A Break in Burgos

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Distance walked: 20km

I won’t lie, I was very glad to leave Atapuerca.

After breakfast with Barb and Dave, I walked out of the small village with them, and was glad to leave behind the crowds and noise of our busy hostel. I’d decided to find a private room in Burgos later that day and I could hardly wait!

Brierley’s guide-book says, “Familiarise yourself with the various options [for descending into the city of Burgos]…and prepare for the hard slog into the city itself – after the relative tranquility of the camino from San Juan de Ortega city life can come as something of a shock.”

Of course, I didn’t familiarise myself with the different routes.

I didn’t like to study the map in advance – I preferred to figure it out as I went along and see what the route presented. Around 6-7km outside the city, the path splits in two. To the left, is a leafy walk along the river Arlanzón, allegedly scenic and beautiful. To the right, the path skirts alongside Burgos airport, allegedly through miles of ugly concrete and industrial buildings.

Days earlier in Villambistia, a woman told me that she and her friend planned to take a city bus and skip those miles entirely.

I purposefully asked her, “If Camino is like life, is it right to “skip the ugly bits” just because you don’t like them?”

It was a thorny question to ask.

Lots of people talked about skipping bits of, or whole sections of, camino, just because those parts had a reputation for being boring or ugly. I could understand taking buses and trains because of injury or illness, but I didn’t like the trend towards an “à la carte camino”. I didn’t think “ugly” countryside was a valid reason to omit entire sections of the journey and I wanted to challenge that way of thinking.

She knew I had asked a loaded question.

I didn’t ask it just to be an ass; I just wanted to understand her thinking. My own “rules” for walking camino were rather strict and it was a novelty to hear from someone who was a lot more relaxed about it all. She presented an argument that I thought was reasoned and pragmatic, even though I didn’t share her views. But you know, it didn’t really matter either way. When it came down to it, her journey was none of my business.

Without knowing it, when I came to that junction in the trail that day on my way into Burgos, I chose the path to the right.

At the time, I just followed the yellow arrows as I saw them, and I didn’t even notice that most of the crowds around me had disappeared to the left. I was lost in my own little world, shuffling along, putting one foot in front of the other on the gravel trail. When I looked up, I realised that the expansive airport runways were to my left, behind large wire fences with warning signs all over them. For miles, I passed through industrial warehouses and concrete paths. When I looked around, there were only a handful of other pilgrims within sight. The usual crowds were nowhere to be seen.

Brierley warned me of a “hard slog into the city”, and dozens of people had told me about the ugly descent they would avoid.

In truth, those few kilometres were among my favourite of my entire camino.

How come?

Well, they were quiet. Even with the noise of airplanes and motorway traffic, the trail felt quieter than it had felt in days.

After two particularly noisy days on the trail and in hostels, those few miles gave me a break from the masses. Sure, it wasn’t the most scenic part of northern Spain but I didn’t walk Camino just for the scenery. I walked because I felt compelled to. I walked because I needed some time. And oddly enough, the grey suburbs of Burgos gave me the space and time I needed that day. I didn’t notice that it was “ugly” or difficult in any way. I was happy in my own skin and grateful for the time alone.

That experience was a lovely reminder:

Don’t listen to the scaremongering.

Don’t believe everything you hear.

If I’d listened to the people around me, I would have taken the leafy river walk, just like them. I’m sure it is beautiful but it wouldn’t have given me what I needed that day, which was alone-time and space.

If I’d listened to others, I would have taken a city bus and skipped that section entirely – but imagine what I would have missed!

There are a million ways to walk Camino. Everyone has an opinion on the “right” way and the “wrong” way, but only *you* can know what’s right and wrong for you.

It’s like life that way.

And sometimes, the “ugly bits” turn out to be surprisingly good!

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Atapuerca

In Atapuerca, I was assigned a bed in a room just inside the front door of the albergue. I was relieved to find that 2 of the beds in my room were not bunk beds, so I happily took the one nearest to the window. I felt utterly spent, but I enjoyed the afternoon shade and rested for an hour while 35 other people around me raced for showers and laundry facilities.

On the surface, my room was great. It was clean and bright, and my bed was nicely tucked in beside the wall so I felt cosy in the corner.

So far, so good.

Over time, I realised that the room had one major disadvantage – it was situated beside all of the noise.

Outside my bedroom window, a wooden ramp and deck area provided the entrance and exit to the building…and it sounded like a herd of cattle were on the move.

Stomp stomp stomp all the way up….thud thud thud all the way down.

The movement and noise were continuous.

Over and back, up and down….everyone entered and exited the building using that wooden ramp. I tried to ignore it but the noise reverberated through the thin wall and shook the very bed that I lay on.

Not good.

Outside my bedroom door, the shower rooms, laundry rooms, and washing machines were in full swing. The spin cycles from the multiple washing machines were *particularly* loud. Separately, a group of teenage pilgrims explored their new rooms through squealing, banging doors, and shrieking in laughter. It sounded like they were everywhere all at once – in every room, and in every corner of my brain.

Not great.

At the front door, the Spanish family I passed on the trail earlier – all 14 of them – cooked up a storm in the small kitchen, with pots and pans banging and clanging, and loud shouts back and forth. They treated the hostel as though it were their own private home and held their family get-together in the outdoor dining area. Quite literally, they took over.

I was close to the end of my rope and couldn’t think straight. For the previous 12-13 days I had thrown myself into the middle of shared accommodation with hundreds of new people from all around the world. By day, I conversed with them over lunch and on the trail. By night, I listened to them snore in their sleep. The boundary line between us felt non-existent and all my defences were down.

Over that time, my body had grown stronger and my new shoes were working well. Physically, I was finding my stride. But my emotional resources were spent. I was exhausted and over-stimulated, and felt disheartened to find that side of things still felt quite difficult. The previous night in Villambistia had pushed me to an edge and I’d pinned all my hopes on a quieter night in Atapuerca.

It looked unlikely.

Just as I did in Villambistia, I escaped the madness by taking a walk down to the village. Even though most businesses along the camino route close on a Sunday, I’d heard that the small shop would stay open for another 20 minutes – so if I wanted something to eat, this was the time to go get it.

There, I bumped into Canadian Don, whom I hadn’t seen in what felt like months, though it was really only days.

He and I first met in St. Jean Pied de Port, when we happened to stay in the same hostel together – full of bright-eyed hope and nervousness.

A day later, we met again when we both stayed in Orisson, where we laughed and chatted our way through one of the best meals of all Camino.

The day after that, we both stayed in Roncesvalles, where he came to my rescue with laundry struggles.

Simply: my bottle of shower gel/shampoo/laundry detergent had cracked and split, so the contents had spilled on the inside of my bag. I wasn’t so worried about that – the gel could be replaced, but finding a replacement bottle was a bit more tricky. Not so! Don came to the rescue with a spare one that he just happened to carry for such a situation, along with an extra sink plug. These are small things but his open generosity meant that I could do laundry that day – and every day – without headache and hassle. In a hostel of some 200 pilgrims, he was the one who willingly came to my aid, and cheerily shared his resources with me.

The following morning, we were part of the same group who left the hostel in the 6am darkness to cross the Pyrenees. His new friends had kindly welcomed me into their pack and I was glad of their warm company. He seemed to be permanently chipper, as well as curious, gentle, and remarkably generous with everyone around him. Quite literally, he brightened the days.

But he and I had lost track of each other after crossing the Pyrenees, and hadn’t seen each other since then. There was much to catch up on.

He greeted me with excitement and warmth, and seemed genuinely delighted to see me.

I’m afraid I didn’t handle the reunion as well as I should have.

I looked at him and saw a man who was still full of bright-eyed wonder and capable strength. I looked at myself and saw a whining, ill-prepared mess. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t been strong enough to keep pace with him after the Pyrenees. He wanted to know how I was getting on, but I didn’t know how to surmise my experience in 10 words or less. I felt over-stretched and very tired….and then felt even more bad-tempered with myself for being such a wuss.

Don eagerly quizzed me about where I’d stayed the previous night but in  my fatigue I couldn’t remember…and I dismissed his question with a limp reply:

Somewhere...” was all I could muster.

I didn’t mean to be evasive. I didn’t mean to be grouchy or mean or dismissive in any way. But his face dropped and I felt like the rudest, most princess-y pain-in-the-ass pilgrim that ever was.

And then I felt *even worse* about myself.

Though we chatted for another few minutes, I needed to get to the shop so I loosely arranged to meet him later that evening. I hoped to see him for dinner in one of the village restaurants, and I hoped to correct my poor behaviour after I’d had a chance to decompress. Don was one of the good guys and I wanted to put things right between us.

Instead, I happened to bump into Dave and Barb, who warmly invited me to join them for dinner in the private cabin they shared with two other couples. Where I would have shared a kitchen with 35 people, they shared a kitchen with just 4. They had plenty of space, bought mounds of food, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

By then, I had a few extra hours to ruminate on my bad attitude. Don had only tried to be nice to me. Barb and Dave were the same. I felt I was the worst company in the world and entirely undeserving of such kind care. I missed out on putting things right with Don that evening while my two friends cooked a meal and served it straight to me. I bought a bottle of wine but otherwise felt I couldn’t contribute – not to the dinner, not to the friendship, and not to the camino as a whole. What right did I have to accept any of this kindness? What right did I have to feel sorry for myself, grumpy and sore? Surely everyone was sore, over-stretched in some way, and homesick. I’d chosen to be there so what was my problem?

I thought:

Clearly, I’ve got an attitude problem here and I am spoiling this for myself and for everyone I meet. I am the surly, sulky one, and I’d be better off going home instead of making life a misery for everyone here.

Was I brutally honest or too hard on myself?

That evening, to my embarrassment, I broke down in a flood of tears in front of Dave and Barb.

As a general pattern, I don’t easily cry in front of people – not even people I know and love. I’m even less likely to cry in front of people I don’t know at all. And while I knew Barb and Dave for nearly 2 weeks by then, they were still “strangers” in my overall life. They weren’t to know that when I broke down in a sobbing mess in front of them, I was at the end of my invisible tether.

Everything got the better of me – including, (and especially) my own negative thinking.

I had to get some private space to myself. I simply *had* to pull myself together. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to go on.

 

 

 

Bad Tourist: Ignoring a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In some other universe, on some other trip across northern Spain, I would have stopped off at the UNESCO world heritage site at Atapuerca. I would have enjoyed exploring this historic spot, where the archeological dig is ongoing and the human activity is more than 1,000,000 (yes, 1 million) years old. Oh yeah, and I would have loved the opportunity to learn more about how our early ancestors were cannibals!

I’m not making it up. You’ll find more info here: Archaeological Site of Atapuerca.

On my camino walk from Villambistia, I have to admit that the tourist activities of Atapuerca held no appeal.

It’s not every day that one gets to visit a site where human activity dates back a million years. And I was a tourist in Spain, so you’d think I’d have jumped at the chance to dip into the history of the area, learn a bit more, take some time out to explore the sites a bit – right?

Right….but I had *zero* interest. Honestly, you could have lined up Sean Connery, George Clooney, and Brad Bitt in a line in front of me and I would have had the same response as I did to the prehistoric caves….hmmm…..yeah……whatever! (eye roll)

Ordinarily I like to think of myself as being a bit more cultured but ordinarily, I know where I’m sleeping at night and I don’t have to spend hours walking to find such a bed. So, I have a bit more head space and generosity about exploring the sites and having fun.

There were days on camino when some competitive streak kicked in – one I didn’t even know I had – and securing a bed, a meal, and a shower, became my entire mission in life. It surprised me but everything else was secondary. It makes sense in a way. I mean, if I couldn’t secure a bed in Atapuerca, I would have to walk on to the next village and maybe even the next one after that. I’d have to walk in the early afternoon sunshine and it was around 100 degrees F, which felt even hotter with a full backpack on my shoulders.

So the poor prehistoric cannibals didn’t stand a chance….and it never even crossed my mind to walk 3km off trail to the UNESCO site, and then walk 3km back. I didn’t know I was so goal-orientated in life but frankly, those extra 6km weren’t bringing me any closer to Santiago so there was *no way* I was walking them! I’d walked over 270km by then and had another 520km to go. I would walk to a pharmacy, a bathroom, or a bar…but otherwise I wanted to walk only towards Santiago.

The caves would have to wait for another time.

But what about you: did you go visit the historic site when you passed through Atapuerca?

Or have you ever been somewhere and didn’t do the *must do* tourist thing for that place? Is it really a wasted opportunity or is it just something that everyone does but no one admits to?

 

 

 

 

Walking in Spain: From Villambistia to Atapuerca

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Distance walked: 23.6km

Elevation Gain: Approx. 300m

After breakfast in Epinosa del Camino, I pottered off into the early morning darkness. One of the sweet things about walking Camino is that the sun came up at my back every morning while I walked westwards. So, even though I may have started walking in darkness, the light gradually and gently changed as the morning wore on. Because I wasn’t facing into the sun, the change was beautifully subtle. And I developed a great tan on the backs of my legs from the sun behind me! I’m not a morning person at the best of times, but I came to relish the birdsong and changing light at the beginning of each day.

Somewhere along the way, I’d heard that there were packs of vicious wild dogs outside a town called Villafranca. The rumour had travelled backwards along the trail, and I had heard it days before – from a woman I walked with on the way to Los Arcos. She gave me 2 pieces of advice:

1. Before entering the town, grab a fistful of gravel from the ground and use it to throw at the dogs, if necessary.

and

2. Don’t walk into town alone. Walk in a group of 3 people, or more.

I love dogs but I thought both pieces of advice sounded reasonable, all things considered.

Thing is, there are two towns called Villafranca along the Camino route in northern Spain. I didn’t know which one she referred to. I looked at my map that morning and discovered that I would pass through Villafranca No.1, and I didn’t know whether to expect a pack of wild, vicious dogs.

I imagined a gang of them, with foaming mouths and matted hair. I imagined them covered in lice and ticks, half-starved and desperate to gorge on my innocent pilgrim blood. I’ve known my share of wicked dogs in life and they don’t generally scare me, but still, this was different. I was quite alone on the trail that morning, and my legs were very, very bare in just a pair of summer shorts. Depending on how vicious and angry they were, I thought my chances of coming away unharmed were somewhat slim. I psyched myself for the worst.

And at the same time, I wondered how a gang of vicious wild dogs were allowed patrol the camino like that, given the volume of people passing through each week. It just didn’t add up.

That morning, I passed through Villafranca Montes de Oca without major incident. Contrary to the rumours, there were no packs of wild dogs awaiting my arrival into town, or on my exit either. The highlight was the cup of coffee I stopped for, before embarking on the climb up through the mountains. There was nowhere else to stop for the next 12.4km and I needed all the sustenance I could get. I hoped to buy a takeaway sandwich (the daily infusion of baguette with chorizo) but there was no joy on that front. Even though the café bar had just received a delivery of 24 fresh, metre-long baguettes (and I should know, I saw the guy from the bakery drop them off), they declined to make me a sandwich. They explained politely, but very firmly, that sandwiches were for lunch and it was too early to serve lunch. So, they would not serve me a sandwich, even though I was one of the only customers there, and they had all the ingredients to hand. There was no way I was getting any lunch food until it was definitely lunch time.

Bureaucracy lives on!

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Looking at the photo above, I still remember the heady smell of pine trees and heather, as I walked through the morning fog. After the vineyards of Rioja and the open farmyard of previous days, the mountainy, woodland smells stood out as something different. I was somewhere new. The fog was cloying and damp, but I remained dry despite my summer shorts and bare legs. I could smell the dirt. I could hear the satisfying crunch of the gravel underfoot. I climbed slowly and steadily. Compared to previous mornings of bright sunshine and light, this particular morning felt like autumn. The weather and the smells were altogether different.

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Remembering this day brings up a mixture of memories. While I still walked through the 12km of woodland, I came across a Spanish family who walked camino together. They had the appearance of people on a day hike – small backpacks, or none at all. Tank tops and jeans. Running shoes. A mixture of ages – parents, aunts, teenage children, smaller children. They were quite a gang. They chatted loudly and their squeals broke the silence of the morning. I heard them long before I saw them.

By then, I was on my 12th day of walking and the initial sheen was starting to wear off. By then, the people who walked for only one week had already gone home. By then, the remaining pilgrims had divided between the people who walked fast, and the slower ones – like me. I sometimes felt that camino was like Darwin’s survival of the fittest. After all, the people who were strong or could walk quickly, often had their choice of hostels each day, while others got stuck for a place to sleep. Physical strength and financial resources created an unequal playing field, at times. I’d already met people who had their bags carried by bus, or who booked private accommodation days in advance. I wasn’t entirely sure that their behaviour was fair. I was in it for the long haul but it seemed to me there were certain inequalities on the trail. So, the sudden appearance of loud day-trippers hit a nerve.

I was still tetchy from the previous evening at Villambistia, and I wanted to walk alone. I wanted to walk in quiet solitude. The loud, boisterous antics of the family ahead of me was the antithesis of what I wanted. Their vibe jarred with my mood but I reasoned:

How nice: this family are spending quality time together in nature, this Sunday morning.

They could be staring at TV, or buying things they don’t need in the nearest shopping mall. Instead, they’re out here, doing this, together.

I could get on board with that.

But still, they made quite a din.

I overtook them on the trial and walked on ahead, alone. The noise followed me through the trees, through the village of Agés, and to my final destination of Atapuerca. After walking 23.6km I could go no further. I asked for a bed in one of the hostels there, and prayed for a quiet afternoon to garner some space.

As if!

 

 

 

Following an Impulse in Epinosa del Camino

I left the small village of Villambistia in the early morning darkness, and walked 1.7km to the next village – Epinosa del Camino. There, I found a small café bar that was brightly lit and open for business. Within: hot coffee, and freshly-toasted baguette with butter and jam.

Hmmmm….Camino breakfast…:-)

The Canadian ladies I’d met the day before joined me and somehow we organised to buy each other’s breakfast as a small treat. Our meal cost only a few Euro but it was a small token of friendship in the dark morning, in this tiny village of only 36 inhabitants. How amazing that this village was half the size of Villambistia but was the one with a café bar open for business at 6.30am, while Villambistia slept on.

The women and I had crossed paths several times in the preceeding 10 days – staying in some of the same hostels or passing each other on the trail. I’d witnessed one of them tend to blisters and black toenails because her hiking boots crippled her feet. I also witnessed her replace those $200 hiking boots with a pair of light running shoes, and abandon the boots in an albergue along the way. After the change of footwear, there was no stopping her!

These women had been endlessly warm and kind to me, supportive and encouraging. I hope I was the same with them. We laughed together and swapped stories about our lives and reasons for walking this ancient trail. I assumed our paths would continue to cross – over and back, all the way to Santiago. It wasn’t our pattern to pay for each other’s food and I didn’t really know them that well, but something overcame all of us that morning and we wanted to pay each other’s bill. Perhaps we somehow knew our paths were about to diverge. We toasted the morning by raising our glasses of hot coffee in clinking unison, and delighted in the baskets of fresh hot toast. Dave arrived minutes later and greeted us all with warm enthusiasm and hugs. Barb followed closely behind on the trail, and he ordered breakfast for both of them while he waited.

The ladies and I finished eating, bade Dave a Buen Camino, and made our way outside.

We strapped on our backpacks, grabbed our walking poles in hand, and started the day’s walking in earnest.

We must have walked at different paces or maybe someone stopped to lace up their shoes while the other went on ahead. Whatever the reason, we drifted apart later that day and lost each other on the trail.

I never saw them again.

And although our mutual friends kept me posted on their progress, our paths stopped crisscrossing. I missed out on knowing how their 800km journey unfolded, and who they were by the time they arrived in Santiago. I missed out on the closure that comes with saying “So Long and Farewell”, or so I thought.

Before walking Camino, I found it heart-wrenching to have my friendships drift, or get lost, in the ebb and flow of life. I fought hard to retain connections, despite everyone’s increasingly busy lives, and our distance across time zones and continents. I didn’t like to let things drift. I didn’t like to lose good people from my life. I worked hard to maintain them but struggled with losing them all the same, and with feeling bereft by their absence.

I took it all to heart and imagined a cold life, empty of friendship and laughter. (Bit of a drama queen!)

In the most gentle and glorious way, Camino knocked some of these hurting edges from my heart. I made friends all the way through my 500-mile journey:

I met some of them on my very first day while I travelled to St. Jean Pied de Port – before I even started walking.

I made friends on the last night before I arrived into Santiago.

And everywhere in between, I met people who became friends.

Some of them were friends for a matter of hours, while others are friends I hope to know for many years.

The two Canadian women fell somewhere in between.

When we met, I had no way of knowing whether they would be in my life for a matter of minutes or for decades, but we followed the connection with warm kindness. That morning in Epinosa del Camino, our paths began to divide though we didn’t consciously know it at the time. Whatever the reason, we fell out of each other’s orbit and never saw each other again.

There is a certain bittersweet sadness to that.

I thought I didn’t get to say goodbye or thanks for all of their kindness. I thought I didn’t get to wish them well with the rest of their lives.

But I am happy that I followed the impulse to buy their breakfast that morning. I’m happy that some unconscious inclination took over and prompted us into a moment of celebration. We didn’t know why we wanted to buy each other’s breakfast, but we followed the impulse all the same. We just felt like it.

Afterwards, I looked back and realised:

Ah…that was the moment of closure. That was the morning we got to say Thank You and Buen Camino. That was how we got to say Goodbye.

So, I walked the rest of my journey without realising that our paths had already diverged. I walked on towards the western horizon without realising that our friendship had come to a gentle conclusion.

By the time I realised these things, I also realised that we had said goodbye already. So there was no reason to feel sad loss at their absence.

For me, Camino presented this lesson to me day after day. People entered and left my life on a daily, and even hourly basis. The ebb and flow was constant. I started out feeling rattled by the loss of so many people in my life. By the time I reached Santiago, I knew how to let go. After walking 500 miles, I was able to allow the natural ebb and flow, and not feel the sadness.

Sometimes the friendship lasts a few hours or days. Sometimes it lasts years or decades. Either way, there is a natural beginning and a natural end. Camino helped me understand this and come to terms with it, so I don’t carry the same sadness in my heart any more. Instead, I carry a quiet gladness that we ever met and that we had a chance to say goodbye.