Walking through Galicia: From Vilchá to Os Chacotes

Distance walked: 26.1km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 69.2km

The walk out of my hostel in Vilchá was the most uneventful departure of all my camino hostels. Given that there was no village cluster or even a café, I just walked out the door of the hostel, turned the corner, and lo, I was back on the trail and in a field again. The morning was foggy and later, as I crossed the high bridge at Portomarín, it was difficult to make out any real view. I knew that a town of 2,000 people would have facilities and services but in that damp chill, I didn’t feel like stopping just for the sake of it. I marched on.

I thought a lot about dinner the previous evening and the host’s expectation that I would sing for everyone. I felt edgy and agitated by his assumptions and I was miles along the trail before I realized this:

It was in the past.

Quite literally, the hostel, the event, and the man himself were all in the past. I had zero intention of going back so there was no reason to keep thinking about it all and tormenting myself with my lack of showbiz skills.

Let it go.

And I did.

I look back on my journal for this section of the journey and notice that I’d already started to account for what I had learned along the way. I suppose it was inevitable given that I was so close to “the end”. After five weeks on the move, some things had begun to crystallize for me.

Like what?

Well, the simple fact that I could walk away from people.

Before camino I would have thought it exceptionally rude to do such a thing but while I walked, I found myself hanging out with some people who were hard work to be around.

I mentioned Lucy* (not her real name) in one of my earlier posts and strangely bumped into her almost every day for a week in one section of the trail. It was suffocating. I also kept bumping into two other characters who were unknown to each other, had traveled from different parts of the world, started walking at different times, and had totally different plans…but had met and become walking buddies. They were each toxic, self-pitying, and utterly exhausting to be around. For instance, one of them talked about her tendonitis as a “disability” and I had to stop myself from slapping some sense into her!

I met each of them at completely different stages but when I saw them walk into a hostel one evening together with Lucy, well, I knew the rains really had descended. These three individuals had found each other and become a pack. The next night, they were in the very same dorm as me – there was literally no escape! Until, I realized, that there was – and I walked on alone.

The lesson isn’t new to most of you but it was particularly relevant on the last section of the trail – those remaining 115.2km between Sarria and Santiago. Some of the “new kids” were full of bright-eyed energy and enthusiasm. At random coffee stops they’d hit me with a dozen questions, eager to connect and make friends. They were at the beginning of their journey and I was coming to the end of mine. Rightly or wrongly, I wasn’t looking for new friendships by then: I was trying to get my head in gear for arriving in Santiago. I preferred to walk alone than to strike up new conversations.

Weeks earlier, other long-distance pilgrims and I discussed what day of the week we expected to arrive in the famous city. Rumour had it that there was a pilgrim mass every day but that on occasional Sundays, the enormous botafumeiro (thurible for burning insense) would swing. Apparently it was quite a spectacle and everyone wanted to be there when the event took place – but no-one seemed to know when it would happen. On top of that, most of my connections were further along the trail than I was. We may have started out in St. Jean Pied de Port around the same time but five weeks later, injury, illness, and tiredness had altered everyone’s progress. My stop-off in Sarria meant I would arrive into Santiago even later than I first imagined. Would I see any of these people again? After all the connection, the chats, and the coffee, would we even get to say goodbye to each other?

The hostel at Os Chacotes was clean, sparse, and extremely tight on space. I don’t just mean that it was busy – although it was – it was also densely packed.

Rumour had it that these state-built hostels were soulless and built purely for profit. Others told me that the hostels purposefully didn’t stock utensils in their new, modern kitchens because they wanted to discourage pilgrims from preparing their own food. Instead, they wanted to force pilgrims into buying meals from the local restaurants. I don’t know whether this is official policy on behalf of Galician local authority but this particular hostel succeeded in squeezing people where they shouldn’t have been!

All 112 beds in the hostel were taken and I shared a dorm with almost 40 people. I was glad to get a lower bunk, but the left side of my mattress physically touched the mattress of the bed next to me. There wasn’t even an inch of space between us. Overhead, a heavy-set Spaniard slept noisily. At my head and feet, the neighbouring beds touched mine. I was surrounded to my left, at my head, feet, and overhead. There was less than a metre of space between my bed and the next bed on my right. I felt a bit squeezed into place and wouldn’t want to do it ever again. Others around me tried to create a modicum of privacy by draping bath towels around their beds or by putting headphones in their ears. I was positioned in the middle of a school group that took up half the dorm so the group were *loud* and animated.

I was glad to be near the end. Before, I wasn’t sure about finishing up but a hostel like that made me keen to go home! 🙂

Camino de Santiago: From Sarria to Vilchá

Only 100km left to Santiago

Distance walked: 19.9km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 95.3km

Handsome Husband’s trip to Sarria was at an end, as was mine, so we found an early morning café and had our breakfast of juice and croissants. The morning was dark and foggy – very foggy – and while we ate, I wondered how I’d manage to navigate the trail. Getting around town was one thing but it would be tricky in the open countryside. Suddenly, it was time to say goodbye – he had to catch a bus to the airport and I had to follow the yellow arrows back to the gravel path. Samos and Sarria had been good to us and we had a lovely first wedding anniversary, despite (or maybe because of?) the rustic facilities. I’d be home in a week and we would catch up again then but for now, it was time to go. Buen Camino to us both.

The trail was busy and noisy with new pilgrims starting out. For many, walking the camino means walking the last 115.2km from Sarria to Santiago, and their energy and enthusiasm are obvious to all. I found it a bit challenging to find my place among them. In retrospect, I’m glad I had the break with Husband in Sarria: it gave me a chance to rest and to prepare my head for what lay ahead. The trail was going to be busier and noisier than ever, but I was on the last leg of a very long journey. After all that walking towards Santiago was I really ready to arrive there?

I wasn’t sure. It was a strange sensation: after all the effort, the pain, and tears, I still wasn’t fully ready for it to be over. There’s that saying that the destination is not what matters but rather, the journey you have along the way. Suddenly, that saying made a lot of sense to me. All those weeks, I’d been walking every day towards Santiago but now that I was nearly there, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to arrive. Good thing I still had a few days to get my head around the idea.

So, I took it really slowly that morning. The darkness and fog slowly lifted, and I found myself in undulating countryside with grey stone walls and a chill in the air. The chill never really lifted in the week ahead: some of that was because I was in Galicia and some of it was because it was early October. The summer was over and the long, light days of the Meseta were all behind me.

Free fruit along the way 🙂

My walking that day was tinged with a sort of sadness. I missed Handsome Husband and hoped his journey home was going well. Strangely, about half an hour after saying goodbye to him in Sarria, I lost network coverage on my phone. I didn’t have any 3G coverage or even regular phone coverage. This meant no texts, no phone calls, no impromptu messages to let him know I was still alive. It was a strange state, and one that persisted for my week of walking through Galicia. It struck me as really odd: here was the busiest stretch of the camino trail and I had no phone network: what was that about? I couldn’t tell whether there was a limited infrastructure because it’s a poor part of Spain, or whether this imposed silence was somehow part of *my* last days on the trail. Either way, the lack of phone network made things a lot quieter for me and that was surprisingly welcome.

Hearty meaty and veggie soup: amazing!

My days walking in Galicia were strange and emotional for a number of reasons. I noticed changes in the café menus: the mixed salads had been replaced by hearty broths, and the dishes were meatier and more stew-like. It made sense to me: the climate here was different to every other region I had walked through and that damn damp was chilly. I craved the soups, stews, and large cups of tea for comfort.

The trail was loud and busy, and there was nearly always someone within sight either ahead of me or behind me. I’m an introvert and that particular day I was feeling even more insular than usual: I didn’t feel like conversing with the scores of pilgrims who’d only just started and were all chatter. Many of them were on “vacation mode” but I was in a very different head space. On top of that, I noticed quite a few women in full make-up as I stopped for coffee along the way. When I say “full”, I mean the works – the foundation, the eye shadow, the mascara and eyeliner, the lip liners and lipsticks, and even blusher – at 9am in the middle of a dirty, dusty gravel trail, looking like they were on their way to an evening gala. And with the smell of damp moss and cow manure all around us. Very odd. I’m sure they looked amazing in the photos they posted on Facebook but their appearance was so, so out of context that I recoiled even more. Make-up and social media updates held no appeal for me: I had a job to do and I wanted to keep walking.

Help-yourself coffee stop along the way with an honesty box to pay for anything taken

I stopped for the night in a tiny village called Vilchá, with a population of just 30 people and no cafés or shops. I was just 2.5km from Portomarín but I wanted to avoid the throngs of people heading for the big town. I thought I had a better chance of getting a bed in a small village like this, and it turned out to be true. Surprisingly, I bumped into some German and South African women I had’t seen since St. Jean Pied de Port, and we were all thrilled to see that we were each still alive, still walking, and in good health.

Our private hostel was a restored farm house, with solid furnishings and exposed wooden beams. There were only eight of us staying there that night – all women, too – so it was a quiet evening while people wrote in their journals and napped before dinner. Our South African host cooked a fine three-course meal for us (you can’t go wrong with Spag. Bol.!) and afterwards gave us liqueurs that smelled like rocket fuel! We talked politics, farming, and music, and I got the sense that our host would have loved a party late into the night. I was the youngest one there so he was adamant that I should sing for them or do some sort of a party piece. I squirmed at the attention and repeatedly declined his uninviting suggestion. If we had all sang together it would be one thing but singling me out like that didn’t feel right. I politely told him no, and he looked disappointed and bored with me for the remainder of the evening. I got the impression that I’d somehow defied his expectation of how camino “should” be, as though I had snubbed his hospitality and warmth, somehow. A strange way to end the day but I was glad of the warm and solid bed, and grateful for the chance to rest before going further.

Camino de Santiago: Nearing the End

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I would never have guessed this was in Spain!

Distance walked: 25.6km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 129.8km

Descent: Approx. 600m

After more than a month of walking, this stretch of trail was particularly bittersweet for me. On one hand, I was tired, sore, and was starting to feel the autumn chill in the air: I was ready to go home. On the other hand, I had spent every day walking west towards Santiago but curiously, wasn’t ready to get there yet. I wasn’t ready for the journey to be over but every step brought me closer to “the end”.

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These last 130km of the camino trail were different to everything that came before. Some of that is because of the geography – the vegetation is different, the smells are different, the colors are different. Galicia, as a region, is more like parts of the U.K. and Ireland than it is like the other parts of Spain, and this became hugely apparent in the last days of walking. Separately, the facilities are different because the last 115km from Sarria to Santiago are the busiest kilometers of all. This means there are more places to stop for a coffee or food, and far more people on the move, so signs like these suddenly appeared:

The highlight of the walk that day was to meet two German men walking together. Marco, like me, had just finished a job and had some time off to do something different. His Dad, Ricard, had just retired from a lifetime of work and wanted to mark the transition with something meaningful. Together, this father-and-son duo walked the camino for three weeks.

It’s such a simple concept but I get choked-up thinking about it even now. How fabulous to spend that time together! How fabulous that they were both healthy and well enough to commit to the daily walking. And how fabulous that they did this at a time when they were both in transition and available. I love, love, love that Marco and Ricard made the time for something (and someone) that really mattered, and made this memorable trip happen.

Fab!

Also fab: learning the phrase for “cheesecake”, which Marco taught me on one of our coffee stops. These two men feasted on baked cheese cake every day with their coffee. I didn’t know that such a thing even existed because it often wasn’t listed on the menu but that morning, I enjoyed a large coffee and an even larger helping of dense, sweet cheesecake: sublime! 🙂

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Marco and I stepped through the miles chatting about work and life and motorbiking around Europe and like everyone else, he wanted to know why I walked. What had prompted me to walk 500 miles across Spain, why there, why now?

When I started out, everyone knew that I had booked a one-way ticket to St. Jean Pied de Port. I didn’t know how long it would take me to walk to Santiago but the rough idea was that Handsome Husband and I would meet there for our wedding anniversary. Everyone loved the romance of the story. They thought it a beautiful way to end the journey. Every time we’d cross paths in a coffee shop or a hostel, fellow pilgrims would ask about “the plan” and as time went on, I grew more and more uncomfortable with it.

Don’t get me wrong, reuniting with Handsome Husband sounded very romantic! He had been hugely supportive of my need to walk and reuniting in Santiago sounded a lot nicer than at an airport at home. The problem was, I hadn’t been able to walk as quickly as I had hoped, so I couldn’t make it to Santiago on time. Husband and I had chatted about this weeks earlier and had decided to scrap “the plan”. However much we loved the idea of meeting in Santiago, I couldn’t walk those remaining km quickly enough. We decided to celebrate our anniversary when the walking was done and I’d return home. “The new plan” was settled.

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Outside of Triacastela, the trail split in two. In one direction, the path followed the river Oribio and passed by the doors of the Benedictine monastery in Samos. In the other direction, the path had more woodland and was shorter by 6.4km. I felt like seeing the monastery in Samos so I pitched my hopes on that and put one foot in front of the other.

By the time I arrived in Samos that evening, I was spent. The path into the monastery town was steeper and rockier than I expected, so my poor feet ached from the stones. I booked a bed in the 70-bed hostel (where I could almost “see” the smell of sweaty feet and unwashed hair – ugh) and waited my turn for a shower. After quickly washing my clothes in the sink, I went outside to hang them up only to discover that there was no clothes line in sight. Instead, everyone had draped their wet clothes on bushes across the road and they lay there, on the grass and in trees, drying in the evening sun. I did the same because there didn’t seem to be much alternative, but it was definitely odd to see the locals walking past these bushes filled with wet underwear on their way to evening mass in the monastery!

In the café, I picked up enough wi-fi to send some messages to Handsome Husband, including a photo of my evening meal.

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Where are you? he asked casually.

Oh, I’m in this little town called Samos and it has a huge monastery, I texted back.

By then, I was tucking into my carbs-with-more-carbs dinner, and not really paying attention to his questions. He seemed very interested in my day’s walking and my plans for the evening, but I thought he was just being nice.

Later, as I finished my meal, my phone rang. It was Handsome Husband calling.

Hello? I answered.

Hey, he replied, I’m outside.

Huh? I asked, confused.

You’re in Samos, right?

Yeah…

Well, surprise! I’m here!

And so he was! Handsome Husband had scrapped “the new plan” earlier that day and drove to the airport, took a flight to Spain, and then spent the afternoon taking trains and buses to the small town of Samos.

Romantic? Yes!

Surprised? YES!

That evening, it just so happened that there was a wedding at the monastery church. A year earlier, Handsome Husband and I had put on our finery and surrounded ourselves with loved ones who toasted our decision to marry. There, on the steps of this enormous monastery, another beautifully-clad couple were doing the same. Their photographer asked them to pose in certain ways, the ground was covered in confetti and flower petals, and their guests gazed on with broad smiles and glittering clothes. As a sight, it was totally different to everything else I had seen on camino but what a fitting reminder for Handsome Husband and I.

We had each come so far – him by car, plane, train, and bus, and me on the strength of my two legs. There we were, surrounded by rose petals and finery, and a crowd of loved ones that may as well have been ours.

Sweet. 

 

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago and The Highest Point

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Distance walked: 17.1km

Ascent: Approx. 700m to O’Cebreiro (1330m above sea level)

My walk from Vega de Valcarce took me from the region of Castilla Y León into Galicia: I was (finally!) officially on the home stretch into the rainy, coastal home of Santiago. The day’s walking also took me on an ascent some 700m upwards to O’Cebreiro (which is itself 1330m high). Others assured me this was even higher than our ascent in the Pyrenees only a few weeks before. Knowing all of this, I set out early in the morning with a healthy dose of humility and my new ibuprofen pills. I had been walking for more than a month already but I still felt that nothing was guaranteed. I’d do my best but like every other day before, the plan was loose and wishful.

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Gorgeous to look at, pain-in-the-feet to walk on!

There were lots of great things about this day: One, I kept dry, which was a welcome bonus at that altitude. Two, I met sunny Margaret from Australia who somehow wrangled out of me one of the deeper truths about why I was walking the camino. She also filled the walk with a rolling, hearty chuckle that comes from a woman who’s lived a big and fearless life. Honestly, I don’t know where else I would have met an Indonesian language teacher who’d worked for the Olympics in between running a dairy farm in Australia. I certainly wouldn’t have met her in my every day life. Lots of people talk about the “great people” walking the camino and they are right: there is huge kindness and compassion and heart. There are also a lot of really interesting people who just so happen to live really interesting lives, and being immersed in that wave of movement for six weeks was such a refreshment. I would never have met someone like Margaret while sitting at my work desk at home and she was a real tonic. And somehow, I got the sense that here was a woman just “doing her thing” and making no apology, no excuse, and no story about it. Really, I don’t know that many (other) motorbiking, 70-something-year-old Grandmas but boy, Margaret tops the list!

Crocus flowers (I think) but with no stem

The climb to O’Cebreiro was lush and steep, but what a lovely delight to get to the top. And what a huge surprise to see that the pubs (because by now, we had moved away from tiled café bars to rustic pubs) specialized in serving octopus. I’m not sure how this came about given that the place is more than 100km from the coast, but there you have it – another surprise for me because I still wasn’t reading the guidebook!

Like so many days before, I quickly popped into the church to light some candles and take a moment. I’m not sure I even had an active, articulate cluster of words here that might have constituted a prayer. Like so many other times, I had just the swelling contentment and gratitude for having made it that far. I say that as though that’s a simple, everyday thing but really, I often forget these very sentiments in my every day life. I walk around with all my limbs intact and totally take for granted that they are there and are performing so well. On camino, I had an acute awareness of my body’s greatness every day, and the huge privilege it was to be there.  Every day that I am above ground I have choices and possibilities. I forget this all the time but on camino, the reality of this was made clear to me countless times a day. Often, when I sat in the quiet churches, it was to just let that knowing settle for a minute. Just to acknowledge that I was healthy enough to be there, I had money enough to be there, I had a passport and an airplane that carried me some of the way, and, and, and….the list of things to be grateful for was actually endless.

And still is.

So, the church in O’Cebreiro gave me a moment to be still and silent, and let the gratitude settle into my bones a little.

And then, I strapped on my backpack and kept on walking.

A lot of pilgrims chose to end their day’s walking at this (literal and figurative) high point and I was kind of sorry I wasn’t joining them. I hadn’t booked into the hostels and I felt I was missing out on some sort of party atmosphere by continuing west. Still, I was glad to have the energy to keep moving so that’s what I did, and spent the night in a 20-bed hostel in Hospital de la Condesa.

Most of the distance was behind me and the highest point was also in the past: Santiago was closer than ever.

 

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!

 

 

 

Deciding to Walk the Camino de Santiago?

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2018 is full of goodness for all of us and hopefully lots of great hikes too.  😀

It’s very early January and even though I am still finishing off the Christmas chocolates, I am looking at the year ahead and wondering what it will bring. I’m lucky to have good health so looking ahead is something that brings hope to my heart. I have options. There are possibilities. I have everything to play for.

What lies ahead?

Between you and me, I’ve been reflecting a lot on when to walk another camino.

Like countless pilgrims before me, I thought it would be enough to walk 500 miles across Spain just the once. I thought I’d “do it” and get it out of my system. I never imagined that I would want to walk again – that is, until I came home and began to reflect on the enormity of my experience. Very quickly, I realized I wanted to walk several more camino journeys in my lifetime. I even had a sense of my next route and when I would walk it but I didn’t make any commitments. I wanted to keep the planning loose until I was sure of the timing. There are lots of things to consider, like the cost, the time it takes, and the preparation it takes for a successful walk. Still, I reflected on when is a good time to walk and how to make that decision, and I wrote a little about it here.

Since then, I’m still reflecting and still trying to figure out the timing for my next journey.

Things are different now. Unlike last time round, I am not in a position to quit my job and walk away from family for 6+ weeks any more. I’m also not really in a position to bring family walking the trail *with* me either.

I know my circumstances will change and I won’t always face these hurdles so I’m not very worried about the timing just now. I just have to be patient and trust that it will come together.

But all this wondering and waiting is a curious thing. I feel my way through a lot of my big decisions and my last camino (and next one!) are no different. But  I wonder how everyone else arrives at the choice to walk camino.

Did you feel called? Was it the answer to a prayer or a heart’s desire?

Did you mentally commit to a year and a route, and then forge your life around making the plans work?

Maybe you suddenly needed a time-out and camino seemed as good a place as any to go think and “be”?

Was it a whim? Were you in Europe with a bit of free time and just decided to go check it out?

Or was it a dream you nursed for twenty years until finally the obstacles fell away?

I know that thousands of people overcome all sorts of obstacles to embark on a camino journey. People with lives far more complex than mine can make it happen. Either life bends to their will or they make it bend for them. Whatever the case, they live colorful, meaningful lives and stay connected to what has meaning and heart.

So, I’m curious. I want to know how to make it all work.

How did you come to your choice to walk camino? What were your obstacles and how did you overcome them? And what would you say to someone thinking about walking but unsure about how to start?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! 🙂

 

 

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.

 

 

Reflections for walking the Camino de Santiago

When I stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, I received a slip of paper containing The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim – ten reflections for pilgrims walking the way.  I shared them here recently and on the back of that slip of paper, there was another reflection. I’m copying this straight from the page so language or grammar oddities are not my own 🙂

“The Way: Parable and reality

The journey makes you a pilgrim. Because the way to Santiago is not only a track to be walked in order to get somewhere, nor it is a test to reach any reward. El Camino de Santiago is a parable and a reality at once because it is done both within and outside of the specific time that takes to walk each stage, and along the entire life if only you allow the Camino to get into you, to transform you and to make to a pilgrim.

The Camino makes you simpler, because the lighter the backpack the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive.

The Camino makes you brother/sister. Whatever you have you must be ready to share because even if you started on our own, you will meet companions. The Camino breeds about community: community that greets the other, that takes in interest in how the walk is going for the other, that talks and shares with the other.

The Camino makes demands on you. You must get up even before the sun in spite of tiredness or blisters; you must walk in the darkness of night while dawn is growing, you must just get the rest that will keep you going.

The Camino calls you to contemplate, to be amazed, to welcome, to interiorize, to stop, to be quiet, to listen, to admire, to bless…Nature, our companions on the journey, our own selves, God.”

 

 

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

I had never heard of “The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim” before I started walking camino. I never knew there were such things and to this day, I’m not sure how widely these are circulated or known. I’m also not sure whether these have been passed through the years or they are a recent creation, and that lack of knowledge may be relevant to some. You might not want to embrace something that’s hundreds of years old. You might not want to embrace something that’s been around only twenty years.

Still, let me continue.

When I stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, I received a slip of paper with the ten points printed on them. Like everything else on camino, some things will resonate and others won’t so these may or may not be your groove.

Me?

I liked the message and I carried that slip of paper all the way to Santiago, and home, in case it took on a monumental significance with time.

I think the exact wording of these threw me off somehow but in my own way, I came to similar understandings and insights. I resonate with the sentiment. And I even resonate with the sentiment of sharing these because they might encourage reflection and compassion along the way. Camino is so much more than a budget walking holiday or a boozy way to see Spain. I’d like to contribute to the more reflective side – the side that encourages personal change in a positive way.

So, without wanting to be too religious-y, here they are. Just because.

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

  1. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” opens your eyes to what is not seen.
  2. Blessed are you pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others,
  3. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you contemplate the “camino” and you discover it is full of names and dawns.
  4. Blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered that the authentic “camino”begins when it is completed.
  5. Blessed are you pilgrim, if your knapsack is emptying of things and your heart does not know where to hang up so many feelings and emotions.
  6. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that one step back to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without seeing what is at your side.
  7. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you don’t have the words to give thanks for everything that surprises you at every twist and turn of the way.
  8. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you search for the truth and make of the “camino” a life and of your life a “way”, in search of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  9. Blessed are you pilgrim if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image in your heart.
  10. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” holds a lot of silence; and the silence of prayer; and the prayer of meeting with God who is waiting for you.

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?

 

 

Camino Continues Westwards

Distance walked: 36km

Distance left to Santiago: 369km

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Not a lot of clothes line space in the hostel!

My evening and night at the Santa Maria hostel in Carrión de los Condes was happily uneventful. No crazy snoring. No crazy traffic outside the window. No stress. The nuns requested that we each contribute some food towards the evening meal so in the hours before dinner, the small kitchen filled up with a random display of watermelon, baguette, and chorizo. Always, everywhere, chorizo 🙂 The nuns added fresh vegetables and salad from their own garden and created an evening meal for everyone to share. Communal meals like this are really nice on camino. I had a share of them along the way in various hostels (whether religious or privately-owned) and I appreciated the sense of community that they created.

The next morning, I made my way from the hostel out into the countryside by the light of the moon and the rising sun. I didn’t have a set plan for the day, as usual, but I’d hoped to walk 26.8km to Terradillos de Templarios that day. It seemed like a reasonable distance to cover, especially as there were no coffee stops for the first 17km. I didn’t want to overstretch myself.

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My guidebook informed me that 70% of the route followed natural paths, most of which are part of the Via Aquitana, the paved Roman road that connects to Astorga. It also informed me that the landscape was flat and featureless, so it was another day of ambling along under the searing hot sun. My day was uneventful and I settled into the rhythm of walking westwards. My average walking speed on level ground is somewhere between 4-5km per hour. So, the 26.8km took between 5-6 hours that day, with extra time for breaks along the way. By the time I got to Terradillos de Templarios, the hostels were all full. All 83 beds had been taken already even though it wasn’t yet lunchtime.

This is okay, I thought. I’ll just walk on to the next village.

I walked 3.2km onwards to Moratinos, just under an hour away, but the hostels there were all full there, too. I didn’t even get a chance to investigate that for myself: some pilgrims shouted the information to me from across the road. You’d think that after my experience in Carrión de los Condes I would have taken the time to verify the facts for myself but honestly, it seemed like too much effort to walk from one doorway to the next. Rightly or wrongly, there were days on camino where I felt I didn’t have the extra time, energy, and footsteps required to walk from one hostel to another. In Moratinos, I trusted the pilgrims when they told me everything was booked up, even though they shouted it with big smiles while they went to get cold beers!

By now, I’d been walking nearly 7 hours, the temperature was over 30 degrees C. and you know what? I was tired. I was sweaty. I was very, very dusty. And I really wanted to find a bed for the night. I needed to get in to the shade, have a shower, take a break, but until I found a hostel there was no chance of any of those things. In Moratinos, I assessed my options. I would walk a further 2.8 to San Nicolás del Real Camino in the hope that the 20-bed hostel there would have some space.

That 2.8km was filled with anticipation and nervousness. As the day wore on, the heat increased to near unbearable levels. If there was no bed for me, I was going to have to stop for a few hours anyway. Maybe I could rest for a while and resume walking later in the evening when the day had cooled down. I observed the countryside around me and for the first time in all camino, I seriously considered sleeping outdoors that night. I didn’t have the energy to walk an additional 7km to the next village and even if I did, it would be early evening by the time I’d arrive. That meant there’d be little chance of getting a bed. But out there in the farming countryside, I peered at the enormous bales of straw and thought about sleeping underneath them that night. They were dry, they’d offer some sort of warmth from the cool night air. There were no washing facilities or privacy but I could get over that. I needed somewhere to sleep and those straw bales were a viable option. I wouldn’t rule them out.

When I arrived in Albergue Laganares in the small village of San Nicolás del Real Camino, I expected to hear the worst. The village was eerily quiet and the hostel didn’t even look like it was open for business that day. I tentatively asked for a bed, while thinking of the straw bales down the road.

Sure, we have a bed, the hostel-owner said. Would you like something to drink? You look tired!

Hallelujah! I rejoiced inside. I wouldn’t have to walk another step! After 36km and searing heat, I was finally able to relax for the evening. A shower. A bed. A place to rest for the evening.

And what a fabulous little hostel this was. Quirky with tonnes of personality and care. And couches! Oh my goodness but I hadn’t even seen a couch in weeks, much less sit in one. I sat luxuriously, indulgently on the cushioned seats and felt the weight of my nomadic existence just melt away. Having a couch felt like having a home. It was one of the sweetest moments in all camino!

That night, a feast with pilgrims from all over the world but most of them from Spain. And afterwards, shots of potent desert wine from Madrid – a heady rush of giddiness before falling happily, drunkenly, gratefully into bed.

And how lovely that it was a bed and not a bale of straw after all 🙂

 

 

The Things You Remember (and Forget)

IMG_1003.JPGIt’s been a while, I know.

Every day, I’m “writing in my head” and coming up with things I want to share here. That’s fine for a while but I need to write “outside of my head” every now and then, too.

So here I (finally) am.

And lately, I’ve been thinking about the Camino de Santiago in a new way and how I write about it. Let me explain:

A lot of camino blogs seem to act as digital postcards for friends and family back home. They list place names and hostel stops. The photos show smiling faces and plates of food. The blogs don’t give a lot of detail and they don’t get reflective. They are just a note to say “Hi, I’m still alive”.

I didn’t write a blog while I walked across Spain. I didn’t expect to write a blog at all but after I’d been home a while and the dust had settled, I discovered I had a lot to say. I decided to write. As time has progressed and my life has become busy with…well…everything, I can’t help but notice what motivates me, or blocks me in writing.

For example, you might have noticed that I had quite a bit to say about the small village of Boadilla del Camino. I wrote four posts about walking to, and staying in this tiny village:

That’s an awful lot of words for a village that (according to my guidebook) has only 140 residents. The reason? The day I walked to Boadilla del Camino was a day when my body felt supremely strong and capable. That day was a high. And everything that happened in the village that evening changed my perspective on my life at home. Outwardly and inwardly, the day affected me deeply. And that was easy to remember. It was easy to get excited about. It was easy to write and write and write.

But the next leg of the trip?

Oh, I hate to admit it but there’s a chunk of the day I just can’t remember. I look at the map and I don’t recognise the place names. I don’t remember the countryside. There are hours in the middle and I don’t remember a thing. I don’t know if that’s because I found the landscape fairly forgettable or if it’s because I was so content with the walking that I didn’t record anything to memory. Either could be true. But whatever the case, my lack of memory has been a block to my writing.

What do I write about when I can’t remember huge chunks of the day? I run the risk of creating a blog post that is just like the ones I mentioned above: brief, vague, and fairly dull. So, what should I write?

Maybe I should come clean and admit it: I can’t remember huge chunks of the day I walked from Boadilla del Camino to Carrión de los Condes. Even though walking the camino was one of the most outstanding and memorable events in my life, there are sections of the trail that I just don’t recall. Of course, I could never remember all 500 miles equally: that wouldn’t make sense. I forget bits. I remember bits. I guess certain bits were uneventful and forgettable. And the bits I remember? Well, those were the bits that changed and re-wired me from the inside out. Those were the bits that have stayed with me every day since.

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Here’s what I remember:

I left Boadilla in the early morning darkness after thanking the hostel owner for my bed & meal. He told me that out of 70 pilgrims who’d dined there the previous evening, I was the only one to thank him personally.

His comment was both saddening and sobering.

I walked westwards. I avoided conversation with Lucy* when I saw her in a café later that morning. It was awkward, for sure, but to resume company with her would have made me murderous: I was better off alone. I walked just over 20km that day through flat, sunny farmland. I took almost no photos but for some reason, I took this one:

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When I arrived in Carrión de los Condes that afternoon, I quickly learned that all the hostels were full. Or so it seemed. Strangely, as I entered the town, a woman in a smart blouse and skirt stood beneath a street sign that directed pilgrims to the different hostels. She spoke to me in English and asked me where I was staying.

I haven’t booked anything, I replied.

There are no beds left in these hostels, she said, and she listed the names of the hostels I had hoped to stay in. But then she (kindly? helpfully? deceptively?) told me the name of a private hostel that happened to have free space.

Disheartened but sort-of grateful, I found the hostel she had mentioned and rang the buzzer from the street. A raspy, muffled voice came through the speaker and I struggled to hear it over the sound of the loud traffic.

In my rusty Spanish, I asked for a bed.

How many?

One bed, please. I am alone.

Just one? No. We have a room with four beds so we will give it to a group of four people. Not one.

And the line went dead.

I stood on the busy street, soaked with sweat, tired, and suddenly disheartened.

That woman had told me all the hostels were full. She’d told me that these guys had space, but the greedy jerks were holding out for a bigger group and more money. I couldn’t blame them but still, there’s supposed to be an understanding that if a pilgrim shows up and needs help of some sort, that help is given.

So, I stood in the shady side of the street and I wondered:

What should I do? Spend valuable time searching the town for a free bed that may/may not exist? Or should I walk out into the countryside again and on to the next village, hoping for a bed there?

On camino, as in life, here’s something I should remember:

Don’t believe everything that you hear.

It turned out that the woman in the skirt & blouse might not have been telling the truth!

 

 

 

 

The Cost of Camino: Is it *Really* that Cheap?

When I first heard about the 500-mile walk in Spain, I was still a student at university. My mountaineering friends talked about the open landscape and the physical challenge….oh, and the affordability of everything along the way. Unlike other long-distance hikes that I knew across the US and Europe, walking the Camino de Santiago seemed surprisingly cheap. Could it be real?

When the time came to walk, I didn’t know how to budget for it. I’d heard and read the stories of people who walked it spending only €20 a day (paying for accommodation, food, and sundries) and I wanted to do the same. I’d just quit my job and didn’t have another one on the horizon so getting the budget right was a necessity. But still, €20 a day, every day, in Europe seemed unrealistic. Would it be enough? And if not, how much extra would I need for 6 weeks of walking?

During my journey, I met a couple who’s combined total spend was €10 per day (wow). I met alleged millionaires who spent thousands of Euro on their trip. And I met every sort of person in between.

Me? I spent more than the rumoured €20 a day. I averaged closer to €35 per day. If were on a super strict budget, that kind of increase would have been a major stress for me. It’s nearly twice the amount that other pilgrims and guidebooks claim is average. So what happened? Did I lose the run of myself and squander my savings on fine dining and lavish spa treatments?

Ha! Not a chance.

From what I could tell, the €20 per day spend was possible only if one did the following:

  1. Walk fast so you can arrive at a town/village early and nab one of the €5 beds before other pilgrims *or* camp out
  2. Cook evening meals in the hostels instead of eating out
  3. Split the cost of private rooms with other pilgrims

Can’t do these things? Don’t want to do these things? Then €20 per day is not feasible and you need to put more money in the purse.

So what did I get for €35 per day?

Things I did:

  • Paid for flights within Europe
  • Slept indoors every night (mostly in dorms)
  • Bought footwear & clothing beforehand and en route
  • Bought pharmacy items en route (Compeed plasters, Ibuprofen, sunglasses, etc.)
  • Sent 1.5kg of belongings home in the mail
  • Contributed to the cost of 2 taxis with other pilgrims
  • Paid for 2 return bus tickets
  • Paid to have my laundry washed & dried in machines on a few occasions
  • Gave between €10-20 to ‘Donativo’ hostels (I could have given less but that was my choice)
  • Stayed in private hotel rooms by myself for 5 nights en route
  • Bought postcards, chocolate gifts, and earrings
  • Bought food in corner shops, supermarkets, and the occasional stall
  • Ate out for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner every day
  • Ate picnics
  • Donated to a photography exhibition & church collections
  • Bought beers & coffee for other pilgrims

Things I didn’t do:

  • Camp or sleep outdoors
  • Plan my route around cheap hostels
  • Book a room in advance (not even my first night in St. Jean or my finish in Santiago)
  • Stay in any of the Parador hotels (alas!)
  • Buy fashionable clothing or anything made of Spanish leather
  • Cook my own food (with the exception of 3-4 occasions)
  • Order the cheapest item on the menu
  • Skimp on pharmacy supplies, food, or a place to sleep
  • Go to bed hungry

All in all, my experience wasn’t overtly decadent but it wasn’t all frugal hardship either.  I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, and in the quantities I wanted. I didn’t hold back on the coffee or wine! And I bought whatever clothing/medical supplies I needed along the way. Maybe it was just me, but I didn’t really see much that I wanted to buy en route. Sure, I could have bought fashionable jeans and winter sweaters in Leon….but then I would have had to carry them all the way to Santiago. There wasn’t a hope in hell I was going to do that, so the temptation to buy frivolous items disappeared quickly.

I bought what I needed and some of what I wanted, and I did just fine.

And you know, the differentiation between my ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ has never been more clear. It was an eye opener for me, not just while I walked but for everyday life too. It’s just another way in which camino changes those of us that walk it.

🙂

 

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.