Camino de Santiago: Nearing the End

IMG_1199

I would never have guessed this was in Spain!

Distance walked: 25.6km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 129.8km

Descent: Approx. 600m

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

IMG_1212

IMG_1198

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

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

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

Fab!

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

IMG_1195

IMG_1194

IMG_1193

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

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

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

IMG_1211

IMG_1197

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

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

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

IMG_1215.JPG

Where are you? he asked casually.

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

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

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

Hello? I answered.

Hey, he replied, I’m outside.

Huh? I asked, confused.

You’re in Samos, right?

Yeah…

Well, surprise! I’m here!

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

Romantic? Yes!

Surprised? YES!

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

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

Sweet. 

 

 

 

 

Taking a Break Before the Break Takes You…

IMG_0904One afternoon in Spain, I got chatting to a friendly South Korean woman about our camino journey so far. Like me, she was taking a break in the shade of a café bar, so we naturally fell into chat about our walking experience and our lives in general.

She told me that in South Korea, the army have a particular policy when they bring their troops on long walks for training or active service. For every four miles they walk, they then stop for a fifteen-minute break.

Whatever the weather, they stop.

Even if people feel strong enough to keep going, they stop.

Even if people don’t feel like stopping, they stop.

The logic is this:

Taking timely breaks prevents the body from getting too tired.

Taking timely breaks prevents people from getting weary and mindless.

Taking timely breaks prevents people from burning out.

Ultimately, the troops are able to walk farther for longer, and are not an exhausted heap by the time they reach their destination.

What a concept!

Her story fascinated me. I’ve never met anyone from the South Korean military to verify whether her story was true but the message really struck a chord with me that day:

Take a break before the break takes you!

While I walked all those miles across Spain, I didn’t follow this advice very well. I walked and walked and walked, and then had some really bad days where I felt exhausted and utterly overwhelmed. I experienced a sort of all-or-nothing extremism and it meant that some days were really, really hard. It wasn’t how I wanted to experience camino but I didn’t quite know how to change the pattern.

It never occurred to me that I could create a schedule of some sort and, for example, take a day off for every five days I walked. It never occurred to me to book private accommodation in advance and avail of some quiet privacy. It never occurred to me to take a break before I hit that desperate, wrecked, breaking point. As a result, I was probably more tired and cranky than I could have been. I pushed myself too hard and that sense of exhaustion was a predominant part of my camino. Rightly or wrongly, it’s a huge memory for me, too.

I say all of this now because I need to take my own advice again.

The blog has been quiet for the past month while I wrestle with a flu and chest infection. It’s winter here, I know, but still…when sickness grinds my life to a halt like this, it forces me to pay attention. Maybe I’ve been doing too much. Maybe I’ve been pushing too hard. Maybe I should schedule breaks each week or month, just like I schedule my work meetings and grocery shopping and household chores and and and and and….

You get the idea 🙂

Even when I don’t get to write about camino, I find myself thinking about it a lot and applying the lessons to my everyday life. Honestly, the learning was so pragmatic that it’s hard *not* to apply it to my everyday life, and I take a huge amount of inspiration from that time on the trail. Quite literally, the camino continues to change my life and how I live it, usually with everyday examples like learning how to slow down a bit.

So, this weekend, I encourage you all to take a break. Whatever the weather, stop for a little while. Whether you feel strong enough to keep going, stop for a little while. Even if you don’t feel like taking a break, do it anyway.

Take a break before the break takes you.

It’s a good way to keep healthy and well! 🙂

 

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?