Camino de Santiago and 2 Nights in Hospital (de Órbigo)

Distance walked: 28.5km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 303.4km

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When I got to León, I thought the city marked the end of the Meseta region in northern Spain. After a week or so of walking through wheat and corn fields, I thought the landscape would turn into something more leafy, just like the first 300km of my walking journey. I thought the wheat and corn fields were a thing of the past.

I was wrong!

When I left La Virgen del Camino, a suburb of León, the streets were quiet. The wave of pilgrims leaving León hadn’t yet arrived that morning and the quiet created a bit of a reprieve. I felt I was “ahead”, somehow.

Later, I used my phone to record videos for Handsome Husband at home. He and I had kept in touch every day while I walked, but just as I was starting to feel that I had been a nomad for months already, so too for him. He cheered me on from afar but was looking forward to my return. So, I recorded some videos from the trail that day: corn fields on the left and corn fields on the right…and a video of a farm irrigation canal just to break up the boredom! Brierley’s book says, “…once you leave Virgen del Camino, on the recommended route, there are few facilitates along this relatively isolated stretch.”

He wasn’t lying!

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Sometimes you have to look *really* closely for signage!

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I’d set my sights on Hospital de Órbigo, which has one of the “longest and best preserved medieval bridges in Spain dating from the 13th century and built over an earlier Roman bridge.” My map showed plenty of accommodation options and I figured my chances were pretty good of securing a bed for the night.

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In retrospect, I would have done well to stop a bit earlier that day. Or maybe I would have done well to stop in León the previous day and rest a bit extra. I hadn’t quite recovered from my folly of carrying four litres of water, days earlier. My body was still tired and sore, and by the time I arrived in Hospital de Órbigo that afternoon, I was feeling a bit burnt out. I arrived during siesta, when all the town’s shutters were down and the streets were quiet. I was thrilled to secure a bottom bunk bed in Albergue Karl Leisner, the parish hostel in a historic building that had been renovated by a German Confraternity. I washed my clothes and hung them to dry on a sunny clothes line. I sat and brushed my feet against the newly-cut, short, sharp grass. Pilgrims played guitars, cats lazed in the sun, and white clouds raced through the sky overhead.

I liked the hostel but I felt out of place in the town. As with a lot of restaurants along the way, dinner wasn’t served until 8pm and by then, after I had finished attending a pilgrim mass, I was very nearly too tired to eat. I wandered the streets looking for somewhere wholesome and lively but struggled to find anywhere. I met only a handful of pilgrims on the streets and they were faces I didn’t recognise. I’d fallen out of step with the people I knew, so eating alone in town that evening was rather lonesome. I didn’t know where everyone was but it sure felt like they weren’t eating out like I was that evening.

In the end, I settled for a café offering “homemade pizza” but when they produced a not-quite-defrosted pizza base cooked with ketchup on top, well, I cut my losses and left early. The TV screen in the corner blared with football and the old men at the counter didn’t notice that I left. I quietly paid and went on my way: that was probably my most dismal dinner experience on camino and I was glad to go back to the hostel, to bed.

It only occurred to me when I returned home that while I walked camino, I didn’t do a very good job of building in rest days along the way. If, like me, you work Monday-Friday, then your weekly pattern looks something like this:

Work for five days…

Rest (or do other things!) for two days…

Week in, week out, there is a rhythm there, allowing the body and mind a chance to rest, regroup.

On camino, I kind of walked and walked and walked and only took a “rest” when I was in a lot of pain or extremely exhausted. I didn’t have a rhythm and I didn’t really recover as I walked from one place to the next. In Hospital de Órbigo, I took some time to rest and recover. I didn’t feel actively “sick” but I didn’t have the heart to walk on, so I asked to stay a second night. Ordinarily, this isn’t the norm: the arrangement is to stay one night and then move on before 8am the next day. Pilgrims don’t tend to hang around any longer unless they are injured or sick in some way.

The volunteer behind the desk very kindly ushered me into a “private room” where I could sleep in peace…and I did. That saint of a woman even made me some green tea with honey, and assured me that she was nearby if I needed anything at all. I was so overwhelmed with the kindness that I bawled my eyes out crying…and then fell quickly to sleep! 😀

Private room…not exactly private but certainly quieter than the dorms

Looking back, I needed the rest and was thrilled to have it. But you know, I am sorry I didn’t keep in closer contact with my friends along the way. Even though I needed to walk camino on my own, I later learned that Kevin and Liz were in town at the same time as I. Had I known, we might have had dinner together. Kevin had a great skill for finding the most delicious tapas and gourmet feasts along the way: I might have enjoyed chat and laughter, and actual food, instead of sitting alone in a loud, flourescent-lit café bar, trying to eat frozen pizza. Of course, they might have had other plans and might not have wanted me tagging along, but I didn’t reach out to them so we’ll never know!

So, let that be a reminder to us all: keep in touch with the good people in your life, they add the colour and heart that we all need. 🙂

The Camino Provides in Carrión de los Condes

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

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

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

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

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

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

And boy was I glad that I did!

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

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

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

I held my breath.

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

I exhaled! Oh my God!

There is only one thing, she said tentatively.

Oh, here we go, I thought to myself.

It is up high, yes? Is that okay?

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

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

My takeaway things-to-remember that day?

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

 

 

 

 

 

Camino Francés: How Long Does it Take to Walk 500 Miles?

Before I walked the French Way (Camino Francés), I knew two friends who walked the route just months before me. Lovely Jen walked in the spring of 2013 and spread her trip over 7 weeks, walking the extra 100km to the coast. Amiga Number 2 walked in the summer of 2013 and spread her trip over 4 weeks. They both very kindly gave me similar advice for my own journey:

  • Pace yourself
  • Your body gets stronger as you go

Different women, different trips, taken at different times of the year. There’s no comparison between them but they were the people I knew to walk it most recently so I couldn’t help but pitch myself against them in some way – rightly or wrongly.

I certainly wasn’t physically fit enough to follow in the footsteps of Amiga 2 – that would have meant walking 30km every day for 30 consecutive days, in 40 degree heat. (Celsius).

No way!

But I didn’t want to be away for 7 weeks, either. Somehow, it felt like just a bit too long for me. I had a strong inkling that I needed 6 weeks away so I was willing to heed that – but what amount of time *should* I have taken?

How long does it really take to walk 500 miles?

In the month before I flew, I scrambled around trying to get my gear together, while packing up a job, and saying goodbye to friends I wouldn’t see for a while. I clearly remember bumping into a former boss who, as it happened, walked the French Way years before me, over two summers.

How long are you going for?

I’m hoping to go for 6 weeks, all going well. (Inside, I realized that if I broke an ankle on Day 3 that would be the end of it, so I rarely spoke about what I planned to do but more so about what I hoped to do.)

Ah, you’ll do it in 5, he replied.

Without realizing it, he’d set a bar for me and I could feel myself rising to the challenge. From that moment on, I still felt I needed 6 weeks but silently hoped to “do it” in 5 weeks so I could fulfill that expectation.

But why?!

Logically, I knew that he wouldn’t care how long it took me. I’ve never seen him since so it’s not like we’ve had that conversation where he might have quizzed me and judged me on my performance. So why did I care about fulfilling his expectations? I still wonder.

I booked a one-way flight to France without knowing when I would return. I wanted to be sure I got over the Pyrenees alive and well. I wanted to be sure I really could walk for miles and miles, day after day, before I booked my return flight. So, flying on a one-way ticket was a prudent move in that regard. It also meant that I didn’t have the same pressure as other people around me to arrive in Santiago by a certain fixed date. In theory, I had all the time in the world. Husband encouraged me to walk comfortably and safely, and not worry about how long it took me. And because I’d resigned from my job, I couldn’t say that I had to get back to work by a certain date. True, the finances were carefully planned but I had a bit of wriggle room if I needed it.

I’m sure there were people who wondered whether my marriage with Handsome Husband was on the rocks after a few short months – after all, why else would I book a one-way flight to another country and leave him home alone for weeks on end?! If anything, Happy Marriage got stronger because of the camino experience, so I didn’t care what anyone else thought. Husband and I knew the real reasons for my walking and I had his full support. I didn’t need anyone else’s approval.

Himself and I were to celebrate our *first* wedding anniversary in early October. If I took anything longer than 5 weeks to walk, I would miss that special date. I felt I really, really needed more than 5 weeks, but was it right to celebrate our anniversary apart, with me rambling around in Spain?

I asked Handsome Husband what he thought.

Being the cool and unflappable guy that he is, he told me:

Don’t worry about the wedding anniversary – we’ll have fifty more of them!

And with that, he sent me packing!

We talked about maybe meeting in Santiago for the anniversary. Wouldn’t it be great to be reunited after all those weeks apart? Wouldn’t it be cool to be in a vibrant, colorful city? Wouldn’t it be a massive high for me to walk all that way to join him? There were lots of reasons why it was a great idea and the pilgrims around me latched on to the romance of the story.

Every time I’d bump into my new friends, they’d ask about Husband and our anniversary plans in a few weeks. And without realizing it, this was the raising of a second bar – another challenge to walk the 500 miles in 5 weeks.

I felt the pressure of it.

And honestly, that pressure followed me every day across Spain. Himself told me not to push myself to hurting, but I felt the pressure to get to Santiago by a certain date – and that depended on me covering an average of 25km every day, whatever the weather, whatever my physical condition. There was no wriggle room.

Separately, some of my camino friends told me I was too hard on myself and pushing myself too much. I didn’t agree. Some part of my psyche took over and my mission was one of endurance, not enjoyment. I wasn’t so happy with that attitude at the time. And yet, if I hadn’t been bull-headed and hard on myself, I’m not sure I would have made it to Santiago.

I wanted to walk it all. I didn’t want to take buses or trains to help with timekeeping or even with injury. I met people who took buses because of tendonitis and I thought they were being far too soft on themselves.

I wanted to carry my backpack myself. I didn’t want to avail of the mini bus services that carry backpacks for a fee. And in the meantime, my left arm went numb with the pain of carrying a pack that was clearly too heavy.

Why did I put myself through all that?

I just wanted to “do it” a certain way, but there were times that “my way” was unforgiving on my body. I had limited patience for self-pity and pain, and I felt that the only way I would get to Santiago was to keep going – whatever the weather, whatever my condition.

So every day on Camino, I walked with a medium-to-high level of inflammation – all day, every day, for weeks on end. I woke to it in the morning, I walked through it all day, and fell asleep to it at night. Pilgrims around me took pain relief even in the early days. I never really considered taking anti-inflammatories until 200km from the end, when I reached a breaking point. By then, I’d done so much damage to my feet that there was no way I’d complete camino unless I had some medicinal support. By the end, I didn’t care how many horse tranquilizers I took – I just needed to keep going.

I felt the pressure to “do it” but I didn’t walk 500 miles in 5 weeks.

I did walk 500 miles in 6 weeks, and that included 4 rest days along the way.

I couldn’t compete with the people who walk it in a month. I couldn’t compete with the Brierley Brigade. I shouldn’t have tried to compete at all but I felt a judgement on my shoulder all the same – whether it was my own or someone else’s.

I didn’t make it all the way to Santiago in time for our wedding anniversary. I also didn’t fulfill the challenge my former-boss had unknowingly set.

And most of all, I didn’t walk at *my* leisure. I didn’t walk according to my body’s preferences. I walked 500 miles in five and a half weeks because my mind whipped me to do so. I walked it in this time because my spirit urged and pulled me on. I walked it in that time frame because I didn’t know how to stop and I didn’t want to stop. I am proud of my walking but I pushed my body way too hard. A recent injury reminded me what it feels like to be in pain and inflammation every day. It’s not fun – and I did that to myself every day across Spain.

If I’d stopped every time I felt tired, or sore, or because I just felt like it, I think I might have needed more like 8-12 weeks to walk those miles. That would have been a more comfortable pace for me. That would have minimized the injury and inflammation. That would have been a very different experience – so different, that I can’t even imagine it.

How long would *you* need to walk 500 miles? How long would you need to *comfortably* walk them?

And what are your experiences of pushing your body too hard?

 

Villambistia: Stifling the Screams

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

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

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

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

Just Great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yes, people can be shitty.

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

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

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

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

I didn’t think so.

But that day in Villambistia I was in the minority.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t mess with the bedroom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, I will say this:

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

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

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

A Toast to Tosantos

I left the small village of Grañón at 6am, and spent most of the morning walking alone. The camino trail passed through acres of sunflowers and the landscape opened out into expansive farmland for crops. It was mid-September and most of the grain was harvested already, leaving behind fields of short, golden stubble. For miles around, it was all I could see. The sheen of the straw reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin, and I thought of turning straw into gold.

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I hoped to stop in the small village of Tosantos and find my bed there for the night, but before I ever arrived in the village I knew that something was up. A mile or so outside of “town” I could hear the sound of loud music coming from somewhere. It wasn’t live: it sounded more like a stereo.

Often, I passed pilgrims on the trail who listened to music while they walked, with earphones discreetly in their ears. Occasionally, I passed pilgrims who listened to music out loud on a stereo or through the speaker of their phone. They didn’t wear earphones discreetly in their ears, but preferred to broadcast the music to the whole world. Sometimes, it was an intrusion I couldn’t avoid. My friends like to think I spent days walking in quiet solitude, like a hermit on some isolated pilgrimage island. The truth was often very different!

Tosantos is a small place. I mean, really small.

Wikipedia tells me that in the 2004 census, the village had just 60 people. Brierley’s book tells me it has a population of 80 people. Either way, I expected to find a sleepy village, with someone washing their car in the noontime sun with the stereo on full blast.

Instead, I found crowds of people gathered in the central square, which was filled with a bouncing castle and gazebos, and decorated with bunting. The disco music came from metre-high speakers, which were hooked up to flashing disco lights. The adults drank cold beers and poured wine from cardboard cases. The children played Nintendo Wii video games in the shade and ate lollipops, before running around and bouncing on the cowboy-themed bouncing castle. All around me, the village was full of celebratory chaos.

I sat on a shaded park bench and took stock of the scene.

I didn’t know where the hostel was, but I could kiss goodbye to my thoughts of rest. There was no way of sleeping through that din, and it looked like it had hours left to go. Question was: did I want to stop walking for the day and spend my night there?

While I sat in the shade and took a break, a crowd of teenagers appeared from further down the village and made their way out on to the trail I’d just come from. They all looked like they were about 15 years old, and dressed in vest tops and jeans. No wick-away outdoor gear for them – they were way too cool for that! They wore canvas shoes and carried light daypacks on their shoulders. They exuded the giddy charm of highschool crushes – I could see the flirtations and politics even from a distance, and wondered what they were doing there.

At a guess, I’d say they were on an exchange programme or a school tour of some sort, based on the ID badges they wore around their necks. All I could see was the crowd – at least a hundred of them – surging on to the path, in animated laughter and chatter. They were going to walk the camino, it seemed. Just when I needed to get away from the crowds, I found myself right in the middle of them – and more noisy than ever!

After hours of walking in the quiet countryside, I felt like I was in the middle of a circus.

The music was deafening.

It assaulted my senses and I felt bombarded by the unexpected chaos of it all.

What on earth was going on?!

It transpired that the village was celebrating a fiesta.

Ah yes, Spain is great for its fiestas!

When I walked Camino Francés, I happened to pass through towns and villages in the middle of celebrating their patron saint’s feast day. On one level, it’s a great opportunity to witness “real life” in action, and a fine time to join in the festivities. If it’s your first time to Spain, then it’s a great way to join in the party atmosphere and soak up the good life.

The logistics for pilgrims can be tricky, though, as most hostels and B&Bs close their doors during fiesta. This is one of the reasons I got stuck with nowhere to sleep in Zubiri. Fiestas were a great excuse to party, if only you could find somewhere to sleep. And for pilgrims who walk for hours every day in the blistering sun, finding somewhere to sleep is a top priority. So, it might not be possible to stop off in a village when it’s celebrating fiesta, however much you want to.

Wikipedia tells me that:

“800 years ago a woman, known as La Hermita, lived in a cave in the cliffs above Tosantos and ministered to the passing Pilgrims. A chapel has been built into that cave and once a year, on Fiesta day, the inhabitants of Tosantos hold a procession through the town, up the winding path to the cave and give thanks to God, Santa Maria and La Hermita for blessing the town.”

As it happened, the day I arrived into Tosantos was the very day they chose to celebrate La Hermita and hold their fiesta.

I sat for a half an hour in the shade and reflected on my situation. I had wanted to stay there, but I was in no state to handle such crowds, such noise, and such a party. Some other time, when I had more rest and a private room, I thought it could be fun to stay there and join the celebrations. That day, though, I preferred to walk on.

I only hoped that the next village on the trail would have the space to host me. I decided to take my chances.

Spain: Walking from La Rioja to Castilla y León

Crossing from the La Rioja region into Castilla y León….

I love that the Camino signage changes from region to region….

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And I love that the water fountains along the way are so ornately rustic:

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Brierley’s guidebook tells me that “Castilla y León is the largest autonomous region in Spain with an area… 11 times the size of the region of Madrid but with a population of only 2.5 million (less than half that of Madrid).

You will spend over 50% of your time travelling through 3 of its 9 separate provinces Burgos, Palencia and León. It contains the incomparable Meseta the predominately flat table or plateau region that makes up a third of the Iberian peninsular…

Cereal crops cerales hold sway here, mainly wheat but with oats on the poorer land and some sheep and goats grazing on the hillier parts. It is a sparsely populated arid region, primarily flat with gently rolling hills. However, the seemingly endless horizons are broken up with delightful villages seemingly unaffected by the speed of modern life.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago Continues: Grañón to Villambistia

Distance walked: 22.5km IMG_0904

After a night sleeping on the floor, I left Grañón’s donation-based hostel and made my way into the early morning light.

Did I have breakfast before I left?

I honestly can’t recall, but I have a feeling that the hostel offered coffee, baguette, and jam, and that we gladly availed of the sustenance. Most of the hostels I stayed in didn’t offer breakfast of any kind, and I had to walk to the next town or village to get my morning coffee. Walking camino, you never quite know where the next coffee will present itself. You could plan to eat in a certain village miles up the road, only to find their café closed when you get there. Sundays, in particular, are a quiet day for business in Spain. You get into a pattern of gladly availing of whatever food and drink is available, when available – however modest it may be.

That morning, I passed through acres of sunflowers that gently rose their heads to the rising sun.

I walked for a while with Barb and Dave, who had also spent the previous night in Grañón. Pity that my photos came out blurry…perhaps I needed more coffee to feel fully awake, but they were all smiles, as usual! We initially met when I stayed in Orisson, back on our fist day of walking. The next morning, they saved my socks from blowing away on the side of the Pyrenees, and had since treated me to breakfasts and lunches along the way. Over the course of the 800km, our paths crossed over and back, and they generously watched out for me at every turn. IMG_0899

When I look back on my photos now, I notice that they’re there in the very first ones I took in St. Jean Pied de Port – before I even started walking. I don’t want to spoil the ending but Barb and Dave were there on my last day, too. And they were there countless days in between, with unending support and friendship. IMG_0900

My walk from Grañón happened on a morning of brilliant sunshine and cloud-free skies. I walked most of it alone, enjoying the quiet time for idle reflection.

By then, I’d walked some 250km of my intended 800km, and I felt the effects of it.

The initial adrenalin had worn off, along with the strength and rest I had brought from home. I slept well every night on Camino but I felt quietly exhausted. Even though I was walking for almost 2 weeks by then, my body was still adjusting to walking for hours every day, in 30-something degree heat, with all my belongings on my back. (Although I have to admit, how often do we say in life, “I was walking for almost 2 weeks by then”….no wonder I was tired!)

My body wasn’t getting the recovery time that it needed.

Some days were shorter than others, which definitely helped. And yes, ever since I swapped my hiking sandals for hiking shoes, my feet hurt a lot less. That freed up a lot of energy, right there.

I was able to cover more ground every day and I was glad. I also learned how to stagger my walking so I was out of step with the people following Brierley’s book. He directs people to start at Point A and finish at Point B every day, and many pilgrims followed his suggestions to the letter. It’s an efficient plan if you want to walk 800km in 33 days. But the surging crowd created a race for beds, and I found it stressful to get wrapped up in the frenzy. Instead of following his directions, I stopped at intermediary towns and villages. In doing so, I gladly avoided the shortage of beds I’d experienced in Zubiri and Los Arcos. If I did nothing else in my first 2 weeks of walking, that small shift made a huge difference to my emotional experience.

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Church of Santa María in Belorado (with storks nesting at the top)

But still, the trail and the hostels felt busy and noisy. When I combined the crowds with my physical fatigue, my nerves began to fray.

I assumed that:

the trails felt busy,

the hostels felt crowded,

and

the bathrooms felt noisy,

because I’m an introvert.

I like people but I need lots of quiet space away from people, too. Otherwise, my batteries deplete rather quickly.

Despite my best efforts to spend my walking hours alone, I felt overwhelmed and overstretched.

Every day, I met both new and familiar faces in cafés, dinner spots, hostels, at water fountains, and out on the trail. Sometimes we’d exchange just a few words of hello. Other times, we’d walk together and chat for hours.

People were kind and receptive, and I was glad of the blossoming friendships. But despite the fact that I made connections and friends easily, I felt rather anonymous and alone. I didn’t know any of these people well enough, or long enough, to express my full experience. None of them could replace the connection I felt with Generous Husband, or my close friends from home. I’d chosen to walk camino alone. When I felt emotional and overstretched, I didn’t know who to confide in.

I didn’t want to whinge.

Rightly or wrongly, I felt I had to put on a certain amount of “brave face” and keep going.

At the same time, I badly needed some downtime to rest and regroup. I needed to recharge.

But every night I stayed in communal dorms, where we queued for the showers, competed for sunny space on the clothes line, and listened to each other snoring. Everywhere I went, there was chatter and noise. It started before 6am and didn’t stop until after 10pm each day. Some days I felt able to handle it but other days I felt a bit too sensitive and tired, and wondered if it was all in my head.

That is, until I heard that 2 weeks earlier, the authorities had recorded the highest ever number of pilgrims passing through Roncesvalles.

That was around the same time I passed through the town, after the steep descent from the Pyrenees.

The highest number ever recorded…..wow.

The trail and the hostels felt busy then and you’ll remember, I found myself stuck for somewhere to sleep.

Even though I changed my own behaviour in the meantime, the trail still felt busy and crowded to me. I

assumed it was because I was slower than others.

I assumed the lack of training had caught up with me.

I assumed that I lacked competitive spirit, even though I never expected competition on a pilgrimage route.

But the statistics confirmed what I also knew: The Camino was exceptionally busy for that time of year.

I was relieved to know I hadn’t imagined the crowds or their impact. I was relieved to know that it wasn’t all in my head or indicative of an over-sensitive heart.

That day, I felt a bit over-wrought and I hoped to stop in the small village of Tosantos in the late morning or early afternoon. Brierley’s guide-book listed a donation-based parish hostel with mattresses on the floor for 30 people and I liked the idea of a quiet, low-key evening. I hoped for an afternoon nap and a night of restorative sleep.

But it wasn’t to be: it seemed life had other plans for me.

Adiós Azofra (and a Coffee in Cirueña)

Distance walked: 22.4km (from Azofra to Grañón)

Just now, I looked at Brierley’s map for this day’s walking and was appalled to realise that I couldn’t remember anything about the first 9km of it.

I mean, not a single thing.

That really bothered me.

I know it’s going to happen for parts of my 800km journey but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon.

Sure, I was tired when I left my hostel in Azofra. My roomie’s snoring from the previous night meant I had less sleep than normal. But still, I was disappointed that I couldn’t remember anything other than chatting to my new Korean friend, who was ill and had decided to stay in the hostel another day. I hugged her goodbye and walked off into the countryside…apparently.

I looked at the map and thought to myself:

I probably stopped in Cirueña for a coffee and breakfast…

But I couldn’t remember any of it.

That is, until I Googled the name of the village and found these images, and then it all came flooding back.

Aaaahhhh yes….I remember this place!

For those who haven’t walked Camino yet, I know that all of these place names and references to coffee seem a bit arbitrary. They may even strike you as meaningless and you might find your eyes skimming over some of my words.

I was the same when I read other peoples’ accounts of Camino. All the place names sort of blurred together and I didn’t really understand why so many people thought coffee stops were so noteworthy.

I thought: Yeah whatever, hurry up and tell me more about the walking instead of ranting about café con leche!

So, I get it.

But when I walked Camino, my perspective changed.

The thing is, all these towns, villages, and side-of-the-road vans selling coffee can break up a day. Starting out from a hostel every morning, the prospect of walking however many kilometres can be a bit of a mental and physical drag. You need to know that you can take a break somewhere when you get tired, thirsty, or need to pee. You need to know that you can hit the “Pause” button for a short while and air out your sweaty feet.

On a practical level, small café bars offer breakfast when most of the hostels do not. So, stopping off is part of the morning routine.

They offer a chance to sit and take a break from the physical exertion of walking for hours every day. They give pilgrims a chance to step in out of the weather – whatever it may be. Cafés and bars provide food, drink, and bathroom services – all of which are in heavy demand. And of course, the cafés offer a chance to be social. I enjoyed surprise reunions and bumped into friends I thought I’d never see again, like the time I was reunited with the “Champagne Camino” women in a café in Lorca. That was fun.

So you get the idea – coffee stops are really relevant. They can make a day.

Forgetting 9km of trail after Azofra was disheartening until I remembered that this was the morning I passed through the ghost estate of Cirueña, where every house was newly constructed and almost all of them had a “For Sale” sign out the front. This was like no other town or village I’d passed through. It felt contrived and soulless, and was clearly a financial failure. I walked past dozens of houses, all silent, with pristine gardens and chicken wire fences. There were no signs of life and the place felt plain odd.

But by then, I’d happily bumped into Barb and Dave, and we rounded a corner to see a golf course club house – complete with plastic tables and chairs out front.

Hurrah…a chance for coffee…and breakfast!

They kindly treated me to my coffee and pastry and the three of us sat out front, enjoying the sunny morning. I used the free wi-fi to make a call to Handsome Husband, who was having a hard time at work that morning. This is the man who generously supported me when I resigned from my job, and wholeheartedly encouraged me to go walk Camino. This is the man who offered unconditional support, and was home alone while I spent my days rambling across Spain. I wanted to reach out and help him feel supported, too.

But I came away from the call feeling conflicted.

I wanted to stay on the call with him and give him more time, but I couldn’t spend all day at the club house. I had to keep walking but to do so meant losing the wi-fi and my chance to call him. It would be hours before I’d have a chance to call him again. It could even be days, if there was no wi-fi at my next stop. I felt guilty about being so far away from him when I wanted to help. I wanted to be a “Good Wifey” but was limited by geography.

I shared my conflict with Barb and Dave, who replied:

“We have a list of people we pray for while we’re walking. We pray for someone different every day but today, we don’t have anyone to pray for. We’ll pray for Handsome Husband, if you like.”

😀

I heard that prayers said on Camino are more potent. If this is true, then a whole day full of prayer would surely help Husband’s tricky work situation. And how nice for him to know that two people he’d never even met were rooting for him, thinking of him, and supporting him from afar.

I shared the news with him before we departed the club house. The next town was only 5.9km away and it looked like a fairly big one: I hoped to find wi-fi there and call him again. In the meantime, two generous Canadians were keeping him in their thoughts – as was I – as we strapped on our backpacks and headed west.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Azofra: A Lesson in Camino Etiquette

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

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

(Quotes from Brierley’s guide-book)

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

The hippy in me was thrilled.

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

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

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

A shelf represented stability and roots.

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

What can I say? I was easily pleased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How wrong I was!

Why?

Quite frankly: She was a snorer.

I know, lots of people snore.

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

Most nights, I fell asleep to the sounds of:

Coughing

Whistling

Wheezing

And other delightful bodily sounds.

I got used to it.

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

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

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

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

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

Delightful….erm, not.

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

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

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

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

Yep – she definitely was.

Damn.

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

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

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

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

I lay there for another 30 minutes, wondering.

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

I lay there for another few minutes, wondering.

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

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

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

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

Do not invade her personal space.

Do not touch her in any way.

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

But whatever you do, stay in your own bed.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Camino Continues: Navarette to Azofra

Distance walked: 23.2km

In Navarette, I woke at 5:30am, to a room filled with noisy alarm clocks, mobile phones, and rustling sleeping bags. The small space was filled with bright LED torches bobbing left and right, as people packed up their gear. I lay in the warm comfort of my bed but eventually realised there was simply no getting back to sleep.

I’m not a morning person, and I didn’t really support the ethos of rushing out the door before dawn, but here I was:

Awake and with a day of walking ahead of me. I decided to get up and go. I decided to start walking as soon as the front doors opened at 6am.

Downstairs, I put on my walking shoes, grabbed my walking poles out of the basket, and secured the backpack across my shoulders. Outside the door, the others walked off quickly into the early morning, and I slowly walked along behind them. Before long, they’d rounded a corner and were out of sight.

I tried to leave Navarette – really, I did.

But the morning was dark and I couldn’t distinguish any yellow arrows against the dark footpath.

I couldn’t distinguish any yellow arrows on the side of buildings, either.

The town was small, so the Camino signs were handmade and irregular. There were no formal signposts, or symbols embedded into the footpath. There was no one on the streets either, and that concerned me more.

I knew that dozens of pilgrims had poured onto the streets only minutes beforehand, but I couldn’t see any of them. There are always pilgrims around somewhere, so I doubted my sense of direction. I thought I’d taken a wrong turn.

I doubled back, and started again but still, there was no-one around, and I was sure I had missed a turn somewhere.

I walked to the edge of the small to town – to the point where the street lamps ran out, with only dark countryside ahead.

As a woman walking alone, I took stock. I didn’t feel I was in any danger – my gut instinct indicated that it was safe to proceed. But my mental training kicked in: Don’t risk it. It’s not a good idea to walk off into the unknown darkness alone. So I turned around, and went back towards my hostel.

I spent nearly an hour doubling back on myself. I walked the stretch of road several times – back and forth – trying to find arrows or yellow paint anywhere along the way. I could see nothing.

From an upstairs apartment window, a local shouted out to me in Spanish and confirmed which way to go.

Another local looked like he was just returning home (from working a night shift job? from a night of heavy partying?) and confirmed which way to go.

Eventually, I heard the tap, tap, tap, of walking poles behind me. I couldn’t see anyone in the darkness but I could hear the sound of footsteps and could see the bobbing of a head torch. The Korean pilgrims confirmed which way to go.

After three confirmations I felt more confident of my direction, and was glad of their warm assistance.

And wouldn’t you know it: I had been going the right direction all along 🙂

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In Ventosa, I stopped for morning coffee, breakfast, and free wi-fi.

In Nájera, I stopped in a small corner shop to buy postcards and stamps, and found a sunny bench on the side of the street. There, I took off my socks and shoes, and felt entirely comfortable in my bare feet – even though busy traffic and pedestrians bustled all around me.

The Camino passes through so many towns, villages, and cities along the way, and there is a steady stream of pilgrims en route. Pilgrims need to tend to their feet – so this means taking off socks and shoes, bursting blisters, applying ointment and bandages – all in plain view. It becomes normal to see people on the side of the trail, tending to their feet. I don’t know what the locals think of all this but I imagine it’s become a normal sight for them, too.

I sat on the bench and took a few minutes to apply sunscreen, drink water, and let my feet cool down. I wrote a postcard, and listened to the sounds of children shrieking and laughing in the nearby schoolyard. I also observed the only Chinese restaurant I saw on my whole Camino, and it made me realise that I hadn’t seen very much non-Spanish food on the journey to date. Funny, I hadn’t noticed that and hadn’t missed it, either.

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Crossing the river in lovely Nájera

I arrived in Azofra at 1pm, and hoped I was early enough to secure a bed in the hostel with 60 beds.

Thankfully, I was.

To boot, I would share my room with only one other person! After so many noisy, busy dorms, the prospect of such (relative) privacy was intoxicating, and I delighted at the prospect of getting some decent sleep.

Outside, pilgrims sat in the afternoon sunshine, bathing their feet in the cold, outdoor fountain. What luxury! I happily bumped into Barb and Dave, whom I hadn’t seen in days, and it was a joy to see their friendly faces. Dave even helped me find an empty sunny patch on the clothes line, for my newly-washed clothes 🙂

It might sound ridiculous now but with dozens of others competing for the same patch of sunshine, in the same courtyard, and at the same time, free space on a clothesline was precious. Inherently, I would have tried to find a free spot without moving anyone else’s belongings. It’s polite and respectful, sure, but I would have sooner denied my own need for dry clothing than presume it was okay to move someone else’s stuff.

(Maybe I needed assertiveness training?)

My reserve would have been a problem because at the same moment I was needing a sunny space, three other pilgrims emerged beside me with armfuls of dripping, wet clothes. They too were looking for a spot and there was no way the four of us could squeeze our gear onto the existing line space. This might have turned into a “survival of the fittest” moment except that Dave magically and effortlessly found space for all of us! He took care of me first and pointed out a free patch. The three women beside me started to get a bit edgy in seeing that I would need every bit of that space. No fear, Dave jumped in with news of another free spot, and he led them down to the far end of the courtyard.

Without being any way pushy or domineering, he found prime sunny space for all of us. He made it look easy and effortless. To him, it probably was. He took care of each of us in the most natural and gentle way, and we all got what we needed. I’m pretty sure he won’t even remember this incident but without realising it, he got me out of a tight spot that afternoon. You see, I’d decided to wash almost all of my clothing that day, including my sweatshirt that I hardly wore but which had become really grimey nonetheless. I needed a lot of sunshine and heat to make sure everything was dry before evening. I wouldn’t have pushed my way onto the clothesline by myself, and Dave’s generous intervention meant that I found a way – and got what what I needed.

I’m pretty sure you don’t remember any of this but Dave, Thank You!

For the second day in a row, I had covered a considerable distance (Brierley would approve!) and had arrived into town early enough to secure a bed. I’d even arrived early enough to wash everything and ensure it was dry before nightfall – no more grimey sweatshirt!

Those new shoes truly changed my Camino.

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: Go at my own pace

In the early days of walking Camino, I struggled to find my own rhythm and pace. There seemed to be a real pressure on beds and if I didn’t walk fast enough or far enough, I would be left without one. That had happened twice and inwardly I felt:

I’m not walking fast enough.

I’m not walking far enough.

I’m not quite keeping up with “the done thing” here.

Even though I talked about going at my own pace, the truth is, I didn’t do it.

I talked the talk but literally struggled to walk the walk!

At the time, I couldn’t quite tell whether the “race to keep up with everyone” was my own personal sensitivity , or if others felt the same. Was it my perception or was it reality? I don’t know if others experienced that same inner push and shove, but I would love to know.

I came across a piece in my journal from the time, and it reads as follows:

“I understand that people have jobs and families to fly home to but if everyone is goal-orientated, then the journey itself is lost–

If the priority is to reach Santiago in 5 weeks or less (as Brierley’s book will have you do), then the spontaneity, reflection, and inner journey is pushed aside in the name of scheduling.”

I was very upset about the pressure to keep up with a set schedule – whether it was imposed by Brierley or airline companies.

I met people along the way who naturally, happily, and easily walked 30+ km every day, and just so happened to reach Santiago in a month or less. One of them was a woman I met on my very last night before reaching Santiago itself. She started walking later in September than I, and had covered longer distances each and every day. I might have sat there, feeling inadequate about my own performance, except that she was entertaining, heartfelt, bright, and sassy. She was great company over dinner.

Some had criticised her for going too fast and for “missing out” on the real Camino. I guess there were people like me who were slower, and who looked on with the idea that she wasn’t “doing it right“. She explained that she naturally woke at 4-5am and was restless in bed, so the only thing she knew to do was to walk. She wasn’t trying to prove a point or rub anyone’s nose in it – she just happened to be very fit and very fast. And as it happened, she was reflective, articulate, and spoke of having a transformative experience along the way.

So it would seem, she didn’t ‘miss out’ on the inner Camino after all.

I started out wondering if the people with schedules, plans, and daily targets, were an enemy in some way. No doubt, the Camino was far more commercial and goal-orientated than I ever expected. I wasn’t sure whether I was overly sensitive, or was really inadequate and naïve.

Was Camino to be like “the real world” – a competition for the survival of the fittest?

Sometimes it felt like it, despite also feeling the sense of community and camaraderie.

I didn’t know what my own pace was, but I seemed to have little consistency from one day to the next. Some days were 25km in length, then others were only 8-10km. I wasn’t sure where my happy medium lay. And I wasn’t sure whether the Type A pilgrims were creating a standard that was atypical for the “true Camino”. They were able to walk fast enough and far enough to secure beds early in the day, and spend their afternoons drinking beers and sightseeing. Surely the trick was to set my own pace rather than try keeping up with them – right? And yet, there seemed to be so many of them, and they seemed to set the tone for so many things.

Were they a hindrance or a help?

Were they the true representation of Camino and life, or were they destroying the Camino spirit with their ambitious targets and KPIs?

I couldn’t quite tell.

“This walk is a pragmatic lesson in pacing. Quite literally, there is always someone ahead of me and always someone behind me. Quite literally, there is no winner or loser. We are each doing our best. We are each making our own way.”

“On more energised days, I have collected litter along the way. I have been able to make people laugh…I’ve picked up peoples’ washing off the ground and re-hung it for them, without them knowing. I’ve prayed for Handsome Husband and given thanks for the people who have supported me.

The quality of what I do is enormously important. Yes, I would love to energetically bounce along 25km every day without issue. But when I can’t do that, I like that my slower pace allows me to do other things – and that I do them.

There is tremendous power in the small gestures, the intention, the quiet support. For me, this is Christian living….I am only partially interested in Santiago as a destination and even less interested in the certificate. I am more interested in the process.”

By the end of  it all, I came to realise that we all have a different pace and rhythm – on Camino and in life.

I forget this far too easily and quickly, negatively comparing myself to others and their progress.

Mental note to self: Remember to respect my own pace in life.

 

Some Weary Walking: Villatuerta to Los Arcos

Distance walked: 24.8km

My longest day’s walking so far.

The stretch from Villatuerta to Los Arcos was a sort of “make or break” day of walking.

The first half of the day was rather delightful. I stopped in Estella to buy new sunglasses and replace the pair I’d already broken. Helpful Husband will tell you this is a relatively common occurrence in life. I also bought some sort of anti-inflammatory cream for my aching feet. In my rudimentary Spanish, the pharmacy staff were endlessly patient and obliging. No doubt, they see thousands of limping, hobbling, sunburnt pilgrims like me passing through town every year, with little or no Spanish, but with immediate medical needs. This sunny morning, all I could do was point at my feet and say “Owwww” a lot. The three women stood behind the counter in their white coats, looking a little dubious.

Here we go, another pilgrim with sore feet and no Spanish.

Of course my feet hurt: that was to be expected. But specifically where, and how badly, and why?

Had I pulled something?

Had I stepped on something?

Had I fallen, strained, twisted, or sprained?

Oh, those were questions I couldn’t even begin to answer!

Already, I’d met people who were rubbing ibuprofen creams and gels into their legs, and popping ibuprofen pills to keep inflammation at bay. I didn’t like the idea of medicating myself to the point of numbness, but I looked at their pill-popping with a sort of starry-eyed fascination: the drugs looked good. And lots of people were able to walk faster than me, and go farther than me, so maybe if I drugged up I too would start making some headway. I thought the drugs could give me a speedy Camino.

So, when I was handed a tube of arnica cream I admit, I was a bit doubtful. I think I am in more pain than this. I’m really not sure this stuff is strong enough. But I was too shy to say “Ibuprofen” and instead, accepted the arnica cream with gratitude. I decided I’d give it a go. If it didn’t work, there’d be another pharmacy somewhere else within a couple of days walk.

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Lovely Estella

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For those who don’t know, about 3km outside of Estella, the Bodegas Irache has a famous wine fountain for pilgrims.

I didn’t know it was there, either.

My friends who’d walked Camino before me had mentioned something about free wine on tap, but I’d never thought to ask them where it was. A week into the trip, I’d stopped reading the text in my Brierley guidebook and only looked at the maps – mostly to confirm how far I’d have to walk for a coffee, a sandwich, and a bed. The rest of the details, I reasoned, would unfurl along the way.

So, what a delight then to find myself walking through vineyards at 9:30 in the morning, and to bump into Barb and Dave outside the gates of this famous fountain. I didn’t know to expect it that particular day, and certainly not at that hour of the morning. If anything, I probably expected a medieval, wooden wine barrel with a simple tap on the end, but what we found was altogether more commercial, with its stainless steel tap and a large museum next door. It’s a self-serve operation and the wine wasn’t that bad. While pilgrims are encouraged to drink in moderation, I could have easily poured out my bottle of water and replaced it with a bottle of wine. Imagine the hangover though, walking around in 30-something degree heat, and drinking wine along the way?! It would have certainly taken my mind off my aching feet 🙂

Looking at the website now, I’m informed there’s “a web cam pointing at the fountain where you can see pilgrims in real time.” I wonder if anyone spotted us that particular morning, huddled around, giggling and fidgeting as we lined up for our free vino. It felt like we were back at school again, skipping class, smoking behind the sheds, and doing something wonderfully bold. What a sweet novelty, and a very welcome break from talking about beds, feet, and kilometres covered.

Just over 6km later, I reached the small village of Villamayor de Monjardín. If you look at the map, you’ll see it has a population of 150, and 2 albergues – one with space enough for 22 people, the other with space enough for 25. You’ll also see that to walk from there to Los Arcos is another 10+ kilometres and there is nothing along the way – nowhere to stop for coffee, a bed, or a get-out clause.

When you plan your walking for the day, this kind of thing becomes very relevant.

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By the time I reached the village, the sun had really started to swelter and I was beginning to flag. I had walked only 13.3km but the heat made those kilometres seem like more than they were. On top of that, my feet were getting the better of me. I thought I couldn’t really do much about them. Walking in hiking sandals had been great in many ways – the sandals gave my feet the space they needed to swell, without restriction. The sandals also helped regulate the temperature so they didn’t get too hot or sweaty, and I hadn’t developed any blisters.

So far, so good.

The problem was, they didn’t offer my feet a huge amount of support. Every step took a lot of flexing and gripping. I had an image of someone playing the piano, with their fingers stretching wide across the keyboard, flexing and reaching for the keys. My feet were doing something similar. On uneven ground, my feet had to flex to stay secure within the sandal, and then flex again to keep the sandal secure on the earth. I couldn’t afford to slip around, fall over, or lose my grip, especially on steep descents. So, apart from the fact that I’d scaled the Pyrenees and covered over 100km already (in their own right, those were great achievements for my poor paws), my feet were working extremely hard to stay secure in my choice of footwear. A pair of boots or hiking shoes would have done the work for me. But in my case, my feet were having to do all the work.

All the muscles in my feet were crying out for a break. I had pain:

across the tops of my feet

across my toes

up the backs of my heels

along my arches

and

on the undersides of both feet

Every step hurt, and the wise choice would have been to stop walking for the day, get a bed, and rest up for the afternoon.

I didn’t really consider it.

I stopped in the village and happily had a picnic with Barb and Dave, who generously shared fat, ripe tomatoes and crusty, fresh baguette with me. I bought a tin of tuna, swimming in olive oil, and dropped the whole tin onto the fresh bread. The combination of salty fish, juicy tomatoes, crusty bread, dripping in oil makes me salivate even now – that was probably one of the most delicious sandwiches I ate on all of Camino. We sat in the shade of the church, chatting and musing about life, relationships, and the road ahead. They’d booked into a private B&B for the night so had an afternoon of leisure awaiting them. I could have joined them and stopped walking for the day. At that hour, there were still available beds in one of the albergues, and I could have taken the afternoon to wash my clothes, have a nap, enjoy the cool shade, and join my friends for a beer.

I did consider it, but I didn’t give it enough consideration.

Instead, I decided to push ahead. I thought:

“Another 10km to Los Arcos is fine. It’s not that far. I’ll be there in 2-3 hours.”

And I strapped on my backpack, waved goodbye to Dave and Barb, and headed west.

This is what awaited me:

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The day was searing hot. Unbearably so.

About  half an hour outside the village I looked at the path ahead and couldn’t see a single person. I turned to look at the path behind me and it looked the very same. In every direction, I was alone and exposed to the relentless heat. Everyone else had already stopped walking for the day, or had stopped in the shade for a beer. They had done the right thing, while I felt like I was crossing the Sahara. There were no animals, there were no houses, and there was very little shade. I had a belly full of high-carb, high-protein food, and plenty of water, but I thought about turning back to the village.

Something in me said: This is madness.

Some other part of me said: No, there’s no going back. If you’re going to spend time walking, at least walk forwards.

So I kept going.

Damn Ego!

The minutes turned into hours as I trudged along in the heat, with increasingly sore feet, and making very slow progress. Fool, fool, fool, I should have turned back.

Eventually, three women caught up with me and it turned out, we knew each other from our night in Zabaldika. I was delighted to bump into them again and they kept me company on the long walk in the heat. By the time they’d passed through the previous village, the albergues were full and there was (seemingly) nowhere to stay. That’s how they’d decided to walk the remaining 10km to Los Arcos. Days later, I met a woman who came to the village even later that afternoon after walking 40-something kilometres, only to be told the same story. For her, walking the 10km to Los Arcos was unfeasible so she asked the locals for their advice.

Someone 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 secured beds in the hostel said: We have camping mats and I don’t need them tonight: you’re welcome to use them.

And so, this woman joined 14 other pilgrims who’d made it as far as Villamayor de Monjardín, but couldn’t go any further, and slept on the ground in someone’s open garage. She admitted it wasn’t very comfortable and it wasn’t the best night’s sleep, but they were safe and dry. She said it beat trying to walk the remaining 10km to Los Arcos.

I hadn’t walked even half the distance she’d walked that day but I could only agree: those 10km nearly broke me.

Mental note to self: Buy hiking shoes at the next available opportunity.

Arriving into town, I was beyond weary. Bumping into Kevin and Liz was a nice surprise but they confirmed what we already feared: all the albergues were full.

I bumped into a sprightly 70-year old from Australia whom I hadn’t seen in days and all she said was, “You’re late!

I didn’t realise it was a race.

I didn’t realise there was a timer on my every move.

I’d just spent 9 hours trying to walk some 25km and my feet were beyond repair – I didn’t appreciate her throwaway comment.

Still, we had bigger matters to tend to. The four of us walked from one albergue to the next, only to find that all of them were full. They’d even put down mats on the floors to accommodate extra pilgrims. There wasn’t space to budge.

Again, there was no room at any of the inns.

What would we do?

(And are my blog posts too long?)

Camino Continues: Puente la Reina to Villatuerta

Distance to Santiago: 678.5km

Calf muscles finally beginning to feel normal after the Pyrenees 🙂

The walk out of Puente la Reina the next morning was grey. The clouds hung low and just as it had done in Pamplona, the sky spat irregular, cold blobs of rain. My shorts were still damp from the previous evening, as were the socks I’d worn. I might have dried them in the albergue except that there were 99 other pilgrims trying to do the same thing at the same time, so the tumble dryers were fully occupied for hours on end. I left my shorts to hang indoors overnight and hoped for the best. The narrating Swede tossed and turned all night, shaking the frame of the bunk bed violently. The only image that came to mind was that of a dog, shaking himself off after getting wet. It felt like the Swede was shaking himself with the same force and when he did, he shook me awake too. Still, the mattress was dry and thankfully free from someone else’s foot skin, so I couldn’t complain!

This was one of the few albergues to offer breakfast, so for €3.50 I was given a hot coffee, an orange juice, and a crusty baguette with butter and jam. It was already becoming the standard fare and it would become a staple in the 5+ weeks to follow. Baguette, baguette, and would you like some baguette with your baguette?!

Stepping out the front door of the albergue that morning I looked at the sky with trepidation. The rain was heavy enough to soak my shorts and socks a second time, and I thought about walking a shorter day if the rain persisted. I had only three pairs of socks with me and I tried to keep a dry pair in reserve, especially for the evening time.

One pair were already wet from the previous day and were packed away in my bag.

The second pair were on my feet, in the process of getting wet.

Walking in wet socks can lead to blisters.

The third pair were still dry but I was reluctant to put them on because then all three pairs would be wet.

So I wondered:

Am I better off walking in wet socks all day, possibly getting blisters, and keeping a dry pair in reserve?

or

Should I walk in the second pair until they become really soaked, and then change into the dry pair? Would doing that prevent me from getting blisters? And if all three pairs are wet, will I be able to dry out any of them before I start walking again tomorrow morning?

When you’re hoping to walk 800km and keep going for a few weeks, foot care becomes a high priority. I reckoned getting blisters was inevitable but I wanted to avoid them for as long as possible. Walking around in wet socks didn’t really help my case, but I’d chosen to walk in hiking sandals so this was one of the downsides. (In retrospect, the hiking sandals posed very little threat for blisters because they gave my toes plenty of space to move about – unlike boots and shoes. So I probably didn’t need to ruminate on the socks quite so much – I’ll know for next time!)

I decided to figure it out as I went along and made a mental note to self:

Must investigate a pair of hiking shoes soon, especially if the rain keeps up.

There was no point hanging around Puente la Reina. After watching the rain for 10 minutes with a group of other pilgrims I realised it wasn’t going to ease up. I’d either have to stay put for the day or get walking.

I chose to walk.

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The morning was damp and heavy for hours, and we spent the day passing through farms, vineyards, and olive groves. This section of the Camino includes one of the best examples of Roman road (yes, that’s some 2,000 years old), which is impressive, but a killer on the feet. I walked with a 22-year old Italian who, like me, had resigned from her job just before walking Camino. She was petite, with perfect olive skin and cropped pixie hair, and told me she spent about €500 a month on clothing and make-up. It wasn’t by choice – she was a manager in her company and her manager had pulled her aside and ordered her to wear more make-up, dress smartly, and make more of an effort. She admitted she earned good money but €500 a month was a lot to spend. There was an endless pressure to have the latest gadgets, the most stylish clothing, the designer handbags. True, it was a cultural thing, but even she could tell that at the age of 22 the pressure was only going one direction: up. So, she packed in her job, decided to walk Camino, and her mother joined her for the first week of walking. The two of them beamed from ear to ear, clearly relishing the freedom, the time together, and the whole endeavour (and not a scrap of make-up in sight).

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When I stopped in Lorca that afternoon for a break, I was unsure which coffee shop to stop in. There were only two, and they sat on opposite sides of the small street, facing each other. The menu outside the first one included paella but the place was packed and there was nowhere to sit. I dropped my bag on the footpath and walked into the second café. The menu consisted largely of Spanish omelette, bocadillo jámon (cured ham on baguette), or bocadillo tortilla (Spanish omelette on baguette). There wasn’t much else on offer but there was free space, so I ordered a coffee and a bocadillo jámon, and sat to gather my thoughts. The rain had cleared up and I looked at my map for the day, trying to decide how far to go. The Brierley Brigade would no doubt walk the 21.9km to Estella. I decided to stop at the previous village in the hope there’d be a bed for me in the 42-bed private hostel. If so, I’d stay there for the night. If not, I would walk on to Estella as my backup plan.

After coffee, I walked back across the street to reclaim my backpack and bumped into:

  • Canadians, Barb and Dave, whom I’d first met in Orisson, who had saved my socks from blowing away on the grassy Pyrenees, and whom I hadn’t seen in days!
  • 2 other Canadian ladies whom I’d met in Zabaldika, and who’d lost their friend – the one who sat on my legs while I was asleep in bed!
  • Kevin and Liz, who’d been lucky to get the last hotel room in rainy Puente la Reina, and wondered where I would stay that night
  • The delightful Champagne Camino ladies, whom I hadn’t seen since Zubiri, when the town had no free beds (ahem!)
  • Along with others

The coffee shop held maybe 30 seats and I knew half of the people sitting in them – talk about high school reunion!

Celebrations all round.

Though I’d already had my coffee and lunch, I sat for a second serving and reasoned that I’d have the calories burned off by bedtime. Bumping into the Champagne ladies was an absolute joy, and a timely one too. They’d planned to walk for only a week and as it happened, they were on their last day of walking that very afternoon. If I hadn’t met them in Lorca – in that very coffee shop –  we might have missed each other forever, and I would never have had the opportunity to say hello again, and goodbye. I didn’t even know their last names and wouldn’t have known how to track them down in the real world.

Last time we’d seen each other, Amanda had generously carried my backpack and they’d all buoyed my heavy heart as I trudged towards Zubiri. But of course, we’d lost track of each other in the intervening days – I’d been with the nuns in Zabaldika, a private pensión in Pamplona, and a rather industrial hostel in Puente la Reina. Those had been three rather full days and nights, and we had lots to catch up on. I still remember introducing them to someone else I knew in the café and accidently saying, “I met them a few years ago…” Of course, I had to catch myself and think: no, I met them only a few days ago. But a few days on Camino translated to a few years in the ‘real world’ and already, they felt like familiar friends.

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The Champagne Camino: Beverley, Marian, Amanda, and Jenny

We spent another hour together over lunch, this time swapping contact details, and we later walked the 4.7km to Villatuerta together. Swapping contact details, for me at least, was a good sign of friendship and intention. By the time I’d reached Lorca, I’d already met hundreds of new people on Camino. I chatted with some of them for only minutes, and others for hours, sometimes spanning across several days. I’d made great connections with people while still in St. Jean Pied de Port but had never seen them again. So too for every single day since. So, I’d already come to realise that everyone on Camino was transient and there was no telling where we’d all end up. If I wasn’t that interested in spending time with someone, I could wave them off and there were no hard feelings. Similarily, if someone wanted to shake me off, they could stop to take a break and we might never see each other again. I’d begun to realise that friendships needed more than just a spark of connection or shared interests – they needed time together. In such a transient experience, bumping into each other over and over was our equivalent of amassing time — time that, in the ‘real world’ would be spent growing up in the same neighbourhood, working together as colleagues, or spent partying in pubs and clubs. So, though I knew most of these people only a few days, we swapped contact details because we wanted to, and have stayed in touch – that’s why I’m allowed call them by name 🙂

These women had taken me under their wing on my very first evening in Orisson, as we all sat looking across the mountains. In Roncesvalles, we’d shared bottles of wine in the warm evening sunlight, and on the way to Zubiri they’d literally shared my loaded backpack. We’d only known each other a few days but they had seen me through some of my (literally) highest points and (figuratively) lowest points in all of Camino, and I was thrilled to bump into them again. Our last hour walking together was bittersweet, knowing we were coming towards the end.

In Villatuerta, they waited on the street while I ran in to the private albergue to ask if they had any habitación. The building smelled of incense, and large hammocks hung from the ceilings. This was like no albergue I’d ever seen and I thought: I have arrived! This is my kind of place. To my surprised delight, the lady told me that Kevin and Liz had booked in earlier and asked her to save a bed for me too. So yes indeed, they did have habitación for me.

Cheers Kevin & Liz!

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Out on the street, I hugged the ladies goodbye. We were all glad to know I had a great albergue for the night but disappointed that I wouldn’t be walking on to Estella with them. Thinking on it now, we could have had dinner and drinks together. Why didn’t I go the extra distance? I have no idea, but it was probably to do with the time of day and the likelihood of getting a bed later on down the road. Fingers crossed we’ll have dinner and drinks another time.

That evening, our albergue hosts cooked dinner for us – paella in a special pan that was about 1m in diameter – I’m not kidding. We scooped huge spoonfuls of the flavoured rice, peppers, onion, and chicken, onto our plates, and poured heavy-handed glasses of wine. Buen Camino, indeed!

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Stairway to Heaven(ly) Bed

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The albergue’s stamp on my pilgrim passport

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!