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

Distance walked: 23.7km

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

Ha ha….nope!

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

Click to image to see the photo credit

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

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

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

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

Where had I come from?

Where was I going?

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

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

Why?

To beat me to the hostel.

To get a bed before I arrived.

To maybe take the last one available.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

The Camino Provides in Carrión de los Condes

When I arrived in the town of Carrión de los Condes, I was sweaty and dusty and tired. A seemingly helpful woman told me the church hostels were all full, but kindly directed me towards a private hostel that still had space.

At least, she seemed kind and helpful, and I assumed her office attire and clipboard meant she was from the local tourist office or some other professional organisation. My mistake.

When the private hostel staff refused to give me a bed, I stood in the street feeling speechless and numb. I understood being refused a bed because of no space…but this? Being refused because I was a solo traveller was alien to me on camino. And it was a bitter blow after the immense kindness and welcome shown me just a day earlier in Boadilla del Camino. So, what would I do – would I try to find a private B&B? Or would I walk on to the next spot, some 17km away?

I walked through the town for 20 minutes and found a park bench in the shade. Grateful, I removed my sweaty backpack and my even sweatier shoes, and sat to gather my thoughts. I really didn’t have the energy to walk on to the next town so I’d either have to get a taxi there, or I would have to find somewhere to stay in Carrión. The town was busy and popular, and I felt a deep dread at the thought of finding private accommodation. The shoals of people following Brierley’s guidebook would have started in Frómista that morning and ended their day’s walking in Carrión de los Condes, just like the guidebook instructed. They would have checked into the hostels early or booked private B&Bs in advance. The Brierley brigade were good at following instructions and staying organized. They made it difficult for free range walkers, like me, to show up unannounced and find somewhere to stay.

After half an hour in the shade, I re-read my (Brierley!) guidebook and reviewed the options. I still wanted to stay in the Santa María hostel, if possible. You’ll remember that on the trail, I had stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, and they had recommended this particular hostel in Carrión. IMG_0797

Even though the “helpful” woman had told me all the hostels were full,  I decided to walk over there and see if they could squeeze me in.

And boy was I glad that I did!

I arrived at the heavy wooden door expecting to be told that all beds were taken. I stood on the threshold uncertainly but a gracious young nun gently ushered me in the door. From behind the desk, she welcomed me in with a warm smile.

By now, it was mid-afternoon. Most hostel beds fill up by noon so I had arrived at least two hours later than everyone else. And I had spent one of those hours following the misdirection of other people who’d convinced me that all beds in the town were taken. Asking for a bed here, now, seemed like a ridiculous long shot.

Hello, I said, do you have any beds? I need a bed for one, please.

I held my breath.

, she replied casually, as though they always have beds. No biggie.

I exhaled! Oh my God!

There is only one thing, she said tentatively.

Oh, here we go, I thought to myself.

It is up high, yes? Is that okay?

She was trying to tell me that my bed was at the top of a bunk. I suppose some pilgrims don’t want (or maybe can’t quite make it to) the top of a bunk, so she was mindful enough to mention it to me in advance – just in case. Thankfully, it was no problem for me. High, low, in beside the washing machine, out in the back garden…I didn’t care where I slept. I was just massively relieved to have found somewhere to stay…and in my choice hostel, too.

That night, I slept soundly in my upper bunk beside the window. Glad, grateful, and in awe of how simple it was to get a bed – again. I say “simple” because the beautiful nun made it seem like an effortless and easy process. And maybe to her, it was. But for me, securing that bed required me to “simply” sidestep the mistruths I’d been told. Securing that bed required me to have a bit of faith.

My takeaway things-to-remember that day?

  1. Don’t believe everything you hear – even people who seem professional and helpful can mislead you.
  2. Go for the thing you want. Be brave and give it a shot. Even if you’ve been told it’s unavailable, you never know what might happen. There might be a way of simply squeezing you in 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Joy of Walking Alone

IMG_0791Ever since I first heard about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain, I knew I wanted to walk it alone. Back then, I was part of a weekly mountaineering club and I was fit as a fiddle. The long distance didn’t scare me – it excited me. I wasn’t looking for a pilgrimage or an outlet for a mid-life crisis. I just wanted “a good, long walk”. The camino seemed to offer that and I knew instinctively that wanted to experience it alone.

If I had walked it then in the early Noughties, I would have experienced a more rustic camino for sure. Friends tell me there was never any hot water for showers and there was a lot less accommodation on offer (not just in terms of variety but also in terms of quantity). They also tell me that speaking Spanish (or even better, Catalan, Basque, Galician, etc.) was a must. Speaking English and expecting any level of understanding or service was….well, misguided.

I’ll never know what it would have been like to walk camino then. Perhaps it was a more pure experience, but I know that when I did walk it was the right time for me.

I think timing is important, as is being in the right head space/heart space.

Magic happens, things “flow”, and good surprises come into our lives. Plus, I like hot showers and I liked the option of staying in hostels that were well spaced along the route. Call me a wuss but sometimes transformation comes from simple kindness rather than hardship. 🙂

So, I’m happy I walked at the “right time” for me because I was ready for a big shift. I’m also happy that I walked it alone because it allowed me to have a truly transformative experience – one that gives me strength every day since.

People asked whether I was scared of walking alone. The honest answer was a partial Yes. In my core, I knew I was “good for it”. I’ve hiked and camped in the wild for years, without trails, and without official campsites and all their amenities. I knew I could go rustic and survive just fine. I’ve learned to rely on my gut and it is the first, and most important thing I take with me when travelling. When my gut is content then I know I can manage everything else. And my gut was 100% in on the camino plan.

But still, I was nervous about the distance. I was nervous about how remote I might be, especially in a foreign country. As a woman travelling alone, I had to think about my personal safety in a way I might not have considered if I were part of a couple or a group. I couldn’t pretend to feel entirely at ease – after all, I didn’t really know what lay ahead of me. There might have been thieves, rapists, or knife-wielding junkies…and what would I do then? Not knowing the path ahead was the first part of my fear: not knowing how I would cope with, or respond to that path was the second part. Together, the two parts had me quietly terrified.

But I did know that I wanted to experience camino on my own terms. I didn’t want the pressure of keeping pace with anyone, making plans with anyone, or maintaining conversation with anyone in particular. Considering how structured my life had become (both personally and professionally), my desire to go solo was a radical change of pace. Spontaneity and “going with the flow” had all but entirely disappeared from my world. So, I purposefully didn’t have hard and fast plans for camino: I wanted to keep all my plans loose.

Walking alone allowed me to do that.

Somehow, in this increasingly busy, very Western world of mine, choosing to be alone was something that made others nervous. They misread my choice as some sort of breakdown or irresponsible escape. This is not how newly married young women should behave! And yet, I knew in my belly that this was the most sane decision I had made in years. I think it’s one of the few times in my life where I very selfishly got in touch with what I wanted, and took it. No compromises and no apologies.

Aside from being concerned about my safety, why should such a decision have made others afraid? Have we forgotten what it is to switch off? Have we lost what it means to be unstructured, unplugged, and idle for a while?

I think we have.

I was never idle on camino but walking alone gave me an opportunity to be unplugged and without a set schedule. I relished it.

After just one day of walking, all the fear lifted from my heart and evaporated along with the early morning mist on the Pyrenees. My body remembered what it felt like to move. My mind remembered what it felt like to slow down. And both body and mind remembered what it felt like to work in tandem.

Along the way, people asked if I was afraid walking by myself. The answer then was a hearty No. Of course I wanted to make friends along the way, and I did. Of course, I wanted to share conversation and meals with other people. I wanted laughter and connection, I wanted to experience some sense of community. Happily, I got all of these things. But I also wanted to be alone and quiet for a while. I needed some time to myself.

I won’t lie: there were times that being alone was really hard. There were days when I was physically spent, and the thoughts of finding somewhere to sleep, or eat, or tackling my laundry were utterly exhausting. In those moments, it would have been nice to share some of the load with another person. And I spent a couple of evenings eating my dinner in a dodgy back-street restaurant or on a park bench in the village square, instead of having a hearty “pilgrim’s meal” with my peers. Sometimes, breaking into a new gang was just too much work and it was easier (though rarely more fun) to eat by myself.

Walking alone demands a certain endurance: I had to figure things out and keep going, no matter what. Walking alone also demanded a certain confidence: I often invited someone to sit at my table for coffee or asked whether I could join someone else’s table.

Walking alone demands a certain self-sufficiency.

But it allowed me to be myself in a liberating and lovely way. It allowed me to make plans to suit myself, and then cancel them or change them if I felt like it. Walking alone gave me full permission to be social and anti-social, committed and flakey. Walking alone allowed me to enjoy my own company and stop caring about what others expected, needed, or demanded from me. For the first time in a very long time, it allowed me to be really honest about what I think, feel, and want in the world.

It brought me tremendous contentment. It even brought me joy.

It still does.

Occasionally I’ll share a walk with someone but most of the time, getting out alone is my way of clearing my head. It keeps me grounded. It keeps me sane. It keeps me feeling like me.

Camino reminded me that it’s okay to take time and space in the world. It remined me that it’s okay to be myself – even if that is a hermit-like introvert sometimes. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Camino Challenge: Live in Fear or Learn to Trust?

One of *my* personal challenges in walking 500 miles across Spain was to trust….the overall process, the people around me, and myself. I planned my trip in just 4-5 weeks. Compared to many of the people online and on the trail, I was grossly unprepared.

I hadn’t done any physical training.

I hadn’t learned any Spanish.

I hadn’t tested my gear in advance.

I wasn’t confident about the route because I hadn’t researched it very much. I wasn’t confident in my language skills because they were largely non-existent. I was only partially confident about my physical skills. I had hiked, backpacked, and camped for years but I had never walked 800km before – how could I be sure I was capable? Truth told, I wasn’t sure – not by a long shot.

I didn’t know how far I could walk each day, so I also didn’t know where I would sleep each night. I didn’t know whether I’d stay free of injury and illness. And even though thousands of people walk the French Way every year, I felt like I was stepping off into a great void. I didn’t know how far I’d get on the trail so when I started, I hadn’t even booked my return flight home. Quite literally, I didn’t know how long I’d be gone or what would happen in the meantime.

Unless you’re someone who thrives on this kind of uncertainty, all these unknowns can rack up the anxiety levels pretty quickly. There are a lot of “What Ifs”. Nice, neat answers are not always available.

What if there are no beds: where will I sleep?

What if I get injured and I can’t go any further?

What if I get lost? What if I run out of money? What if I don’t make any friends? What if my gear is all wrong?

What if, what if, what if…..

The list is as long as your mind will allow. In the month before I left, my mind buzzed from asking a litany of questions, and I didn’t have the time to research for sensible answers. I can only thank the part of myself that realised that there was only a certain amount I could do to control the journey ahead – and the rest was beyond my control. I made some brief, but big decisions:

  1. I will not worry about the availability of beds.
  2. I will figure it out as I go along.

I decided these things. They were mental choices.

They weren’t just emotional aspirations or wishful intentions; somehow I ring fenced my mind so that I had answers to all of those “What If” questions.

Not having a bed to sleep in at night would have sucked ass. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I think having a secure place to sleep at night is low down on the pyramid, somewhere between physiological needs and safety needs. This means it’s considered quite essential. So, not having that lined up in advance is a bit of a gamble, especially in a foreign country and in walking cross-country for weeks at a time.

Unless I booked private accommodation in advance, there was no way I’d ever be sure of a bed at the end of each day. But I didn’t want to book in advance. I didn’t want the pressure of making it to Guesthouse A on Wednesday, Small Hotel on Thursday, and Private Pension on Friday. What if I got injured in the meantime and couldn’t walk that far? What if I got sick? I didn’t want the stress of making, and keeping plans with anyone. I also didn’t want the stress of reading my guidebook to find accommodation days ahead, and then go through the effort of conversing in Spanish over the phone as I tried to book a room – day after day, for weeks on end.

I just couldn’t commit to that much scheduling.

So I did the only thing I could do:  I threw the challenge up to the heavens and trusted that somehow it would all work out. I wasn’t sure whether that meant trusting a divine source of Trip Advisor or trusting the locals in Spain. Who knows, maybe they’re one and the same thing. But either way, I made a mental decision that *I*was not going to fret about it. Worrying about beds felt like something that was way above my pay grade. I surrendered and left it in the hands of something, or someone else.

That was a big lesson: Trusting that which is outside of myself.

Somehow, even though I couldn’t see every detail of the 500-mile journey ahead of me, I trusted that I would find my way. Quite literally, I trusted that the path would be there, and not washed away by flooding or erosion. Quite literally, I trusted that there would be enough food and shelter for my needs, and that things would be fine.

Just because I couldn’t see the path ahead, it didn’t mean that the path didn’t exist.

I had to walk in my hoped-for direction to find the path I was looking for.

The next one was also big: Trusting that which is inside myself.

No matter what disastrous scenario or anxiety my mind came up with, being able to respond with the thought: “I’ll figure it out as I go along” was a powerful reassurance to my over-zealous, inner drama queen. I could apply it to any scenario and feel better about my prospects. In the beginning, it was a way of calming my apprehension and it worked a treat.

What if my hiking sandals aren’t suitable for walking long distances?

Then I’ll figure it out and buy a pair of new shoes along the way.

What if I’m not able to walk 500 miles all in one go?

Then I’ll walk as far as I can and I’ll figure out how to come home early.

Even though I didn’t have all the answers in advance, I had at least some capacity to find them along the way. And the great thing is, the more I told myself that I would figure things out, the more I did figure things out….and my capacity grew even more.

It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

That’s the funny thing: what we tell ourselves has a huge impact on how well our minds perform. If we allow anxiety and scaremongering to roam freely, then all of life becomes a disaster. The world is full of problems and life is full of threat. There is only pain and strife.

I’ve played around with positive affirmations over the years but you know, when I tell myself something like: “I am a glorious creation, full of positivity and light”, the inner cynic in me balks. I’ve no sooner proclaimed my greatness than some other part snidely remarks, “Yeah, right!” My greatness is swiftly ridiculed.

So, telling myself I am infinitely wonderful doesn’t always bring the most wonderful results! 🙂

But, telling myself, “I’ll figure it out as I go along” reassured me on my Camino journey. It meant I didn’t have to have everything planned and researched in advance. It meant I was allowed make mistakes. It also meant I didn’t have to follow anyone else or do what the guidebook said.

It meant I was allowed have my own experience, in my own way.

That’s a massive lesson – not just for camino but for life itself.

***

In my “real life”, lots of things are in flux right now because lots of things have changed in the last six months. I thought I had a good sense of what 2015 would look like but it turns out, I was waaay off the mark. Some of the changes are more welcome than others. Some of them are above my pay grade and the outcome is still unknown. I carry disappointment about the plans that have been thwarted and some anxiety about the ones that have come in their place.

I’ve noticed my mind looping through the litany of “What Ifs”.

It’s disheartening.

It’s all-consuming.

And I know I am missing out on everyday goodness in trying to ward off some doomsday disasters that might not even happen.

I’ve found myself wistfully daydreaming about camino, and sort of pining for the “simple life” I knew then. I’ve found myself romanticising life on the trail, back when “all I had to think about” was where I would sleep at night.

I’ve also found myself marvelling at what it was to ring fence my mind and decide not to worry.

And I’ve thought: If only it were that simple.

But here’s the thing: Maybe it *is* that simple.

If I could ring fence my mind once, I can do it again. If I could decide not to worry then, I can decide now, too. My current concerns may feel more grown up and dramatic than anything I faced in Spain but I know where my bed is every night. That’s a huge bonus.

It was possible to reign in my worry back then. Maybe it’s possible to reign it in now, too.

So, I have two main options: I can choose to trust in that which is outside of myself or that which is inside of myself. I might even choose both, simultaneously. Or maybe I’ll choose both and interchange them, depending on what the issue is.

Either way, I can choose how much mental space I give over to anxiety and fear. As it is, I make the choice every single day – often without realising it – and my over-zealous mind frets too much. This is not how I lived on camino. This is not what I learned on camino. And this is not what I took away from my camino experience.

In Spain, the everyday challenge was real: Would I live in fear or would I learn to trust?

Right now in my everyday life, the challenge still exists.

What will I choose? What about you?

 

A New Beginning in Burgos

When I decided to stop in Burgos and get a private room, I knew a few things:

  • I was running on empty
  • I needed some space and time to myself
  • I needed a chance to mentally regroup

I slept soundly the first night in my little single bed. Such bliss! I planned to continue walking the next day but when I woke in the morning, my body said otherwise.

I asked if they had space to let me stay a second night.

, the receptionist replied.

Delighted and relieved, I went back to bed and slept for another 5 hours!

This was *my kind of camino!*

Even though I planned my camino journey in just a month, I knew in advance what my “challenges” were likely to be. I wasn’t that worried about breaking a leg or getting lost on the trail. I wasn’t even worried about the alleged lack of beds or the fact that I spoke very little Spanish. Before I ever strapped the backpack to my shoulders I knew that these would be my main personal challenges:

Separately, I had a sense of what my physical challenges would be but funnily enough, they tied into the personal challenges above. I guess it’s a case of:

Where the mind goes, the body will follow.

How did I know what my stumbling blocks were? Well, these were my challenges in everyday “real life”. I knew I carried them with me to France and Spain, too.

I knew who I was “going in”.

Question was, who would I be “coming out” at the end?

Time, and lots of walking, would tell.

I’m not ashamed to admit that by the time I got to Burgos, I was starting to get a little crazy around the edges. My nights in Villambistia and Atapuerca pushed my buttons and I felt frazzled almost all the time. I had a notion that walking Camino would fill me with blissful contentment and radiant connection with my fellow pilgrims: so why was I feeling grouchy and tearful?

I put it down to being exhausted and over-stimulated, and just not getting enough sleep to recalibrate. Simple as that.

I’m like this in my everyday life, too. If I work too hard, play too hard, and don’t get enough “down time” on my own, I get strung out and sick. In my “real life”, I have a private room every night. I have a front door, which keeps some of the madness at bay. When my life gets too loud, I have ways of turning down the volume.

On Camino, I didn’t have any of those things, so taking 2 nights in a private room in Burgos was my equivalent of “turning down the volume”.

I slept a lot, I explored the city on my own, and I ate a beef burger (not chorizo, not baguette, not pork!) in a trendy, hip wine bar full of young people in a party mood.

Burgos was one of the spots on my Camino where I got to hit the “RESET” button and it gave me a new beginning.

Getting some sleep helped quieten some of the crazy and I came to realize a few things:

  • I need what I need. Some days I need to walk fast, others I need to walk slow. Some days I need a private room to sleep and be quiet. Instead of judging myself and berating myself for needing these things, I’m better off just tending to those needs as best I can, and getting on with things.
  • I was roughly 1/3 of the way into my 500 mile journey. For almost 2 weeks, I’d walked with a tentative hope in my heart. I hoped to make it to Santiago and I wanted to make it to Santiago, but I was never sure I would make it to Santiago. I had done no physical training and I was never sure whether my body would continue to rise to the challenge. In Burgos, I realized I was 1/3 of the way “there” and that knowing filled me with confidence for the next leg of the journey.
  • I needed to walk more for myself. At different points up to then, I’d changed my pace and plans to suit others – usually because I didn’t want to offend them. I had a notion that walking Camino meant we were all equal, all humble, and all with the same agenda. I was a bit misguided in that belief. In Burgos, I realized I needed to get a bit more selfish about my own process, my own needs, and my own journey. I needed to “grab it by the horns” and go make it my own.

I got the rest and sleep I needed. I turned down some of the crazy. I left my little bed and the city feeling a bit tougher, a bit stronger, and a bit more focused.

I didn’t know what it would bring but I knew I felt ready for the challenge. Burgos had given me a chance to hit “RESET” and start again.

Does this sound familiar at all? What did *you* do to hit the “RESET” button in your life – whether on camino or elsewhere?

 

 

 

 

 

A Break in Burgos

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Distance walked: 20km

I won’t lie, I was very glad to leave Atapuerca.

After breakfast with Barb and Dave, I walked out of the small village with them, and was glad to leave behind the crowds and noise of our busy hostel. I’d decided to find a private room in Burgos later that day and I could hardly wait!

Brierley’s guide-book says, “Familiarise yourself with the various options [for descending into the city of Burgos]…and prepare for the hard slog into the city itself – after the relative tranquility of the camino from San Juan de Ortega city life can come as something of a shock.”

Of course, I didn’t familiarise myself with the different routes.

I didn’t like to study the map in advance – I preferred to figure it out as I went along and see what the route presented. Around 6-7km outside the city, the path splits in two. To the left, is a leafy walk along the river Arlanzón, allegedly scenic and beautiful. To the right, the path skirts alongside Burgos airport, allegedly through miles of ugly concrete and industrial buildings.

Days earlier in Villambistia, a woman told me that she and her friend planned to take a city bus and skip those miles entirely.

I purposefully asked her, “If Camino is like life, is it right to “skip the ugly bits” just because you don’t like them?”

It was a thorny question to ask.

Lots of people talked about skipping bits of, or whole sections of, camino, just because those parts had a reputation for being boring or ugly. I could understand taking buses and trains because of injury or illness, but I didn’t like the trend towards an “à la carte camino”. I didn’t think “ugly” countryside was a valid reason to omit entire sections of the journey and I wanted to challenge that way of thinking.

She knew I had asked a loaded question.

I didn’t ask it just to be an ass; I just wanted to understand her thinking. My own “rules” for walking camino were rather strict and it was a novelty to hear from someone who was a lot more relaxed about it all. She presented an argument that I thought was reasoned and pragmatic, even though I didn’t share her views. But you know, it didn’t really matter either way. When it came down to it, her journey was none of my business.

Without knowing it, when I came to that junction in the trail that day on my way into Burgos, I chose the path to the right.

At the time, I just followed the yellow arrows as I saw them, and I didn’t even notice that most of the crowds around me had disappeared to the left. I was lost in my own little world, shuffling along, putting one foot in front of the other on the gravel trail. When I looked up, I realised that the expansive airport runways were to my left, behind large wire fences with warning signs all over them. For miles, I passed through industrial warehouses and concrete paths. When I looked around, there were only a handful of other pilgrims within sight. The usual crowds were nowhere to be seen.

Brierley warned me of a “hard slog into the city”, and dozens of people had told me about the ugly descent they would avoid.

In truth, those few kilometres were among my favourite of my entire camino.

How come?

Well, they were quiet. Even with the noise of airplanes and motorway traffic, the trail felt quieter than it had felt in days.

After two particularly noisy days on the trail and in hostels, those few miles gave me a break from the masses. Sure, it wasn’t the most scenic part of northern Spain but I didn’t walk Camino just for the scenery. I walked because I felt compelled to. I walked because I needed some time. And oddly enough, the grey suburbs of Burgos gave me the space and time I needed that day. I didn’t notice that it was “ugly” or difficult in any way. I was happy in my own skin and grateful for the time alone.

That experience was a lovely reminder:

Don’t listen to the scaremongering.

Don’t believe everything you hear.

If I’d listened to the people around me, I would have taken the leafy river walk, just like them. I’m sure it is beautiful but it wouldn’t have given me what I needed that day, which was alone-time and space.

If I’d listened to others, I would have taken a city bus and skipped that section entirely – but imagine what I would have missed!

There are a million ways to walk Camino. Everyone has an opinion on the “right” way and the “wrong” way, but only *you* can know what’s right and wrong for you.

It’s like life that way.

And sometimes, the “ugly bits” turn out to be surprisingly good!

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Inspiration for Walking: Henry David Thoreau

Years ago, I came across a famous quote about walking, by Henry David Thoreau.

The quote comes from an essay that I haven’t yet read, so I’m guessing I saw it on a greeting card or in some other book. I feel like buying a copy of the essay soon and reading it over the dark, rainy winter – I’m in that kind of mood!

The quote rattled around my mind a lot before I left for Camino. It’s been rattling around my mind a lot lately too, as I prepare for an upcoming trip to India. I don’t expect to walk another Camino across Indian soil but still, the quotation rattles around my heart.

I have a conflicted feelings about this trip, even though I’ve wanted it for 10-15 years. I remember feeling conflicted before I left for Camino, too. It wasn’t easy to wave off Generous Husband, and leave behind my home and my familiar life. And yet, I felt entirely compelled to go. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I was called to walk the Camino. I knew on a gut level, absolutely and completely, that it was something I had to do – no delay, no excuses. To ignore the calling would have been a mistake.

It was a leap of faith it was for me to heed that impulse, and go.

I can’t overstate that enough.

At the same time, I had mixed feelings and thoughts about the whole thing. I had (and have) a lot of greatness and love in my everyday life. I’m very blessed in a myriad of ways. I was leaving a lot behind, and hoped that all of it would still exist when I came home. It’s a lot to ask for.

Preparing for Camino instilled excitement and fear into my heart. In the month beforehand (and remember, I planned everything in only a month) I often woke in the middle of the night,  filled with anxiety. Leaving everything – Handsome Husband, my home, my job, my plans, etc. was terrifying, even though it would only be for a few weeks.

What was I doing?

I kept thinking of Thoreau.

I wasn’t ready in any of the ways he suggests being ready. I’m not ready now, either! But there’s something compelling about this piece of writing that allowed me to think of my Camino journey as a pilgrimage or retreat – not a walking holiday or backpacking adventure. His choice of language is striking and strong, and there’s a certain purity to his proposal.

Only when you have let go of your past and have settled your present affairs, can you be truly open and receptive to life, and to the future.

Is that what he’s saying?

I’ve pulled this quote from the web so if you think it’s incorrect in some way, please let me know. I’d hate to misquote, when the whole point of this post is to share the quote.

It goes like this:

“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walking

I’m not ready in any of these ways but still, I’m taking a leap of faith as I prepare for my trip. It’s an itch I have to scratch.

But what about you – were you ready when you walked your own Camino?

Do you feel ready now?

Can we ever be ready for such a walk, I wonder?