Camino de Santiago: Only 22.8km to go!

Distance walked: 24.7km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 22.8km

I hadn’t intended to walk as far as Santa Irene but the hostel I’d planned to stay in earlier on the trail had already closed up for the winter. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was one thing to deal with hostels that were full but it was something quite different to come across hostels that had already been boarded up for the winter. Even when a hostel was full, there was human contact and the possibility of asking someone for advice. A hostel that’s been closed up offers none of that comfort or connection. With each passing day, I felt (acutely) that it was time to go home. My body was tired. My mind was full of reflections I didn’t have time to process. My heart was full of immense appreciation. The landscape around me was preparing for the colder weather and it felt like the right time to leave. I was glad to have a plane ticket and a home to go to.

It was almost mid October, and the trail between Boente and Santa Irene was busy and bustling with pilgrims walking the final 100km. There in Galicia, I could smell the damp, the moss, the clay beneath my feet. I could smell the dairy cows that grazed in the small, bumpy fields around me. I could smell the oncoming winter and the occasional waft of smoke from a wood fire, somewhere. The cafés sold hearty stews full of chorizo and kale, and the food became more like north European food – perfect for warming up in the autumn chill.

The hostel in Santa Irene was clean and comfortable, and I got a top bunk in a shared dorm. Most of the pilgrims around me were fresh-faced and excitable – clearly, they were walking for just a few days at the end! In the next bunk, an older man (in his 70s) sat on the top bed, alongside mine. Is it relevant that he was dressed like a medieval pilgrim with a brown cloak and a wooden staff? Is it relevant that he was openly hostile to his walking companions but his head literally swiveled to give me 1000% attention? I was not the youngest or prettiest female in that room but he zoned in on me for some uncomfortable reason.

He wanted to chat. More specifically, he asked prying questions and when I answered vaguely and tiredly, he peered into my face as though I’d given him a fake name and was only telling lies. Maybe I would have been better off… as he then started undressing, flexing his abs, and snapping his underwear a bit too enthusiastically, looking for my reaction. He revealed a bit too much and seemed to want my approval or shocked response. He did this in full view, in a crowded dorm with all the lights on, but while everyone around us absentmindedly tended to their sore feet and dirty laundry. No one noticed a thing. He seemed rather pleased with himself.

I think he was a bit of an exhibitionist. I also think he was on some sort of weird power trip, trying to rattle me in plain view but while no one was paying attention. It was one of the most surreal moments in sharing a space with random strangers, and it was *quite* uncomfortable. If there had been another hostel or room to go to, I would have gone. I’m not sure exactly what class of “crazy perv” he belonged to but I promptly got out of there, took the evening by myself, and returned only when the lights were already off and everyone was asleep for the night. Did I feel at risk? No, not with so many people around. But I wouldn’t have liked to meet him on my own, or somewhere quieter. He was a creep – thankfully, the only creep I’d met on all camino – and I wanted to get far away from him. I ignored him the next morning and walked out of there promptly and without looking back.

With so few kilometers ahead, my thoughts drifted to Santiago itself and when I would arrive. I could walk the remaining 22.8km in one day but with my feet feeling so sore, it would be a slow walk into the city. And what then…? Unlike (what seemed like) every pilgrim around me, I hadn’t booked private accommodation in advance. I’d spend the day walking but on arrival in the city I’d have to do what I’d done every day previously – I’d have to find accommodation, have a shower, wash my clothes, go get something to eat, and only around 8-9pm would I get to relax. It would turn a very special day into a kind of routine run-of-the-mill day. After so many weeks trying so hard to get to Santiago, I was tempted to make the final push in one day and just get there.

And yet, some other part of me wanted to arrive in a different way.

Every day for six weeks, I’d lived a nomadic sort of experience and felt that everything was sort of cobbled together. I didn’t book accommodation in advance at any stage of the journey – not even in St. Jean Pied de Port, at the very beginning. For six weeks I’d walked as best I could, and trusted that I would get food and bedding when I needed it. I’d arrived at many hostels feeling beaten and sore. Pushing myself to the limit had exposed a raw vulnerability and gratitude. I’d certainly been humbled. But Santiago was my last stop. I wasn’t going to walk on to the coast so it felt important to really “arrive” in to the city in the right kind of head space. I didn’t want to arrive feeling sweaty and spent: I wanted to arrive with a certain presence. I wanted to arrive and really feel the finality and achievement of walking those 800km. I wanted to arrive well.

This was the day to finally decide: would I walk to Santiago in one final push and find my friends? Would I split the remaining distance over two days instead?

I made no plan, no presumptions, no promises. I laced up my shoes, heaved my backpack onto my shoulders, and walked out into the cool morning air. The day would reveal all.

 

What Camino taught me about Friendships

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Before I walked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago route in Spain, I felt a bit stuck when it came to friendships. Stuck and sad.

In the years prior, I’d noticed that certain friendships were dwindling or dying. After university, people had scattered to all corners of the world. They had busy jobs, as did I. They had partnered off, as had I, and maybe had new families of their own. They were trying to squeeze a lot of living into a small amount of time, and keeping in touch fell by the wayside. Logically, I got it, and in many ways I was in the same boat. But on a heart level, I missed my longterm friends badly. I missed the fun of hanging out, the spontaneity, the travel, and the parties. Most of all, I missed the connection.

I asked around and I was told it was all normal. It’s a life phase, apparently. Except, it wasn’t just a life phase. Some of the people in my life loved me for sure but didn’t prioritize friendship. Take for example, my friend Bendy (not their real name!). I’d call Bendy and say:

Hey friend, how you doing?

Bendy and I would have a big old chat for two hours and catch up. We’d laugh. We’d swap war stories and it felt great to connect. But at the end, Bendy would always say:

We must do this more often. We must make more of an effort.

I was heartened. It seemed Bendy and I both wanted to stay friends and stay in touch. And I agreed: Yes, we must do this more often.

Only, 6 months would go by with no word from Bendy, no reply to emails, no reply to text so I’d call again:

Hey friend, how you doing?

The cycle would begin again. After 2-3 years of this, I noticed an increasing upset within myself. It felt like I was the one initiating all the contact. It felt like I was the one making all the effort. Just like Bendy, I too was busy with a career and a relationship, but I still found time to reach out to my friends and check-in. I felt alone in my efforts, though. I felt Bendy was taking but not giving in return. Was that just a feeling or was there some truth to it? In 2010, Bendy and I were wrapping up a phone call when the usual script came up again:

We must do this more often. We must make more of an effort!

I was prepared for this and I wanted to do an experiment. I wanted to see what effort ‘we’ were willing to make to keep the friendship alive. I replied by saying:

Yes, we must! Next time you make the phone call!

Bendy laughed a hearty laugh and said goodbye down the phone line. And I didn’t hear from Bendy again for over two years.

I hadn’t imagined the one-sidedness of our friendship. I hadn’t imagined the imbalance of effort. I was the one initiating the contact and when I stopped doing it, Bendy and I had no contact at all. Turned out, there were lots of Bendy friends in my life. They loved me, for sure, but they weren’t ‘there’ any more. That sadness I felt? It was real.

By the time I walked Camino, my heart was heavy and sore from the loss of friendships in all corners of my life. Sometimes I took it personally, other times I brushed it off as normal but either way, I still felt sad.

Everyone who’d walked camino before me (or who’d known someone to walk it) all swooned in telling me:

You’ll meet so many great people along the way!

They imagined that I was worried about walking alone and this was their way of reassuring me. Only, I wasn’t afraid of walking alone. Honestly, that sounded like total bliss! Being an introvert, I didn’t really want to meet lots and lots of people every day. All that small talk made me sweat just thinking about it. Sure, I could do it but the very idea of it was exhausting. So, their reassurances had the opposite effect. But I did meet lots of great people along the way and over the course of those 500 miles, I learned some deeply-felt lessons for my heart and my life, too.

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For a start, I met far too many people who were self-absorbed and insensitive, and they reminded me of all the people like them in my ‘real life’ back home. They were the kind of people I didn’t want to hang out with in Spain and as it happens, I didn’t want to hang out with them at home either. What a revelation to finally and unapologetically realise that.

Secondly, camino helped me get really clear about the different levels of friendship I had in my real life. Not everyone was a close friend and not everyone should get a prime time slot of my time and energy. I hadn’t told anyone when I would return from Spain so I was ‘off the radar’ for a few weeks after I returned. I did this on purpose. I didn’t want the pressure to meet up with all the acquaintances in my life and tell them stories about the cheap wine and great sunshine in Spain. I was on a retreat even when I returned home. And in that quiet, still time, I sort of ‘graded’ my friendships, and gave my time and energy in accordance with the grading. The people I reached out to and met with first were the ones I really, genuinely, heartily wanted to see. All the rest came after. Again, what a revelation to finally and freely prioritize people in this way.

Perhaps the biggest lesson was this:

Camino taught me that people come and people go. And that’s okay.

Every day, I met lots and lots of great people on the trail. People who were open, friendly, generous, and good. People I loved spending time with. It was easy to make friends with these people and I was delighted with the connection. Only, there were some I never saw again.

I met people on my first 1-2 days of walking, had a fabulous connection, assumed I would bump into them further along the way, but never saw them again. Not once! To this day, I have no idea whether they lived, went home early, or ever made it to Santiago. My heart was sorry to have missed out on getting to know them.

And I also met people on my first 1-2 days of walking who appeared on my camino over and over again at the most unexpected and delightful times. We shared dinner and coffee. We connected, we chatted, we swapped stories. Every time we parted, we bade each other a Buen Camino, never quite sure if we would see each other again. But some of these friends met me in Santiago with warm smiles and hugs, and we are in touch ever since.

What was the difference between some friendships ‘sticking’ and others not?

Timing, for sure.

Intent? Yes.

But I’m gonna say that some of them worked because we were in each others’ orbit. Roughly speaking, we were doing the same thing, at the same time, in a roughly similar way, and we had a lot in common. Seeing each other regularly gave us a continuity that made connection easier. And rightly or wrongly, spending time together is important. Without that, some connections just fade away. And that’s what had been happening in my life at home.

On camino, some friends left early. Other friends stayed to the very end.

My heart was soft for them all but slowly, I really came to understand that friends come and friends go. And that’s okay.

So, all that sadness and hurt and anger I had felt over my dwindling friendships at home?

Let it go.

And all that fear I’d felt about not making new connections?

Let that go, too.

The Beatles said it far more poetically and sweetly when they sang, ‘In My Life’ but the sentiment is the same. We are all on a journey. Literally as well as figuratively. We change. We move. We meet people and lose people. Maybe we meet further down the line or maybe we never meet again, but we carry a softness of heart for them as long as we live.

Camino taught me all this. I forget it, sometimes, but I’m remembering again. And remembering the friends and strangers who were so kind to me along the way.

Thank you all.

 

 

 

 

Blogging the Camino

As I said in my “About” page, many people asked in advance whether I would blog my Camino experience live from Spain. Others suggested I should do it and told me they’d happily follow my reports. I was flattered by their interest but ultimately, I had no interest in blogging as I walked.

Why?

I didn’t want the pressure of finding decent wi-fi and providing daily updates. I carried a smart phone with me but couldn’t be bothered squinting into its small screen and trying to write anything coherent. Writing a blog from a desk, where I have access to internet, a monitor, and a proper keyboard, is relatively easy. Anything other than that felt like a lot of work, especially while also trying to walk 800km and carry all my belongings on my back. Having walked it, I can say that trying to find decent wi-fi and provide daily updates would have driven me to drink. And you’d have had nothing to read in the meantime!

I met people en route who did blog as they walked. I can only applaud them from afar – they must have been more organised than I. 🙂

In Viana, I met a woman in our albergue who spent an hour sitting on the floor in the reception area, inches from the Internet router. She carried a full-size iPad to take photos and later upload them to her Facebook page. I’d seen her days earlier taking quick snaps at the top of Alto del Perdón. She walked with 3 friends but didn’t stop long enough to take in the view with her own eyes. Instead, she unleashed the iPad to take a panoramic video of the windmills and iron sculptures, and was gone. Back then, I looked at that block of technology and wondered how she carried the weight of the thing – those babies ain’t light!

But in the albergue I noticed something else: in the hour that she sat on the tiled floor, that machine took all of her attention. The device allowed her to send photos and messages to people back home. It enabled connection with them, thousands of miles away. But she was oblivious to the people standing next to her, just inches away. Watching pilgrims do their laundry or smoke a cigarette are hardly the height of entertainment, I admit.

But the point remains: that machine discouraged connection with the people standing right next to her.

She reminded me of myself, and of an imbalance in my own life.

There’s something unnatural about that, don’t you think? That we could all stand so close to each other and not make eye contact, not say hello, not connect in some basic, human way.

And I’m upset that it has become an accepted norm.

In terms of walking the Camino for weeks at a time, I understand that email updates provide reassurance to loved ones at home, who may be worrying. Writing blogs and sharing photos are a good way of including loved ones in the excitement.

I get it.

But every hour spent uploading photos to Facebook is one less hour ‘in the present’. You do that every few days over an 800km journey and you’re bound to miss out on some real-life people. You do that over a lifetime, you find yourself documenting life instead of being moved by it.

Before I departed for Spain, I couldn’t articulate my disinterest in blogging but these were some of my reasons:

I didn’t want to ignore real people in favour of virtual ones.

I didn’t want to treat Camino, or life, as one big broadcasting opportunity.

I wanted to be moved by the experience of being there in real-time. I wanted to feel the rawness of that exposure. Sure, it meant that some days I was a ball of tears, and others I felt frustrated by my fellow humans. More often, I felt gratitude. I felt an ever-growing contentment. I felt a freedom in my own skin that I hadn’t known in years and with it, a deep-rooted sense of being truly alive.

I wanted to walk for myself – not for other people. Being asked (or told) to blog my experience was flattering in some ways, but largely misguided.

I wasn’t walking for the entertainment or excitement.

I didn’t really think of Camino as an adventure holiday or long-distance hike.

I don’t consider myself religious in any organised way but I inherently understood that my reasons for being there were bigger than needing writing material, or a public audience.

I went on retreat.

Mine was a retreat from scheduling, planning, and trying to control my everyday fate. I retreated from the voices that told me what I ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’:

do,

want,

or

be,

in life.

I went on a retreat from spending my days looking at a computer screen, conversing with people around the world and ignoring the ones sitting next to me. I took a retreat from worrying and instead, learned how to trust myself and my gut instinct even more. I retreated from technology and found a deep-rooted delight in looking at the open sky every day. Selfishly, I did it for myself and I didn’t want an audience interfering with, what was, a profound and personal experience.

Over a year later, I wish I could remember more of the plant life and sunlight so I could write evocative and picturesque blog posts. I’m sure you would love to know more about the terrain and the countryside. I may get to that – I haven’t really decided yet. By all means, tell me what you’d like to hear more of – this whole endeavour is a work in progress and I’m open to suggestions!

I wish I could give more accounts about the architecture and history, or even share wild stories from nights’ spent drinking the plentiful bottles of wine. I have some stories but they don’t dominate my journey (thankfully, as I’d never have managed to walk if I were hung over every day! :-))

Blogging my journey now, over a year later, has its limitations.

That said, it’s easier for me to write about my experience now. I’m following a gut instinct on this – it’s a leap of faith. Despite the personal stretch, and the fact that I’ve forgotten some things, I’m finding it easier to blog now than I would have, live from the trail.

And you know what?

I’m delighted with my decision.

Walking the Camino is one of the best things I have ever done for myself in life. Walking it without a live, virtual audience was a liberation. Would I choose the same decision again?

Absolutely.