Hello September!

Hello,

I’m back!

I need to ‘fess up and admit, red-faced, that this camino story has turned into a very long, drawn-out tale. I never intended it to be like this so apologies for all of you who’ve been waiting all this time for the end. It will come, just like the real end of camino did, and I promise I am getting there.

In many ways, I am still catching up on all the ways in which it changed me. Is that an excuse for taking a ridiculously long amount of time to recount my experience? Yes, it is. And it’s also the truth. To tell the story too quickly kind of implies that walking the 500 miles was something I just did one year, casual as could be, with no thought about it afterwards. That wasn’t my experience of walking across Spain. While I am sorry I’ve been so slow with the writing, I know camino wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan experience for me. Somehow, the slow recounting is part of that.

I’ve had a busy summer and got locked out of my wordpress account more times than I could count, so I lost some of my motivation to write. But, I’ve got that back-to-school energy at the moment and I am full of industrious ideas and plans. I’m also reminded of my camino journey, which started around this time of the year. The seasonal change reminds me of it all — packing my bag, getting on the plane to Biarritz, and later, the hours and hours of being outside every day. I look back on it with rose-tinted glasses, I know.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on how my camino experience has steeled me for life. In the time since I finished walking,  there’s been plenty of illness and bereavement, sorrow and loss, overwhelm and depletion. There’s also been tremendous joy, new beginnings, new unions and life, and great connection. Every day, I am so busy trying to do my best with the day, I often forget to zoom out a bit and look at the big picture. I often forget to take stock of all that is going on in my life and how much of it is working well.

There were days on camino when everything seemed to slot together and my entire being hummed with contentment, like one very happy tuning-fork. There were also days when I was so overwhelmed with gloom that the best I could do was draw a line under the day and hope the next one would be better. My everyday life is like this too: some days are full of choral harmonies and other days are a groan from beginning to end.

So, how does the camino help?

Because it taught me this: just keep going. No one walks to Santiago in one clean hop. No matter what way you look at it, 500 miles is a long way to go by foot, irrespective of your circumstances in life. Some people walking have loads of money and others have only some of their limbs. This is life.

So don’t shy away from the challenge of it, whatever “it” is in your life right now. Don’t let fear swallow up all of your best ideas and heartfelt aspirations. Don’t let uncertainty turn into inertia. Just keep going. One foot at a time, one day at a time, one café con leche at a time. Amazingly, the effort all adds up. It doesn’t always seem like it but it does amount to something, it does create something in its own right.

Camino…life…writing a blog about camino and life….it’s all one day at a time. One post at a time, one strong mug of coffee at a time. And isn’t it great to be able to do it? Really, every day I am alive, I still have a crack at living well and making things a bit better. I still have choice.

So, camino made me strong, keeps me strong, and gives me good perspective on how to keep going. I said it before but it re-wired me from the inside and changed everything since.

Thanks for reading, for waiting, and for giving a damn. I’m excited to be back and look forward to more in the weeks ahead.

Buen Camino to you.

Walking the Camino: The Wild Dogs of Villafranca

IMG_1141Distance walked: 29km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 194.8km

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

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

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

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

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

(Stubborn, me??!)

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

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

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

Which one would I choose?

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

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

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

Slate rooftop…getting closer to Galicia

The new motorway running through the Valcarce valley

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

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

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Kitchen & dining area in the hostel

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Yum!

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago: Deciding whether to stay in León

A girl could get used to this…

Distance walked: 26.4km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 309km

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

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

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

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

Did I feel pressured by that timeline?

Absolutely.

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

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

I wanted to stop for some food and a rest.

I wanted to stop and reflect a little while.

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

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

Amazing serendipity!

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

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

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

 

 

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.

Dick Measuring – On Camino & In Life

I had an unfortunate encounter this week. I crossed paths with someone I didn’t want to see. She isn’t part of my inner circle but she’s someone I have known a long time so I was obliged to say hello.

Exchange pleasantries.

Pretend to be interested.

I did all that and expected our conversation to wrap up quickly but before I knew it, she started asking more detailed questions. About what? About my plans. Career. Childcare. Things I don’t want to talk about right now. Things I am still figuring out. Things that take time to explain and require great listening, understanding, and trust. Just some of the things that are lacking between us.

I wasn’t prepared for the inquisition. She’s one of these people who hasn’t learned how to ask open-ended questions in a neutral tone. I didn’t want to get into details so I fudged a vague reply. She didn’t take the hint. She asked more questions. Pointed ones. The kind of questions that indicate judgement about my choices, my priorities, my heartfelt journey through life.

And I came home feeling sh*t about myself.

Sound familiar?

We all have people in life that rattle and upend us. The holiday season shakes up our social circle in all sorts of ways and we often come face-to-face with people we’d much rather avoid. It’s part of life.

And it’s part of camino, too. Every day that I walked, I met people who needled me for specific information: How many kilometers had I walked that day? How much money did I earn? What hostel would I stay in that night?

Sometimes these questions were just conversation starters. Most of the time they were benign and meaningless. But all along camino, I met people for whom these questions were far more important. They asked them as a means to gather information about me, often without answering them in return. Or they asked them so they could brag about their own achievements (in life, on camino, whatever). They asked them so they could judge me. Was I as rich as them? As fast as them? As fit as them?

I’m told this is called “Dick Measuring”.

And just as it happens in everyday life, so too on camino. You’d think all those pilgrims would know better.

They don’t.

They walk 500 miles asking pointed, nosey questions that undermine the people around them. They needle for binding, yes/no answers that are easy to catalogue. But I didn’t abide by the black/white rules of life: I was living proof of grey.

It took me a while to figure this out on camino. I went to France/Spain with my heart on my sleeve. I was open. I didn’t have a strategy in my conversations or in my everyday walking. I assumed that the people around me were wholesome and open-minded.

Sometimes, I was wrong.

I learned to keep some details to myself – mostly because they were irrelevant but sometimes because my honesty was used against me.

I had only one true plan: I would do my very best to walk all the way to Santiago. After that, I hadn’t a clue where I would sleep each night or how far I would walk each day. Some people thought I was being difficult or cagey when I didn’t answer their questions. They thought I had something to hide but the truth was less dramatic: I just didn’t have the answers. And I didn’t pretend otherwise. And that was an almighty liberation from my everyday life where I felt this ongoing, immense pressure to always have a plan and always be “on track” with that plan.

As soon as I started seeing a guy, people wanted to know when we would marry.

As soon as we married, people wanted to know when we’d have kids.

As soon as I had a kid, people wanted to know when I’d have another, return to work, and get the first child out the door already.

All this push push push to get to the next thing. And for what?

We’re all going to die. Fact. So why the rush to get through all of life and get to that end point already?

Truth is, I don’t really have a plan. I have aspirations and intentions, and sometimes they merge into a sort of plan. But that’s as organised as it gets around here. I don’t really get into Dick Measuring because it’s absolutely unhelpful in my life. Actually, genuinely unhelpful. And unhealthy too.

I’d like to be asked different questions, like: When did I last get a good look at the sky? What was my favourite thing to happen this week? What am I enjoying these days?

I walked my camino with a deep need to walk with trust instead of fear. And I try to carry that through to my everyday life, too.

So.

To all the people who have needled and pressed me for information: I’ll tell you if there’s something worth sharing but in the meantime, let me be. The answers will come when you stop harassing me with questions.

Just as it was on camino, so it is in life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

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

Distance walked: 33.6km

Distance to Santiago: 440.8km

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

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

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

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Early morning on the Meseta

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

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

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

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Doesn’t it look great?!

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

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

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

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

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Magnificient!

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

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

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

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

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

What did I want?

I wanted some peace and quiet.

I wanted more time by myself.

Most of all, I wanted to walk.

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

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So what was the secret?

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

Somehow, these things unlocked*my* camino magic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No cluster of trees!

No little village!

No cool shade. No coke. No break!

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

Bring it on!

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

But…

I really, really wanted to walk.

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

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

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

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

In the end, I decided that I did.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camino: You are always on my mind…

You may have noticed another hiatus in this blog…there haven’t been so many new posts recently.

I admit it: I’ve badly neglected this blog, despite my best efforts to post often. True, I changed jobs and moved house in the last year and those things had a big impact on my availability…but not as big an impact as the arrival of “Small Baba” in my life.

A-ha! 

The *real* reason for my neglect these past few months!

People say that changing job, moving house, and having a baby are among life’s major stressors. I remember reading that they were in the Top 5. They may even be in the Top 3 list of life stresses. I’ve experienced all three in a 12-month period. Life has been so busy and unexpected that I often haven’t had the time to reflect on how it’s progressing. The landscape keeps changing and I just keep going. Years from now, I’ll probably look back at this time as somewhat insane. For now, I just keep plugging away as best I can, surfacing for air every once in a while.

Small Baba has proven to be the ultimate distraction. I anticipate an hour of quiet so I flip open the laptop lid and press the power button…only to get called away by the squeaks and squeals of this new little person needing my attention.

Writing anything – even a shopping list – is a big ask sometimes!

That said, I find myself thinking about camino every day. I find myself reflecting on camino-themed blog posts in my mind. I keep thinking of parallels between my camino experience and my daily life, and I keep thinking of material for new posts. Camino is always on my mind, hovering close to the surface.

These days, I’m continually reminded of how walking camino and caring for a small person are similar in ways: both feel like marathons, not sprints.

  • Pacing oneself is important.
  • Setting realistic expectations is important.
  • Celebrating the successes, however small, is important.

There were days on camino when my body felt so impossibly sore and tired that I couldn’t fathom how to keep going. With hundreds of kilometers stretching out in front of me, I wondered whether I had the stamina or resources to make it all the way to Santiago. Sometimes the challenge felt too huge to really comprehend. Sometimes Santiago felt like a mirage – one I couldn’t quite rely on.

I did the only thing I could do: I took it one day at a time. I left my hostels every morning, sore, stiff, and tired from a night of snoring roommates, and I put one foot in front of the other. I tried not to think too much about the aches and pains. Instead, I thought about the hot coffee awaiting me in the next village. I thought about the warm sun behind me, browning the backs of my legs. I thought about all the things that were working in my favour. And I prayed for everything I would need to keep going. Walking 800km all at once doesn’t happen in one day or in one week – the trail is too long for that. My mind struggled to understand what 800km really meant. The only thing I could do was take it one day at a time, one step at a time, and leave the rest up to the heavens.

Life with Small Baba is different but not dissimilar. Anything can happen. Plans change quickly and unexpectedly so sometimes it’s better to have a flexible aspiration for the day instead of a plan. That way, when the day goes better/worse than expected, there’s less upset about the plan working/not working.

My camino was a lot like that.

And everything I learned about myself on camino is standing to me now. All those noisy hostels, all those humbling aches, all those hours alone to reflect and reassess my life. I didn’t walk camino to “find myself” but I came home knowing and understanding myself on a whole new level. I came home knowing, and I mean *really knowing* that I am strong. I came home knowing that big things are possible when they’re broken down into smaller, manageable chunks. And I learned that there is a time for everything…so it’s okay to take the time and space, and just let the journey unfold.

There are lots of things I want to say about camino. There are photos and memories to be shared, and conversations yet to be had. If you can be patient with my comings and goings, I’d like to think that I will translate some of these thoughts and insights into written word over time.

And I’d like if you could stick around to read the words and tell me what you think.

In the meantime, there are squeaks and squeals to tend to, and a new journey unfolding before me every day. For all of us, January is over but the year is still young. Go gently. Pace yourself. Take it one day at a time. And celebrate the successes, however small they may be – they will give you the strength you need to go further, go higher, and go deeper.

We will all get there, wherever “there” is. Just give it some time.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Siesta

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Candles in the Church in St Jean Pied de Port, France

** Reposting this one – enjoy! **

When I walked the Camino across Spain last year, I passed through countless towns and villages along the way.

Okay, somebody probably counted them by now so they’re surely not “countless” at all.

But there were a lot of them.

I got familiar with the Spanish custom of siesta in the afternoon – usually between the hours of 1 and 4pm.

Sometimes, I had arrived at my destination by then and was enjoying lunch and chat with other pilgrims. We could be having a coke or a glass of wine, sitting in the shade or the sun, and relishing the chance to sit and rest our tired bodies.

Other times, I was in the process of showering and washing my clothes in a sink, taking care of logistics in preparation for the next day’s walking.

Sometimes, by the time it came to 1pm, I was still out walking. It’s a hot time in the day to be on the trail but I wasn’t fast enough to walk 25km first thing in the morning, so I often walked into the early afternoon. Occasionally, I was still walking when the clock rolled around to 4pm, too. If you thought it was hot at 1pm, you’d be surprised to find it even hotter at 4pm!

Once, I felt frustrated with the awkward opening hours, hungrily waiting to buy food from the only grocery shop in a tiny village.

When it came to siesta, I often found myself doing something other than sleep.

But on a couple of occasions I happened to be indoors, with a secure bed for the night, and a relatively quiet room around me. On a few occasions, I managed to have an afternoon nap and join the rest of Spain in this glorious custom. Those naps were precious and delightful. Thinking about them even now makes me smile inside!

We all need to rest. We all need to down tools and put up our feet. In Spain, the daily siesta gave us an opportunity to go more slowly in life. The daily siesta gave us a chance to take a break from walking, or take some time to reflect. Life can’t be all “go-go-go” all the time. We are organic creatures and need recovery time.

Christmas is a flurry of activity for many of us. There’s a long list of shopping, cooking, and socialising to tend to, and sometimes that’s before the 25th even starts! For others, it tenderly reminds us of loved ones who are ill or no longer here to join us in celebration. For some of us, it’s a lonely time as we watch other people race about in excitement, but with little excitement of our own. And for some of us, it’s not really a holiday we resonate with, but we have to watch the flurry all the same.

Not everyone likes Christmas, while others would embrace it every day of the year.

It takes all sorts.

In the northern hemisphere right now, it’s winter. The days are short, the nights are dark, and our hibernating tendencies kick in as we try to stay warm, stay fed, and stay cosy. It’s a good time of the year to have a holiday, have a nap, and load up on extra calories.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, it is still a winter holiday – a time to take a break and put up your feet. Whatever your stance around religious holidays, family gatherings, boozy celebrations, or consumerist shopping sprees, this is a siesta in the middle of winter. It’s an opportunity to slow things down a little, take some time to rest, and take some time to reflect. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or involve a lot of cooking – it’s all about taking a break from the daily chaos.

Every day I walked Camino, Spain held its daily siesta in the afternoon. The break was great, but there was always more walking to be done. We couldn’t stay resting forever, however tempting it was!

So may your Christmas siesta give you the energy and strength you need to keep going, too. Whatever you choose to do with this winter holiday, I hope it fills you with peace. May the Christmas siesta be refreshing and restful, and may you return to this blog feeling hopeful and inspired for the year ahead.

I’ll be here to share more tales from my Camino journey, and I look forward to connecting with you then. 🙂

In the meantime, Happy Christmas.

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Camino Christmas Wish List

As they say, “tis the season…” so I’m re-posting this and would love to hear your thoughts on Camino-related Christmas gifts! 🙂

I’ve been thinking about things I carried in my backpack when I walked 800km across France and Spain.

What to pack is every bit as important as what shoes to wear because all going well, you’re going to spend every day with each other – maybe for several weeks. You want to make sure the pack is light enough to carry it comfortably and yet, that you have the things you need for all types of weather and terrain. It’s a bit tricky to strike the right balance.

I’m compiling a list of all the things I carried in my backpack and will post it soon. I’ll also give details about the things I removed from the pack, the new things I bought along the way, and my reflections about what I would pack differently if I were to walk Camino again. I’ve learned a few things from my last walkabout!

In the meantime, I’ve created a sort of Camino Christmas wish list, for those of you wanting to buy Camino-themed Christmas presents. Whether you’re treating yourself or someone you love, I’m hoping you’ll find something to suit your budget in my list below. For those of you who’ve already walked Camino, please feel free to add your own suggestions and wish-list items – I’d love to see your suggestions!)

(A small word about product placement and advertising: My blog isn’t sponsored by anyone so if I mention specific products below, it’s because I have personal experience of them. I promise I’m not being paid or compensated in any way for mentioning specifics.)

So, here’s my recommendations for the Camino Christmas Wish List…

€10 or Less

  • Ear plugs: A pilgrim’s best friend if they’re staying in the hostels (albergues). Splash out and buy several pairs – they won’t go to waste!
  • Antiseptic Wipes: I received these as a gift (thanks Frederique!) and used them on my very first day. They’re light to carry and really handy to have when tending to cuts, grazes, and blisters.
  • Petroleum Jelly: Very handy in preventing blisters. Buy a small tin so it’s lightweight.
  • Large, Double Zip-Lock Freezer Bags: I used these to carry my toiletries, my sunscreen, and my smart phone. I used the Glad brand and in six weeks, they didn’t split, tear, or diminish in any way. Love them!
  • Compeed Plasters: As plasters go, these aren’t cheap but apparently they are cheaper in Europe than anywhere else. Friends elsewhere in the world might have a hard time finding them but they were the best plasters I used to prevent and treat blisters. Why? The padding on them was better than anything else I tried, and the glue was also superior – so they stayed in place and didn’t move around like cheaper varieties. Worth every penny.
  • Shower Gloves: Lightweight, quick-drying, and great for scrubbing away the sweat, muck, and grime at the end of a day’s walking.
  • Universal Sink Plug: For the pilgrim that has to hand wash their clothes every day in a sink, this little gift makes the task so much easier.
  • Scallop Shell: This is the symbol of the Camino and Saint James, and pilgrims often wear them on their backpacks to signify that they are on Camino. Maybe you’ll beat the budget and find one for free on your next outing to the beach 🙂

€50 or Less

  • Movie: The Way (starring Martin Sheen): For inspiration, watch it before you go. In remembrance, watch it after you return home. Either way, it’s a beautiful piece of work.
  • John Brierley’s Maps for Camino Francés: Lighter than the full guide-book, these maps are easy to follow and still include key information about the landscape and accommodation along the way.
  • Platypus Water Pouch: People seem to either love these or hate them. Personally, I loved being able to stay hydrated without having to take off my backpack each time I wanted a drink of water. I received mine as a gift (thanks Megan & John!) and loved it all the way.
  • Movie: St Jacques… le Macque: Many people told me about this while I walked but I haven’t seen it yet. This one’s on my wish list 🙂
  • Book: I’m Off Then (by German author, Hape Kerkeling, and translated into various languages): I received this as a gift from one of my Camino friends (thanks Marco!) and loved it from beginning to end.
  • Synthetic Travel Towel: They’re quick-drying, light, and take up very little space in the backpack. They come in various sizes, prices, and colours and are a lot more practical than cotton towels.

€50 or More

  • Walking Poles: Again, people either love them or hate them, but I wouldn’t have gone for even a week without mine. They align your posture and provide balance, which does make a difference on steep or slippery ground. They vary in price so it’s a personal choice but I would encourage you to buy lightweight and sturdy ones.
  • Backpack: Picking a backpack can be like picking a pair of shoes, which I wrote about here. I don’t recommend you buy a backpack for someone unless they’ve specified exactly which one they want, but perhaps you could chip in towards the overall cost ’cause those things can be pricey. Again, I recommend lightweight and sturdy.
  • Gift Voucher: Before I left for Camino, my work colleagues clubbed together and bought me a gift voucher for an outdoor shop. With it, I purchased a new raincoat and lightweight hiking pants, and I couldn’t have been happier. If you don’t know what to buy, but you know your recipient will need a few bits and pieces, then a gift voucher for their store of choice is a great idea. And if, like me, they manage to bag a few bargains in the sale, then even better!
  • Plane or Train Tickets: Okay, so I know this might seem like a really lavish one but bear with me for a minute. Every year, thousands and thousands of people make their way from all around the world to walk the Camino across France and Spain. Getting to “the starting point” (wherever it may be) can be pricey. You might not want to buy a first-class airplane ticket all the way from Australia, but you might be able to pay for a short inter-European flight, or a train ticket within Spain. The pilgrim-to-be can tell you what their intended route is, but with many pilgrims transferring through Madrid, Paris, Dublin, and Amsterdam, there’s plenty of opportunity to contribute towards the travel costs.

So there you have it: my Camino Christmas Wish List of goodies – either for yourself or some other pilgrim.

What would you add to your Camino Christmas Wish List?

A voucher for the Parador hotels?

A Spanish phrase book?

or

Bionic legs and feet?!

Do tell – I’m all ears! 🙂

Camino Challenge: Great…but tough…

I knew different people over the years who had walked camino – whether for one week or for eight weeks, and they all said the same thing:

It’s great…but tough.”

I could imagine why it was great – all that open space, the joy of walking cross-country every day, the delicious wine and warm sunshine – it sounded idyllic. It sounded like a leisurely walking holiday with lots of new, interesting friends.

But I didn’t really understand why it was tough. Sure, walking long distances every day can’t be easy but why was it so back-breaking? I just didn’t get it.

When *I* came home from Spain, everyone asked me:

How was it?

And I found myself replying in exactly the same way:

Great…but tough.

It’s a lame reply. It gives very little detail. But most of the time, when people ask the question they don’t really want a detailed answer. They want the stories about cheap wine and balmy sunshine. They want to be told about how easy it is to make new friends. They want to be told that walking camino is great. So, we never really get to the nub of what makes it tough.

Months later, after lots of reflection and mental sorting, I’m able to articulate my own experience with a bit more detail. Here’s what made it tough for me:

  1. Everything was accumulative.

Walking 20-30km on a given day was surprisingly okay. Walking 20-30km *every* day – over six consecutive weeks – was fricking hard.

Day 1: I’m walking – I’ve started – how awesome!

Day 6: I’m walking – yay (I’m still a bit sore from the Pyrenees)

Day 11: Finding my groove – aw yeah!

Day 18: I’m still walking – strong, even if I feel a bit tired

Day 23: I’m still walking. Wow. I’m a machine…and how much is left?

Day 29: Really? I’m still walking? Feels like I’ve been out here for months.

Day 34: Oh my God I am *so tired* of walking.

Day 40-something: Whatever. I’m ready to be in Santiago already. I’m ready to go home.

For me, the pain in my body was accumulative. That meant pain in my feet, pain in my hips, pain in my shoulders and neck. I didn’t give myself the time to heal properly, get massages, or even rest for a few days at a time. My body put up with the abuse but it wasn’t without complaint. The longer I walked, the more the exhaustion, aches, and inflammation all added up. And still, I had hundreds more miles to walk if I wanted to get to Santiago.

*That* was tough.

  1. Being surrounded by people all the time was over-stimulating.

I say this knowing it won’t apply to everyone because I’m more introverted than extroverted. I was delighted to make new friends so easily but I needed lots of alone time to recharge my batteries. Alone time wasn’t always easy to come by.

The bedrooms in the hostels were noisy. The bathrooms were full. The coffee shops and restaurants had crowds, or queues, or both. Ironically, the churches were quiet but unsurprisingly, they were often closed.

The only way I could get alone time was to spend hours walking by myself every day. I did it gladly. I did it because I needed it. Without it, I easily got over-stimulated, overwhelmed, and over emotional.

But even out on the trail, there were groups of pilgrims in front of me and behind me. Most of the time, I looked up from the gravel and could see at least one person ahead with a backpack and walking sticks. It was a comfort in some ways but it meant I was never really alone, even when I wanted it.

And I found *that* tough going. It was over-stimulating and demanding.

As a consequence, I found the daily race for beds was tough, too. At one point, two pilgrims ran ahead of me on the trail to get to the hostel first and secure whatever beds were left. At the time, I was somewhere between horrified and mildly amused. Now, I just think their actions represented a side of camino that really caught me by surprise.

When the competition for beds is with some nameless, faceless pilgrim who hasn’t arrived yet, that race is kind of abstract and easy to rationalize. There’s a certain “me verses them” mentality and with so many hundreds of people on the move, it’s not personal. In this scenario though, I had met these two pilgrims before. We had shared food and laughter, and we exchanged warm conversation on the trail. When they chose to run ahead, they weren’t just running to beat some nameless, faceless pilgrim – they were running to get ahead of me. 

As an isolated incident it wasn’t that tough. But walking all those miles every day, and trying to arrive somewhere by lunchtime before the beds fill up…only to have people run ahead of me on the trail? Well, as a daily, emotional undercurrent was tough. It wasn’t at all what I expected.

Of course, the flip side is probably also difficult. I imagine that extroverts who walk during a quieter time of the year find it tough to walk camino with so few people around. I’ve read accounts of empty hostels, closed-down coffee shops, and hours of walking without even seeing another human. For an extrovert who wants company and chat, I imagine that’s tough. It’s probably quite lonely and isolating. It’s probably every bit as tough as my experience of being over-stimulated…just for the opposite reasons.

  1. It’s not really a holiday.

Walking for a week at a time and staying in pre-booked private accommodation is probably quite leisurely. Your body has opportunity to get proper sleep and the occasional hot bath. And before you know it, you’re back home in your own bed and booked in for a massage to pacify the gentle ache. Going for a week at a time is a walking holiday, I think.

Walking 500 miles of camino all in one go was not a holiday. It was a break from normal life and a gift of time, certainly….but not a holiday. At least, not in the traditional sense.

The hostels allow pilgrims to stay only one night. Plus, they kick you out between 6-8am. That means no leisurely lie-ins. It means getting up in the dark and leaving without breakfast. It becomes a norm and it becomes surprisingly routine but there isn’t much pampering.

Sharing a bathroom with 20 strangers is intimate and noisy. Shower curtains may not fit properly. The floor is covered in water from the previous 18 people who showered before you. There are no fluffy towels.

When people talk about strapping on a backpack every morning, they don’t really mean that they’re out for a gentle ramble for 2-3 hours. They mean that they’re walking anywhere between 3-10 hours, even if they have infected blisters, sprained ligaments, and sore shoulders. They walk in the scorching sun. They walk in relentless rain. It’s not always leisurely: sometimes it’s plain grueling.

When people talk about drinking €1 glasses of red wine and eating tapas, they’re not necessarily talking about appetizing, savory delights. Sometimes, the “tapas” were just slabs of Spanish omelette and greasy bowls of olives. Nothing wrong with that, but too many slices of omelette have swarms of flies buzzing around them while they sit on a counter, going stale in the midday sun.

Eewww!

Walking camino was great but it wasn’t a leisurely stroll. Some days, it didn’t match up to the accounts I’d heard, or read on someone else’s blog. The marketing and the reality didn’t always align.

I found *that* tough, too.

 

There’s a lot of swooning about camino and in all the hype, it’s easy to think that it’s great fun and profoundly rewarding. I’ve noticed it’s easy to talk about all the great things but it’s not so easy to talk about the tough parts. To do so, means admitting we were lonely or short-tempered or afraid. To do so is perceived as negative and pessimistic, and who wants to be accused of that?

It’s easier to tell everyone about the cheap wine and the great people, and give a glossed-over account. It’s much easier to proclaim our physical greatness and say it was “challenging”, just like people talk about triathlons and marathons.

The reality, whether we ever articulate it, is more complex.

But there was greatness too.

Oddly, the things that I found tough about my camino were also closely tied to the things that were great about camino. The aches and exhaustion were accumulative, but so was the sense of achievement with passing through every small town and village. The longer I walked, the closer I got to Santiago. That achievement made the aches and pains (somewhat…ha ha!) more bearable.

And even though I found the crowds intolerable at times, to have walked it all alone would have been lonely. I made great connections along the way, shared picnics and laughter with people from all over the world, and have had the joy of meeting up with some of those friends since then. We have a shared experience and shared memories of the road. And I have to say, when I finally arrived in Santiago, being able to share the occasion with close friends was one of the sweetest moments of my journey. I may be a happy introvert but even I understand that having good people in life makes it all sweeter.

Camino *is* great…but tough…but great…and tough…

Camino Challenge: Comparing Myself to Others

I’m back!

After a long hiatus, I’m back at a keyboard again and hopefully ready to write a bit more about my camino adventure. It’s been a long gap, I know.

Thanks for sticking around.

There are different reasons for my long silence but one of them, in particular, really caught me by surprise.

Short version: I subscribe to various camino blogs. Some of them are written by people who planned their walk for Spring/Summer this year. In some cases, it was their first camino. In others, it was their second or third. Either way, I signed up for these blogs ages ago and enjoyed reading about, and commenting on, their preparations and plans.  I still love reading about camino so the blogs are a great way for me to keep in touch with the good memories and anticipate my next walkabout.

So far, so good.

But 2-3 months ago, all at once, these people were ready to step away from the keyboards and go walk. Their bags were packed, their flights awaited, it was time to leave. All at once, my inbox was full of their updates. They wrote from France and Spain, from hostels along the way. They wrote about the friends they made, the blisters they drained, and the plates of pasta they gorged on. I empathized with their frustrations and disappointments. I smiled at their frank reports from smelly dorm rooms. I relished their photos from parts of the trail I surely passed, but didn’t remember. And then I felt bad for forgetting so much of the trail, especially when I thought I had remembered so much.

I don’t know any of these people personally but their journeys felt personal to me. I cheered them on from afar.

But surprisingly, with all the talk about *their* camino journeys, I felt less and less able to talk about mine. They blogged live from the trail and somehow, that seemed more interesting and more valuable than anything I had to say. After all, it’s nearly 2 years since I walked camino. I’ve had time to reflect but they had an immediacy that was attention-grabbing. I felt there wasn’t enough room in the blogosphere for both our voices.

So I went quiet for a while.

Oddly, I also went quiet because I knew that some of these people subscribe to this blog, and I didn’t want them receiving my updates while they walked their own journey.

Why?

Well, I subscribed to only one camino blog before, and during my camino. I enjoyed Jen’s style of writing. I enjoyed her honest accounts and vivid descriptions from the trail. It all seemed so easy. It all seemed like a lot of fun.

While I walked across Spain, my smart phone buzzed with email updates every time I found wi-fi. Some of the updates were from her blog and I couldn’t help but read them. She had finished walking by then but wrote about finding people to walk with every day. She wrote about laughter and chatter with the locals. She wrote about going at her own pace and taking early stops in charming, scenic villages.

It all seemed so easy. It all seemed like a lot of fun. But I couldn’t relate to it. Most days, I chose to walk alone. I didn’t have enough Spanish to have much chatter with the locals. I didn’t stop often enough and as time wore on, the small villages charmed me less and less.

Compared to Jen, I felt like Oscar the Grouch!

Her blog was full of insight and reflection, and she seemed to have it all figured out. Meanwhile, I felt I was dragging my sorry-ass corpse across Spain and was making everyone miserable – myself included.

Receiving Jen’s updates while I still walked my own path was a strange sort of torture. I read about all the things that went well, all the things she did right, all the things she was grateful for. I compared my experience to her experience, and felt I was failing. I felt I was “doing it” all wrong. I felt tired, over-stimulated, and very, very sore. I didn’t feel I was having any great epiphanies or profound experiences. I felt I was failing at the very act of walking a pilgrimage route, and I wasn’t having a lot of fun. As the days turned into weeks, this self-defeating criticism mounted. It brought me to a point of utter despair and I thought I couldn’t go on. I thought my entire camino journey was doomed. I thought I couldn’t walk all the way to Santiago.

I still remember the rawness of those particular days. I remember how the heaviness of my heart made my whole body feel like lead. Of course, I wasn’t just comparing myself to this one person. I compared myself to the hundreds of strangers around me, and I saw only their successes and my own failures.

It was my own, very personal form of hell.

You’ll be glad to know I found a way through it – otherwise, I couldn’t blog about camino with any kind of joy or fondness!

But still, I remember the ache as I compared myself to others and particularly, to this person at the far side of the world, on the other end of a blog post.

Somehow, these past few months, I couldn’t write about my camino while I knew there were people who might read it while they walked their own journey.

Most of them have finished walking by now and have made their way home, to reflect and recover.

And now that there’s a quietness to my inbox again, I feel it’s a bit kinder to talk about my camino. No comparisons, no judgements, but hopefully, a shared experience that is positive and good.

So on we go – and hope for the best!

I hope you’ll continue to join me! 🙂

Breaking the Blogging Rules

I’m sure someone, somewhere has put together the Top 10 Tips for Blogging and one of those tips is “Get up at 4am to make sure you blog every day!” (or some other Type-A, Tiger-Mom equivalent that says “No excuses, you lazy bum!”)

You know the types: Get your message out there, build your network, command that spotlight, etc.

I get it.

Social media can be pretty fickle and it takes effort to stand out in the online world. Millions of people are competing for attention this very minute and sometimes you have to shout loudly, and often, to get heard at all. When it comes to blogging, you have to have something to say. You have to say it often. You have to say it loudly. You have to say it across different platforms. Otherwise, no one will read, no one will follow, and no one will care.

I get it.

And I admit, I have failed miserably to do any/all of these things the past few months. I’ve broken the blogging rules. I’ve neglected to write in all areas of my life – be that emails, text messages, and this lovely blog. There have been a collection of factors: illness, bereavement, and some major changes in my daily workspace. Even when I’d navigated my way through *those* distractions, I was faced with a broken laptop, a water-damaged smart phone, and had no broadband for a while. Quite literally, I lost use of the very tools I need for communicating online.

My list of hurdles became comical in that “The dog ate my homework” kind-of-way. I’m sure they read like an elaborate list of excuses.

And as the weeks rolled on, I wrestled with frustration, exasperation, and guilt about this non-writing life I seem to be living lately. Sure, my life has become busy in unexpected ways and my days have been full to the brim…but still, I expected that I should somehow make the time, conjure the wi-fi I needed, and find a way to keep writing – regularly and diligently.

This blog is my candle in the wind. If I don’t keep it lit, then who will?

If I don’t keep it lit, won’t it just fade away?

I went round and round in my head with all the reasons why I want to blog and all the reasons I found it hard to sit down and write.

I admit, sometimes I just didn’t feel like it.

There, I’ve said it.

And if I’m being really honest, I sometimes liked the feeling that came with being offline and somewhat inaccessible for a while. It reminded me of my days walking in Spain and the freedom of being “off the map” for a few weeks. In Spain, the leave of absence allowed me to ignore all the white noise of modern living and just “be”.

But this recent period of silence didn’t sit so easily with me.

I wondered: Have I beached up already?

I’ve written only a portion of my camino journey – the section from St. Jean Pied de Port to Burgos. There is still *so* much I want to say – about the walking, the terrain, and the things I learned along the way. But have I already grown bored and lost my self-discipline to see this thing through?

I wondered all of this until quite recently, someone pointed out to me that writing a blog about the camino is a bit like walking the camino.

There are days full of bright-eyed, bunny-eared enthusiasm and things go easily. There are days of exhausted reluctance, when the biggest challenge is to physically show up and look interested. Camino presents a litany of challenges – weather conditions, illness, sore feet, loud snorers, lack of vegetables – the list goes on. And yet, thousands of people every year, find a way to sidestep all the reasons why they should not walk camino. Every year, thousands of people find a way to keep going, despite the odds.

I was one of those thousands of people.

I found a way to keep going despite the challenges. I hope to do it again, now, with blogging.

Bear with me. I know the journey can feel like a long one but I still think it’s worth it.

Do you?

Why did I Walk? (Part 2: A Divine Decision)

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Walking 500 miles of Camino transformed me – and that transformation started before I ever stepped onto the trail in the south of France.

Deciding to walk camino was only partially *my* decision. There were other factors and forces at work.

Part 1 of the decision was the back story. It was all the ways I was generally unhappy with my life direction but without any real plan for how to change things.

Part 2 was more sudden, more profound, and dare I say it – divine. I don’t necessarily mean that in any religious sense but I do mean that it had everything to do with spirit, and that some sort of behind-the-scenes magic that took over.

Without that divine decision, I wouldn’t have been able to keep going on those days when I was sore and exhausted.

Without it, I probably wouldn’t have walked at all.

Let me explain…

At different points in my life, I’ve had experiences that very clearly led me towards or away from certain things. I don’t know what language to use here because the word choice might make some of us twitchy, but I’m talking about a fundamental, core-level, knowing that said:

Ger, we’re done here. It’s time to go.

Was it a booming voice from above? Sometimes, it felt like it.

Was it a quiet, inner understanding? Sometimes it felt like that, too.

Whether we call this God or The Universe or whatever, I don’t really mind. I’m just going to call it “knowing” or “gut instinct” in the name of being all-inclusive.

This knowing has prompted me to resign from jobs, leave relationships, and de-tangle my heart from defunct friendships. It’s helped me distinguish, very clearly, when it was the right time for me to change direction. In these situations, it was not my mind making the decisions – it was some other force at work.

In the years leading up to camino, I had a dozen reasons to leave my job and a dozen more to stay. The lists cancelled each other out so *my* plan was to make the best of my situation until the economy turned  around and I found a better fitting role. It was the most sensible and responsible plan that my mind could come up with. I didn’t know when I would leave my job or what I would do instead but I had faith that      whatever knowing spoke to me in the past would speak to me again:

I will get the nudge – that deep knowing from within or that booming voice from above – when the time is right to change direction. Until then, I won’t make any sudden moves.

Did I believe in fate? Maybe.

Was it a prayer of some sort? Yes, it actually was.

And in the meantime, I just got on with my daily life. I didn’t consciously know that I would walk the Camino in 2013 but there were breadcrumbs that led me in that direction all the same. I didn’t see them at the time but I could see them clearly afterwards.

Like what?

Part A.

In October 2012 my friend told me she planned to walk the French Way the following spring – in 2013. She and I very rarely get to hang out so I offered to join her for a week or two. I thought it might be a nice way to spend some time together and tend to a “Bucket List” dream that we both held. My mind thought it a great idea but as I spoke my words of offering, this one word came up as a thought and a feeling at the same time:

September

That was all.

I didn’t know what it meant – after all, that was a whole 11 months away and I didn’t plan that far ahead. But still, the word surfaced from within me and left that lingering message:

        September

That was the beginning of the magic though I didn’t know it.

Part B.

In the summer of 2013, my friend returned from her camino experience – warmly radiant. After dinner one evening she presented me with a scallop shell – I believe, the same one that she had strapped onto her own backpack as a pilgrim. I knew the shell was symbolic but in all honesty, it didn’t have any special resonance for me (yet).

She offered her shell to me and said,

I know you’ll walk the camino some day, Ger.

I was touched and accepted her lovely gesture. I agreed with her – I too knew that I would walk it some day. And yet, it was summertime and I was distracted by sunny weather. Accepting the shell was like buying an evening gown for a black tie event but years in advance. It felt premature and it felt somewhat irrelevant. And even though I hung the shell on a prominent wall in my home, I didn’t give it another thought.

Until this happened:

Part C.

A month later, a particular conversation highlighted clearly, and unequivocally, that I had outgrown my job. Not only that, but it was *definitely* not going anywhere and it was *definitely* stopping me from progressing – personally as well as professionally.

I’d felt all this for years but didn’t have the factual confirmation to back it up. The first 5 minutes of this hour-long conversation revealed the facts and my heart sank. Those were the moments where I actually lost heart in my work and all that it entailed. After years of frustration, tears, and trying to make it work, that deep knowing had blossomed from within and I just knew I was done.

I had received the nudge – no doubt about it.

That evening I said to Handsome Husband: I think I’m done with my job.

We were married only a few short months and I felt a massive conflict between taking care of my own needs and our needs as a couple. If I left my job, how would we pay the rent? Was I terribly selfish? And what about our future plans?

My happiness or misery affected us both. There was more to this decision than finances and grown-up plans.

But I knew I was truly, finally, and completely done with that job. I just didn’t know what to do next.

So, I threw it upwards as a prayer and put someone/something else on the job of figuring that out. As a child, I learned the concept of Guardian Angels and I liked the notion that I had a personal bodyguard in life. I even imagined I had a few of them. I imagined them as a gang, bored, and sitting around playing card games to pass the time. I wasn’t giving them enough to do and they were growing idle in the meantime.

So I threw it upwards with the thought:

Ok you guys, I know I’m done with the job. I get it. What I don’t know is what happens next so I need your help with that. Reveal the path to me. Tell me what I’m supposed to do here. I can’t see the big picture and I need a bit of help figuring this out.

The answer I got was simple (but not easy):

Go walk the camino.

Uh…what?

Go walk the camino.

For the next 3 weeks of July, I wrestled with this reply over and over. It woke me in the middle of the night. It sat on my shoulder at work. It prompted a dozen conversations with Husband.

I hadn’t planned to walk. I wasn’t prepared – in any way. I wasn’t ready.

I said:

That’s a great idea and I see how it would work, but I’m too scared.

And every day the response was the same:

I know you’re scared – but go walk.

In fact, there were very clear instructions to go with the response, specifically:

  • Go in early September – on the 1st if you can get a flight (a nice tie-in to my moment with the September prompt months earlier, don’t you think?)
  • Go for 6 weeks – no more, no less. Go from early September to mid-October only. No earlier, no later.
  • Don’t wait.

These specifics were *so* absolute that they led me to say I was called to walk the camino.

I really was – and not just sometime or any old time – but at a very specific time, for a very specific length of time. My *mind* didn’t decide those dates at all – it really was some other force that took over.

Every day, my fear ran riot and I’d ask:

What if I wait until the following spring? The weather will be good then too.

The response was always the same: DON’T wait.

I said: What if I go for 2-3 weeks only instead of the full thing? (and keep my job in the meantime?)

The response was always the same: Go for 6 weeks between early September and mid-October. No earlier and no later. Only this time. No other time.

I said: But I haven’t planned for any of this financially!

The response was always the same: The money will be fine.

Now, I don’t really know the bible stories or mythological traditions from around the world but I will say this much:

Something big had taken over. It felt like a “Hand-of-God-comes-down-from-above-and-directly-rearranges-my-life” kind of moment. Religious references aside, something huge was at work.

Whatever the language, I *had* asked for guidance and I definitely received it loud and clear. I couldn’t ignore it. But I struggled to follow it. I was paralysed with fear and my mind was a flurry of ideas and counter-proposals. One weekend, I lay on the floor with sheets of flipchart paper and I drew out a mind map.

On one side I wrote the word:

“Stay”

On the other side I wrote the word:

“Leave”

And I spent the next few hours scribbling out every thought, feeling, and counter-plan I could think of to figure out whether I would resign from my job and go walking in Spain. I needed to see everything laid out on paper in one place, in the hope it would help me some sort of perspective.

For hours, I poured out every anxiety, every consideration, every reason why I should follow the nudge – and not.

At one point, I asked: If I leave my (permanent) job and go walking, what happens when I return? What about all these grown-up plans – how will I finance any of them?

The reply was always the same: Ger, if you trust me on this and go with it, everything will be taken care of.

It gave me goosebumps.

I went back and forth, wrestling my head and my heart. In the end, it all boiled down to this:

Did I trust the voice I’d heard? Did I trust that knowing?

Did I trust that it was the right time for me to walk camino, even though I felt unprepared in every possible way?

Was I willing to trust that my future work, finances, and grown-up plans would, indeed, be taken care of – even though my *mind* had no idea how to make them happen?

*I* didn’t decide to walk Camino. Something else made that decision for me but I *did* decide to follow the calling. My challenge was to trust – everything.

Have you experienced anything like this? I’d love to hear!