Camino Continues: Samos to Sarria

Distance walked: 15km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 115.2km

Handsome Husband’s arrival in Samos was quite the surprise. He hadn’t made a plan beyond finding me, so we had to figure out the logistics of food and a place to sleep. Given that he wasn’t a pilgrim, he wouldn’t have been allowed stay in the hostel (and I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have wanted to if he’d taken a look at the place!). Instead, we found a private room over a café across the road. For me, this was one of the few times I got a private room, although it was no 5-star suite. It was basic but clean and the cotton sheets, as always, were a sublime treat. It was good to get a break from the chorus of snoring in the shared dorms, too.

The next morning, on our first wedding anniversary, we set off on the trail towards Santiago, some 14km westwards. By then I had walked some 700km across France and Spain and I hadn’t taken a wrong turn along the way. That morning, in the company of Husband, I took a wrong turn. Fifteen minutes after we’d strapped on our backpacks and set out, we found ourselves right back where we started. We laugh about it now but at the time I was immensely frustrated. I just wanted to walk and I wasn’t used to the daily company, slowing me down and leading me astray. Plus, I wondered whether our wrong turn was a metaphor for something bigger: was married life always going to distract me in the opposite direction?!

Handsome Husband was full of enthusiasm and questions as we walked along the trail. We found wild almonds and apples, and he was like a child in his amazement. Me? I was like the wizened old dog by then, I’d already seen 700km of grapes and figs, almonds and sunflowers: I wasn’t so excited by these things any more. The difference between us struck me as really sad: I had been so absorbed in the daily “task” of walking, I thought I’d stopped being in awe of the landscape around me. I know now that I took it all in on a quieter level. I didn’t express the same surprise as he did, but I still remember the smells and the countryside as though I was there only last week. It all went in.

Husband wore jeans (jeans!), trainers, and a hoodie while he walked. He stood out like a tourist and I could barely believe he’d not brought any proper walking gear! He also very kindly carried my backpack but exclaimed how tiring it was to do so. Again, in my “old dog” mode I commented: try carrying it for 700km! We stopped for coffee and omelettes along the way, and tried to catch up on all that had happened in the weeks since we’d seen each other.

When someone asks you: “How was the camino?” it can be very tricky to answer. The obvious replies cover the weather, the food, the company. It’s easy to respond on these terms as though it’s a regular vacation. But, if you get into a different head space with all that walking, then it’s very tricky to evaluate the experience in a few sound bites. How could I tell him that I had changed on a fundamental level? How could I evaluate what that change was, or would mean, when I hadn’t yet articulated it to myself?

The 15km were among the slowest of my whole camino but I put it down to the distraction and the company! By the time we eventually arrived in Sarria, it was obvious to me that the final leg of the journey was going to be busy. The streets were full of fresh-faced pilgrims who’d very obviously just arrived and were getting ready to walk the last 100km or so to Santiago. They stood out in their pristine-looking gear and energetic strides. I met plenty of pilgrims who, like me, had been rattling around on the trail for weeks and who took a skeptical view of these new pilgrims. I don’t like to get into the “us versus them” mentality of the camino because in my experience, there was always someone faster or slower, always someone who’d walked a greater or lesser distance, and there was always someone who was more arrogant or humble. Comparing ourselves to others is a dangerous game. And yet, as I looked around the streets in Sarria, I found myself resenting these “blow-ins” who were doing the easy bit at the end, all to get a bit of paper.

Husband and I found a basic but spacious private room for the next two nights, and enjoyed the relative cosmopolitan vibe of the town. By that, I mean there was an Italian restaurant so we had an anniversary dinner that didn’t involve chorizo! That “down time” was sweet for us. I had been away for five weeks and had another week or so of walking to do. By then, I’d given up on the dream of walking from Santiago on to Finisterre. My feet were too sore, the weather was turning cold, and I’d heard that the hostels along the way were already closing up for the winter. That meant there were longer gaps between hostels and there was no way I was able to walk 30km between them. I was heavy-hearted about not being able to “finish” the way I had wanted to, but it was for the best.

So, the reunion with Husband allowed us to re-connect while I was still in Spain, still en route. I didn’t realize it at the time but it took the pressure off us having a big reunion at an airport or bus station. Like I said earlier, I was in a different head space while I was on camino, so flying home and reuniting with him all at once would probably have been overwhelming. Getting to see each other in Spain helped defuse all of that.

We drank cheap but delicious red wine and gazed out on to the night lights of Sarria. We wished each other a happy anniversary. We had a hiatus from our lives – me, from the exertion of walking and he from the exertion of work – and enjoyed being.

And then it was time to go.

 

 

 

Walking the Camino: The Wild Dogs of Villafranca

IMG_1141Distance walked: 29km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 194.8km

I left the small hotel in Cacabelos feeling renewed and optimistic again. The remaining journey, which had felt impossible only two days earlier, felt doable once more. The two nights of rest and good food had revived my flagging body, and meeting Marco and his Ricard had restored my faith in humanity. I had less than 200km to go and I was hopeful again about getting to Santiago in one piece.

Unlike earlier days on the camino, I walked out of Cacabelos with a new strategy for self-care. Specifically, I decided to take the ibuprofen tablets the pharmacist had suggested, and to build in more rest stops for my sore feet. I’d refused all pain relief up to that point but after a month of walking, I was sore. If I was going to continue, I had to do something different.

I didn’t want to take a bus and skip a section.

I didn’t want to stop for a week to rest.

I didn’t want to stop entirely and go home.

(Stubborn, me??!)

I wanted to walk the remaining distance but I couldn’t afford to overdo it so I had to get a lot more strict about my distances and rest stops. In retrospect, I should have worn some sort of arch support but I’ll know that for next time. 🙂

That morning, I was to pass through a town called Villafranca del Bierzo. All along the route, I’d heard about the wild /crazy /rabies-infested/ angry /wicked dogs in Villafranca. Depending on who I spoke to, the dogs were anywhere from mildly irritable to outright savage, chasing innocent pilgrims for miles along the trail. The thing is, there are two towns called Villafranca along the Camino Francés. Even though lots of people warned me about the dogs, no one seemed to know which Villafranca was the one to watch out for. I’d passed through one already: would this be the morning that I’d meet these blood-thirsty beasts?

As it happened, it wasn’t the morning for being ravaged by wild dogs – happily so, I might add! I didn’t see a single dog that morning (wild or tame) and passed through Villafranca without incident. Outside of town, I had to decide whether to take the “high road” into the mountains or to follow the “low road” along a national route. The former is more scenic but has more ups-and-downs. The latter is more flat but runs alongside a road full of cars.

Which one would I choose?

All the pilgrims around me that morning were asking the same thing. I’m sure some people asked just as a way of making conversation but others were just plain competitive. I met a lot of competitive people on camino – way more than I ever expected. I often wondered whether I imagined all these personalities, or maybe they were reflecting some sort of sensitivity in my personality. But when I met pilgrims who got competitive about the strength of my ibuprofen tablets (yes, I’m serious), I knew it wasn’t all in my imagination. There are always people who are “more” of whatever I am, (faster, fitter, more injured, whatever), so I learned to tune out a bit.

Unsurprisingly, I took the “low road”, alongside the roadway that everyone told me would be dirty, noisy, dangerous, and un-scenic. I wondered how all these people could know such a thing given they’d never walked it. As it turned out, the route suited me just fine. Yes, there were cars, and yes, I walked inside a metal barrier that would have offered very little protection if a truck went off the road and slammed into me. In that sense, it was dangerous. But crossing the road and walking along with my backpack was no more dangerous than any other day of walking in the previous month. There were plenty of small villages along the way so I had ample opportunity to stop for coffee and food, and I was happy to avail of fresh salad and cake! (And when I say “fresh”, I really mean it. The woman who made the salad pictured below actually climbed over a stone wall to retrieve the head of lettuce, so you really couldn’t get fresher!).

Mixed salad with a basket of bread: a fine feast for €5

Slate rooftop…getting closer to Galicia

The new motorway running through the Valcarce valley

The small village of Vega de Valcarce felt quieter than the previous villages along the way. It felt like a place that everyone had forgotten. The newly-built motorway transformed the Valcarce valley so that there was no passing traffic on the road any more. Even the pilgrims on foot were only passing through, and there was an unusual quietness in the hostel and in the streets. True, it was early October and the trail was getting quiet. The cooler weather meant that many pilgrims had gone home, and already I started hearing that the hostels between Santiago and Finisterre were closing down for the winter. I’d hoped to walk all the way to the coast but I hadn’t made any solid plans to do so. I needed to see if my feet would hold up the 800km to Santiago before committing to a further 100km. Even if they did, I’d need accommodation along the way. With hostels starting to close, it might not be a good time to walk that far. I decided to wait and see.

In the meantime, the hostel in Vega de Valcarce was a little rough around the edges but mostly sufficient. I got a bed without problem, the shower was mostly warm, and I bumped into a Los Angeles woman I’d met weeks earlier in Roncesvalles. We spent the evening swapping stories on our 600km along the way…and comparing notes on anti-inflammatory medications…ha ha ha! 🙂

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Kitchen & dining area in the hostel

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Yum!

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago & A Noisy Night in Acebo

Remaining distance to Santiago: More than 200km…still ages to go….!

 

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My night in Acebo was a bit of a strange one. After walking in the cold and rain to Cruz de Ferro, I was glad to get a lower bunk bed in a private hostel. The place seemed clean and rustic, and I gladly changed in to some dry clothes. Still, I felt chilled and couldn’t quite shake the feeling of flu, so I asked the volunteer staff member (hospitalerio) if I could make a cup of tea in the kitchen. It was about 4pm, so not quite lunch time and still hours away from dinner. I had my own green tea and I just needed to boil a mug of water…I was already day dreaming of curling up in one of the woollen blankets to write in my journal and look out at the rain…it was going to be great!

But if ever there was a guy having a bad day, this was the guy!

The poor man snapped at me and fiercely told me, NO! He then gave me a long lecture about it being a private kitchen and if he let everyone in there to make a cup of tea then he’d never be able to prepare the evening meal that we would all eat later on…this wasn’t one of those self-catering hostels, and people couldn’t just walk in and out when they liked…

So, no way was I allowed to make a cup of tea. That was his decision and the answer was no!

His abruptness caught me off guard and I have to say, I felt rather meek after his lecture. I apologised. I understood his situation. And I explained that I was feeling very cold and I just wanted to warm up, but again, I was sorry for interrupting. I didn’t know the kitchen was out-of-bounds.

And I backed out of his way, feeling rather deflated.

How was I going to warm up now?

A minute later, he ran after me to apologise and tell me of course I could  make some tea if I was feeling unwell. He didn’t mean to lose his temper. He was very sorry. And he explained that he was under such pressure to check-in the new pilgrims while simultaneously prepare an evening meal for us all. He was struggling with the multi-tasking. But he was a flood of regret and sincerity as he apologised, and I was on the edge of tears as we hugged and reconciled.

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It’s hard to articulate it now but there were points on camino when I felt as though all of my nerve endings and sensitivities were on the outside of my body, instead of neatly tucked away inside. In my everyday life, a random stranger losing their temper isn’t usually something to cry about. On camino, his harshness and quick temper really took me aback. The cup of tea represented warmth, wellness, and self-care. In that cold and rainy place, miles and miles from home, I just needed a bit of everyday comfort to ground myself. While I walked those 500 miles, I desperately missed having my own kitchen and the freedom to prepare my own food when, and how I like. So, when this guy chided me for wanting a cup of tea it hit a very frayed nerve.

That evening, our generous hospitalerio announced that he needed help with doing the dishes afterwards. It was only fair, given that he’d prepared a feast for us and shouldn’t have to clean up after 20+ people by himself. I observed the show of hands around the table as people offered to help.

Sure.

I can do that.

No problem.

And then I observed a curious dynamic unfold.

Pilgrim 1 called the room to silence so she could make a speech. This didn’t ordinarily happen on camino but was clear that she was used to commanding attention and speaking to groups. Everyone at the table quietened to a hush, and she publicly thanked our host for all his hard work and great food. She smiled, she charmed, and she publicly offered to help with the clean-up afterwards.

And then we all happily clinked our glasses of wine and toasted our hospitalerio.

Later, when the time came, I observed her hone in on a physiotherapist for an intense conversation about her feet, while a dozen pilgrims around her carried plates and moved the chairs. She didn’t even look up when someone cleared away her plate, too. She had publicly offered to help but when the time came, she ignored the hullaballoo and all the people in it.

Did she help with the dishes?

Nope.

Did she do what she had so publicly offered to do?

Nope.

All talk, no action.

Pilgrim 2 sat quietly at the table and like the rest of us, ate a hearty meal and drank more than one glass of wine over the course of the evening. When our hospitalerio asked her directly, and publicly, to help with the 6-7 other people who’d volunteered to do the dishes, she said Yes. But when the time arrived, I watch her quietly slink away to a corner chair with a glass of wine in one hand and a paperback novel in the other. While other pilgrims carried platters and started scrubbing the saucepans, she disappeared into the half-light and ignored us all.

Did she help with the dishes?

Nope.

Did she do what was asked of her?

Nope.

Says one thing, does another.

For days afterwards, I struggled with a response to the evening’s events.

Should I have said something and if so, what?

I didn’t want to label the women as selfish asses but I also couldn’t understand how they had turned their backs. Maybe they didn’t know that our hospitalerio was under stress but still, shouldn’t they have done their bit to help?

That night, I curled up in my lower bunk bed glad of the warmth, the dry clothes, and the feast in my belly. Unlike countless nights before, there was no one snoring, no one getting up to the bathroom every five minutes, and no one packing their backpack at midnight. There was, however, a couple in the bunk above mine, and they didn’t let the lack of privacy interrupt their…ahem…cuddling!Even though I heard lots of things about camino, I had never heard about *that*.

In Acebo I heard it all!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A High Point on Camino de Santiago

Distance walked: 17km

Elevation gain: 355m

Remaining distance to Santiago: 225.7km

When I left Rabanal at 6:30am, the ground was still wet from heavy rain overnight. Thankfully my socks and shoes were dry but as I peered out from under my dripping wet poncho, I felt a bit dubious about how the day would hold up. The poncho didn’t cover my bare legs and already they were feeling a bit chilly. Up there at 1,150m above sea level, the air was definitely colder than it had been in the meseta, just days earlier. I was a long way from where I started and I was edging further into Autumn. I already felt that all this larking around in sunny Spain was coming to an end!

For many of the pilgrims around me, a high point of their camino was only a few kilometers up ahead: La Cruz de Ferro. Literally, this iron cross stands 1,504m above sea level and, in the words of Brierley, “…has become one of the abiding symbols of the pilgrim way of St. James. Pause a while to reconnect with the purpose of your journey before adding your stone or other token of love and blessing to the great pile that witnessses our collective journeying.”

When I packed my bag weeks earlier, I included a small token to place at this famous landmark on the Camino Francés. Friends had told me that this was a nice symbolic moment on their camino journeys and I imagined that it would be a resonant moment for me, too. After all, I’d walked all that way, I’d done a whole bunch of reflecting and resolving…surely I would want to mark all of that with the placing of my “stone”, right?

In between the showers and the drizzle, the rain clouds hung low and heavy. I knew I was up high but I never considered that the wind would pick up so it was a shivery walk for me. The trail was slippery underfoot and the cold motivated me to keep moving. In retrospect, I probably should have put on some long pants when I realised, even after an hour of walking, that my body wasn’t really warming up. Instead, I shivered along the trail that morning and tried to keep some dry clothes in my pack for later that evening. Was it a smart move on my part? Maybe not the smartest!

*My* high point that day wasn’t the iron cross standing tall in the landscape. It wasn’t even the thrill of reaching the summit of Puerta Irago. Surprisingly, my high point was stopping for coffee at Albergue Monte Irago. That morning, any sort of shelter from the rain and cold would have been welcome, but I was entirely tickled with delight to wander into this place.

Amazingly, a wood fire crackled and burned in the stone fireplace inside the door. How perfect on such a day! Second, I drank my coffee from a *mug* rather than a small cup, as was the standard everywhere else on camino. I don’t know about you but for me, there’s nothing like curling up with a mug of hot coffee on a wet day…I don’t want a measly cup that’s going to run dry after three mouthfuls. I want a generous and comforting mug: I want to know that the warmth will last a bit longer!

The rustic benches were filled with pilgrims in animated laughter. The air smelled of coffee and sweet cake and, unsurprisingly, wet clothes, steaming in the warmth of the fire. In the corner,  bars of fair trade chocolate and baskets of organic fruit were available to buy and given there wasn’t another coffee stop till the far side of the peak (some 11km away with ups and downs), it was a great opportunity to replenish my sugar supplies. 🙂

This little café was a personal highlight. It’s not just that it was warm and cosy on a particularly drippy morning. Anywhere would have given some shelter but the wood fire was a particularly nice touch. I appreciated that they went to the bother of it. I also loved that the place was full of heart and charm and a quirky décor. By then, I’d stopped in countless cafés along camino and even though I was always grateful for the break, *this* place felt different. The staff weren’t harried, the furniture wasn’t made of formica, and there were hearty mugs of coffee all round.

There was lots to love! 🙂

With a warm belly of coffee and cake, I ventured out into the bleak drizzle and walked the uphill 6.5km to the iron cross. My poncho was noisy with rain. My legs felt the chill of the wind. In front and behind, a slow line of pilgrims bent into the wind all heading for the same destination. I contemplated on the token I would leave there and what sentiment I hoped to leave with it. I really wanted to imbue it with great personal meaning but the sentiment kept escaping me, like some sort of slippery fish.

I walked with Kevin and Liz and was glad of the company but I wasn’t prepared for how suddenly the cross appeared. I literally rounded a bend and there it was. Casual as you like! I also wasn’t ready to “let go” of the sentiment I thought I would leave behind. Even after all that time, all that walking, all that reflection: I could leave the physical token, sure, but the emotional one was a bit harder to drop.

Up close, the rocks were strewn with laminated photos, ribbons, and holy medals. In the rain, I spotted handwritten notes and memorial cards for the dead, and countless pebbles in different colours and textures. Thousands of pilgrims before me had carried those stones from all around the world: from beaches, from woodlands, from their own back yards. They’d carried them across Spain and left them all here as a testament to their journey. And what else did they leave with them? Grief? Gratitude? I’d never know.

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I imagined I might linger a while, reflect, and really commit it all to memory but honestly, the cold and the wet were so miserable that I got moving again as quickly as I could. I left my physical token. I didn’t manage to really leave behind the emotions or conflict I wrestled with, but standing around in the cold and rain wasn’t going to change that. I walked onwards toward the peak (1,515m) and then down the far side of the mountain.

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Thankfully, the sky in the distance looked lighter. The rain cleared. And what was that up ahead? A cluster of houses marking the small village of Acebo and hopefully, some warm soup for lunch. And depending on what the weather did, maybe a bed for the night too.

So glad!

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Rambling onwards to Rabanal del Camino

Distance walked: 21.4km (23.4km when adjusted for the climb of 400m)

Remaining distance to Santiago: 242.7km

Walking from Astorga to Rabanal del Camino, I noticed a sharp change in the landscape and the weather. Purple rain clouds replaced the endless blue skies. The yellow sandy trail turned darker, too. The expansive landscape closed in on itself a bit: there were more trees, more walls, and more interruptions to the eye. The Meseta was well and truly behind me but what lay ahead?

Well, cold and rainy mountains, as it happens. I wrapped up in a mid layer of fleece and put on my ridiculous orange poncho in an effort to keep warm and dry. I had bought another fleece in Astorga (thanks for the tip, Kevin!) but I didn’t want to put it on unless absolutely necessary. I couldn’t risk getting all of my clothes wet: I needed to keep a few warm and dry pieces for later that evening.

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Rambling to Rabanal

All around me, new pilgrims were walking westwards towards Santiago. A fresh influx of people had joined at Astorga, so I spent the day in animated chatter with pilgrims who were upbeat in both their walking and in their mood. Initially, the incline was gentle and the weather still dry. As the morning wore on, the wind picked up, the rain clouds gathered (and emptied!), and the gradient got steeper. I felt a different sort of ache in my body: not just the ache of sore feet or shoulders, but the early presence of a cold. Nothing to panic about, but I *really* wanted to get a bed in the parish hostel in Rabanal. I didn’t want to walk on further: I just wanted to get well for the next day and for climbing to Cruz de Ferro – the highest point on my 800km journey (1505m). I spent the last kilometers daydreaming of a hot shower, a hot meal, a hot coffee, a warm bed…notice the theme?!

Rabanal, for me, was a surprise delight on my camino. I already felt I was on the final third of my walking pilgrimage and the changes in the landscape reinforced that feeling. The mountains were cooler and a bit more strenuous, and Rabanal was a gentle tonic on both my body and my spirit. By the time I arrived I was cold and wet, and I needed to stop walking for the day. The parish hostel, thankfully, had a bed, and I was especially thrilled to get a lower bunk and some wool blankets for the night. In a restaurant across the road, I ordered lunch, consisting of a bowl of “vegetarian soup”, which clearly had a very meaty stock and my God it was delicious! The portion of green beans could have easily served four, and dripped with chorizo oil and salt: AM-A-ZING!

That evening, the pilgrim mass was particularly moving. The plaster work crumbled from the walls inside the stone church, as the seats filled with pilgrims from all around the world. We sat in a sort of reverent hush. By now, everyone had heard of the Gregorian chants that made this particular mass different to all the rest. We waited in silence while candles gently flickered and burned beside us. Not a word, just gentle shuffling as more pilgrims arrived and we each moved a little to make space.

Waiting.

Quietly waiting.

And then: monks in dark robes, lowly singing. Deep, resonant, manly voices in enchanting harmonies. And Latin! Of course! And yet, such a surprise.

Each verse slowly vibrated through the small church, like a spool of thread slowly coming undone. It felt like the walls themselves could sing if only because they’d held so much song already in the years past. A few smart phones lit up as people took photos but then, they quickly disappeared again, tucked away in pockets and purses. They were too intrusive. The gentle chanting needed to be seen and breathed – not recorded.

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I imagine that the mass was no shorter or longer than any other pilgrim mass I attended along the way…but it felt timeless. The Gregorian chanting transported all of us into another time and heart space, and the experience was strangely healing. I didn’t know what needed healing (except, maybe, my head cold and my sore feet) but I came away feeling lighter and deeply calm.

I didn’t note the time when it finished: instead, I lit candles for loved ones and I quietly absorbed the stillness. The hostel would be loud and busy and I was in no rush to join the mayhem. Instead, I sat and gave thanks. I enjoyed the time out. And I recorded it all to heart. There are few places on Camino Francés that I would consider returning to, but Rabanal is one of them.

 

 

Camino Francés: Onwards to Astorga

Distance walked: 15.8km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 264.1km

Link: https://www.pinterest.com/san265/gaudi/

Gaudi Palace in Astorga

Between the towns of Hospital de Órbigo and Astorga, the camino path divides in two. One path follows the N-120 national highway for 10km or so: the other meanders through countryside and small villages. The highway route is shorter but less scenic. The countryside route is longer but has cafés and hostels along the way.

Which path would *you* choose?

Just like my approach to Burgos, I accidentally took the less-scenic path. To be honest, I wasn’t even fully aware of a “non-scenic” version because I left my guide book in my backpack and just followed the signs I saw along the way.  It was only when I was somewhere on that very long and very loud stretch of highway did I wonder:

Where *is* everyone?

I could see the outline of only 3-4 pilgrims in the far distance ahead of me and behind me. Usually, I’d see dozens of people but that morning there was almost no one around. Very strange.

It was only later in the morning when I stopped for coffee and happily bumped into Kevin and Liz that I realized what had happened. We caught up on everything that had happened since our chance encounter in León, days earlier. They excitedly asked:

Did you stop at Dave’s place?

Huh?

You know, Dave’s hut with all the fruit and juices and organic food? Their smiles were broad and inviting. They were eager to compare notes and swooning for this mystery man, Dave.

Hmmmmmm….huh? I asked again, feeling utterly lost.

Only then did we realize that I had taken the highway route while everyone else took the countryside route.

Ahhhhhh….so that’s where everyone was!

Turns out, I missed out on famous Dave’s Casa de los Dioses, just outside San Justo de la Vegawhich was a refuge for countless pilgrims on the move. The story goes that Dave walked the camino years earlier and was so transformed by the experience that he decided to set up a quirky café, in service to other pilgrims. With hundreds of other coffee stops along the 800km route, you might be inclined to think his motives were purely financial. Apparently not. I’m told he was full of smiles, warm hugs, and spirited conversation. His hut provided an abundance of fresh fruit and juices, made with laughter and love. His pit stop wasn’t just for the weary body: it was a tonic for the weary soul, too. Everyone that stopped there not only loved the place but they loved Dave himself, too. So, when Kevin and Liz realized that I had missed out on this colorful experience, their faces dropped in disappointment.

Oh, you would have *loved* it! they gushed.

I was so enchanted by their enthusiasm that I very nearly thought about turning back to go find him. I didn’t do it though. Instead, I walked on to Astorga, passing a busker on the descent into the town and delighted in the surprise of live music. The musician played in time to my pace and then jauntily danced alongside me for a moment, like a medieval minstrel!

In Astorga, the rain clouds gathered and I spent much of the afternoon with Kevin and Liz, drinking hot chocolate, viewing Gaudi’s palace, and later that evening, feasting on delicious pizza in a traditional Italian restaurant. I’m not exaggerating when I say the evening was a tonic for my soul. Even though I loved walking by myself each day, I loved sharing good company in the evenings. Walking solo meant that I didn’t always have someone to eat my evening meal with and while I was often okay with that, I sometimes felt an emptiness. The previous evenings in Hospital de Órbigo I had dined alone (if you could even call it that!), and I hadn’t enjoyed it. Here in Astorga, I felt buoyed by the great company and the sense of community that had begun in Orisson when I first met the couple. Sharing dinner with them felt like catching up with old friends – a surprise sensation when I knew them only a month or so. For all my introversion and desire to walk alone, I couldn’t deny that sharing the journey with good people made everything sweeter.

Just as it is in camino, so it is in life, too. 😀

Camino de Santiago: A Lesson in Self-Care

In Hospital de Órbigo, I took stock of where I was on my camino journey.  I had walked about 500km by then – an astonishing amount. Roughly speaking, the city of León had opened up the final third of the journey so it felt like a good time to reflect on what I was learning along the way.

My journal is full of conflicts about how I wanted to walk. It was one thing to put “one-foot-in-front-of-the-other” but I was concerned too about the state of my heart. Was I feeling impatient or compassionate? Was I being judgemental or open-minded? How had I been for the 500km already walked and how did I want to be for the remaining 300km ahead?

There was lots to reflect on.

In Hospital de Órbigo, I met a pilgrim who referred to her tendonitis as a disability (I kid you not), and planned to take buses for the remainder of the journey.

I felt a knot of conflict in my chest.

Personally, I don’t think swollen tendons are a disability.

Is the condition painful? Sure.

It it as life-changing as a disability and as significant as all that the term entails? Hmmm…no.

So, I thought this woman was a bit dramatic and self-absorbed.

And then I felt guilty for judging her because really, what right did I have to pass comment?

And *then* I felt conflicted about whether I should, like her, “take care of myself” and take a bus and give my body a break? Should I take ibuprofen every day like so many of the other pilgrims around me? Should I rest more, go to a doctor, and find a massage therapist?

My answer to all of those things was an emphatic No.

I didn’t think my pain was serious enough to merit intervention of any kind. I knew that once I got home, had a bit of sleep, and stopped walking 25-30km every day with a heavy bag on my back, I’d be fine. So my plan was to “get through” my discomfort until then. I didn’t think much of alleviating that discomfort or, perish the thought, omitting it entirely! That decision was a conflict for me throughout my camino. I felt rather purist in my intention to walk every step but there was no denying that other pilgrims seemed to be in less pain or seemed to be having a lot more fun.

I couldn’t ignore the fact that there might be some good in taking pain relief and/or buses: I just couldn’t bring myself to avail of that goodness.

On reflection, that mindset permeated my camino journey: my emphasis was on enduring it rather than enjoying it.

I was somewhat aware of it at the time and regretted it, but also didn’t know how to change it.

I met countless pilgrims from around the world who had spent years preparing, researching, and anticipating their camino journey. Compared to me, they seemed to lap up every sunrise and every cup of coffee with a sort of marvelous wonder. I was ashamed of my attitude and at the same time, felt immense pressure to keep going. Handsome Husband had made plans to meet me in Santiago and somehow, I needed to arrive there by a certain date. I didn’t want to take a bus. I didn’t want to take a train. If I was going to walk it, then I wanted to walk it well.

That all sounded fine and dandy but I just couldn’t figure out my definition of “well” and what it meant for my walking journey.

In Hospital de Órbigo, I took the time to rest and reflect. I took the time to figure out what I needed for the remainder of my walk. I had pushed hard for three and a half weeks already and I had often felt over-exposed and emotional. For the remainder of my journey, I wanted to feel more centred and calm. I wanted to feel more generous of heart. I wanted to walk well and I wanted to arrive well, too. And that last point, right there, is a whole other philosophy for life. Camino, like life, isn’t just about the destination: the journey itself (and how you live it) is key.

So, Handsome Husband and I cancelled our plans to meet in Santiago. I couldn’t sustain walking 30km every day for the following 10 days: I needed another rest day somewhere along the route. I needed to take better care of myself. I needed to go a bit more gently. What a liberation to say all of this aloud and feel heard! Handsome Husband took the news with a gracious heart and assured me there was no pressure: he only wanted for me to be well. He’s a good man, that one! ;-D

And so, unexpectedly, my two nights in “Hospital” were a chance to rest and recover in all sorts of ways. I left with renewed strength and optimism, and some lessons for the rest of my life.

My point in all of this?

If you’re like me, you might not know how to get what you need. Heck, maybe you’re so busy “enduring” life that you don’t even know what you need sometimes. And maybe you feel the twinge of conflict when you see someone else getting (or indeed, taking) what they need. Those twinges are uncomfortable but also informative. Those twinges can help identify what you value, what’s lacking, and what you want to do differently.

Don’t ignore the twinges of conflict: investigate them and learn. Take the time to rest and reflect. Allow yourself to discover what you need in your life to take it. You might just find, like me, that your life involves a little less pain and a lot more fun!

 

 

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. 🙂

Camino de Santiago: Deciding whether to stay in León

A girl could get used to this…

Distance walked: 26.4km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 309km

The walk out of Mansilla de las Mulas was flat and happily uneventful. After the previous day’s walk,  my feet and shoulders were exceptionally sore and I walked a bit more gingerly than usual. As the morning wore on, my muscles warmed up, the coffee worked its magic, and I found a pace I could comfortably sustain. Like all the days before me, I just put one foot in front of the other.

By then, I’d already covered nearly 500km of the route so I was well and truly past the half way mark. Honestly, I felt it. I felt like a bit of a nomad. All that open landscape and blue, blue sky had altered my sense of…everything. Surprisingly, I enjoyed that the trail was significantly quieter than every other stretch of the camino. Similarly, I enjoyed the expansiveness of such a flat landscape. And even though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, a week of walking through the Meseta really made me feel like I was a long way from home – not just in terms of miles, but in terms of mindset, too. Everywhere else on camino, supermarkets and people and newspaper stands reminded me that I was effectively on holidays in another country. Out in the Meseta though, I felt different. I don’t know if it’s because farming towns and villages are different, or because there were so few people, or because of the landscape itself, but I really felt I was on a journey, not just on holidays. And that wasn’t a bad thing.

All the pilgrims planned to stop in the city of León later that day. After a week of wheat and corn fields, they were looking forward to a cityscape again, with the famous cathedral and some fine dining. Me? I was kind of “done” with the Meseta too. I’d seen enough wheat and corn, and I needed a bit of visual diversity again. But honestly, I wasn’t ready to be in a city – even one as small as 130,000 people. I didn’t care about the cathedral. I didn’t care about shopping or restaurants or staying in a nice hotel. I was happier out in the countryside.

León was bustling with energy and spirit. Natives, pilgrims, and regular (by that I mean non-pilgrim) tourists poured through the cobbled streets, filling the air with laughter and chat. I followed the yellow arrows through the streets, all the while trying to decide whether to stay in the city that night. Though I had started camino on a one-way ticket and had no planned return date, things had changed in the meantime. I had booked a return flight home and so, I needed to be in Santiago by a specific date.

Did I feel pressured by that timeline?

Absolutely.

And yet, I felt that I didn’t want to stay in Spain for more than six weeks. I might have felt greatly detatched from my life at home but I didn’t want to make that a reality by staying any longer.

So, I wandered through León, feeling the atmosphere as I went, and tried to decide what to do.

I wanted to stop for some food and a rest.

I wanted to stop and reflect a little while.

I wanted to decide whether to push on to Santiago for a specific date, or to go a bit more slowly.

I rounded a corner and came into an open square, filled with outdoor tables and chairs in anticipation of lunchtime. Delighted that they were all in the shade, I pulled up a chair and removed my sweaty backpack, and consulted the menu. And then, with no forewarning or pre-planning, I spotted someone I knew: Kevin! The same guy I’d met way back on Day 1 in Orisson, and whom I’d bumped into countless times since, was in León! We hadn’t seen each other in days, but it felt like months or even years. We hadn’t planned to meet so to spot him right there, right then, was such a joy.

Amazing serendipity!

He ran to retrieve Liz and together, the three of us sat for lunch in the shady square. I feasted on paella and wine, and considered my options for the road ahead. Liz, a great listener, helped me articulate my reservations about staying in León. I might have been the only pilgrim that day who didn’t want to stop in the city and take in its sights, but Liz gently coaxed me to do what I wanted to do. And so, when the food was eaten and the wine was drunk, I stood up to bid them farewell. I’d have loved to stay on for dinner  that evening but the road called: I wanted to keep walking. Right before I left, Liz undid a delicate scapular from around her own neck and gently placed it around mine. I’ve never been one to wear religious tokens but she hoped that it would help me with the decision-making that lay ahead. I hoped so too, and I gladly wore the piece for the remainder of my camino, and beyond.

And then, I walked out of the shady square into the bright afternoon sunlight, leaving Kevin and Liz behind me, again, until God knows when.

Other blogs and guidebooks are filled with criticism for the walk out of León, towards La Virgen del Camino. They talk about poor signage and an ugly landscape. I suppose, after the beauty and grandeur of León, those 6km are a bit rough. That day, I didn’t see that at all. I felt lighthearted and happy to be on the move so those 6km, while searingly hot, were some of the happiest kilometers in my camino journey. That’s what happened when I walked camino in my own way. 😀

 

 

My Camino Prayer

When I walked the camino, I did so with a deeply-held prayer in my heart. It was a prayer that I said quietly, with all the sincerity that my tired & sore self could muster.

Now, those who know me well that I rarely speak of prayer or “the G word“. I almost never speak of these things aloud because, for me, belief systems are a very private affair. I don’t resonate with the public bells and whistles, I prefer the quiet connection.

So, to speak of prayer is not my usual comfort zone. My camino prayer began before I ever flew to France to start my walk. And it ended? Well, honestly I think it’s still echoing through my life.

The prayer?

It was simple, really.

You’ll remember that I landed in France with a quickly cobbled plan to walk 500 miles to Santiago. On my first night in St. Jean Pied de Port, I met pilgrims who’d spent two years physically training, and assembling and testing their gear. They’d read blogs and books. They prepared for all sorts of scenarios. They raised their eyebrows at my rash impulsiveness and I imagined that they judged me for being a reckless fool.

Thing is: they had a point.

I had done none of their preparation and boy, I felt that lack. But what I *did* have, was a strong heart and a strong spirit for the quest ahead. There was no doubt that I was doing the right thing. The doubt was in my ability to rise to the challenge before me.

So every day on camino, this was my prayer:

“I want to keep going. Please. Give me whatever it is I need to keep going.”

Give me the ability. Give me the stamina. Give me hope. Give me sunscreen. Give me blister-free feet. Give me lightness and calm. Give me all the things I-don’t-even-know-I-need, because I don’t even know what lays ahead.

Every night, I needed a safe place to sleep. I needed food. I needed proper walking shoes. I needed dry socks and clean underwear. I needed the strength to carry my backpack. I needed help putting one foot in front of the other. These were all very physical and practical needs.

But the other things I needed? Well, I found tremendous hope in my conversations with Kevin & Liz, Madonna & Brian. I found great relief in my chats with Peter. I found generosity with Barb and Dave. I found lightness and laughter with Marco and Ricard. I found the unspoken truth with Margaret.

We all need hope, relief, generosity, lightness and laughter. We all need truth.

On camino, I knew that I faced an unknown challenge. I couldn’t plan for every eventuality and I knew I would need help. So, I bowed in to the greater forces of this world and I asked for help. I didn’t know what I needed, so I also asked that my needs would somehow be anticipated and somehow be met.

And they were.

Every day in life, we need countless supports to get up and engage with the world. Every day, a bunch of our needs are met without us ever thinking about it. If you’re anything like me, you don’t go around with a list of hourly requests but yet, a flurry of your needs are anticipated and met, each and every day. And again, if you’re anything like me, you don’t always remember to count out each of those successes and give thanks for them.

On camino, my attention and focus were different. I was acutely aware of my needs being met and I was acutely aware of giving thanks. And still, every day, I walked out of my hostel in the early morning light with the same, humble prayer:

“I want to keep going. Please. Give me whatever it is I need to keep going.”

I walked. I did my utmost each day to “show up” and do as best I could. The greater forces “showed up” too and took care of the behind-the-scenes details. Between us, there was a sort of magic and I came home a profoundly changed woman.

The prayer worked and it’s worked ever since, too.

So, I share it with you in case you’re going through trials with your own camino or your own life right now. Maybe it will bring luck and light to your life too. I hope it does. 🙂

 

 

 

Passing the Half Way Point on Camino Francés…and Still Going

Distance walked: 23.7km

Distance to Santiago: 360.6km (Despite what the photo says!)

Walking the Camino de Santiago on a Sunday is a bit different to walking any other day of the week. Shops and supermarkets are closed so if you need to buy a new rain jacket or some picnic supplies on a Sunday, you might find yourself disappointed. Generally, I discovered the shutters pulled and the front doors locked. Smaller village shops *may* open for a couple of hours in the morning so you might be lucky in buying a few basic supplies but otherwise, you’ll have to wait.

This makes small villages particularly quiet on a Sunday. Depending on your preference, you might find this stifling and dull or delightfully relaxing.

Me? I had no reason to hang around San Nicolás del Real Camino that Sunday morning so I enthusiastically walked on to Sahagún 6-7km away. I was hungry and in search of breakfast, and while I walked I imagined plates of fresh fruit, with pancakes and syrup and pots of hot coffee and bowls of oatmeal. After weeks of baguette, I wanted something different. My taste buds cried out for berries and pears and pineapple. As I walked, I convinced myself that Sahagún would have such a feast on a Sunday morning. There’d be some quirky café open for breakfast and brunch, and I’d sit in, listening to funky music, eating my (no doubt) organic, sustainably sourced feast.

And it would be *am-a-zing!*

Right?

Ha ha….nope!

On the way in to town, I passed through these beautiful markers, reminding me that I was half way between St. Jean Pied de Port and Santiago. In some ways, I felt I  had already travelled more than that but I stopped for a break and aired out my feet. When other pilgrims came up behind me and wanted to take photos of the monuments I had to shuffle out of their view. Hence, I never got around to taking photos of my own 🙂

Click to image to see the photo credit

Sahagún has a population of some 170,000 people so I imagine that some version of my (imaginary) pancake & granola café is there somewhere. In a town that size, there’s surely some potential for it. On that Sunday morning, however, I didn’t find it. I didn’t come even close. Every little café and corner shop I passed on my way in to town was firmly closed up. My dream for pancakes and oatmeal seemed increasingly absurd. I’d be lucky to get breakfast of any sort, never mind my imaginings! Walking camino is not like everyday life and even though I craved a bit of normality that morning, it just wasn’t happening. So, when I finally happened on an open café I was thrilled. And I was happy to eat the baguette, the chocolate croissant, the eggs, and two cups of coffee. Hunger is a great sauce 🙂 And across the road? A small corner shop was open so I stocked up on baguette, tinned tuna, and fruit. I was set.

Sahagún is remarkably historical and significant and others have written about it far more than I ever could. If I had stopped off some other day of the week I might have made an event of it but that Sunday morning at 8am, everything was closed and looked like it would be for the remainder of the day. I crossed over the river Cea and walked on.

Making my way to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos was mostly uneventful. The day was hot and dusty, and I was hopeful that there’d be space for me in the 22-bed hostel. I had chosen to walk 8.7km of an old Roman road as part of my journey to get there so the walk was tiring and sore, and I didn’t really have it in me to go on any further.

In the last 2-3km, a woman appeared suddenly at my shoulder. She’d come up from behind without me even knowing she was there, and she started to chat.

Where had I come from?

Where was I going?

I revealed that I hoped to stay in the hostel up ahead. She too, hoped to stay there but then revealed all the fear. She’d heard that there were no beds left. She’d heard that they didn’t open on a Sunday. She’d heard that if there was no space there that we’d all be stuck because there’s not another hostel for more than 20km!

And then she abruptly ended the conversation with me and ran off ahead.

Why?

To beat me to the hostel.

To get a bed before I arrived.

To maybe take the last one available.

And not for the first time while I walked camino, my heart sank.

Maybe I am foolish and naïve but in *my* head, I would have thought we could walk those last 2-3km together, continue the chat, and investigate the hostel together. If there were beds available, great. If not, then we could unite in finding alternative accommodation or in taking a taxi to the next spot, 20km away. She wasn’t my friend but she wasn’t  my enemy, either. I had no reason to not walk and talk with her, and share some of the journey.

But how sad that she saw me as a threat and literally ran ahead of me. What would she have done if, after all that running, there was no space for either of us? What would she have done then? Would she have pretended to befriend me again or would she have ignored me while pursuing her own agenda? I’ll never know.

As it happened, there was plenty of space for both of us and for everyone who turned up after us, too. Our hospitalero was warm and generous in his welcome, and greeted everyone with a wide smile. He exuded positivity.

So all that fear and all those rumours about there being no space? Most of the time, the rumours weren’t true. There was no need for the fear. And there *really* was no need to outrun and outdo each other.

But that’s my feeling on it all. What’s yours?

 

 

The Secret to Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Walking in Spain: From Villambistia to Atapuerca

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Distance walked: 23.6km

Elevation Gain: Approx. 300m

After breakfast in Epinosa del Camino, I pottered off into the early morning darkness. One of the sweet things about walking Camino is that the sun came up at my back every morning while I walked westwards. So, even though I may have started walking in darkness, the light gradually and gently changed as the morning wore on. Because I wasn’t facing into the sun, the change was beautifully subtle. And I developed a great tan on the backs of my legs from the sun behind me! I’m not a morning person at the best of times, but I came to relish the birdsong and changing light at the beginning of each day.

Somewhere along the way, I’d heard that there were packs of vicious wild dogs outside a town called Villafranca. The rumour had travelled backwards along the trail, and I had heard it days before – from a woman I walked with on the way to Los Arcos. She gave me 2 pieces of advice:

1. Before entering the town, grab a fistful of gravel from the ground and use it to throw at the dogs, if necessary.

and

2. Don’t walk into town alone. Walk in a group of 3 people, or more.

I love dogs but I thought both pieces of advice sounded reasonable, all things considered.

Thing is, there are two towns called Villafranca along the Camino route in northern Spain. I didn’t know which one she referred to. I looked at my map that morning and discovered that I would pass through Villafranca No.1, and I didn’t know whether to expect a pack of wild, vicious dogs.

I imagined a gang of them, with foaming mouths and matted hair. I imagined them covered in lice and ticks, half-starved and desperate to gorge on my innocent pilgrim blood. I’ve known my share of wicked dogs in life and they don’t generally scare me, but still, this was different. I was quite alone on the trail that morning, and my legs were very, very bare in just a pair of summer shorts. Depending on how vicious and angry they were, I thought my chances of coming away unharmed were somewhat slim. I psyched myself for the worst.

And at the same time, I wondered how a gang of vicious wild dogs were allowed patrol the camino like that, given the volume of people passing through each week. It just didn’t add up.

That morning, I passed through Villafranca Montes de Oca without major incident. Contrary to the rumours, there were no packs of wild dogs awaiting my arrival into town, or on my exit either. The highlight was the cup of coffee I stopped for, before embarking on the climb up through the mountains. There was nowhere else to stop for the next 12.4km and I needed all the sustenance I could get. I hoped to buy a takeaway sandwich (the daily infusion of baguette with chorizo) but there was no joy on that front. Even though the café bar had just received a delivery of 24 fresh, metre-long baguettes (and I should know, I saw the guy from the bakery drop them off), they declined to make me a sandwich. They explained politely, but very firmly, that sandwiches were for lunch and it was too early to serve lunch. So, they would not serve me a sandwich, even though I was one of the only customers there, and they had all the ingredients to hand. There was no way I was getting any lunch food until it was definitely lunch time.

Bureaucracy lives on!

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Looking at the photo above, I still remember the heady smell of pine trees and heather, as I walked through the morning fog. After the vineyards of Rioja and the open farmyard of previous days, the mountainy, woodland smells stood out as something different. I was somewhere new. The fog was cloying and damp, but I remained dry despite my summer shorts and bare legs. I could smell the dirt. I could hear the satisfying crunch of the gravel underfoot. I climbed slowly and steadily. Compared to previous mornings of bright sunshine and light, this particular morning felt like autumn. The weather and the smells were altogether different.

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Remembering this day brings up a mixture of memories. While I still walked through the 12km of woodland, I came across a Spanish family who walked camino together. They had the appearance of people on a day hike – small backpacks, or none at all. Tank tops and jeans. Running shoes. A mixture of ages – parents, aunts, teenage children, smaller children. They were quite a gang. They chatted loudly and their squeals broke the silence of the morning. I heard them long before I saw them.

By then, I was on my 12th day of walking and the initial sheen was starting to wear off. By then, the people who walked for only one week had already gone home. By then, the remaining pilgrims had divided between the people who walked fast, and the slower ones – like me. I sometimes felt that camino was like Darwin’s survival of the fittest. After all, the people who were strong or could walk quickly, often had their choice of hostels each day, while others got stuck for a place to sleep. Physical strength and financial resources created an unequal playing field, at times. I’d already met people who had their bags carried by bus, or who booked private accommodation days in advance. I wasn’t entirely sure that their behaviour was fair. I was in it for the long haul but it seemed to me there were certain inequalities on the trail. So, the sudden appearance of loud day-trippers hit a nerve.

I was still tetchy from the previous evening at Villambistia, and I wanted to walk alone. I wanted to walk in quiet solitude. The loud, boisterous antics of the family ahead of me was the antithesis of what I wanted. Their vibe jarred with my mood but I reasoned:

How nice: this family are spending quality time together in nature, this Sunday morning.

They could be staring at TV, or buying things they don’t need in the nearest shopping mall. Instead, they’re out here, doing this, together.

I could get on board with that.

But still, they made quite a din.

I overtook them on the trial and walked on ahead, alone. The noise followed me through the trees, through the village of Agés, and to my final destination of Atapuerca. After walking 23.6km I could go no further. I asked for a bed in one of the hostels there, and prayed for a quiet afternoon to garner some space.

As if!

 

 

 

Following an Impulse in Epinosa del Camino

I left the small village of Villambistia in the early morning darkness, and walked 1.7km to the next village – Epinosa del Camino. There, I found a small café bar that was brightly lit and open for business. Within: hot coffee, and freshly-toasted baguette with butter and jam.

Hmmmm….Camino breakfast…:-)

The Canadian ladies I’d met the day before joined me and somehow we organised to buy each other’s breakfast as a small treat. Our meal cost only a few Euro but it was a small token of friendship in the dark morning, in this tiny village of only 36 inhabitants. How amazing that this village was half the size of Villambistia but was the one with a café bar open for business at 6.30am, while Villambistia slept on.

The women and I had crossed paths several times in the preceeding 10 days – staying in some of the same hostels or passing each other on the trail. I’d witnessed one of them tend to blisters and black toenails because her hiking boots crippled her feet. I also witnessed her replace those $200 hiking boots with a pair of light running shoes, and abandon the boots in an albergue along the way. After the change of footwear, there was no stopping her!

These women had been endlessly warm and kind to me, supportive and encouraging. I hope I was the same with them. We laughed together and swapped stories about our lives and reasons for walking this ancient trail. I assumed our paths would continue to cross – over and back, all the way to Santiago. It wasn’t our pattern to pay for each other’s food and I didn’t really know them that well, but something overcame all of us that morning and we wanted to pay each other’s bill. Perhaps we somehow knew our paths were about to diverge. We toasted the morning by raising our glasses of hot coffee in clinking unison, and delighted in the baskets of fresh hot toast. Dave arrived minutes later and greeted us all with warm enthusiasm and hugs. Barb followed closely behind on the trail, and he ordered breakfast for both of them while he waited.

The ladies and I finished eating, bade Dave a Buen Camino, and made our way outside.

We strapped on our backpacks, grabbed our walking poles in hand, and started the day’s walking in earnest.

We must have walked at different paces or maybe someone stopped to lace up their shoes while the other went on ahead. Whatever the reason, we drifted apart later that day and lost each other on the trail.

I never saw them again.

And although our mutual friends kept me posted on their progress, our paths stopped crisscrossing. I missed out on knowing how their 800km journey unfolded, and who they were by the time they arrived in Santiago. I missed out on the closure that comes with saying “So Long and Farewell”, or so I thought.

Before walking Camino, I found it heart-wrenching to have my friendships drift, or get lost, in the ebb and flow of life. I fought hard to retain connections, despite everyone’s increasingly busy lives, and our distance across time zones and continents. I didn’t like to let things drift. I didn’t like to lose good people from my life. I worked hard to maintain them but struggled with losing them all the same, and with feeling bereft by their absence.

I took it all to heart and imagined a cold life, empty of friendship and laughter. (Bit of a drama queen!)

In the most gentle and glorious way, Camino knocked some of these hurting edges from my heart. I made friends all the way through my 500-mile journey:

I met some of them on my very first day while I travelled to St. Jean Pied de Port – before I even started walking.

I made friends on the last night before I arrived into Santiago.

And everywhere in between, I met people who became friends.

Some of them were friends for a matter of hours, while others are friends I hope to know for many years.

The two Canadian women fell somewhere in between.

When we met, I had no way of knowing whether they would be in my life for a matter of minutes or for decades, but we followed the connection with warm kindness. That morning in Epinosa del Camino, our paths began to divide though we didn’t consciously know it at the time. Whatever the reason, we fell out of each other’s orbit and never saw each other again.

There is a certain bittersweet sadness to that.

I thought I didn’t get to say goodbye or thanks for all of their kindness. I thought I didn’t get to wish them well with the rest of their lives.

But I am happy that I followed the impulse to buy their breakfast that morning. I’m happy that some unconscious inclination took over and prompted us into a moment of celebration. We didn’t know why we wanted to buy each other’s breakfast, but we followed the impulse all the same. We just felt like it.

Afterwards, I looked back and realised:

Ah…that was the moment of closure. That was the morning we got to say Thank You and Buen Camino. That was how we got to say Goodbye.

So, I walked the rest of my journey without realising that our paths had already diverged. I walked on towards the western horizon without realising that our friendship had come to a gentle conclusion.

By the time I realised these things, I also realised that we had said goodbye already. So there was no reason to feel sad loss at their absence.

For me, Camino presented this lesson to me day after day. People entered and left my life on a daily, and even hourly basis. The ebb and flow was constant. I started out feeling rattled by the loss of so many people in my life. By the time I reached Santiago, I knew how to let go. After walking 500 miles, I was able to allow the natural ebb and flow, and not feel the sadness.

Sometimes the friendship lasts a few hours or days. Sometimes it lasts years or decades. Either way, there is a natural beginning and a natural end. Camino helped me understand this and come to terms with it, so I don’t carry the same sadness in my heart any more. Instead, I carry a quiet gladness that we ever met and that we had a chance to say goodbye.

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?!