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 Carrión 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.

img_1002

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 café 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:

img_1004

When I arrived in Carrión 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!

 

 

 

 

The Secret to Happiness

I don’t know if people say this very often but here, let me say it:

Walking the Camino de Santiago wasn’t always a barrel of laughs.

A lot of the time, it felt like a tough grind from one dusty day to the next. Am I a bad sport for saying that? I don’t know. I walked and walked and walked, and I wasn’t always sure that there was a point to my efforts. My body hurt in a gazillion different places and I was upset by the competitive race for everything….beds, wi-fi, even a free spot on a clothesline. Maybe I was ‘doing it‘ wrong but I found it immensely physical to walk 500 miles in less than six weeks. I found it emotionally taxing, too. I met pilgrims who swooned about feeling immense joy. Often, I felt I couldn’t relate to their fervent excitement.

But the day I walked from San Bol to Boadilla del Camino (I know, I know, quit talking about this one day already!) I had real, emotional breakthroughs. Yes, I learned to follow my own impulse instead of following anyone else’s pace. And yes, I learned that my social circle needed some heavy pruning. But I also learned something I had forgotten: I learned the secret to happiness.

At this stage in the journey, I’d already been walking for about three weeks. That was long enough to have experienced some rain, some frustration, and lots of tears. It was also long enough to have experienced some solid connection and tender kindness. Walking through the Meseta gave me a chance to put these things in some sort of order. I think the flat, open landscape was so under-stimulating that my mind had a chance to do some internal processing. As I walked, I found myself giving thanks for…well, everything.

I gave thanks for the new, lightweight shoes that were just *so* comfortable compared to my hiking sandals.

And I gave thanks for the fact that I didn’t have any blisters.

I gave thanks for the Factor 50 sunscreen that was protecting my skin from going lobster red.

And I gave thanks for my healthy body that somehow carried me from place to place.

Hour after hour, I ran through lists of things for which I was thankful. I gave thanks for everything I could think of, from my sunglasses to my healthy knees. I gave thanks for every hot shower along the way. I gave thanks for all the coffee, all the clean bedding, all the yellow arrows that pointed me in the right direction. I gave thanks for having the health and finances and impulse to go walk camino. Millions of people would never know that triage of good luck in their life: I was very blessed to have it in mine.

By now you’re thinking: What, that’s it? That’s your big, ‘A-Ha’ lesson? And I bet you’re thinking you’ve heard this kind of thing before. You’ve read this kind of thing before. Blah blah blah.

Right?

If you’re like me, you breeze through your day with a certain confidence about things going a certain way. There’s food in the cupboard. There’s hot water in the shower. There are clean clothes in the closet. Me? I don’t think to give thanks for these things every day, I just assume (and expect) them to be there. They are the baseline, the starting point to my day. I take them for granted.

But on camino, I didn’t have my own cupboards so I didn’t know when, or what I would eat. Similarly, I didn’t know if I’d ever have a hot shower. After all, when sharing a hostel with dozens of other people, there was always the possibility that the hot water would run out just before my turn. On camino, I couldn’t assume anything. I didn’t book my accommodation in advance so from one day to the next, I never knew where I would sleep. Other people were stressed by my lack of planning but I did it by choice: it kept me from getting complacent. And I was grateful for every single bed, regardless of its state.

I had six weeks in my own company so I noticed certain trends. There were days when I gave thanks throughout the day, dozens, if not hundreds of times. Those days were light and full of serendipity. Other days, I felt burdened by all the aches and pains. I felt burdened by disappointments. I didn’t give thanks for much and consequently, felt beaten down by both the camino and by life.

There’s a connection there. It sounds trite but really, giving thanks and literally counting my blessings made me a happier person. I felt light. I felt capable. I felt confident and playful and free.

It really was that simple. The secret to happiness? Give thanks for what you’ve got.

I say all of this because it’s relevant on two fronts:

  1. Giving thanks was a potent experience for me on camino and in my everyday life since then. Quite literally, it transforms the seemingly banal hum drum into something exquisite and profound. I can always use more of that 🙂
  2. When I left the albergue in Boadilla del Camino, I sought out the owner to say thanks to him in person. You’ll remember that he took me in even though he had no room and later, found a bed for me. He cooked a superb meal the evening before for everyone in the village…not just the pilgrims in his own hostel but the other ones too. He was the personification of a generous host. I was full of sincere and heartfelt thanks, and I wanted to say it to him before I walked off into the 6am light. The hostel was full of people putting on their boots and zipping up their packs for the day ahead. I found him in kitchen, already preparing for the day ahead. In my rudimentary Spanish I thanked him for being *such* a nice guy and for being so kind to me. And you know what he said? Of the 70 people who’d eaten his meal the previous evening, none of them had said thanks. And of all the pilgrims who’d slept on beds, sofas, and the floor, none of them had said thanks either. That morning, I was the only one who sought him out. We stood there, thanking each other.

I was glad I’d made the effort to reach out and say a nice word. But I was disappointed and saddened too. So many of my fellow pilgrims barreled through camino with a sense of entitlement. They assumed that the dinner would appear just because they were paying for it. They didn’t think of the people who spent the day planning and cooking it for them. They didn’t think to say thanks. Worryingly, they didn’t think they had to.

Walking to Santiago isn’t just about the cheap wine or the interesting people from all over the world. It isn’t life-changing if you spend your days racing for beds and being a dick to the hostel owners along the way. Everyone wants the adventure and the glory. Everyone wants the ‘A-Ha’ experience but to get it, we have to exercise a bit of kindness. Humility. Gratitude. Decency. They’re simple concepts but not always easy to put in practice. But when we do? Wow, what happiness awaits. So today, give thanks. Count your blessings. And tell someone just how much you appreciate something they’ve said/done that made your life easier. *This* is what camino is all about.

 

 

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago: A Turning Point

When I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage route in Spain, I knew I’d have time to reflect. I knew I’d see my life differently. I knew the experience was going to change me. Six weeks of walking will do that to a person.

The evening I arrived into the small village of Boadilla del Camino, I had no idea that I was on the cusp of a major turning point, not just for camino but for my “real life” too.

Backtrack a bit: Lucy* (not her real name) and I had walked together earlier on the trail. She was a native English speaker, travelling alone, and she walked at the same pace as I. We fell into each other’s company easily and I enjoyed the chat. That is, until I didn’t. Over the space of a few days, I slowly realised that I didn’t want to spend so much time with her any more. Our values felt very different. Our intentions around the camino felt very different. I felt increasingly miserable in her company. I decided to continue on alone, so I bade her a Buen Camino and never expected to see her again. Sweet relief! Bumping into her in Boadilla del Camino was a surprise. Her excitement at seeing me was a surprise, too.

From the minute she spotted me, she stuck to my elbow for the next couple of hours.

I went to find somewhere to stay, she followed.

I went to light a candle in the church, she followed.

I went to hang laundry on the line, she followed.

All the while yapping about herself, and her trials and tribulations over the intervening week.

Nothing wrong with that, you say.

For two hours, I nodded, I oohed and ahead, and felt my initial interest drain away from me like blood. Truth is, I was dog tired that evening, and being on the wrong end of a monologue sapped my remaining energy. I didn’t really care about the food she ate three villages back on the trail. I didn’t care about the amputee she’d met somewhere on the route. I didn’t even care about the conversation she had with the hairdresser when she decided to have her hair styled into a long-lasting blow dry.

I just wanted to chat with other pilgrims, eat some dinner, and get to sleep.

Lucy* wanted to monopolise my energy and my evening.

Countless times, I tried to steer the topic to me…just so we might have an actual conversation. Every time, she steered it back to her. Only once in the two hours did she ask:

So, how are you?

Well, since I saw you last I….

She cut across me and steered the chat back to her again.

Sigh.

We sat together over dinner and I watched her actively ignore the two German women sitting at our table, as she wanted to talk to me only. She couldn’t share the table with strangers. She couldn’t share general conversation. By the time we finished our evening meal, I was truly exhausted from five hours of being targeted. The next morning, I avoided her.

Over the next three days, I noticed myself getting angry every time I thought about Lucy*. I walked out of Boadilla del Camino with speed, determined to put some space between us but still, my mind kept tossing over the events of the evening.

Why am I so upset about this, I wondered. She’s gone, I may never see her again, why am I getting angry?

And then it hit me: I knew a whole list of people just like her in my real life at home.

Friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues…I knew too many people just like her. People who took advantage of my empathy, my listening skills, and time. People who, in theory, were contributing to a relationship but in reality, took my kindness for granted. For years, I had felt the imbalance of our conversations and time together but I gave everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Everyone was busy.

Everyone had stuff going in their life.

It was understandable that people neglected to ask me about myself, or listen when I offered to share. They just didn’t notice but next time we’d rectify that, right? For years, I had felt the hurt of being overlooked and unappreciated. I thought that if I invested more time in these relationships they’d balance out a bit.

I was wrong.

After spending the evening with Lucy*, I finally got some perspective on how these other relationships affected my life. I had felt hurt and lonely and ignored for too long. Spending more time with these people wasn’t the answer: I needed to spend *less* time with them.

Like everyone else, I too was busy. I too had stuff going on in my life. And I was as deserving of a listening ear and support as much as anyone. Relationships are supposed to go both ways. I decided to give less to the ones that were stuck at the end of a one-way street.

So, the friend who promised for three years that they’d call next time they were in town…but didn’t?

That’s okay. I’m not upset, just don’t expect me to keep initiating contact.

And the family member who expected me to visit them all the time?

Sorry, the road goes both ways. Next time it’s your turn to travel.

After the evening with Lucy*, I felt agitated and angry for three days until I realised that she was an echo of my real life at home. I could walk away from Lucy but I never realised that I could walk away from other defunct relationships, too. That surprise, unwelcome, and monopolizing encounter was a turning point: it gave me the strength to evaluate my relationships with less hurt and more pragmatism.

Does the person initiate contact with me? Yes/No

Does the person respond to me? Yes/No

Does the person take an active interest in me? Yes/No

Do I feel valued in this relationship? Yes/No

Do I see a future for this relationship? Yes/No

Do I want to keep this relationship? Yes? ? ?

No.

I never knew I could say that.

Friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues…all of these relationships changed after camino.

Thanks, Lucy* for driving me so crazy that I changed my life 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boadilla del Camino and the Hostel of Plenty

When I waved goodbye to Denis and Fred in Itero de la Vega, I didn’t realise that I wouldn’t see the pair of them again. Camino is like that: people come and go all the time and you never know if you’ll ever meet them again. The day would prove that in more ways than one.

I arrived in Boadilla del Camino at five in the evening, covered in sweat but energised from a day of fabulous walking. My guidebook informed me that there were 76 beds on offer between the various hostels. At that late hour in the day, would there be a bed for me? If not, I would have to walk another 6km to Frómista, knowing that to arrive after 6 in the evening would really limit my prospects.

On the door of the first hostel I saw the sign: they were full. Sitting out front, reading a book, I recognised Lucy* (not her real name) whom I’d walked with days earlier. She leapt excitedly from her chair to come greet me. With her arms waving and her hair flying, we were suddenly in a hug with squeals of surprise. She was clearly delighted.

But is it awful to admit that I wasn’t delighted…not even a little?

We had spent 2-3 days in close orbit further back on the trail but I had been happy to part ways when we did. I hadn’t expected to see her again so soon. Or at all. I especially didn’t expect to hear that she had taken a bus to bridge the 100km distance that would otherwise be between us.

Drat.

Oh, and she had found the time to go to a hairdressers along the way to get some sort of permanent blow dry in her hair. Apparently she was having trouble managing the frizz.

<Insert my withering (and yes, judgemental) smile here>

Considering I had abandoned my fashion sense *entirely* on camino, this news of hairdressers was stunning to me..literally. I was speechless, even though I admit her hair looked great.

Without haste, she informed me that every bed in the village had been taken hours earlier. While she sat reading a novel, I had walked a sweaty, speedy 6km per hour and totalled nearly 35km that day. The difference between us stung a little. She advised that I would need to get a taxi to Frómista, or maybe even the next village after that. There was simply nothing on offer here.

Still, I pottered up to the doors of En El Camino to see whether they could help and was happily surprised to bump into Barb and Dave, who welcomed me with warm smiles.

“It’s all booked up’, they confirmed, ‘but go inside anyway and ask”.

Within, I got chatting to Hugo who initially looked helpless when I asked for a bed. He stared down at the ledger in front of him and confirmed what everyone else had told me: they were all full up. Not only was every bed taken, but all their floor space in the sleeping areas was taken too. The armchairs were taken. The couches were taken. There was nowhere he could put me. He was very sorry.

But a little bit of magic caught us both by surprise:

I found myself saying, “Do you have anything at all? I’m only little and I’ll be very quiet!”

He laughed.

His eyes twinkled.

There was a moment of playful sparkle in the air…and he said to me:

“We will serve dinner in the dining room this evening but when it is over I can put a mat down on the floor for you. That’s the best I can do.”

HURRAH!

I thanked him profusely 🙂

I’m not usually a person who blags my way into VIP areas or asks for discounts on my bill. I’m generally uncomfortable with asking for special treatment but somehow it was easy that day. I was filled with contentment. I found fun in the asking.

I had walked my furthest and fastest. I had also walked with a heart full of gratitude and joy. Getting a mat on the floor meant I could rest for the evening. I had somewhere I could take a shower, wash my clothes, get some dinner. Even better, this was a hostel that had a grassy lawn out front where pilgrims sat in the sun, chatted, played guitar, and dipped their feet in the water fountain. It was like an advert for a holiday resort.

As dinner progressed, Hugo kept me updated on their ever-changing lodging details. He had found a floor space in one of the dorms so he would put a mat there instead of on the dining room floor.

Awesome! I wouldn’t have to wait for everyone to finish their post-dinner drinking before I could go to sleep.

Later again, he came to find me and share that a bed had become available. The pilgrim that had booked it never showed up. It was after 9pm and they were unlikely to show at that late hour.

“It’s on the top [of a bunk]”, he half apologised. “Is that okay?”

I was thrilled!

Every day on the trail, people around me talked nervously, excitedly, and authoritatively about the availability of beds. Everyone understood that hostels filled up by lunchtime or even earlier. It was nearly pointless to try finding a bed later in the day.

Yet, that’s exactly what I did. I had rocked into the village after 5pm and gone from having nowhere to sleep,

to a mat on the floor,

then a mat on a quieter, nicer floor,

to having an actual bed.

All this without reserving anything in advance, without perpetuating the fear that others felt, and without pushing my body to walk any less or more than it wanted to walk that day.

The goodness had fallen sweetly, gently into my lap.

When I fell into bed that night, I felt fit to burst. It wasn’t just from eating a feast of lentils and hake, it was from the joy of living a full and generous day.

They say, “The camino provides”. Indeed it does 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

My Best Day’s Walking: San Bol to Boadilla del Camino

Distance walked: 33.6km

Distance to Santiago: 440.8km

I loved this day. Somehow, it contained so much goodness that it became my best day’s walking on the Camino Francés. All this time later, I still think of it with great fondness. When the going gets tough, thinking back on this day fills me with strength. It was one of those days when pretty much everything went right and my body felt strong and able…a glorious synchronicity on my 500-mile journey.

My previous night in San Bol had been uneventful and restful. Once the generator had cut out, we had no choice but to go to bed at the unexpected hour of 8.30pm and I slept soundly under a mound of woollen blankets. I couldn’t have been happier!

The next morning, I left the hostel before 6am and headed west towards Hontanas, where I  hoped to find some hot coffee and breakfast. Out there in the middle of the meseta, there was no one on the trail ahead of me or behind me. The wheat fields had been cut so that only stubble remained in this completely flat landscape. I could see for miles around. The moon hung low in the sky ahead of me, in the west. The morning sun rose warmly behind me, in the east. For a time, they both sat in the indigo sky and I felt the magic of being right in the middle, walking ever closer to Santiago. The lights on top of windmills in the distance flickered on and off, a warning to low flying aircraft, and were the only movement on that otherwise still and quiet morning. I felt as though I had the world to myself.

IMG_0964

Early morning on the Meseta

In my “real life” I am not a morning person. I love lazy lie-ins. On camino, I was up before dawn quite a lot and those early hours became some of my favourite. I liked the quiet. I liked the changing light. I liked listening to the birds chirping and singing from their concealed perches. I felt altogether more wholesome and connected to the world when I was up early, walking, walking, warming up my body for the day ahead.

In Hontanas, I found a café with funky music and friendly staff, and I loaded up on hot coffee and carbs. I also spotted a swimming pool and for a moment, I stood at the chicken wire fence, gazing into the still blue water, so tempting, so clean.

If you can believe it, I debated on whether to bring my swimming togs with me on camino. In my real life, I swam 2-3 times a week and I knew I would miss it desperately while in Spain. I even researched some of the camino forums to find out whether there were swimming pools anywhere on camino but I struggled to find any real details. Anyway, the idea of packing my togs seemed ridiculous when the plan was to cross Spain by foot. I couldn’t justify carrying the weight of the togs (ahem!) when I’d surely get no use out of them…so I never packed them. That morning in Hontanas, I wished that I had!

IMG_0968

Doesn’t it look great?!

For those of you wondering about swimming pools on the camino route: I stayed in 2 places with swimming pools and passing the pool Hontanas was a third. So…I’ll know for next time! 😉

I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly made Hontanas seem so appealing that morning, but it had a definite vibe, even at 7am. My morning coffee stop was usually 15-20 minutes but in Hontanas I lingered for an hour. Whatever the reason, the little village felt cosmopolitan and hip, and somehow connected to the real world beyond camino. I was reluctant to leave.

But I did eventually leave and walked on to San Antón and its 15th century convent, and a hostel that was/is famous for pilgrims sharing an evening meal by candlelight. Rumour had it that an American doctor walked camino at the same time as I, but was followed by Oprah Winfrey’s TV crews and “people”. They wanted to film him on his profound and life-changing journey, so he was followed by camera crews from beginning to end. I’m not so sure how profound that would be…but hey, I’m the last person to promote reality TV. Apparently, he & the crew stayed in San Bol about a week after I passed through, and destroyed the intimacy of the evening by using strong lights for their filming. No candlelit dinners that night. 😦

I heard the Oprah rumours again further along the trail but I never did confirm whether they were true. If they were, I feel sorry for any pilgrims that chose to stay in San Antón the same night as that guy…anyone wanting to experience intimacy or quiet would have struggled to find either, I think.

IMG_0971

IMG_0972

Magnificient!

IMG_0975

Brierley’s guidebook tells me that under St. Anthony’s archway (Arco de San Antón), bread was left for pilgrims of old. The tradition continues today but with pilgrims leaving messages instead. If only I’d read my guidebook at the time, I might have known this when I passed through! Instead, I wondered at why so many people had chosen to leave written prayers in that particular spot.

IMG_0974

IMG_0973

When I think back on this day, lots of different things helped make it a particularly great day of walking. My body had grown stronger so I forgot the aching exhaustion I’d felt at the beginning. The weather was spectacular: azure blue skies and beaming sunshine for hours on end. And yes, there was lots to see along the way. But something in me had shifted. Way back in Burgos, I had checked into a private room feeling overstimulated and cynical about the camino thing. I had expected that everyone walking towards Santiago shared the same sense of spirit. I had assumed we’d all be walking with humility and compassion: I thought we’d all “go with the flow”. I never expected to find myself in the middle of a daily race for beds. I didn’t expect people to leave pools of water on the bathroom floor. I didn’t enjoy watching pilgrims shout at café staff in English, thinking this was somehow reasonable in rural Spain. I didn’t like the selfishness that I saw play out, day after day.

But somewhere between Burgos and San Bol, I stopped caring about what others did. I’d already spent way too much time being upset by others’ behaviour, their words, and their apparent intent.

Everyone else had *their* camino: now it was time for me to have *mine*.

I reflected on my behaviour, my intent, and thought about what I wanted.

What did I want?

I wanted some peace and quiet.

I wanted more time by myself.

Most of all, I wanted to walk.

This day, between San Bol and Boadilla del Camino, I walked 34km of solid, steady, strong walking…and I loved it! After so many painful, worn-out days on camino where I felt I was dragging my sorry-ass corpse across Spain, *this* day felt like a magnificent flourish.

IMG_0994

So what was the secret?

  1. I did what I wanted to do: I walked. I stopped thinking about whether that was fast or slow. I stopped thinking about pretty much everything and I just let my feet take over. Glorious!
  2. I noticed myself saying prayers of thanks as a way of passing the time. Hour after hour, I gave thanks for the weather being dry. I gave thanks for the high-tech gear that made my walk a bit easier. I gave thanks for not having blisters. Hour after hour, I listed off hundreds of things that were working well in my life. And you know what? I discovered that I had an awful lot to be thankful for.
  3. I also noticed myself saying the very few prayers I know since childhood. Hail Marys and Our Fathers,  mostly. I said them on a loop, hour after hour. Without thinking about it, I prayed for my first teacher at school and for the woman who drove my bus to school each day. I prayed for relatives who were living and dead. I prayed for healing. I prayed for people I hadn’t thought about in years. And when I had finished praying for all of these people and I felt I still had prayers to spare, I prayed for anyone at all who might need some help. I prayed for pilgrims ahead of me and behind me on the path who may have been having a tough time of it, just like I did a few days earlier.

Somehow, these things unlocked*my* camino magic.

My camino joy came from the very simple, but profound act of doing something that I loved. I walked, and I left people behind without feeling guilty or sad. It wasn’t because I didn’t like them anymore, it was just that I needed to really strike out on my own in a good way.

I didn’t (and don’t) do enough of this in my life. I get bogged down by responsibility and duty. I get bogged down by chores. I make decisions that are for a group’s benefit rather than my own. I run around with an endless “To Do” list and I leave the fun stuff to the very end. Neglecting this blog is an example of my misplaced duty for other parts of my life. Only if, and when the kitchen is spotless and I’ve replied to all my emails do I allow myself to do the things that nurture my soul. So you can be pretty sure that I don’t get to these things often enough…it sucks.

This day, I mentally & emotionally embraced what it meant to walk for myself, and I rejoiced at the glory of it!

The second bit – expressing gratitude – was truly profound for me. I chose to walk camino in a particular way and it meant I could never be certain of a bed to sleep in or of getting all the way to Santiago. Walking this way – and leaving myself wide open to the uncertainty – forced me to take note of all the things that worked in my favour every day. It forced me to pay attention to all the goodness and once I started doing that, the goodness seemed to multiply. There were, quite literally, hundreds of things to be thankful for. I spent hours listing them in my head and feeling like the luckiest woman in the world to have it all fall into my lap so effortlessly.

Out there in the meseta, walking towards Santiago, I walked exactly as I wanted to walk and I gave gratitude for every step along the way. It was a potent combination and by late morning I felt invincible.

In Castrojeriz, I had the unexpected delight of stepping into a photography exhibition in Hospital del Alma, where I drank mint tea and ate cookies in the cool shade. I never expected to find a photography exhibition on camino but it was delightfully normalising and I lingered for more than an hour, wandering around the shabby chic house that had been converted into a gallery.

IMG_0981

IMG_0983

IMG_0989

IMG_0990

If I had looked at my guidebook (ha! if ever!) I’d have known that there as a 900m high point ahead of me that day. I’d have known to pace myself or to brace myself for a sweaty climb in the afternoon sun. But I didn’t read my guidebook. After hours of walking, in the scorching heat, I suddenly found myself half way up this hill that seemed to appear out of nowhere and I remember thinking to myself:

“Fuck me, this is a bit much, innit?!”

By then it was early afternoon and the sun was at its highest, and hottest part of the sky. I had walked for hours already and I had worked up quite the sweat. Climbing uphill in the early afternoon sun was the last thing I needed but there was no way out of it so I coached myself on with the thought that from the top of the hill I’d have a good view of the land on the other side. I expected to see the next little village up ahead. There’d be a cluster of trees and buildings. There’d be some cool shade and a café bar where I’d get an ice-cold coke instead of my usual coffee. There would be a chance to get in from the 100 degree heat and take a break.

When I got to the top, I looked out the far side. This is what I saw:

IMG_0995

No cluster of trees!

No little village!

No cool shade. No coke. No break!

Another day, I would have wept at the realisation. This day, I laughed out loud…and kept walking. I felt so entirely content. I didn’t really care that there wasn’t a break in sight. I was caked in sweat and dust, and my own odours were intense (nice!) but I didn’t give a hoot. The physical exertion felt like the most real thing I had experienced in years and I was only delighted to keep walking.

Bring it on!

An hour later in Itero de la Vega, I happily bumped into Denis and Fred, and some other familiar faces. I joined them in the shade of a café bar while they drank cool beers and I finally got my cold coke. They’d booked into the hostel already and would pass the afternoon with chat and laughter. I was tempted to join them…even more so because I hadn’t seen them in days and I loved their company. If I stayed, I’d have a fun evening and great company.

But…

I really, really wanted to walk.

I had walked just over 25km that day – a decent amount – and it was wise to quit while I was ahead and keep some of my energy. It was also gone past 3pm and the ground seemed to shimmer from the intense heat. To keep walking in that was madness…especially when the next hostel stop was over 8km away. Most pilgrims stopped walking by lunchtime every day to avoid the heat. It was a risky move to consider going on further:

What if I walked those extra 8.2km and got sunstroke?

What if I walked those extra 8.2km and exhausted myself?

What if I walked those extra 8.2km and found there was no bed in the next village? I’d have to walk even further and by then, it would be late in the evening. Did I really have the energy for all of that?

In the end, I decided that I did.

So at 3.30pm I waved goodbye to the guys and walked the fastest 8.2km of my life! I wanted to get out of the sun as quickly as I could, so I pounded my way to Boadilla del Camino where I hoped there’d be a bed for the night. I had felt invincible and blessed that entire day, and it was my best day by far. I wondered what awaited me in the village up ahead but there was only one way to find out!

I wonder: what was *your* best day on camino? Do you know what made it so great? And do you think those things could be replicated in your “real life” every day? 😀