Camino Challenge: Preparing for Camino de Santiago

Before I walked the 500-mile Camino Francés, my good friend Jen told me “You can’t prepare for camino”. In essence, I think she was telling me that so much happens on camino (internally and externally) that you can’t possibly prepare for it all. At the time, however, I took her words a bit more literally. I planned my trip in just 4-5 weeks, so it suited me to hear that I couldn’t prepare because I didn’t have time to!

I didn’t do much preparation for my camino. There are pluses and minuses to that but given the circumstances in which I decided to walk, I couldn’t have planned it any better. And I wouldn’t have had the transformative experience I did have, if I’d plotted it all in advance.

But I learned that there *are* some things you can do to make things easier. And honestly, walking 500 miles is often hard, so knowing how to make your life a bit easier can be the difference between being utterly miserable, or not.

So, in no particular order, here are some of my thoughts on how to prepare for camino. I wonder whether you’ll agree!

  • Take some time to reflect on why you want to walk.

Doing the camino” is really popular right now and many people treat it as something on a “bucket list” that needs to be checked off. Others treat it as a physical challenge like a triathlon or marathon. Rightly or wrongly, this attitude creates a whole load of competitive thinking as people race to walk more quickly, or farther, than the people beside them. Take some time to reflect on why you’re there, or what you’d like to get from the experience – it will help you focus your attentions on your needs and your experience, and buffer you from some of the “group-think”.

  • Learn how to take care of your feet.

Really. Walking long distances every day cause the feet to swell by a shoe size or more. Go up a size when you buy your footwear. And know that one size up may not be enough – so be prepared to buy new shoes along the way if you need to.

You also need to know that two things cause blisters: moisture and friction. Do everything you can to minimise both of these things and you increase your odds of being blister-free. For the worst-case scenario, learn how to treat blisters so they don’t get infected. Blisters are not your friend so don’t invite them in the first place and don’t let them hang around!

On a related note, I didn’t realise until afterwards that carrying a backpack affects your posture. Walking long distances affects your energy levels. Bad posture and tiredness affect how you walk and how much pressure is on your feet. Tendons and ligaments get strained and swollen. Learn how to take care of your feet with ice packs, taping, massage, etc. *My* knowledge in this area was rudimentary. Next time, I’ll do my research in advance!

  • Research the weather forecast for your planned route and season – it dictates your packing list.

I say this because *I* live on a coast where wind and rain are a year-round reality. When *I* go hiking and camping, I need waterproof and windproof gear. All of my previous training in hiking and backpacking told me to bring thick wool socks, boots, a raincoat, and rain pants. However, the Spanish weather forecast told me that the route had been rain-free for weeks, so I knew the ground would be hard and dry underfoot. This meant lighter footwear, lighter socks, and less clothing.

Research the weather forecast for the time you intend to walk and for the weeks beforehand. Knowing how wet/dry it’s been can help you plan your gear.

  • Bring less “stuff” and bring more money.

“Stuff” will literally weigh you down but extra cash allows you to avail of an unscheduled dental visit, a private room when the hostel is full, or a new poncho in the unexpected thunder storm. Plus, carrying cash and cards is lighter than carrying gear!

  • The lighter your pack, the better.

Really. Lots of people obsess about the weight of their packed bag – and rightly so. I carried too much water and my pack often weighed 10kg, which was far too heavy for long distance. Choose lightweight gear, bring the bare minimum, and don’t get talked into carrying 4 litres of water, like I did!

  • Get active.

For most people, this means doing training hikes for weeks in advance but it’s not the only way to prepare the body. Unless you already walk 25km every day, you can’t prepare your body for walking 25km every day. But training hikes do help and being active in other ways still helps build physical strength – so get off the couch and get moving.

  • Learn some Spanish.

Anyone can learn 5-10 key phrases and it’s a small mark of respect to at least start a conversation in Spanish. It’s not rocket science. Don’t be the ass who insists on speaking English all the time: learn some Spanish (with a smile) and you’ll find transactions easier.

  • Learn some stretches.

This one was a massive benefit to me. I stretched at every rest stop and every evening when I finished walking. I imagine some people thought I did it to look sporty but I didn’t care: stretching stopped me from seizing up and getting injured. I did every yoga pose and physiotherapy pose I could think of – hamstrings, calf muscles, shoulders, and hips. Highly recommended.

  • Don’t compare yourself to others.

The camino is all sorts of things all at once but it’s not always what you expect, want, or were told it would be. There were times I walked a happy 6km per hour and times I walked a depressed 2km per hour. Both times, I did my best. My “best” was something that changed every day.

I compared myself to others and berated myself for being slow, sore, and emotionally overwhelmed.

Turns out, lots of other people were slow, sore, and emotionally overwhelmed, too – go figure!

It’s easy to find people who are having more fun, who are more fit, or who have more money for pampering treats. There is always someone faster and there is always someone slower – literally, as well as figuratively. Comparing yourself to others is a lose-lose situation – one that’s best avoided.

Next time I walk, I want to get my footwear and foot care sorted in advance. I should have worn my customized insoles and spared myself the agonizing tendonitis and swollen ligaments. Next time, getting that stuff organized in advance is number one on my list of preparations (ideally with a foot specialist who understands long distance hiking or running).

After that, I’d plan my rest days in advance and book private rooms with crisp, clean sheets and luxurious hot baths. I didn’t do that enough last time round…I know better for next time!

But what about you? How did you prepare for camino or how would you prepare? What points would you add? What points do you disagree with? And do you think it’s possible to prepare at all?

Camino Challenge: Great…but tough…

I knew different people over the years who had walked camino – whether for one week or for eight weeks, and they all said the same thing:

It’s great…but tough.”

I could imagine why it was great – all that open space, the joy of walking cross-country every day, the delicious wine and warm sunshine – it sounded idyllic. It sounded like a leisurely walking holiday with lots of new, interesting friends.

But I didn’t really understand why it was tough. Sure, walking long distances every day can’t be easy but why was it so back-breaking? I just didn’t get it.

When *I* came home from Spain, everyone asked me:

How was it?

And I found myself replying in exactly the same way:

Great…but tough.

It’s a lame reply. It gives very little detail. But most of the time, when people ask the question they don’t really want a detailed answer. They want the stories about cheap wine and balmy sunshine. They want to be told about how easy it is to make new friends. They want to be told that walking camino is great. So, we never really get to the nub of what makes it tough.

Months later, after lots of reflection and mental sorting, I’m able to articulate my own experience with a bit more detail. Here’s what made it tough for me:

  1. Everything was accumulative.

Walking 20-30km on a given day was surprisingly okay. Walking 20-30km *every* day – over six consecutive weeks – was fricking hard.

Day 1: I’m walking – I’ve started – how awesome!

Day 6: I’m walking – yay (I’m still a bit sore from the Pyrenees)

Day 11: Finding my groove – aw yeah!

Day 18: I’m still walking – strong, even if I feel a bit tired

Day 23: I’m still walking. Wow. I’m a machine…and how much is left?

Day 29: Really? I’m still walking? Feels like I’ve been out here for months.

Day 34: Oh my God I am *so tired* of walking.

Day 40-something: Whatever. I’m ready to be in Santiago already. I’m ready to go home.

For me, the pain in my body was accumulative. That meant pain in my feet, pain in my hips, pain in my shoulders and neck. I didn’t give myself the time to heal properly, get massages, or even rest for a few days at a time. My body put up with the abuse but it wasn’t without complaint. The longer I walked, the more the exhaustion, aches, and inflammation all added up. And still, I had hundreds more miles to walk if I wanted to get to Santiago.

*That* was tough.

  1. Being surrounded by people all the time was over-stimulating.

I say this knowing it won’t apply to everyone because I’m more introverted than extroverted. I was delighted to make new friends so easily but I needed lots of alone time to recharge my batteries. Alone time wasn’t always easy to come by.

The bedrooms in the hostels were noisy. The bathrooms were full. The coffee shops and restaurants had crowds, or queues, or both. Ironically, the churches were quiet but unsurprisingly, they were often closed.

The only way I could get alone time was to spend hours walking by myself every day. I did it gladly. I did it because I needed it. Without it, I easily got over-stimulated, overwhelmed, and over emotional.

But even out on the trail, there were groups of pilgrims in front of me and behind me. Most of the time, I looked up from the gravel and could see at least one person ahead with a backpack and walking sticks. It was a comfort in some ways but it meant I was never really alone, even when I wanted it.

And I found *that* tough going. It was over-stimulating and demanding.

As a consequence, I found the daily race for beds was tough, too. At one point, two pilgrims ran ahead of me on the trail to get to the hostel first and secure whatever beds were left. At the time, I was somewhere between horrified and mildly amused. Now, I just think their actions represented a side of camino that really caught me by surprise.

When the competition for beds is with some nameless, faceless pilgrim who hasn’t arrived yet, that race is kind of abstract and easy to rationalize. There’s a certain “me verses them” mentality and with so many hundreds of people on the move, it’s not personal. In this scenario though, I had met these two pilgrims before. We had shared food and laughter, and we exchanged warm conversation on the trail. When they chose to run ahead, they weren’t just running to beat some nameless, faceless pilgrim – they were running to get ahead of me. 

As an isolated incident it wasn’t that tough. But walking all those miles every day, and trying to arrive somewhere by lunchtime before the beds fill up…only to have people run ahead of me on the trail? Well, as a daily, emotional undercurrent was tough. It wasn’t at all what I expected.

Of course, the flip side is probably also difficult. I imagine that extroverts who walk during a quieter time of the year find it tough to walk camino with so few people around. I’ve read accounts of empty hostels, closed-down coffee shops, and hours of walking without even seeing another human. For an extrovert who wants company and chat, I imagine that’s tough. It’s probably quite lonely and isolating. It’s probably every bit as tough as my experience of being over-stimulated…just for the opposite reasons.

  1. It’s not really a holiday.

Walking for a week at a time and staying in pre-booked private accommodation is probably quite leisurely. Your body has opportunity to get proper sleep and the occasional hot bath. And before you know it, you’re back home in your own bed and booked in for a massage to pacify the gentle ache. Going for a week at a time is a walking holiday, I think.

Walking 500 miles of camino all in one go was not a holiday. It was a break from normal life and a gift of time, certainly….but not a holiday. At least, not in the traditional sense.

The hostels allow pilgrims to stay only one night. Plus, they kick you out between 6-8am. That means no leisurely lie-ins. It means getting up in the dark and leaving without breakfast. It becomes a norm and it becomes surprisingly routine but there isn’t much pampering.

Sharing a bathroom with 20 strangers is intimate and noisy. Shower curtains may not fit properly. The floor is covered in water from the previous 18 people who showered before you. There are no fluffy towels.

When people talk about strapping on a backpack every morning, they don’t really mean that they’re out for a gentle ramble for 2-3 hours. They mean that they’re walking anywhere between 3-10 hours, even if they have infected blisters, sprained ligaments, and sore shoulders. They walk in the scorching sun. They walk in relentless rain. It’s not always leisurely: sometimes it’s plain grueling.

When people talk about drinking €1 glasses of red wine and eating tapas, they’re not necessarily talking about appetizing, savory delights. Sometimes, the “tapas” were just slabs of Spanish omelette and greasy bowls of olives. Nothing wrong with that, but too many slices of omelette have swarms of flies buzzing around them while they sit on a counter, going stale in the midday sun.

Eewww!

Walking camino was great but it wasn’t a leisurely stroll. Some days, it didn’t match up to the accounts I’d heard, or read on someone else’s blog. The marketing and the reality didn’t always align.

I found *that* tough, too.

 

There’s a lot of swooning about camino and in all the hype, it’s easy to think that it’s great fun and profoundly rewarding. I’ve noticed it’s easy to talk about all the great things but it’s not so easy to talk about the tough parts. To do so, means admitting we were lonely or short-tempered or afraid. To do so is perceived as negative and pessimistic, and who wants to be accused of that?

It’s easier to tell everyone about the cheap wine and the great people, and give a glossed-over account. It’s much easier to proclaim our physical greatness and say it was “challenging”, just like people talk about triathlons and marathons.

The reality, whether we ever articulate it, is more complex.

But there was greatness too.

Oddly, the things that I found tough about my camino were also closely tied to the things that were great about camino. The aches and exhaustion were accumulative, but so was the sense of achievement with passing through every small town and village. The longer I walked, the closer I got to Santiago. That achievement made the aches and pains (somewhat…ha ha!) more bearable.

And even though I found the crowds intolerable at times, to have walked it all alone would have been lonely. I made great connections along the way, shared picnics and laughter with people from all over the world, and have had the joy of meeting up with some of those friends since then. We have a shared experience and shared memories of the road. And I have to say, when I finally arrived in Santiago, being able to share the occasion with close friends was one of the sweetest moments of my journey. I may be a happy introvert but even I understand that having good people in life makes it all sweeter.

Camino *is* great…but tough…but great…and tough…

Camino Kindness

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Just look at those smiles! Wouldn’t these two chaps lighten anyone’s day?

When I bumped into Fred and Dennis in Grañón, we happily sat out in the sunny grass in front of the hostel, catching up with mutual friends. Our day’s walking was done so all that was left to do was rest, chat, and enjoy the time. Looking at the photo now, I feel a warm softness for the rustic simplicity of camino life and the sunny blue sky. It may be tough walking but it is an everyday charm, too. Looking at the photo tempts me to go back for more.

By the time we met in Grañón, Dennis (on the right) was suffering several nasty blisters which covered the soles of his feet, but you’d never guess it by the grin on his face! I still don’t know how he managed to walk so many miles while feeling such pain, and have such fun along the way. I guess the occasional cervezas helped 🙂

Fred (on the left) saved me from a wardrobe malfunction by kindly gifting me with new t-shirt when I was stuck. That small kindness probably meant nothing to him but it resonated through the remainder of my camino. I wore his t-shirt for the remaining 600km or so, and was thrilled to have it. Anyone who says chivalry is dead just hasn’t met Fred!

On camino, I was blessed with generous kindness and care every single day, from fellow-pilgrims, business people, and locals on the street. They offered their support with open hearts and tremendous goodness. They made it all bearable. They made it all sing!

So here’s a toast to Fred and Dennis, for bringing warmth and generous laughter to my days on the trail.

And a toast to all the rest – most of whom I don’t even know by name – who made it a journey of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

Pinching Beds in Puente la Reina

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Only 696.7km to Santiago!

Brierley’s guidebook tells me that Puente la Reina (the Queen’s Bridge) is named after Doña Mayor, wife of Sancho the 3rd. “She commanded the magnificent Romanesque bridge to be built to support the safe movement of the increasing number of midieval pilgrims who joined the route at this stage from both the camino francés and camino aragonés.” I have no head for remembering the dates and details of history, but I’m surprisingly tender about the building of the bridge – she built it for pilgrims hundreds of years ago and there I was, getting to use it hundreds of years later. Cheers, Doña Mayor!

I had to cross this bridge to get to my albergue on the far side of town. Descending from Alto del Perdón, I’d walked with Kevin and Liz for a few hours, discussing the problem of exploding water melons in China, but we had parted ways en route. By the time I got into town, I’d spent the last hour getting wet in the rain, and feeling the cold water drip from my raincoat down my shorts, my bare legs, my socks and hiking sandals.

I needed to find somewhere to stay and change into my long (and thankfully, dry) hiking pants, but learned that the first hostel I approached was already full.

So was the second one.

I worried about getting stranded again and especially in the cold rain – I didn’t have the option of sleeping outdoors. People talked about a third hostel on the far side of town. It was an extra 1.1km and dozens of us stepped through the narrow cobblestone streets to find our way. The rain was truly bucketing down on us by then, with flashes of lightning across the sky. Wherever we were going, we needed to get there quickly and hope for the best.

The albergue holds up to 100 people and it was spacious and modern.  It even had an outdoor swimming pool, though it wasn’t at all tempting in the middle of a lightening storm. The design of the building (with plastic door handles and indoor picnic tables) reminded me of public swimming pools and large-scale youth hostels – it was built to ‘get us in, get us a bed, and get us out again’ with swift efficiency. The place had no soul. It did, however, have available beds and a roof, so I was guaranteed a dry place to sleep for the night.

Hurrah!

I picked my bed in the corner (lower bunk, nice) and laid my sleeping gear out on the bed, put my water bottle down by the side, and left some small belongings on the pillow to mark the space as mine. I didn’t wanted to leave out anything that might be stolen, but I needed to mark my territory (so to speak). Bottom bunk beds are in high demand among people with very sore feet, and this bottom bunk was clearly taken.

The guy in the bunk above me must have been nearly 7 feet tall – a Swede, I think – and liked to narrate his movements.

Now we take this out of the bag and put it here…

Oh and that must go over there..

And we fold that up and put it like this for later…

On and on, for twenty minutes, he narrated his every move.

The guy seemed harmless enough but he challenged me about stretching my hamstrings. He proudly declared that he never did any stretches and he was fine.

Did I ask for your commentary? Did I ask for your judgement? No, I don’t think I did.

But clearly, I was a wuss.

He hung his wet rain pants from the frame of his (upper) bunk bed. In a room with 20 other people it wasn’t the smartest move – we all had wet clothes and the collective dripping meant the floor was already slippery and wet. But he had failed to notice that his pants weren’t dripping down on to the floor – they were dripping directly onto my mattress. I was only a few days into the whole Camino but already I’d become a bit tetchy about my bed space. God knows, it was hard enough to come by. It was a small token of personal space in a chaotic stream of people, and I felt a bit sensitive about protecting that small boundary line between me and the hundreds around me.

A few mornings previously in Zabaldika, I’d been awoken by some woman actually sitting on my legs, while I was still in bed, fast asleep! She’d been trying to put on her pants and decided to do so sitting down. My bed was the closest thing to sit on so she used me as her stool. She didn’t even aim for the corner or the end of the mattress – she plonked herself right in the middle, squashing my legs, and woke me with an almighty start and a growl. I bolted upright, she lost her balance, and she fell all over me, while I struggled to figure out what was happening. Whatever about being woken by LED torches, chatter, and the zipping backpacks, this was a new low. Handsome Husband will tell you I’m not a morning person, and this woman did herself no favours by waking me up so suddenly. She limply apologised but I was furious at being awoken in such a careless way – no wonder I needed a private room in Pamplona!

So, I was a bit tetchy about bed space, and I didn’t appreciate the Swede’s lack of attention with his rain pants. I took the liberty of readjusting them, and went about my business,  having a shower and finding some dinner. I didn’t want the confrontation and instead, decided to walk away.

An hour later, I returned to my room only to find some old guy sitting on my bed. I’m guessing he was in his 70s, brown as a nut, and bald as an egg. The shape of his veins and muscles was clearly visible, and he looked like he was all sinew and gristle. He was wet, sitting there in his green shorts and t-shirt, dripping water onto my bed, as he pulled the dead skin from his feet and popped his fluid-filled blisters. He smelled of rancid sweat – at least a few days’ worth – and of unwashed clothes. The wet boots and socks were strewn on the floor beside him, and his water bottle, sleeping bag, and clothing were spread across the mattress behind him.

<This blog is going to a public audience and I don’t want to upset anyone so you can insert your own expletive here!>

My sleeping gear was nowhere in sight. My water bottle was gone. My belongings that had laced the pillow only an hour earlier, were gone.

This guy had taken my bed.

I didn’t hesitate in confronting him.

This is my bed. What are you doing here, where is my stuff?

He looked at me blankly. He spoke no English and hadn’t a clue what I was saying. I didn’t have enough Spanish and didn’t care about his blank gaze. I was livid. The cheek of him, stealing my bed!

Again I challenged him: What are you doing? This is my bed! Where is my sleeping gear? Where are my things? This is my bed!

Goddammit but I walked more than 25km for that bed – some of it in the rain. It was mine – I’d earned it fair and square, and I wasn’t giving it up for anyone.

Christian generosity, indeed!

He continued to feign ignorance, but I found my belongings thrown to the side and gestured that they had actually been on the bed to begin with. I could see the understanding sweep across his face.

Ah, those are her things.

So this must be her bed.

She knows that I moved her things.

She knows I took her bed.

Okay, I’ll move.

He took his time as he reluctantly packed up his bits, and gave me a few dirty looks in the process. He didn’t appreciate a witch like myself hunting him out. I’d never heard of anyone on Camino stealing someone else’s bed, and I wasn’t going to let him start a tradition with me.

Take my bed? This means war.

I can put up with a lot of things but I won’t put up with this. I’m a big fan of watching out for fellow pilgrims but sorry, this is a step too far. This time, I’m watching out for myself.

The Camino is a great opportunity for human connection and humble gratitude, sure.

In my case, it was also a great opportunity to get tough!