For All of You Preparing for Camino…

Everyone, hello.

At last, hello!

I don’t know about you, but this feels like one of the longest winters ever. I can’t say that I was snowed in for long periods or that my home was lost in winter storms. Thankfully neither of these things is true – although they would help explain my disastrous absence. Instead, it was a winter of family and personal illnesses. Lots of different ones, sometimes neatly, one after the other. Other times, not-at-all-neatly, in an unforgiving cluster. There has been a lot of “coping” and “day-by-day”-ing around these parts!

I am, of course, excited that the spring has sprung and I feel the potential of a dozen new projects all at once. It’s always the same with me when the light gets a bit higher from the horizon and the birds start nesting in my garden. I am distracted trying to do everything all at once and, it would seem, to make up for “lost” time (including the time I lost here with all of you.)

I’ve been reflecting a lot on this twitch in my personality – this expectation for excellence and fulfillment almost all of the time. It’s a lot of pressure! I want a bright and beautiful life as much as anyone, and at the same time I acknowledge that I sometimes have trouble seeing the brilliance. When I’m spending all my energy on staying afloat, it can be hard to manifest any extra magnificence.

It reminds me a lot of walking the camino. I’ve written at length about how difficult I found it – the crowding, the noise, the sheer scale of walking 500 miles not to mention the lack of arch support for my feet! So many other blogs, books, and verbal accounts swoon about how great and amazing it all is, so to admit to anything other than that feels like a personal defeat. It *was* great and amazing…and I also struggled. I won’t go into it all again but one of my trail friends revealed to me afterwards that she was worried about me along the way and thought I pushed myself too hard. Her words caught me by surprise. This isn’t a woman I’d known for years beforehand so I didn’t expect her to share such a personal perspective but as it turns out, she was absolutely right. She spotted it a mile off but I didn’t see it at all.

I didn’t know how to push myself any less. I was so dogged on my vision that I just kept going. I was worried that if I stopped long enough to take stock of my exhaustion, I’d lose the nerve to keep walking and I very much wanted to keep walking.

Was it a joyous way to experience camino? No, not really, but here’s something that not everyone will admit: not every day is about big, expansive joy. I know that jars with what the self-help books say but talk to anyone who’s survived something significant, and they will tell you it’s true.

Sometimes, it is a monumental success to get to the finish line in one piece. For me, that meant getting in out of the elements, having a hot shower, food of some sort, and a clean and secure bed for the night. I couldn’t hack the extra pressure of feeling immense joy and connection with all the universe as well – my hierarchy of needs was pretty inflexible that way! 馃檪 Was I selling myself short? Perhaps, but those tough days were a test of my grit and I needed that to keep going. Others around me swooned about what a great time they were having. I took that to heart and then felt even more rubbish about my experience – clearly, I reasoned, I was “failing” when I didn’t feel immense joy from morning to night.

What a load of crap.

So. For all of you preparing for camino here are two small tidbits to do with what you may:

  1. Someone else’s experience (whether physical, emotional, or whatever) is a changing thing…as is yours. Try not to compare yourself, your ability, or your experience with anyone else’s. It’s a slippery (and speedy) slope to self-righteousness and misery, and it’s a no-win.
  2. There will be tough days – so acknowledge them now. Like me with the 6 months of winter illness, the tough days are exhausting and bleak, and it can feel like the feel-good happy party has left for good. It hasn’t. When the going gets tough, go back to basics – food, water, shelter, rest. The hierarchy of needs is a basic reminder but sometimes the basics are what’s needed. The other stuff comes after. Cut yourself some slack and acknowledge the days survived in one piece 馃檪

That’s it!

More to follow soon, especially now that I have my ID and password unlocked again! Thanks for reading and Buen Camino to you all, irrespective of whether you’re walking!

 

 

The Camino Provides in Carri贸n de los Condes

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

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

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

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

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

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

And boy was I glad that I did!

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

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

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

I held my breath.

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

I exhaled! Oh my God!

There is only one thing, she said tentatively.

Oh, here we go, I thought to myself.

It is up high, yes? Is that okay?

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

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

My takeaway things-to-remember that day?

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Things You Remember (and Forget)

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

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

So here I (finally) am.

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

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

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

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

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

But the next leg of the trip?

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

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

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

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Here’s what I remember:

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

His comment was both saddening and sobering.

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

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

I haven’t booked anything, I replied.

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

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

In my rusty Spanish, I asked for a bed.

How many?

One bed, please. I am alone.

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

And the line went dead.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t believe everything that you hear.

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

 

 

 

 

Camino Challenge: Live in Fear or Learn to Trust?

One of *my* personal challenges in walking 500 miles across Spain was to trust鈥.the overall process, the people around me, and myself. I planned my trip in just 4-5 weeks. Compared to many of the people online and on the trail, I was grossly unprepared.

I hadn鈥檛 done any physical training.

I hadn鈥檛 learned any Spanish.

I hadn鈥檛 tested my gear in advance.

I wasn鈥檛 confident about the route because I hadn鈥檛 researched it very much. I wasn鈥檛 confident in my language skills because they were largely non-existent. I was only partially confident about my physical skills. I had hiked, backpacked, and camped for years but I had never walked 800km before 鈥 how could I be sure I was capable? Truth told, I wasn鈥檛 sure 鈥 not by a long shot.

I didn鈥檛 know how far I could walk each day, so I also didn鈥檛 know where I would sleep each night. I didn鈥檛 know whether I鈥檇 stay free of injury and illness. And even though thousands of people walk the French Way every year, I felt like I was stepping off into a great void. I didn鈥檛 know how far I鈥檇 get on the trail so when I started, I hadn鈥檛 even booked my return flight home. Quite literally, I didn鈥檛 know how long I鈥檇 be gone or what would happen in the meantime.

Unless you鈥檙e someone who thrives on this kind of uncertainty, all these unknowns can rack up the anxiety levels pretty quickly. There are a lot of 鈥淲hat Ifs鈥. Nice, neat answers are not always available.

What if there are no beds: where will I sleep?

What if I get injured and I can鈥檛 go any further?

What if I get lost? What if I run out of money? What if I don鈥檛 make any friends? What if my gear is all wrong?

What if, what if, what if鈥..

The list is as long as your mind will allow. In the month before I left, my mind buzzed from asking a litany of questions, and I didn鈥檛 have the time to research for sensible answers. I can only thank the part of myself that realised that there was only a certain amount I could do to control the journey ahead 鈥 and the rest was beyond my control. I made some brief, but big decisions:

  1. I will not worry about the availability of beds.
  2. I will figure it out as I go along.

I decided these things. They were mental choices.

They weren鈥檛 just emotional aspirations or wishful intentions; somehow I ring fenced my mind so that I had answers to all of those 鈥淲hat If鈥 questions.

Not having a bed to sleep in at night would have sucked ass. In Maslow鈥檚 hierarchy of needs, I think having a secure place to sleep at night is low down on the pyramid, somewhere between physiological needs and safety needs. This means it鈥檚 considered quite essential. So, not having that lined up in advance is a bit of a gamble, especially in a foreign country and in walking cross-country for weeks at a time.

Unless I booked private accommodation in advance, there was no way I鈥檇 ever be sure of a bed at the end of each day. But I didn鈥檛 want to book in advance. I didn鈥檛 want the pressure of making it to Guesthouse A on Wednesday, Small Hotel on Thursday, and Private Pension on Friday. What if I got injured in the meantime and couldn鈥檛 walk that far? What if I got sick? I didn鈥檛 want the stress of making, and keeping plans with anyone. I also didn鈥檛 want the stress of reading my guidebook to find accommodation days ahead, and then go through the effort of conversing in Spanish over the phone as I tried to book a room 鈥 day after day, for weeks on end.

I just couldn鈥檛 commit to that much scheduling.

So I did the only thing I could do:聽 I threw the challenge up to the heavens and trusted that somehow it would all work out. I wasn鈥檛 sure whether that meant trusting a divine source of Trip Advisor or trusting the locals in Spain. Who knows, maybe they鈥檙e one and the same thing. But either way, I made a mental decision that *I*was not going to fret about it. Worrying about beds felt like something that was way above my pay grade. I surrendered and left it in the hands of something, or someone else.

That was a big lesson: Trusting that which is outside of myself.

Somehow, even though I couldn’t see every detail of the 500-mile journey ahead of me, I trusted that I would find my way. Quite literally, I trusted that the path would be there, and not washed away by flooding or erosion. Quite literally, I trusted that there would be enough food and shelter for my needs, and that things would be fine.

Just because I couldn’t see the path ahead, it didn’t mean that the path didn’t exist.

I had to walk in my hoped-for direction to find the path I was looking for.

The next one was also big: Trusting that which is inside myself.

No matter what disastrous scenario or anxiety my mind came up with, being able to respond with the thought: 鈥淚鈥檒l figure it out as I go along鈥 was a powerful reassurance to my over-zealous, inner drama queen. I could apply it to any scenario and feel better about my prospects. In the beginning, it was a way of calming my apprehension and it worked a treat.

What if my hiking sandals aren鈥檛 suitable for walking long distances?

Then I鈥檒l figure it out and buy a pair of new shoes along the way.

What if I鈥檓 not able to walk 500 miles all in one go?

Then I鈥檒l walk as far as I can and I鈥檒l figure out how to come home early.

Even though I didn鈥檛 have all the answers in advance, I had at least some capacity to find them along the way. And the great thing is, the more I told myself that I would figure things out, the more I did figure things out鈥.and my capacity grew even more.

It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

That鈥檚 the funny thing: what we tell ourselves has a huge impact on how well our minds perform. If we allow anxiety and scaremongering to roam freely, then all of life becomes a disaster. The world is full of problems and life is full of threat. There is only pain and strife.

I鈥檝e played around with positive affirmations over the years but you know, when I tell myself something like: 鈥淚 am a glorious creation, full of positivity and light鈥, the inner cynic in me balks. I鈥檝e no sooner proclaimed my greatness than some other part snidely remarks, 鈥淵eah, right!鈥 My greatness is swiftly ridiculed.

So, telling myself I am infinitely wonderful doesn鈥檛 always bring the most wonderful results! 馃檪

But, telling myself, 鈥淚鈥檒l figure it out as I go along鈥 reassured me on my Camino journey. It meant I didn鈥檛 have to have everything planned and researched in advance. It meant I was allowed make mistakes. It also meant I didn鈥檛 have to follow anyone else or do what the guidebook said.

It meant I was allowed have my own experience, in my own way.

That鈥檚 a massive lesson 鈥 not just for camino but for life itself.

***

In my 鈥渞eal life鈥, lots of things are in flux right now because lots of things have changed in the last six months. I thought I had a good sense of what 2015 would look like but it turns out, I was waaay off the mark. Some of the changes are more welcome than others. Some of them are above my pay grade and the outcome is still unknown. I carry disappointment about the plans that have been thwarted and some anxiety about the ones that have come in their place.

I鈥檝e noticed my mind looping through the litany of 鈥淲hat Ifs鈥.

It鈥檚 disheartening.

It鈥檚 all-consuming.

And I know I am missing out on everyday goodness in trying to ward off some doomsday disasters that might not even happen.

I鈥檝e found myself wistfully daydreaming about camino, and sort of pining for the 鈥渟imple life鈥 I knew then. I鈥檝e found myself romanticising life on the trail, back when 鈥渁ll I had to think about鈥 was where I would sleep at night.

I鈥檝e also found myself marvelling at what it was to ring fence my mind and decide not to worry.

And I鈥檝e thought: If only it were that simple.

But here鈥檚 the thing: Maybe it *is* that simple.

If I could ring fence my mind once, I can do it again. If I could decide not to worry then, I can decide now, too. My current concerns may feel more grown up and dramatic than anything I faced in Spain but I know where my bed is every night. That鈥檚 a huge bonus.

It was possible to reign in my worry back then. Maybe it鈥檚 possible to reign it in now, too.

So, I have two main options: I can choose to trust in that which is outside of myself or that which is inside of myself. I might even choose both, simultaneously. Or maybe I鈥檒l choose both and interchange them, depending on what the issue is.

Either way, I can choose how much mental space I give over to anxiety and fear. As it is, I make the choice every single day 鈥 often without realising it 鈥 and my over-zealous mind frets too much. This is not how I lived on camino. This is not what I learned on camino. And this is not what I took away from my camino experience.

In Spain, the everyday challenge was real: Would I live in fear or would I learn to trust?

Right now in my everyday life, the challenge still exists.

What will I choose? What about you?

 

Burgos, Spain: You Get What you Need

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I stopped in Burgos for 2 nights to rest, re-group, and take some alone-time. I was tempted聽to join the public albergue聽in the centre of the city but after two very noisy nights on the camino trail, I needed some quiet time by myself. I picked out one of the private albergues聽recommended in Brierley’s guide-book (finally, I actually read it!) and perched myself in a quiet room near the grounds of the university.

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For the handsome price of 鈧35 per night, this is what I received:

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It had a small private bathroom too, so I didn’t need to stand in line with 20 other people waiting for my turn in the showers – what bliss!

The room was a calm oasis after days of noise and tension. I lay on my bed (with sheets!) – and listened to the sounds of birds chirping in the ivy and flowers outside my window. It was a welcome change from the sound of washing machines and chatter.

Here, I had enough steady wi-fi to make calls home to Handsome Husband who was holding the fort without me.

Here, I slept solidly for hours on end.

Here, I was glad to take a break from walking and carrying my backpack, and give my feet a break.

I slept, I ate, I relished the quiet.

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Downtown, I browsed and wandered through the city, famous for its gothic cathedral. I ate alone, I sent postcards home, and contrary to what Brierley suggested, I welcomed the sights and sounds of the city. It wasn’t a shock to my system at all. Surprisingly, it was a source of revival.

In the city, I could come and go as I pleased. I could reclaim my independence. I could be anonymous for a day, while I browsed through tourist shops and city sights. Oddly enough, the city gave me a chance to rest, and I grabbed it with both hands.

And with 532km still to go, I would need all the rest I could get.

What did Burgos mean to you?

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Villambistia: Stifling the Screams

This is such a small village that Brierley’s guidebook doesn’t even list the size of its population. Wikipedia tells me that according to the last census, there are 65 inhabitants.

There’s not much to say about the village of Villambistia.

Spending the night in the small village was rather depressing and difficult. Earlier in the evening, the noise of my 1-bedroom hostel was enough to make me scream, but I chose to run out of the building instead of shouting at my fellow pilgrims. I can put up with all sorts of bullshit but I will admit that there were days on camino when I was fit to kill, and that afternoon in Villambistia was one of them.

All 14 beds were taken聽and we were a mixture of nationalities and ages, sharing this one room. Weeks earlier, I stayed in Roncesvalles, where one of the biggest camino hostels is situated. There, I could hear the sounds of 99 other people around me but it was quieter there聽than it was in this 14-bed dorm in Villambistia.

Just Great.

Is it intolerant to say that the German man who walked around in only a pair of tight Speedos, shouting around the building, was an ass? Do I sound like a princess if I say that the Spanish cyclists who came in afterwards were loud and boorish, leaving pools of water across the bathroom floor and banging doors as they went?

I felt exhausted and sore, and the only restful spot available was in that shared dorm. Am I a prissy聽wimp if I say I felt hounded out of it because my fellow pilgrims made so much noise?

I admit I was emotional and strung out, and badly needed some private space. In Villambistia, there was none to be聽had. The dorm was full, the downstairs bar was full, and there was simply nowhere else to go. Even the doors of the church were locked.

Sharing a dorm with my fellow pilgrims made me cry out of sheer frustration, and I ran from them rather than聽scream at them. In my head, I cursed every single one of them and called them every foul-mouthed name under the sun.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t know who was “in the wrong”.

It’s possible that I was over-sensitive that afternoon and made a mountain out of a molehill, crying like a child for no good reason.

It’s also possible that some of my roommates were priggish聽loudmouths, who elbowed their way through life with little consideration for other people.

Which story is the real one? Which one is the truth?

The Camino forums are full of people like me, giving out about the noise and insensitivity of other pilgrims on the trail. Lots of yak, yak, yak about how shitty people can be.

And yes, people can be shitty.

And the forums are full of opposing voices too – the people who say:

You know what? It’s a pilgrimage and you’re sleeping in a public dorm for a measly 鈧8 a night. If you don’t like it, go elsewhere.

It’s a valid point and I couldn’t agree more.

But does sharing a public dormitory and a bathroom give anyone the right to treat it like a shipyard? Just because we paid small money for our bed, does it mean it’s okay to spend the day shouting our lungs off and banging doors, ignoring the needs of the people around us?

I didn’t think so.

But that day in Villambistia I was in the minority.

I felt bullied out of my bed. There was no way I could rest among all that chaos and I found a shady tree to lie under instead.

I could have tackled my roommates, my fellow-pilgrims.

I could have challenged them on their antics and asked them to take their brawling conversations to the outdoor courtyard, to the downstairs bar, or to the middle of the village square. In reality, there were several public spaces available to them and any one of them would have been suitable for social chatter.

But there was only one private space available, and that was the bedroom in which I tried to rest after hours of strained walking. It was also the same room I shared with 13 other pilgrims, so I was kind of screwed.

My thinking was that a bedroom – even if it was a public dorm – was a place for rest and healing. If you want to drink beers, make Skype calls, or pull dead skin from your feet…go do it somewhere else. There were plenty of places to choose from but there was only one bedroom, one place to rest, one place to sleep. I thought:

Don’t mess with the bedroom.

That day, I felt terribly alone in my thinking and there was no one there to back me up.

My roommates were louder than me, taller than me, more boisterous than me. They took over that space like it was their own private party and I didn’t feel strong enough to push back. I also wasn’t entirely sure I was entitled to push back – I mean, maybe I was being over-sensitive and unreasonable.

Was I right to run away for a few hours while I calmed down and gathered my thoughts?

Or should I have stood up to them, demanded some privacy in the only room that could be private?

That day, I saw both sides of the argument and I thought it more reasonable to upset myself than to upset the strangers around me. As a lifelong pattern, that’s a poor way to live, so one of my camino challenges was to learn how to take better care of myself and fight harder for my own needs. You’ll be glad to know, I got a handle on that eventually.

In Villambistia though, my experience of the hostel was messy and sore. Part of me wishes I’d let off all my steam and pent-up frustration instead of bottling it all up. It would have been healthier for me than feeling isolated and exploited. I wanted to say everything to them but in the end, I said nothing.

However, I will say this:

That evening, we sat cramped in a small dining room, elbows touching, with harsh flourescent strip lighting overhead. The 2 staff did all the cooking, serving, and cleaning up,聽and it took more than 2 hours to get through our meal. There was nowhere else to eat and there was nowhere else to hide so we had to make small talk, and find some common ground while we ate our fried chicken and chips.

Though they drove me nuts, I was glad I didn’t scream blue murder at my roommates hours earlier.

Imagine how awkward the dinner would have been if I had?!

Azofra: A Lesson in Camino Etiquette

Azofra: “A tranquil village with a population of barely 500 that owes its continuing existence to the camino.”

Azofra Centro: “Purpose built hostel…cubicles with just 2 beds.”

(Quotes from Brierley’s guide-book)

The purpose-built hostel was modern, spacious, and wonderfully clean. It seemed to be constructed of recycled and prefabricated wood.

The hippy in me was thrilled.

As I said, I delighted at the prospect of sharing a room with just one other person. There were no bunk beds either, which was a welcome bonus.

I unpacked my bag and felt ridiculously excited about having a shelf of my own, onto which I could place my belongings. I also had a sort of mini-wardrobe, which included clothes hangers! Having a shelf and wardrobe felt insanely civilised and reminded me of聽homely comforts. I didn’t have very many things to put on such a shelf – I didn’t carry any reading material or ornamental china, for instance – but I delighted in laying out my toiletries and spare socks on it, nonetheless.

A shelf felt like a piece of the normal, real world, where people aren’t so transient that they sleep in a different bed every night.

A shelf represented stability and roots.

A shelf represented home, and I must have told a dozen people about how great the shelf was. They seemed amused by my excitement, as we sat in the sunshine eating potato chips and drinking beer.

What can I say? I was easily pleased.

My new roommate was an elderly lady, soft-spoken, and cultured. I’d seen her in Orisson on my first day of walking, though we’d never spoken before. She was walking the Camino for the second time and confirmed that the rush for beds was very real. I’d felt it since Day 1, but wondered if I had imagined it or had been too sensitive.

She passed through the region only 5 years before and confirmed that back then:

  • There was no race for beds
  • People didn’t compete over speed or distance
  • People didn’t reserve private accommodation in advance
  • People didn’t have mobile phones with them
  • No one was ever without a bed
  • There was less pressure on all the associated services (caf茅s, bars, water supply, waste disposal, etc.)

I trusted her opinion. It would seem I hadn’t imagined the racing and competition, and felt relieved to hear her confirm my experience. At the same time, my heart sank a little. If the Camino continued to go in this direction, what would it be like 5 years hence? What was it turning into?

I would spend weeks and months reflecting on this very thing.

That evening though, I enjoyed chatting to my new “roomie” and liked her a lot. I happily anticipated a quiet night ahead.

How wrong I was!

Why?

Quite frankly: She was a snorer.

I know, lots of people snore.

After sharing so many dorms with so many strangers, I had already become desensitised to the noise at night. I was usually so tired that I could sleep through a chorus of people snoring around me. I might share a dorm with 20 people and find that at least half of them were snorers – and all of them snoring together made for quite a noisy night. They didn’t snore in harmony 馃檪

Most nights, I fell asleep to the sounds of:

Coughing

Whistling

Wheezing

And other delightful bodily sounds.

I got used to it.

So, she wasn’t the first snorer I had encountered.

But I mean, she was a really, really loud snorer. And it wasn’t just about the volume – there was content and texture to her snoring, too.

Her snore made it sound like she had a chest infection and a walrus stuck up her nostrils, and that she was trying to dislodge them with every breath. Every in-breath was a meaty, phlegmy gulp, and I thought she was seconds away from choking. Every out-breath was a wheezy whistle.

In and out; in and out; in and out.

She kept breathing. She kept snoring. I thought she was going to die in her sleep.

Delightful….erm, not.

I shoved my earplugs deeper into my ears and tried to think sleepy thoughts, but it made no difference.

I thought it was great to share my cubicle with just one other person instead of sharing an open dorm. Initially, I relished having some physical separation from the other 58 people in the hostel. Until that night, I never realised that the small cubicle would magnify the sound of her snoring – so much so that I felt that the snoring was in my head. I felt I was the one going to die – from inhaling my own phlegm.

* Sorry if this is a bit too graphic, but I want to be really clear: This woman was soft-spoken by day but was thunder-loud by night.

From my bed, I glanced across to check if she was definitely sleeping.

Yep – she definitely was.

Damn.

I lay there for 20 minutes, wondering what to do.

I thought: If I go over there and somehow roll her onto her side, she’ll probably stop snoring. That would work.

But I’ve only met her for the first time, earlier today. What鈥檚 the etiquette here?

Is it okay to go over there, invade her personal space, put my hands on her shoulders, and roll her on her side?

I lay there for another 30 minutes, wondering.

I thought: The sound-proofing between the cubicles is not great – surely she’s keeping half the building awake. And I’m sure she would want someone to stop her from making so much noise – right?

I lay there for another few minutes, wondering.

I left the room, walked to the bathroom, and tested out how far the noise travelled. I could hear her down the hallway. But no-one else seemed to be awake or bothered by the din, so it seemed to be a problem for only me.

I sat on an indoor bench and thought about sleeping there for the night. The wood was hard and uncomfortable but at least I had some space from the noise, and thought I had a better chance of sleeping there. After 20 minutes, I went back to bed, tossed, turned, and debated the etiquette even more.

Frustrated, exhausted, and increasingly agitated, I eventually decided this:

Do not go over there to roll her on her side.

Do not invade her personal space.

Do not touch her in any way.

The more you focus on it, the more upset you become. So find a way to distract yourself and your focus. Keep your earplugs in place and count sheep, say prayers, or meditate, but do something to distract yourself from the noise.

But whatever you do, stay in your own bed.

 

The next morning, she awoke early, energetically, and rearing to go.

I woke groggily, slowly, and feeling as though my eyes had sunk deep into my head. I never told her just how much noise she made. There was no point – what could she do about it anyway?

Instead, I packed up my belongings and made my way into the golden morning light.

Weeks later, I heard a story that someone else told – of a pilgrim who did intervene and turn a snorer onto their side in the middle of the night. It didn’t go so well, and everyone agreed that getting involved was a big “No-No”.

I think I may have dodged a bullet with that one!

 

 

 

 

Surrendering to the Unexpected

A word or two about beds:

Before walking the Camino, I read a few online forums and discovered people were concerned about the shortage of beds along the way. Many of the hostels (albergues) run on a first-come, first-serve basis and cannot be booked in advance. Traditionally, this is how things worked on Camino: millions of pilgrims made the journey across Spain relying on the kindness of the locals, availing of food and shelter where, and when, they could. I can imagine the warm beds and hot dinners were inconsistent, so going on pilgrimage was a leap of faith 鈥 not just spiritually, but physically too. Relying on the locals, and trusting that there would be food and shelter was a real practice in letting go, trusting humankind, and trusting God.

The state-run and church-run hostels continue to operate on a 鈥渇irst-come, first-serve鈥 basis to this day. During the winter months, the supply outweighs the demand. During the summer months, the opposite is true. I planned to walk in autumn and didn鈥檛 know what to expect, but it seemed that lots of others felt the very same. The forums were full of anxiety and fear, and much discussion about the limited number of beds.

Many people were afraid of becoming stranded and needed reassurance.

Others took control of their fate by booking private accommodation in advance.

Personally, I didn鈥檛 want to walk the Camino in a state of constant fear. Equally, I didn鈥檛 want to control my experience or put myself under pressure to keep to a set distance each day. I figured that three things were true:

  1. After several hundred years of hosting millions of pilgrims, the locals would have far better knowledge about sleeping facilities than I ever would. Even if all the hostels in a town burned down, I knew the locals would know where to find a spare couch, a living room floor, or a barn that might be free. I decided to defer 鈥 completely 鈥 to their expertise. I wasn鈥檛 asking for luxury accomodation and I knew I wouldn鈥檛 be left to go hungry or without a safe place to sleep.
  2. Walking alone meant I only ever needed to find space for one person and I can fit on an armchair if I have to. I figured my chances of getting something were pretty good.
  3. All going well, I expected to walk for 6 weeks and realised that I could control only certain aspects of my journey. I could control how much sunblock to put on my face, or how closely I tended my feet: these things were within my remit, but the availability of beds was not. There was no way I could organise and pre-book a new bed every night for 6 weeks so I didn鈥檛 even want to try.

When it came to sleeping arrangements, I surrendered the whole thing to God/Divine/Guardian Angels/Universe and thought, 鈥淭his one is waaay beyond me; this one is up to you鈥. I consciously decided, 鈥淚 am not going to worry about beds.鈥 I didn鈥檛 have the energy for it, I didn鈥檛 have enough Spanish for it, and I couldn鈥檛 control it anyway, so I purposefully decided that I wouldn鈥檛 give it any headspace. Ring fencing my mind in this way was a liberation. Somehow, it would all be fine.

Still, I felt absolutely gutted to learn that there were no free beds, couches, or floor spaces in Zubiri. I was so disheartened I could have wept. I was so physically exhausted I could have slept on the street.

Honestly, I was too disheartened to worry about my state. I needed to wash, to eat, and to find somewhere to sleep, but I really didn鈥檛 care where I slept that night. The woman running the albergue made some phone calls 鈥 to taxi companies, to other nearby albergues, and private accomodation, trying to find space for the growing number of stranded pilgrims. For nearly an hour, we sat on the dusty footpath, waiting for more people to arrive so we鈥檇 have a critical mass and hopefully, some influence. It was a wearisome experience. Suddenly, a taxi van appeared and three women jumped to their feet.

鈥淒o you want to join us?鈥 they asked.

鈥淲here are you going?鈥

鈥淭o another hostel, they鈥檝e organised somewhere for us to stay鈥.

If you can believe it, I actually hesitated in responding.

I鈥檇 just been offered transportation and a bed, without having to organise either of them myself, and I felt reluctant about accepting. Why? My aspiration (and intention) was to walk all 800km on my own feet, carrying my bag all the way. I didn鈥檛 want to 鈥渃heat鈥 on the experience in any way, and taking a taxi to another albergue felt like a cheat. Never mind that I was physically spent, that there were no beds in Zubiri, and that I didn鈥檛 have the strength to walk another step: I still wanted a purist Camino experience. Yep, this is why Handsome Husband calls me 鈥渨illful鈥!

I hesitated just long enough to realize this:

When I started, I knew there was a risk of being without a bed at some point and I鈥檇 already decided that if such a thing happened, I would defer to the locals for a solution. They were offering it, right there, right then, and I was genuinely in need of their help. If I didn鈥檛 allow myself to accept their help, I would surely have a terrible Camino. (Plus, Ego was happy that I was without a bed because of the local fiesta, and not because of my lack of training or my snail鈥檚 pace.)

So, quick as a flash, I came to my senses and jumped into the taxi.

Hurrah!

Silently, I felt relief to know that I鈥檇 get a shower, some food, and a bed, instead of sleeping on the riverbank that night. As the taxi bumped along the road, I chatted with my fellow pilgrims, relieved to have their company while we made our way to the next albergue. After a day of struggle, it was a sweet relief to be carried some of the distance, even though I wondered about getting a taxi back the next morning to pick up where I left off. I was surrendering and planning at the same time! Still, when the taxi pulled up outside a parochial albergue minutes later, I felt a flood of gratitude. The locals had provided the help that I needed and I had arrived at my bed for the night.

Where was I?

Somewhere called Zabaldika.