

Did you stop at Dave’s place?

Huh?

You know, Dave’s hut with all the fruit and juices and organic food? Their smiles were broad and inviting. They were eager to compare notes and swooning for this mystery man, Dave.

Hmmmmmm….huh? I asked again, feeling utterly lost.

Only then did we realize that I had taken the highway route while everyone else took the countryside route.

Ahhhhhh….so that’s where everyone was!

Turns out, I missed out on famous Dave’s Casa de los Dioses, just outside San Justo de la Vegawhich was a refuge for countless pilgrims on the move. The story goes that Dave walked the camino years earlier and was so transformed by the experience that he decided to set up a quirky café, in service to other pilgrims. With hundreds of other coffee stops along the 800km route, you might be inclined to think his motives were purely financial. Apparently not. I’m told he was full of smiles, warm hugs, and spirited conversation. His hut provided an abundance of fresh fruit and juices, made with laughter and love. His pit stop wasn’t just for the weary body: it was a tonic for the weary soul, too. Everyone that stopped there not only loved the place but they loved Dave himself, too. So, when Kevin and Liz realized that I had missed out on this colorful experience, their faces dropped in disappointment.

Oh, you would have *loved* it! they gushed.

I was so enchanted by their enthusiasm that I very nearly thought about turning back to go find him. I didn’t do it though. Instead, I walked on to Astorga, passing a busker on the descent into the town and delighted in the surprise of live music. The musician played in time to my pace and then jauntily danced alongside me for a moment, like a medieval minstrel!

In Astorga, the rain clouds gathered and I spent much of the afternoon with Kevin and Liz, drinking hot chocolate, viewing Gaudi’s palace, and later that evening, feasting on delicious pizza in a traditional Italian restaurant. I’m not exaggerating when I say the evening was a tonic for my soul. Even though I loved walking by myself each day, I loved sharing good company in the evenings. Walking solo meant that I didn’t always have someone to eat my evening meal with and while I was often okay with that, I sometimes felt an emptiness. The previous evenings in Hospital de Órbigo I had dined alone (if you could even call it that!), and I hadn’t enjoyed it. Here in Astorga, I felt buoyed by the great company and the sense of community that had begun in Orisson when I first met the couple. Sharing dinner with them felt like catching up with old friends – a surprise sensation when I knew them only a month or so. For all my introversion and desire to walk alone, I couldn’t deny that sharing the journey with good people made everything sweeter.

Just as it is in camino, so it is in life, too. 😀