Walking through Galicia: From Os Chacotes to Boente

Distance walked: 21.7km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 47.5km

It’s fun to stay at the Y…M….C…A…!

The hostel owner in Vilchá, just two nights earlier, announced that he would close up for the winter the following week. In my walk between Vilchá and Os Chacotes, just a day earlier, I saw two hostels already closed up for the winter. It was early October but everything was winding down and I was glad I was close to Santiago and “the end”. I was also glad that I wouldn’t walk the additional 100km to Finisterre. I had always imagined I would walk to the coast but I’d conceded that it wasn’t likely on that particular journey. Every time a hostel closed its doors for the winter, pilgrims had to walk further distances between one bed and the next. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but after walking 750km I was done with the uncertainty about accommodation. It was one thing to deal with hostels that were full or uncomfortably crowded, but it was another thing to deal with the end-of-season closures. I was tired of the nomadic lifestyle and endless strategizing: I wanted to go home.

Getting ready for winter

55km to go….

52.5km to go…

51km to go…

Compared to other parts of the camino, I thought the signage and distance markers in Galicia were plentiful and clear. This is the busiest section of the Camino Francés and most people who “do the camino” walk only those last 115.2km. So, the cafés, hostels,  and general services were plentiful. And yet, I met with an Australian this day who got really upset when she couldn’t see any yellow arrows. She had become so used to the plentiful directions that she panicked when they disappeared, even briefly.  She doubled-back on the trail, she contradicted me, and she even contradicted a local who gave her directions. She couldn’t trust what others told her and she couldn’t trust the markers that were available.

More tellingly, she couldn’t trust that even if she took a wrong turn, that she would cope with the outcome and figure it out.

Expecting such perfection brings a lot of pressure.

I had seen pilgrims wrongly rely on electronic devices instead of heeding the locals who gave directions. I understand the pilgrims who, like me, may not have had confidence in their language skills and may have felt more autonomous using the tech.  I get it.

But, what a missed opportunity.

Asking for directions is an opportunity to connect with another human instead of a screen – what a concept! All the talk about meeting great people on the camino is limited if all we do is meet other pilgrims. What about connecting with the café owners,  the farmers in the fields, the people standing behind shop counters? To understand a country and its people, we have to talk to the people who actually live there, work there, build their lives there. Walking the camino without engaging with the locals, especially when they have up-to-date information and correct directions, is a massive loss. We become consumers rather than pilgrims. We lose our humility.

Asking for directions allows locals to connect with us, too. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people pass through their villages and towns, crossing their land and changing the face of their communities. We don’t ask them how they feel about this: we just “do the camino” and give no thought to the consequences. It’s not right that we ignore them and prioritize our screens. Asking for directions allows them to meet us and learn a little about us, too. I think they deserve that opportunity given they open their towns and villages to the endless crowds, always on the move. It is a small way of acknowledging the disruption we cause and the change that we bring. It’s a small way of expressing our humanity instead of self-absorbed consumerism.

The days walking in Galicia were quite a contrast to the previous 700km across France and Spain. There were  more people, sure, but there was also a lot more entitlement and competition, too. I was disappointed by the amount of people wearing headphones, disconnected from even the other pilgrims around them. I was appalled by the amount of people who skipped queues in the café bars, who shouted their orders at the staff, and who barked for wi-fi codes without ever saying “Hello” or “Please”. There was a large cohort of people who behaved as though their individual experience was the only one that mattered. I don’t know which is worse: shouting orders at waiting staff or elbowing other pilgrims out of the way. I didn’t like either and I’m sorry to say I saw way too much of both behaviors on that final 100km stretch to Santiago.

And yet, seeing all of this helped highlight the goodness in my journey. My journal is full of reflections including this:

“I’m thankful to ever be here and to have been given the resources (physical, financial, mental, spiritual, emotional) and support to come this far. Over and over, I’ve put my sore and swollen feet into my shoes, and walked. It is a privilege to be given this time, these smiles and conversations, this sunshine, this reflection. Yes, it’s been tough but the strain is already wearing away as I come close to the end and as I realize what a blessing it is.”

Did I enjoy the day of elbowing, contradicting, and ignorant behavior? No. But getting a bed in Boente’s hostel was a relief, and re-connecting with people I hadn’t seen since Orisson was a lovely surprise. There was goodness to be found everywhere, I just had to pay attention to it.

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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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. 😀

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?

 

 

Life is a Camino

My good friend Jen is walking her second Camino Francés at the moment. This time, she’s walking it in reverse…she started at Finisterre on the coast and is making her way back towards St. Jean Pied de Port in the south of France.

Before she left, she made small inspiration cards to share with other pilgrims and I got a pack of them too. Every day, I randomly pick a new one from the pack, wondering what thoughtful reflection I will find.

Yesterday, this was my card:

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How is the camino like my life?

Funny, I think about this every single day.

Since the arrival of Little Baba, I have less time and energy than before. I desperately want to write blog posts but I get about an hour in the evening to eat, shower, and spend time with Handsome Husband before I fall into bed. I hate to say it but blog posts are a luxury I don’t have the time for.

It’s kind of fitting because I didn’t have time or energy to write blog posts while I was on camino, either. I don’t know how anyone does. By the time I found a place to stay each evening, had a shower, handwashed my clothes, and ate a dinner of some sort, I wasn’t fit for another thing. Some days I was too tired to eat at all and went straight to bed despite my empty belly. I can’t imagine the admin and energy it would have taken to write blog posts of any merit.

My life with Little Baba feels like another Camino. I think about that every day and I take great strength from knowing I’ve walked one Camino already. I know I’m a tough old bird and I’ve got pretty good stamina. And like my days in Spain, these days:

  • I am awake before 6am and in bed by 10pm. (I got fairly uninterrupted sleep back then whereas now…well, that’s a daydream!)
  • I am frazzled tired but I need to keep going. And like camino, I’m drinking the coffee but not feeling any difference to my energy levels or alertness!
  • I look a fright! I’m not really doing the “Yummy Mummy”thing right now. Similarly, when I went to Spain, I didn’t bring my nicest hiking gear. Instead, I brought the pieces that were reliable and durable, even though some of them were God damn ugly. I wasn’t trying to look the part, I wanted to be the part. And I’m doing the same thing now, too.

These are all fairly trivial similarities. The real meat is at a more private level.

How is the camino like  my life?

  • I am learning again that pacing myself is important. You can’t walk 500 miles to Santiago all at once. You can’t raise a small child all at once, either. Big things happen in increments over time. It’s taken weeks to write this blog post because I’ve snatched 10 minutes here, 5 minutes there. I can’t do it all at once any more. I am learning all over again what it means to get up every day, set realistic but flexible goals, and do my best to meet them…all the while knowing that the day could turn pear-shaped at any time. When that happens, I have to chalk it up to experience and start the next day afresh.
  • I’m learning again what it is to say Thanks for all that goes right on a given day. The water in the shower was hot? Awesome! I didn’t get rained on when I brought Little Baba for a walk? Wonderful! Every day, thousands of things go in my favour. Most of the time, I take them for granted and get on with my life. Lately I’m learning again what it means to have even a moment of mindfulness and say Thanks.
  • I’m reminded that when I compare myself to others, I usually put myself at the bottom of the pile and that sucks. So, I’m not rocking the “Yummy Mummy” vibe right now? I didn’t rock the “Trendy Hiker” vibe while on camino, either. I’m okay with that. Comparing myself to all the trendy hikers and glamorous Moms of this world is a quick slide into hell for me. The best thing? Just don’t go there.

Of course, there are things about camino that I really miss and long for. Mostly, I miss the time. I miss all those hours I had to myself every day to walk, reflect, and explore. I didn’t stay in any hotels or drink any champagne on my camino but my experience was still a luxury – I had a healthy body and time on my side. Everything was possible!

I knew this, of course. I left my job to go walk camino because my life was spinning in a frenzy and with each passing year, I seemed to have less and less time for the things that mattered. I wasn’t happy. I needed to hit the “reset” button and I knew that 6 weeks of walking was a luxury of time. I had to take it.

I am delighted that I did. Walking camino gave me an opportunity to be someone else for a while…not just a disgruntled employee or a newly married woman, but a solo traveller on a physical and metaphysical pilgrimage. Camino gave me time with myself. Even though my life is busy now, I still feel energised by my Camino experience. It’s kind of like having a bulk of savings in the bank before buying something really expensive. I had 6 weeks to walk and to reflect: what a tremendous asset before all of this other, very grown-up stuff started happening. Every day I draw on my Camino experience in some way and I take strength from it. Every day I find similarities between my 6 week journey then and my life now. I imagine I’ll keep finding similarities for years to come.

I’m just hoping I can start getting a bit more sleep soon. That would be good 🙂

What about you? How is the Camino like *your* life?

 

 

 

 

Missing the Camino de Santiago

Lately, I’ve been thinking about some of the things I miss from my camino journey. It’s springtime here and I’m seeing the early signs of sunshine and warmer weather. After the darkness of winter, I feel I’m waking up all over again. New possibilities, new ideas, and new summer sandals lay ahead. And sometimes, the renewed temptation to go walking in Spain. 🙂

Even though my camino was only 6 weeks long, it takes up a huge place in my heart. It feels like an era of its own – just like my time living at certain addresses or working certain jobs.

Walking it made the time slow down and stretch out. In the same way travelling by train feels more reflective than travelling by airplane, 6 weeks of walking kind of equates to years’ worth of everyday living. I had lots of time to take in my changing surroundings, reflect, and grow.

While I walked, I met new people every day and we joked about all the things we would *not* miss about camino life:

Washing our clothes in a sink

– The endless supply of baguette

– The endless supply of chorizo

– Painful feet

– Sleeping in bunk beds

Back then, I didn’t know that there’d be things I’d really miss about the camino journey, too. Living out of a backpack and walking every day couldn’t replace my “real life”, but it brought great richness all the same.

Speaking of backpacks, I miss the simplicity of living with just 2 sets of clothing and not having a lot of “stuff” to my name. I didn’t have to worry about looking professional or trendy, and I didn’t have to think about vacuuming either! I came to love being a nomad with few possessions to my name.

I made great friends on camino and miss seeing them more regularly. I miss unexpectedly bumping into them in a random, small village and sharing an impromptu coffee together while catching up.

What is it that I miss, exactly?

Is it the people themselves, the conversation, or the spontaneity of our connection?

It’s all of these things.

I also miss the honesty of sharing coffee with the people I truly liked, and walking away from the people I didn’t. That was a skill I learned with time, and it was a real game-changer for me to realise that I didn’t owe anyone my company or my energy. I could choose whether to be social, and with whom. I could choose to walk away. For me, this was enormously refreshing. With all the politics and strings that go with having a job, neighbours, family, and friends, I miss the honesty of such clear-cut priorities.

I miss the deliciously smooth but delightfully cheap red wine – I don’t know that I’ll ever get over the novelty of paying €1 for a glass of wine in a café bar. Since camino, every glass of wine feels scandalously over-priced!

These days, what I miss most of all is the fresh air and open landscape. This spring, I’ve had hailstones and showers, stormy winds, and hazy sun. I’ve had days of thermal underwear and days of open-toed shoes – so you know, the weather is all over the place. But somehow it feels like there’s more air too – more fresh, breezy, summer-filled air…and it reminds me of my camino.

It’s such a luxury to spend hours and hours outdoors every day. I guess farmers already know this but people like me, with indoor jobs, are largely removed from nature. We’re sheltered from the elements and spend our days looking to the near horizons instead of the far distance. *I* spend most of my days looking at a computer screen but on camino, I spent my days looking at the trail ahead – made of gravel, concrete, woodland moss, or stepping stones across a river. The scenery was always changing. The weather dictated a lot of my progress. I inhaled the smells of wild herbs and clay. I felt the warmth of the sun on my forehead. I felt I was a natural being in a natural environment, and the contentment bubbled up from within.

I miss the freedom of seeing the sky for hours at a time. I miss the healthy indulgence of fresh air – hours and hours worth, every day. After I left the city of Burgos, I entered into the middle section of the Camino Francés – the Meseta – and spent a week walking through a flat landscape, full of wheat fields and corn. I could see the trail for miles ahead and the flat horizons are said to be mind-numbing. And yet, I remember this section of camino with great fondness. Why? Because I could *really* see the sky and take in the landscape. I miss it because it felt full of fresh air, without the interruptions of buildings or trees. The autumn breeze swept for miles across the Meseta and it carried a great sense of innocent freedom for me – the stuff of childhood, when I spent hours outdoors every day.

It’s the simple things I miss most of all.

So much so, I might have to go stretch my legs this Easter weekend and go see the sky! 🙂

What about you?

Camino Statistics

I talk a lot about the crowds and the volume of people on camino in 2013. It really caught me by surprise, especially as September and October are said to be “quiet months” for the trail. I was never really sure whether my perception of the crowds had any factual basis – until I came home and looked up the statistics.

There are a few different sites crunching the numbers but this one is a pretty reliable source on camino forums and discussion groups.

“The total number of pilgrims registered with the Pilgrims´Office between 1 January 2013 and 30 September 2013 is 189,642.” [Remember, there were still another 3 months left in the year and the numbers kept coming.]

The total for the same period in 2012 was 168,722. This is an increase of 12%.

Another site says: “Each year the pilgrims office in Santiago publishes the number of pilgrims that have received the compostela [official certificate] for that year. Since there are pilgrims that does not care about the compostela, and never pick it up, it is difficult to know exact number. Even so, the numbers below is as close as we get to “official” pilgrim numbers.

Pilgrims in 2013 that received the compostelas at the Pilgrims Office in Santiago:  215,880 pilgrims

  • On foot: 188,191 (87,17%)
  • By bike: 26,646 (12,34%)
  • By horse: 977 (0,45%)
  • In a wheelchair: 66 (0,03%)

How many of them travelled Camino Francés? 151,761 (70,30%)

You can see that most of the people walk Camino Francés, so maybe I didn’t imagine the crowds after all.

Is that less or more than you expect?

A Toast to Tosantos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The music was deafening.

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

What on earth was going on?!

It transpired that the village was celebrating a fiesta.

Ah yes, Spain is great for its fiestas!

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

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

Wikipedia tells me that:

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving and Spiritual Inspiration for Camino de Santiago

I heard a prayer recently that really struck a chord and made me think of Camino.

I’m not kidding when I say I know about five prayers in total and I’m not usually fluent in this sort of thing. But I heard this prayer from Teresa of Avila in recent days and it really resonated…especially all the references to feet.

It made me think of Camino and of the walking I did every day over six weeks. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of walking – it kind of defies belief. Somewhere along the way, I realised just what a profound gift it was to be there at all. I don’t just mean that I was lucky to have the time off or that I could afford the air fare to get to France/Spain. Of course, those things are relevant.

But what a tremendous gift it is to have a body that works, a body that moves, walks upright, and is capable of covering such impressive distances. The world is full of people in various states of ill-health and disability. Some day, I may be one of them. But right now, thankfully, I am healthy and strong. On Camino, my body rose to the biggest physical challenge I’d ever presented, and it carried me across Spain the old-fashioned way – on my own two legs.

How amazing to have such awesome legs!

Hearing the prayer below, I thought of some of the people I know who are disabled or unwell.

I wondered: What would it be like if they could manifest themselves through my hands, my eyes, my feet, and live in my body for a day?

What would they do?

Would they go dancing? Would they drive a sports car? Would they bring the dog for a walk?

It’s a tremendous gift to stand upright and go for a walk. Those of us who can do it every day probably take it for granted.

I know I do.

But on Camino, I developed a growing sense of this profound blessing – that of a healthy body, and the blessing of an open road and an open sky. It was a gift to be there at all and to be able to experience any of it. Lucky me, I was able to experience all of it – day after day, week after week.

I did the best I could at the time. A year later I’m inclined to think I did quite a bit of whining about my sore feet. Only those who walked with me can confirm or deny the volume of my whining. To those of you who were there: I’m sorry if I went on a bit.

Hearing the prayer below has given me a different perspective. It has made me want to go walk Camino again, and this time walk it with more grace and less whining. I think that was my aspiration the first time round too, and I guess I had a sort of “hit-or-miss” success rate with that. But hearing this prayer has stirred my heart-strings in a new way and makes me want to go again, but in a better way.

It’s not that I am having a religious epiphany.

But I’m re-remembering this simple reality: No matter how hard it gets, we all have something to be thankful for.

Even if we ache and hurt, there are parts of ourselves and our lives that still work, still move, still rise to the challenge of being alive in the world. Those parts of ourselves and our lives are a gift.

On Camino, my feet hurt like hell but you know what?

They still carried me 500 miles across Spain.

They did everything I asked of them.

To celebrate Thanksgiving, I am thanking my feet for rising to the Camino challenge. I am thanking my body for carrying me (and my belongings) every day across all sorts of terrain. I am thankful for the gift of Camino, and all that it entailed.

And in the meantime, a word from Teresa of Avila (from Spain):

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Camino Francés: The First Week

A week in to the journey, I started to figure out which way was up.

Walking the Camino without any physical training was an optimistic endeavour. I look back on it now and think it was beautifully optimistic – what trust, what faith, how sweet! Some people would say it was foolish or irresponsible, but I had done enough cross-country walking in my life to know that I could do it. I can “do” stamina and endurance, I’m not afraid of roughing it, and I am happily myself in the great outdoors. The 8-year old in me was delighted to be outside every day, playing in the sun. Still, I had never attempted to walk so far before and I didn’t take any of it for granted. Every day, I prayed I would be given the resources I needed to keep going. Even though I missed Supportive Husband, I wasn’t ready to wrap up and go home. The fact that he cheered me on from a distance made him even more awesome.

After years sitting at a desk and staring into a computer screen to do virtual work, the daily exertion of walking felt real. It was real effort, with a real sense of progress. I’d replaced full-time working with full-time walking, and my slow progression over land was the stuff of legend.

I was on walkabout

I was on a quest

I was on pilgrimage

I was crossing a country on foot

In our escalating race for speed, there’s something primal about using your body, instead of a machine, to get from place to place. Walking Camino was a great way of getting back to basics.

It also was all-encompassing: my agenda every day was simple: walk as far as I can, find a bed, sleep in it. Eat, drink, and wash, too. There were no politics, no mind games, and no corporate ladders to contend with – all of those things just fell away. The rules for survival had changed and some part of me delighted in recognising them: Ah, I know how to do this. I know how to walk and I know how to keep going. This stuff makes sense.

A week into it, my major concerns had already been addressed and dismissed:

  • Worried about getting stuck for a bed? It happened, but everything worked out okay anyway.
  • Anxious I had too much weight in my backpack? I’d taken some of it out and mailed it home.
  • Concerned about not speaking very much Spanish? No need, I’d already learned a few key phrases in asking for coffee, bathrooms, and beds.
  • Apprehensive about the steep ascent and descent of the Pyrenees? No need, it was tough but the views were stellar and I survived without injury.
  • Worried about being over-stimulated with people everywhere? Well, that happened but I’d learned to walk alone for at least some of the day, and take a private room one night. Problem solved.

To my delight, I had already covered over 100km and had crossed over the Pyrenees on foot, in hiking sandals. Already, I felt I had succeeded within myself. I had slept in a different bed every night, I’d paced myself, pushed myself, cried like a child, and pulled myself together. I’d already met hundreds of people from all over the world. There was no week in the office that could compare!

Would I recommend some physical training beforehand? Absolutely. I may have survived my first week but I probably could have spared myself some of the pain if I had been in better physical shape. Would I recommend crossing the Pyrenees in hiking sandals? No, not really. There were benefits and drawbacks to wearing the sandals but on such steep ground, they weren’t the best. Would I recommend walking with an open heart full of trust, instead of a guidebook full of plans and schedules? Yes, I would, but there are challenges to that, too.

Going on Camino without a lot of physical preparation was somewhat innocent, and I really didn’t know what lay ahead. Still, I knew two friends who separately walked the Camino Francés in the six months before me and they both told me the same thing: You get stronger as you go on.

Whatever else happened, I had crossed the Pyrenees and I’d survived the first week.

And prayed there was more to follow.