Camino Challenge: Live in Fear or Learn to Trust?

One of *my* personal challenges in walking 500 miles across Spain was to trust….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’t done any physical training.

I hadn’t learned any Spanish.

I hadn’t tested my gear in advance.

I wasn’t confident about the route because I hadn’t researched it very much. I wasn’t 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 – how could I be sure I was capable? Truth told, I wasn’t sure – not by a long shot.

I didn’t know how far I could walk each day, so I also didn’t know where I would sleep each night. I didn’t know whether I’d 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’t know how far I’d get on the trail so when I started, I hadn’t even booked my return flight home. Quite literally, I didn’t know how long I’d be gone or what would happen in the meantime.

Unless you’re someone who thrives on this kind of uncertainty, all these unknowns can rack up the anxiety levels pretty quickly. There are a lot of “What Ifs”. 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’t go any further?

What if I get lost? What if I run out of money? What if I don’t make any friends? What if my gear is all wrong?

What if, what if, what if…..

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’t 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 – 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’t just emotional aspirations or wishful intentions; somehow I ring fenced my mind so that I had answers to all of those “What If” questions.

Not having a bed to sleep in at night would have sucked ass. In Maslow’s 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’s 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’d ever be sure of a bed at the end of each day. But I didn’t want to book in advance. I didn’t 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’t walk that far? What if I got sick? I didn’t want the stress of making, and keeping plans with anyone. I also didn’t 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 – day after day, for weeks on end.

I just couldn’t commit to that much scheduling.

So I did the only thing I could do:  I threw the challenge up to the heavens and trusted that somehow it would all work out. I wasn’t sure whether that meant trusting a divine source of Trip Advisor or trusting the locals in Spain. Who knows, maybe they’re 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: “I’ll figure it out as I go along” 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’t suitable for walking long distances?

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

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

Then I’ll walk as far as I can and I’ll figure out how to come home early.

Even though I didn’t 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….and my capacity grew even more.

It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

That’s 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’ve played around with positive affirmations over the years but you know, when I tell myself something like: “I am a glorious creation, full of positivity and light”, the inner cynic in me balks. I’ve no sooner proclaimed my greatness than some other part snidely remarks, “Yeah, right!” My greatness is swiftly ridiculed.

So, telling myself I am infinitely wonderful doesn’t always bring the most wonderful results! 🙂

But, telling myself, “I’ll figure it out as I go along” reassured me on my Camino journey. It meant I didn’t have to have everything planned and researched in advance. It meant I was allowed make mistakes. It also meant I didn’t 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’s a massive lesson – not just for camino but for life itself.

***

In my “real life”, 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’ve noticed my mind looping through the litany of “What Ifs”.

It’s disheartening.

It’s 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’ve found myself wistfully daydreaming about camino, and sort of pining for the “simple life” I knew then. I’ve found myself romanticising life on the trail, back when “all I had to think about” was where I would sleep at night.

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

And I’ve thought: If only it were that simple.

But here’s 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’s a huge bonus.

It was possible to reign in my worry back then. Maybe it’s 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’ll 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 – often without realising it – 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?

 

Camino Challenge: What if there are no beds?

A friend recently asked me:

What do you do if you arrive somewhere and there are no beds?

We were talking about my time walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, last year. In following my blog, they’d been surprised to read about the race for beds and the sense of competition I’d experienced in the early days. I was surprised by it too, and found it very upsetting. I’m no Holy Joe but I never expected to find power struggles and gloating on a pilgrimage route. I never expected to see people literally running past other pilgrims to get to the hostel before them. That was both sobering and sad.

I knew that there was pressure on the limited beds along the Camino. I also knew that there was a possibility I would get stuck for a bed somewhere in my 500 miles of walking. Apparently, some 200,000 people walked the French Way in 2013. With numbers like that, the chances are pretty high that many people get stuck for a bed. But I didn’t want to walk Camino in a state of fear about where to sleep at night. I made a decision about how I’d handle the situation if it ever arose. You can read about it here.

I did arrive in towns and villages to learn that there were no beds left and it was rather heartbreaking. Sometimes, I walked for 8-9 hours in over 30 degree heat, and desperately wanted to find a place to sleep for the night. Being told there were no beds left was gutting.

What did I do? Well, in case you missed it, I wrote about my experiences in these posts:

I felt the race for beds most acutely in the first week. After that, things quietened down a bit, for various reasons. Of course, there was still a pressure on the limited number of beds available: it just affected me differently.

So to answer my friend’s question, here’s what you can do if (like me) you don’t reserve your accomodation in advance but arrive somewhere to find there are no beds:

1. Politely ask the locals for help.

Chances are, they’ve seen other pilgrims get stuck before so they might know what options are available locally. Sometimes, that means sleeping on the floor of the local community centre. Sometimes it means sleeping on an armchair in someone’s living room. You might not get a bed but you just might get somewhere to sleep. Understand that there’s a distinction between these two things. Be grateful for whatever is offered.

Three women arrived in Zubiri the same day I did (and like me) learned that there were no beds left. They discussed their plight over a beer in the local café bar, and shared their story with the waiter. He felt so badly for them that he offered to host all three of them in his home. To some of us, that might sound inappropriate. In reality, he was being hospitable and sincere, and the three women were delighted to take him up on his kind offer. When he finished work, he gave them full use of his living room (complete with armchairs and a couch) and even cooked dinner for them as a way of apologising for the over-crowding in the town that night. Isn’t that sweet?

Not every local will want to be this helpful and they’re not obligated to host pilgrims in their own homes. But generally speaking, they do want to help. If you’re nice to them, they might help you figure out somewhere to stay, without having to resort to these next options….

2. Walk on to the next town or village.

I had to do this more than once, as did many others. Surprisingly, when you plan to walk 500 miles, some primal part of your brain kicks in and

walking = survival

So, walking a few more miles to the next town can be surprisingly okay!

It’s not easy when the weather is exceptionally hot, cold, windy, or wet. It’s also not easy when you’re injured, sick, exhausted, or depressed. You never know when you might have to give an extra push, so keep some energy in reserve. Feel like walking 25km? Well, you might need to walk 29km to secure a bed, so factor that in to your planning and your coffee breaks each day. Then, if you do have to walk on a bit further, you’ve got the energy to do it.

3. Take a taxi to the next town or village.

If you can’t walk on to the next town or village for whatever reason, you might find a taxi to bring you there. The first time I availed of a taxi, it was organised by a hostel owner in Zubiri because the town was full. She kindly organised taxis and accommodation for 20 of us that evening.

The second time I had to use a taxi was when I arrived into Los Arcos at 5pm, with three other women. Again, the whole town was full. One of my co-walkers requested a taxi to the next village and we were thrilled.

In both cases, the taxis got us safely and quickly to our new beds. But the next morning, we had to decide whether to go back and pick up where we left off. You’ll have to face the same decision, so be prepared!

4. Take a bus to the next town or village.

This follows the same sentiment as my previous point but this only works if you’re in a town or village that’s big enough to have a bus service. Oh, and if you arrive at such a time in the day whereby the bus hasn’t yet departed. I didn’t take the bus at all and never even looked at a bus schedule, so I don’t know how well this one works. If any of you reading feel like adding your two cents here, please do!

5. Sleep outdoors.

I met a guy who crossed the Pyrenees on his first day of walking, and arrived into the town of Roncesvalles at 7 in the evening. The hostel and private rooms were all taken hours earlier, so there were no beds anywhere. He’d already walked 27km that day, including the climb up, over, and down the mountains. There was no way he could walk any further so he slept on an outdoor bench that night. He admitted it was cold and uncomfortable but he said it was fine, really.

I think he might have been Rambo in disguise!

Weeks later, I walked alone and learned that two of the villages I passed through were full. Helpful pilgrims shouted to me in the street and confirmed that there were no beds left, and that I would have to walk on further. I didn’t know these people, and I didn’t even have to stop or take off my backpack to find out the information – they literally yelled to me from across the street!

I hoped the third one would have a free bed. I had enough energy to make it to the third village but I really, really didn’t have it in me to walk any further than that. So, I decided this:

If there are no free beds in the next village, I’m going to sleep outdoors.

I’m not beyond it!

I eyed the wheat fields and their bales of straw with a sort of exhausted lust. The straw looked soft and I figured it would provide extra warmth. I didn’t expect it to be terribly comfortable, but the ground was dry I was open to sleeping out, if necessary.

I know that some would never, ever consider sleeping outdoors, especially without a tent, a ground mat, and regular camping supplies. But people do it. It’s not that weird, really.

6. Sleep somewhere else.

I met a woman who arrived into the village of Villamayor de Monjardín to find there were no beds available. She didn’t have the energy to walk the 10k to the next town, so she asked the locals for help.

One said: I have a spare garage. You can sleep there, if you like.

Someone else said: I can give you some cardboard and old sacks to put on the ground.

Some pilgrims who’d already secured beds said: We have camping mats we don’t need tonight – you’re welcome to use them.

So, she joined 14 other pilgrims and slept on the ground in someone’s open garage. She wasn’t on a bed, a sofa, or a gymnasium floor, but she wasn’t outdoors either. She was safe and dry, and survived the night just fine.

Are there other options available? I can’t think of any right now. Maybe those of you who’ve already walked (some or all of) Camino can comment and remind me if I’ve missed something. Please do!

For those of you yet to walk, let me know if you have questions 🙂

Navarette

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16th Century Church of the Assumption (heavily covered in gold on the inside)

I was delighted to secure a bed in the main hostel in Navarette. Brierley’s guide-book tells me that it sleeps 40 people, and I was assigned a bed in the attic. I carried my dusty, sweaty self up the steep stairs, with details of my bed number in my hand. The dorm was a mixture of single beds, bunk beds, and mats on the floor. I didn’t know what had been assigned to me but I made my way around the room, scanning the numbers on the bedposts as I went.

I found my bed tucked against the back wall of the room and thankfully, it was a bottom bunk.

Hurrah!

Bottom bunks are a blessing for sore feet.

The only snag was this: Someone had already taken my bed and laid their things all over it.

Not this again!

After my experience of pinching beds in Puente la Reina, I had mellowed a bit. Back then, someone had stolen my bed and tried to play innocent. I sent him packing, without feeling even the smallest bit of apology. He’d found a bed somewhere else in the hostel and I reclaimed that which was “mine”. Admittedly, it was awkward to bump into him around the albergue that evening, the next morning, and on the trail the next day. I bumped into him several times over the following 1-2 days. Though we were surrounded by countless new faces, he and I had a history and there was no easy escape from it. We were definitely not friends.

In the intervening days, I’d had a chance to reflect on my behaviour and I thought: maybe I shouldn’t have kicked him out so quickly. Maybe I should have shown some patience and care to this elderly man – this was the Camino, after all. Maybe I could have expressed more tolerance? And anyway, it’s not like I really owned the bed back in the hostel – I was lucky to have loan of it for the night. Maybe I should have been the one to go looking for another place to sleep?

I bumbled along the trail every day, and I reflected on such things.

By the time I arrived in Navarette and discovered someone had taken my bed, I felt more Zen.

I thought: No worries, I’ll just pick some other bed!

Before I had time to turn around, the woman from reception was right beside me. She’d come to see how many free beds were left in the room and took stock of everyone in it. In an instant, she realised my predicament:

I still wore my backpack but there were belongings all over “my bed”.

Clearly, someone had taken my spot.

She seemed to be more upset by the mix-up than I was, and instantly wanted to know what was going on.

Of a sudden, 4 women jumped up from a bed in the corner and started speaking loudly and quickly. They wore lots of Lycra and discussed distances covered. They’d been looking at photos on an iPad and uploading them to Facebook…

Ah, you again.

She had arrived with her 3 friends and laid claim to the best beds in the room. They had all chosen lower bunks against the wall, and had marked their territory clearly. My appearance seemed to complicate things, especially because the staff seemed to be on “my side” and demanded to know why someone was on my bed.

If ever there was a moment on Camino when I could say “All hell broke loose” – this was it!

The women argued loudly that they had arrived first and were entitled to choose whatever beds they liked. Our hospitaleria (volunteering staff member) argued that everyone had been assigned a certain bed number, and that no one got to choose their bed. She demanded that they move their belongings and take the beds they’d been assigned. The women shouted at the injustice of the situation; the hospitalerio shouted back.

I stood in the middle of all the shouting, feeling amused and self-conscious.  Personally, I didn’t actually care what bed I slept in. Sure, a bottom bunk beside the wall was a dream situation, but I’d have happily taken whatever was going. After all, the place slept only 40 people and I was one of them – I was lucky to be there at all.

Everyone else in the room looked on at the argument in silence. Whether they’d been sleeping or unpacking their gear, everyone stopped to watch the spectacle. We witnessed a clash between (what I call) “Old Camino” and “New Camino”.

“Old Camino” consists of those who understand that a bed is not a guaranteed thing, so they accept whatever kindness is offered – gladly and humbly. They walk for the journey, and don’t count miles or kilometres as badges of honour. They allow the unexpected to unfold.

“New Camino” consists of hikers, backpackers, and  holiday-makers, who walk for the physical challenge or adventure. They might even walk it because they want to “Do the Camino” and cross it off the Bucket List. They expect Camino to be like every other holiday – one where reservations are made and kept – otherwise someone is compensated.

These are not official names and I agree, they are unforgiving generalisations.

But you get the idea: the Camino has become fashionable and very popular in recent years. It attracts a new crowd and not all of them treat it with the same expectation or attitude. Rightly or wrongly, people have different agendas.

That evening in Navarette, we witnessed the uncomfortable clash of such differences.

In the end, the hospitaleria “won” and I got my bed back.

Gracias!

I shrugged my shoulders and smiled at the 4 women in an effort to say: I have nothing against you, this is just how things have turned out.

Only one of them smiled back. The others scowled and broke eye contact, and returned to their Facebook page.

Ouch.

Later that day, I happily bumped into Kevin and Liz again and feasted on some of the most delicious tapas of my whole Camino. They’d discovered the best eatery in town (this was to become a pattern) and I found them tucked inside, making friends with the whole place and drinking generous glasses of vino tinto.

I lit candles in the church, chatted with (some of) my roommates, and fell into a deep and grateful sleep. My new shoes had carried me many miles, I’d secured a good bed, and had a belly full of great food.

What more could you ask for?

 

Camino Challenge: No Beds (again)

Arriving into town and learning there were no available beds, was disheartening.

At the end of a long, sweaty, dusty day of great physical exertion, it was particularly gutting.

If, like me, you’d plan to spend the night in such a town, then the news is rather problematic.

Finding a bed doesn’t just mean having somewhere to sleep that night. Finding a bed also means:

  • You can have a shower, at last!
  • There’s somewhere you can wash and dry your laundry
  • You may have wi-fi contact or phone coverage – and let your loved ones know that you’re still alive
  • You can settle somewhere for your evening meal and a beer
  • You can relax into conversation and friendship
  • Your day’s effort is done. There is nothing to do but rest.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

In everyday life, it is the equivalent of going home after a long day. Except, I was a long way from home. Life on Camino is transient and temporary, and not having a place of rest was the closest I’ve known to being homeless.

Not so much fun.

Arriving into Los Arcos only to learn that there were no available beds, was terribly disappointing. Priority 1 was to find a bed. Everything else came after that. The shower, the laundry, the dinner and drinks, were all delayed. There would be no resting until I’d secured a place to sleep.

I was just over a week into walking Camino and this was the second evening I’d arrived too late for a bed. In case you missed it, I wrote about my first experience of it here: A Day of Ups and Downs.

Certainly, the volume of people walking Camino in the past few years has sky-rocketed. I read somewhere recently that a few years ago there were 35,000 – 45,000 people walking the route each year.

In 2013, those numbers had risen to over 200,000.

Of course, that kind of increase puts pressure on everything – accommodation, water supply, waste disposal, cafés – you name it. I didn’t take it personally that I was left without a bed. If those numbers are true then it’s likely on a given day that someone gets stuck for a place to sleep – why shouldn’t it be me?

Still, getting stuck for a place to sleep (twice) coincided with pushing my body extra hard, on days that were very hot. I did wonder if there was a correlation there, and maybe something to be learned from it all.

The four of us went from hostel to hostel across Los Arcos and everywhere the message was the same:

No room at the inn.

At the last hostel, the staff confirmed that not only were all the beds taken, but every inch of floor space was full too. There wasn’t enough room to take in a stray cat.

Before I’d even had time to think: “What now?” my fellow-pilgrim from Australia said one word:

Taxi.

There wasn’t even a moment of hesitation. She said it with absolute confidence and conviction. She spoke it clearly and immediately. She had created a plan. She spoke for all of us.

Ordering a taxi was entirely practical:

We had to get a bed

We had to go to another town

There was no way we were able to walk it

 

I wouldn’t have thought of it, and I was thrilled that she did.

Quick as a flash, the hostel-owner jumped into her mini-van parked outside the front door, and ushered us in. We had no idea where she planned to bring us, but we also didn’t really care. I trusted her local expertise and knowledge, and felt confident that she’d help us figure out a place to stay. Plus, I felt relieved that I could hand over this task to someone more knowledgeable than me.

Complete surrender.

I was thankful too that we were in a group. Not only did it equate to a cheaper taxi fare for each of us, but it meant that she would take our request seriously. It can be easy to turn away one solitary pilgrim. It’s harder to ignore a group of them.

Just as it is in life, there is strength in numbers.

After a few minutes of driving, she stopped at the first albergue and found it was full.

She stopped at the second and found they had space. Yay.

Until the guy stamped my Pilgrim Passport, I didn’t know where we were. It tells me that I was in Torres del Rio, some 8km outside Los Arcos. Those were 8km I didn’t walk, and would have to decide on the next morning.

Our albergue held a bar and restaurant on the ground floor, with bedding and bathrooms upstairs. They even had a swimming pool! The bar was loud with metal and punk music, with medieval-looking armour and crossbows on the walls. The courtyard in front was full of people drinking beer in the cool evening shade. They didn’t wear quick-drying sports gear or zip-off hiking pants, but instead, were covered in black clothes, with lots of tattoos and chains.

My guess? They weren’t pilgrims 🙂

How great we were getting to “mix with the locals” a bit!

And like an old woman, I found myself thinking: I hope they’re not going to stay out here all night making noise!

That evening, I filled my belly with paella, delighted to take a break from baguette. I felt profoundly grateful for my bed. I shared an open dorm with the 3 women, in a room with low ceilings, exposed wooden beams, and very few bunks. I slept like a rock, and when I woke the next morning, I hadn’t changed position at all. I’d heard snoring and people going to the bathroom but I had been so tired, I hadn’t stirred an inch.

But here’s a thing:

The hostel was privately owned, and they told us that some of the beds in the dorm were reserved. When we arrived at 6pm there was no sign of our roommates but we presumed they’d show up later. By 9pm the beds were still empty. Given that the hostels had a “lights out” rule for 10pm, these pilgrims were cutting it fine.

When we awoke the next morning, we discovered the beds were still empty. They had never been slept in at all.

6 pilgrims had reserved beds in a private hostel and for whatever reason, didn’t show up.

By the time the staff realised this, it was too late in the day to accept replacement pilgrims.

I wondered:

How many people like us, had arrived in Los Arcos to find there were no available beds?

How many of them took a taxi – alone or in groups – to Torres del Rio and were told that there were no beds there either?

And how many of them would ever guess that upstairs there were 6 available beds, with clean sheets, lying empty all night?

How many of them had to travel further, when what they needed was available right in front of our eyes?

Yes, 200,000 people on Camino puts pressure on services. But making private reservations and not keeping them has an impact too. I’m pretty sure there were pilgrims who could have used those beds that night but were never given a look-in.

It was a sort of Camino Capitalism.

Not cool.