Walking through Galicia: From Vilchá to Os Chacotes

Distance walked: 26.1km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 69.2km

The walk out of my hostel in Vilchá was the most uneventful departure of all my camino hostels. Given that there was no village cluster or even a café, I just walked out the door of the hostel, turned the corner, and lo, I was back on the trail and in a field again. The morning was foggy and later, as I crossed the high bridge at Portomarín, it was difficult to make out any real view. I knew that a town of 2,000 people would have facilities and services but in that damp chill, I didn’t feel like stopping just for the sake of it. I marched on.

I thought a lot about dinner the previous evening and the host’s expectation that I would sing for everyone. I felt edgy and agitated by his assumptions and I was miles along the trail before I realized this:

It was in the past.

Quite literally, the hostel, the event, and the man himself were all in the past. I had zero intention of going back so there was no reason to keep thinking about it all and tormenting myself with my lack of showbiz skills.

Let it go.

And I did.

I look back on my journal for this section of the journey and notice that I’d already started to account for what I had learned along the way. I suppose it was inevitable given that I was so close to “the end”. After five weeks on the move, some things had begun to crystallize for me.

Like what?

Well, the simple fact that I could walk away from people.

Before camino I would have thought it exceptionally rude to do such a thing but while I walked, I found myself hanging out with some people who were hard work to be around.

I mentioned Lucy* (not her real name) in one of my earlier posts and strangely bumped into her almost every day for a week in one section of the trail. It was suffocating. I also kept bumping into two other characters who were unknown to each other, had traveled from different parts of the world, started walking at different times, and had totally different plans…but had met and become walking buddies. They were each toxic, self-pitying, and utterly exhausting to be around. For instance, one of them talked about her tendonitis as a “disability” and I had to stop myself from slapping some sense into her!

I met each of them at completely different stages but when I saw them walk into a hostel one evening together with Lucy, well, I knew the rains really had descended. These three individuals had found each other and become a pack. The next night, they were in the very same dorm as me – there was literally no escape! Until, I realized, that there was – and I walked on alone.

The lesson isn’t new to most of you but it was particularly relevant on the last section of the trail – those remaining 115.2km between Sarria and Santiago. Some of the “new kids” were full of bright-eyed energy and enthusiasm. At random coffee stops they’d hit me with a dozen questions, eager to connect and make friends. They were at the beginning of their journey and I was coming to the end of mine. Rightly or wrongly, I wasn’t looking for new friendships by then: I was trying to get my head in gear for arriving in Santiago. I preferred to walk alone than to strike up new conversations.

Weeks earlier, other long-distance pilgrims and I discussed what day of the week we expected to arrive in the famous city. Rumour had it that there was a pilgrim mass every day but that on occasional Sundays, the enormous botafumeiro (thurible for burning insense) would swing. Apparently it was quite a spectacle and everyone wanted to be there when the event took place – but no-one seemed to know when it would happen. On top of that, most of my connections were further along the trail than I was. We may have started out in St. Jean Pied de Port around the same time but five weeks later, injury, illness, and tiredness had altered everyone’s progress. My stop-off in Sarria meant I would arrive into Santiago even later than I first imagined. Would I see any of these people again? After all the connection, the chats, and the coffee, would we even get to say goodbye to each other?

The hostel at Os Chacotes was clean, sparse, and extremely tight on space. I don’t just mean that it was busy – although it was – it was also densely packed.

Rumour had it that these state-built hostels were soulless and built purely for profit. Others told me that the hostels purposefully didn’t stock utensils in their new, modern kitchens because they wanted to discourage pilgrims from preparing their own food. Instead, they wanted to force pilgrims into buying meals from the local restaurants. I don’t know whether this is official policy on behalf of Galician local authority but this particular hostel succeeded in squeezing people where they shouldn’t have been!

All 112 beds in the hostel were taken and I shared a dorm with almost 40 people. I was glad to get a lower bunk, but the left side of my mattress physically touched the mattress of the bed next to me. There wasn’t even an inch of space between us. Overhead, a heavy-set Spaniard slept noisily. At my head and feet, the neighbouring beds touched mine. I was surrounded to my left, at my head, feet, and overhead. There was less than a metre of space between my bed and the next bed on my right. I felt a bit squeezed into place and wouldn’t want to do it ever again. Others around me tried to create a modicum of privacy by draping bath towels around their beds or by putting headphones in their ears. I was positioned in the middle of a school group that took up half the dorm so the group were *loud* and animated.

I was glad to be near the end. Before, I wasn’t sure about finishing up but a hostel like that made me keen to go home! 🙂

Camino Continues: Samos to Sarria

Distance walked: 15km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 115.2km

Handsome Husband’s arrival in Samos was quite the surprise. He hadn’t made a plan beyond finding me, so we had to figure out the logistics of food and a place to sleep. Given that he wasn’t a pilgrim, he wouldn’t have been allowed stay in the hostel (and I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have wanted to if he’d taken a look at the place!). Instead, we found a private room over a café across the road. For me, this was one of the few times I got a private room, although it was no 5-star suite. It was basic but clean and the cotton sheets, as always, were a sublime treat. It was good to get a break from the chorus of snoring in the shared dorms, too.

The next morning, on our first wedding anniversary, we set off on the trail towards Santiago, some 14km westwards. By then I had walked some 700km across France and Spain and I hadn’t taken a wrong turn along the way. That morning, in the company of Husband, I took a wrong turn. Fifteen minutes after we’d strapped on our backpacks and set out, we found ourselves right back where we started. We laugh about it now but at the time I was immensely frustrated. I just wanted to walk and I wasn’t used to the daily company, slowing me down and leading me astray. Plus, I wondered whether our wrong turn was a metaphor for something bigger: was married life always going to distract me in the opposite direction?!

Handsome Husband was full of enthusiasm and questions as we walked along the trail. We found wild almonds and apples, and he was like a child in his amazement. Me? I was like the wizened old dog by then, I’d already seen 700km of grapes and figs, almonds and sunflowers: I wasn’t so excited by these things any more. The difference between us struck me as really sad: I had been so absorbed in the daily “task” of walking, I thought I’d stopped being in awe of the landscape around me. I know now that I took it all in on a quieter level. I didn’t express the same surprise as he did, but I still remember the smells and the countryside as though I was there only last week. It all went in.

Husband wore jeans (jeans!), trainers, and a hoodie while he walked. He stood out like a tourist and I could barely believe he’d not brought any proper walking gear! He also very kindly carried my backpack but exclaimed how tiring it was to do so. Again, in my “old dog” mode I commented: try carrying it for 700km! We stopped for coffee and omelettes along the way, and tried to catch up on all that had happened in the weeks since we’d seen each other.

When someone asks you: “How was the camino?” it can be very tricky to answer. The obvious replies cover the weather, the food, the company. It’s easy to respond on these terms as though it’s a regular vacation. But, if you get into a different head space with all that walking, then it’s very tricky to evaluate the experience in a few sound bites. How could I tell him that I had changed on a fundamental level? How could I evaluate what that change was, or would mean, when I hadn’t yet articulated it to myself?

The 15km were among the slowest of my whole camino but I put it down to the distraction and the company! By the time we eventually arrived in Sarria, it was obvious to me that the final leg of the journey was going to be busy. The streets were full of fresh-faced pilgrims who’d very obviously just arrived and were getting ready to walk the last 100km or so to Santiago. They stood out in their pristine-looking gear and energetic strides. I met plenty of pilgrims who, like me, had been rattling around on the trail for weeks and who took a skeptical view of these new pilgrims. I don’t like to get into the “us versus them” mentality of the camino because in my experience, there was always someone faster or slower, always someone who’d walked a greater or lesser distance, and there was always someone who was more arrogant or humble. Comparing ourselves to others is a dangerous game. And yet, as I looked around the streets in Sarria, I found myself resenting these “blow-ins” who were doing the easy bit at the end, all to get a bit of paper.

Husband and I found a basic but spacious private room for the next two nights, and enjoyed the relative cosmopolitan vibe of the town. By that, I mean there was an Italian restaurant so we had an anniversary dinner that didn’t involve chorizo! That “down time” was sweet for us. I had been away for five weeks and had another week or so of walking to do. By then, I’d given up on the dream of walking from Santiago on to Finisterre. My feet were too sore, the weather was turning cold, and I’d heard that the hostels along the way were already closing up for the winter. That meant there were longer gaps between hostels and there was no way I was able to walk 30km between them. I was heavy-hearted about not being able to “finish” the way I had wanted to, but it was for the best.

So, the reunion with Husband allowed us to re-connect while I was still in Spain, still en route. I didn’t realize it at the time but it took the pressure off us having a big reunion at an airport or bus station. Like I said earlier, I was in a different head space while I was on camino, so flying home and reuniting with him all at once would probably have been overwhelming. Getting to see each other in Spain helped defuse all of that.

We drank cheap but delicious red wine and gazed out on to the night lights of Sarria. We wished each other a happy anniversary. We had a hiatus from our lives – me, from the exertion of walking and he from the exertion of work – and enjoyed being.

And then it was time to go.

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago: A Turning Point

When I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage route in Spain, I knew I’d have time to reflect. I knew I’d see my life differently. I knew the experience was going to change me. Six weeks of walking will do that to a person.

The evening I arrived into the small village of Boadilla del Camino, I had no idea that I was on the cusp of a major turning point, not just for camino but for my “real life” too.

Backtrack a bit: Lucy* (not her real name) and I had walked together earlier on the trail. She was a native English speaker, travelling alone, and she walked at the same pace as I. We fell into each other’s company easily and I enjoyed the chat. That is, until I didn’t. Over the space of a few days, I slowly realised that I didn’t want to spend so much time with her any more. Our values felt very different. Our intentions around the camino felt very different. I felt increasingly miserable in her company. I decided to continue on alone, so I bade her a Buen Camino and never expected to see her again. Sweet relief! Bumping into her in Boadilla del Camino was a surprise. Her excitement at seeing me was a surprise, too.

From the minute she spotted me, she stuck to my elbow for the next couple of hours.

I went to find somewhere to stay, she followed.

I went to light a candle in the church, she followed.

I went to hang laundry on the line, she followed.

All the while yapping about herself, and her trials and tribulations over the intervening week.

Nothing wrong with that, you say.

For two hours, I nodded, I oohed and ahead, and felt my initial interest drain away from me like blood. Truth is, I was dog tired that evening, and being on the wrong end of a monologue sapped my remaining energy. I didn’t really care about the food she ate three villages back on the trail. I didn’t care about the amputee she’d met somewhere on the route. I didn’t even care about the conversation she had with the hairdresser when she decided to have her hair styled into a long-lasting blow dry.

I just wanted to chat with other pilgrims, eat some dinner, and get to sleep.

Lucy* wanted to monopolise my energy and my evening.

Countless times, I tried to steer the topic to me…just so we might have an actual conversation. Every time, she steered it back to her. Only once in the two hours did she ask:

So, how are you?

Well, since I saw you last I….

She cut across me and steered the chat back to her again.

Sigh.

We sat together over dinner and I watched her actively ignore the two German women sitting at our table, as she wanted to talk to me only. She couldn’t share the table with strangers. She couldn’t share general conversation. By the time we finished our evening meal, I was truly exhausted from five hours of being targeted. The next morning, I avoided her.

Over the next three days, I noticed myself getting angry every time I thought about Lucy*. I walked out of Boadilla del Camino with speed, determined to put some space between us but still, my mind kept tossing over the events of the evening.

Why am I so upset about this, I wondered. She’s gone, I may never see her again, why am I getting angry?

And then it hit me: I knew a whole list of people just like her in my real life at home.

Friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues…I knew too many people just like her. People who took advantage of my empathy, my listening skills, and time. People who, in theory, were contributing to a relationship but in reality, took my kindness for granted. For years, I had felt the imbalance of our conversations and time together but I gave everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Everyone was busy.

Everyone had stuff going in their life.

It was understandable that people neglected to ask me about myself, or listen when I offered to share. They just didn’t notice but next time we’d rectify that, right? For years, I had felt the hurt of being overlooked and unappreciated. I thought that if I invested more time in these relationships they’d balance out a bit.

I was wrong.

After spending the evening with Lucy*, I finally got some perspective on how these other relationships affected my life. I had felt hurt and lonely and ignored for too long. Spending more time with these people wasn’t the answer: I needed to spend *less* time with them.

Like everyone else, I too was busy. I too had stuff going on in my life. And I was as deserving of a listening ear and support as much as anyone. Relationships are supposed to go both ways. I decided to give less to the ones that were stuck at the end of a one-way street.

So, the friend who promised for three years that they’d call next time they were in town…but didn’t?

That’s okay. I’m not upset, just don’t expect me to keep initiating contact.

And the family member who expected me to visit them all the time?

Sorry, the road goes both ways. Next time it’s your turn to travel.

After the evening with Lucy*, I felt agitated and angry for three days until I realised that she was an echo of my real life at home. I could walk away from Lucy but I never realised that I could walk away from other defunct relationships, too. That surprise, unwelcome, and monopolizing encounter was a turning point: it gave me the strength to evaluate my relationships with less hurt and more pragmatism.

Does the person initiate contact with me? Yes/No

Does the person respond to me? Yes/No

Does the person take an active interest in me? Yes/No

Do I feel valued in this relationship? Yes/No

Do I see a future for this relationship? Yes/No

Do I want to keep this relationship? Yes? ? ?

No.

I never knew I could say that.

Friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues…all of these relationships changed after camino.

Thanks, Lucy* for driving me so crazy that I changed my life 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Did I Walk? (Part 1: The Back Story)

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I’ll admit, this “camino thing” kind of caught me by surprise.

When I rang in the new year in 2013, I didn’t know that I would walk this ancient pilgrimage route later that year. I didn’t know I’d resign from my job either, or leave behind my new husband whom I’d married only months before.

Heeding the impulse to go walking was one of the best things I have ever done for myself.

Hand on heart, my camino experience transformed me on a fundamental level. And I’m certain it repositioned the chess pieces of my life into a healthier, happier arrangement – a repositioning that wasn’t *my* plan.

But even though my decision to uproot and go walking was sudden and impulsive, it wasn’t entirely surprising. There are 2 parts to the story that lead up to my camino journey. Overall, it’s too much to explain in just one blog post (and you’d be bored to tears reading *so much text*) so I’m splitting it into two to make for easier reading.

This is part 1: The back story.

Years ago, I was an active member of a mountaineering club and I spent every Sunday hiking cross-country. Most of the hikes were off trail, all of them required map and compass work, and the majority of my walking companions were men – so we walked fast, we climbed high, and we pushed ourselves. Every week, the open hills gave me an “escape valve” that satisfied my most primal core. It was one of the happiest times of my life.

My hiking friends were among the first people to mention the camino route in Spain. Some of them had walked parts of it, at least. Their stories planted a seed and I knew I wanted to go see for myself. Back then, I just liked the idea of a good long walk. My life felt well-balanced and I didn’t need “time out” for any particular reason. There was nothing religious or mid-life-crisis-y going on. I didn’t even care about being a tourist or experiencing “real life” Spain. I just wanted to go stretch my legs. But I also knew:

  • I wanted to walk alone
  • I wanted to start in the French Pyrenees
  • I wanted to walk all the way from the French Pyrenees to the west coast of Spain, all in one go

I didn’t want company. I didn’t want to walk for a week here and there, spread out over years. And I didn’t want to miss out on the experience of the French Pyrenees. But otherwise, I didn’t have any sense of when I would walk, or why.

I figured I could walk any time. I figured I would walk it some other time.

And life ticked along.

In the intervening years, I got a sensible, grown-up job in an office and learned just how short the weekends sometimes feel.

People told me: Ah, but this is what it means to be a responsible adult.

I waved off friends who went to live in faraway places, and even though I drove and flew across countries to see them, the distance took its toll. Everyone was busy, everyone had other things going on, and the spontaneity of just spending time together was difficult to achieve.

People said: This is what happens when you reach a certain age and everyone goes their own way in life.

I understood what they were saying, but the idea of working a 40 hour week for the next 40 years (in an industry where people burn out after only 5 years) and losing my friendships along the way, didn’t seem like a dream life.

Things didn’t feel so promising.

On the plus side, I met Handsome Man who later became Handsome Husband, and I became a wife though I never expected to marry at all. I came to realise that my decisions weren’t just my own any more. There were two of us, and my happiness or misery, affected us both.

You have to think beyond yourself now, they advised.

I was blessed to have a steady income while others lost their jobs. Lots of grown-up things were possible and I wanted them, but my job was getting to the point where it took more from me than it gave to me. With each passing year I felt that my situation was corrosive – spiritually corrosive. I needed the job to pay for the home, but I didn’t want to commit to the home while I felt so morally uneasy in the job.

And I had to wonder:

How good was the dream home if I had to stay in a toxic job to pay the mortgage?

The job might have been a means to an end but more and more, it was also an end to my sense of self.

That didn’t feel good.

I thought it was because of the office I worked in.

I thought my job wasn’t creative enough.

I thought I was in the wrong industry.

But they quipped, You’re lucky to even have a job, quit complaining.

So I changed my attitude, re-invented my role, and carried on as best I could.

But I felt conflicted. Even though many parts of my life worked smoothly and beautifully, I often felt:

Is this it, then? Is this what the next 40 years of my life look like? Chained to a desk, stressed out about someone else’s agenda in a job that strips away my integrity, and then I die?

I didn’t know *what* needed to change but I knew something had to change – and not just my attitude any more.

All of these things bubbled through my system, persistently and not always quietly.

***

When I walked camino, I met people of all ages, all backgrounds, from all over the world – every day. We asked each other a lot of the same questions:

How are your feet?

How far did you walk today?

and

Why are you walking camino?

I had several answers to the last question, in particular. Most people reacted warmly to my story and commended me for leaving a job that no longer felt good. Others were baffled by my decision to leave my job, my husband, and go walking without a plan, so I used this story as a way of explaining what was going on:

Earlier in 2013, I reached out to a friend to meet up for a coffee or lunch. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and I wanted to catch up. She didn’t live nearby but I offered to drive and meet her, or host her in my home instead.

Whatever worked – I was flexible.

Except that she couldn’t meet for at least 6 weeks. She had plans and commitments every day, and every weekend, in the meantime. If I wanted to see her, even for an hour-long cup of coffee, I’d have to schedule it at least 7 weeks in advance.

That seemed like an awful lot of scheduling.

Her response echoed an emerging pattern in my life:

Everyone was busy. Everyone had a packed timetable. Everyone was booked out in advance – even for cups of coffee and lunch breaks.

I thought to myself:

No wonder people feel isolated in the modern world. No wonder people feel left behind and alone. No wonder so many people take their own lives and when they do, everyone is surprised by their actions. We’re too busy to really connect.

If I had wanted to share good news, or sad news, or just needed to lean on my friend’s shoulder for an hour, I would have been very upset by her response that day. In a time of celebration or grief, who can afford to be told:

“I don’t have time to listen to this right now, make an appointment to come back to me in 7+ weeks.”

I looked around and realised I was stuck on some sort of hamster wheel: I was giving my best energy to a job that brought out the worst in me, and afterwards felt too depleted to nurture my heart’s desires. My friends were too busy to connect. And things weren’t going to improve any time soon.

People told me: This is normal, this is grown-up life – get used to it.

I understood, but didn’t agree.

I felt a massive imbalance in my life and figured there had to be a better way to live.

I was surviving but not thriving.

I needed to step away from the computers and the scheduling. I needed to go back to basics, somehow. I didn’t know what to change but I knew *something* had to change and I would know what to do, and when to do it, when the timing was right…..which brought me to Part 2….a divine decision!

 

A Toast to Tosantos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The music was deafening.

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

What on earth was going on?!

It transpired that the village was celebrating a fiesta.

Ah yes, Spain is great for its fiestas!

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

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

Wikipedia tells me that:

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

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

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

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

Good Times in Grañón

** Updated this post a little **

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Grañón, Spain

I was delighted to stay a night in the donation-based hostel in Granon. At very least it meant my day’s walking was done after 22.4km. On a deeper level, it meant I was in a good place for the evening – both literally and figuratively.

The donation-based hostels tend to attract a certain crowd – either the pilgrims who are holding very tight to their purse strings, or the pilgrims who want to connect in some deeper way. It’s easy to get caught up into the frenzy of clocking distances and times on Camino. God knows, there are enough people treating it like a race. Staying in donation-based and church-based hostels is a nice way to side-step that madness, and spend time with like-minded people.

We ate dinner together as a group that evening in the hostel. The intimate setting created an opportunity to make new friends and spend time with familiar ones. It also encouraged/allowed pilgrims to be of service and help out with the logistics of preparing and serving a meal to 40+ people.

When you eat in privately owned restaurants you don’t have to, or get to, assist in the logistics. Instead, you simply arrive in the door, have your meal served to you, and pay when you’re finished. You get to walk away without thinking about the washing-up!

I’m not alone in saying the Camino has become more popular in recent years. I was, and am, part of that popularity by virtue of the fact that I was there in 2013. That’s not a million years ago, so I am sensitive about commenting on the politics. But, it’s attracting some people who treat it as a cheap walking holiday instead of a revered pilgrimage route. I’m not even referring to the Catholic pilgrimage specifically because the route pre-dates Christian tradition.

So, it’s more than 2,000 years old.

I think that deserves a bit of credit and a bit of respect.

And I think the volunteers and staff deserve credit and respect, too. They peel all those potatoes, they chop all those onions. They clean beds and bathrooms after us. They sweep floors and converse with us in half a dozen languages because many of us (myself included) don’t have enough Spanish. They do everything to make the process easier and kinder.

When you’re consumed by blisters and sore feet, it’s far too easy to overlook the people who keep the show on the road. We shouldn’t be so consumed by our own drama that we overlook the people around us. We shouldn’t be so fixated on what we can get out of a situation that we forget to ask what we can contribute to a situation, too.

Rightly or wrongly, an increasing number of people treat Camino as a cheap walking holiday and sometimes assume an air of entitlement as a result. I saw it in Navarette when four women argued over the assignment of beds. Their attitude was more prevalent than I ever expected.

Of course, not all the people walking Camino are on pilgrimage – religious or otherwise.

Equally, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a cheap walking holiday, and even the people who avail of its low-cost location can be decent and generous.

I’m not trying to imply that unless you walk 800km or more (in your bare feet and wearing a thorny, woollen vest on your back!) that you’re an egotistical brat.

It wouldn’t be fair or right for me to say that.

But Camino isn’t like a cheap package holiday or regular walking holiday. The influx of people expecting (and demanding) particular treatment can be difficult to manage.

I can’t blame the pilgrims (or holiday-goers) entirely for this break-down in attitude because more and more, Camino is marketed as a cheap walking holiday. I’ve seen it in my own national press recently – a series of articles and videos giving people advice.

Need a New Year’s resolution? Maybe walk the Camino in Spain. Buy tomorrow’s edition for all the tips and tricks!

I get it: Camino is big business and everyone wants a bit of the action. It’s become a profitable topic, something to be consumed, and a bandwagon to jump on. And that, in turn, changes the energy dynamic on the ground.

The reason I’m harping on about all of this here is because in Grañón, we were expected to help out with serving dinner. We rearranged tables so they all joined together. We laid out the plates and cutlery, and served each other food. We were active participants instead of passive consumers.

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Inside my hostel…

That evening, I met a French man who walked Camino for the 10th year (and I think it was his 10th time), and his entire attitude was one of service and support. He did more work in the preparation than most of us, combined. On top of that, he was a sort of emotional temperature check for the whole building. I observed him in action and he was the kind of guy who sensed when someone was about to cry, laugh, or collapse from pain. Even in the middle of carrying pots of food and finding extra chairs, he was giving hugs of consolation and congratulations to those on the edge. He observed everyone, and gently rearranged the mood in a subtle and beautiful way.

He was our “Maître d” that evening, though most didn’t quite realise that.

The same man also organised a surprise treat for a Danish woman, who celebrated her birthday that very day. He happened to hear about it only minutes beforehand but by the time she sat down beside me for dinner, he had it all organised. When our meal was finished, he gently signalled for someone to turn down the lights, and a volunteer brought out a small baked pastry with a candle on top. The woman had just turned 19 and we sang Happy Birthday to her in a chorus of languages and laughter, while she made a wish and blew out the candle.  She even got two servings of rice pudding desert for the day that was in it. 🙂

He made that happen.

Later, I happily solved a sartorial dilemma. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but let me explain:

Days earlier in Villatuerta, I accidentally destroyed one of my 3 t-shirts. It’s a long story but the end result was that my once white, quick-drying, wick-away garment looked like it was covered in

grease,

baby sick,

or both.

The stains wouldn’t come out and I was too embarrassed to wear the shirt afterwards. I was down to using 1 t-shirt by day as I walked, and a 2nd t-shirt by night while I slept. The 2nd one needed to be washed but the 1st one was always either dirty from wear, or drying on a clothes line somewhere. My options were limited:

I needed a 3rd t-shirt, at least temporarily, while I laundered the 2nd shirt.

Otherwise, I’d have to go topless.

And whatever I may say about the changing attitudes on Camino, it’s (thankfully) not a place for topless pilgrims!

The hostel had a chest full of donated clothes, all left behind by other pilgrims. I rooted around in the wooden trunk till I found a t-shirt that fit me – a baby pink, Tommy Hilfiger tshirt with sequens along the front! It was the most unlikely garment anyone would wear on Camino but I was delighted to have it. Finally, I could wash my clothes in peace, without having to hide behind a bush while waiting for them to dry!

Hours later, my American friend, Fred, approached me with something in his hands. He had listened to my tale about accidentally destroying one of my precious t-shirts and wanted to offer me one of his. (Between you and me, I might have hammed up my tale a bit for entertainment, implying that the loss was far more serious than it really was. So, I felt bad for unintentionally provoking his offer.)

He said to me:

I’ve got 3 of them but I wear only one: would you like to take this spare one?

I was delighted with his offer as I knew it would get me out of my predicament. On top of that, the t-shirt was a wick-away one, which would be perfect for walking long days in the 30-something degree heat, where I worked up *quite* the daily sweat. I was happy to accept it either way, but its wick-away qualities were an extra bonus. And this t-shirt had no sparkling sequens on it, either!

Fred’s friend beside him cheekily offered:

I don’t suppose you want any socks, do ya? I brought 6 pairs with me but I don’t wear half of them. I want to get rid of them and lighten my pack: wanna take some?

I gently declined on the socks but gladly accepted the t-shirt, and hugged them both for their generosity. I had walked for days needing a new t-shirt and in Grañón, I received two! 🙂

Three Cheers for Everyone Walking the Camino de Santiago!

Only 589.2km left before I reach Santiago!

Sometimes, even now, I look at those numbers and I’m quietly stunned.

How on earth did I walk 800km across France and Spain?

How does anyone walk such distances, especially in just a few weeks?

I think the human body is an impressive piece of work. We’re built to move and even in this age of high-speed travel, we’re capable of walking hundreds of miles. We’re quite a bit removed from our caveman ancestors but I’m glad we haven’t lost our capacity to walk long distances and go see what’s out there.

Despite all the modern conveniences, we’re still able to go back to basics. I love it.

And to all the pilgrims, past, present, and future – I salute you!

I salute your willingness to embark on the Camino journey. I don’t care how many miles you walked or how many blisters you endured. I don’t care whether you went home after a day, “finished it”, or have walked it a dozen times. I’m hoping it was a positive experience but even if it wasn’t, I salute your willingness to get up from your couch, move away from your desk, and go take your body for a long walk. I applaud your sense of spirit and adventure, and your courage to go do something different.

It would have been easier and quicker to take the train, right? And I’m sure it would have been more convenient to book a beach holiday instead of sweating your way across the Iberian peninsula!

Beach holidays have their place but they’re no Camino. Sometimes the world tells us that the beach holiday is normal and that to walk 800km across Spain is not. Whatever your reason for choosing Camino – whether you wanted a pilgrimage or a cheap walking holiday –  I’m sure there were some people who couldn’t relate to your choice.

Maybe they thought it all sounded a bit dull. They might have thought it was very odd. They might have thought you were having some sort of mid-life crisis.

I’m sure you knew people, just like I did, who thought you were mad to propose walking across Spain, especially if they’d never heard of Camino before. Some of my nearest and dearest hadn’t heard of Camino and thought I was heading off into the wilderness alone, to navigate and trek my way across rural Spain, for however long it took. “Mad” doesn’t even begin to describe what they thought of me! I will always remember their worried looks, trying to decide whether to be more concerned about my mental health or my chances of getting killed in rough scrubland.

It took a long time to convince them that I wasn’t unwell and I would be okay. Spain is quite a civilised country, really!

But I understand their concern and their desire to talk me out of my hair-brained idea.

Maybe some of the people in your life responded in a similar way? I’m sure it made your decision-making just a bit more complex. It’s one thing to head off on Camino when the whole world is applauding your choice. It’s a bit more tricky when the people around you are scared or resistant.

And yet, you did it anyhow. That took courage and faith. And I’m hoping you got to feel what I felt, at least once somewhere along the way:

That walking Camino was one of the most sane things I ever did!

I came home proud of, and awed by, the power of my human body. I came home feeling proud of everyone I met along the way, and of their enormous achievement to have walked the path, too.

I started out with the best intentions in the world but with no idea of whether I would be able to fulfill them.

800km (500 miles) sounded like an awful lot.

Make no mistake about it – 500 miles is a long way to walk.

But like many great things in life, it’s not something to be done all in one go. It takes steady perseverance, one step after the other, one day at a time.

Before you know it, you’ve covered more than 200km.

Before you know it, you arrive in a small village called Azofra and find that you’ve only 589.2km to go.

Magic!

Thanksgiving and Spiritual Inspiration for Camino de Santiago

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

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

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

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

How amazing to have such awesome legs!

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

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

What would they do?

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

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

I know I do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They still carried me 500 miles across Spain.

They did everything I asked of them.

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

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

Christ Has No Body

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

Camino Challenge: Go at my own pace

In the early days of walking Camino, I struggled to find my own rhythm and pace. There seemed to be a real pressure on beds and if I didn’t walk fast enough or far enough, I would be left without one. That had happened twice and inwardly I felt:

I’m not walking fast enough.

I’m not walking far enough.

I’m not quite keeping up with “the done thing” here.

Even though I talked about going at my own pace, the truth is, I didn’t do it.

I talked the talk but literally struggled to walk the walk!

At the time, I couldn’t quite tell whether the “race to keep up with everyone” was my own personal sensitivity , or if others felt the same. Was it my perception or was it reality? I don’t know if others experienced that same inner push and shove, but I would love to know.

I came across a piece in my journal from the time, and it reads as follows:

“I understand that people have jobs and families to fly home to but if everyone is goal-orientated, then the journey itself is lost–

If the priority is to reach Santiago in 5 weeks or less (as Brierley’s book will have you do), then the spontaneity, reflection, and inner journey is pushed aside in the name of scheduling.”

I was very upset about the pressure to keep up with a set schedule – whether it was imposed by Brierley or airline companies.

I met people along the way who naturally, happily, and easily walked 30+ km every day, and just so happened to reach Santiago in a month or less. One of them was a woman I met on my very last night before reaching Santiago itself. She started walking later in September than I, and had covered longer distances each and every day. I might have sat there, feeling inadequate about my own performance, except that she was entertaining, heartfelt, bright, and sassy. She was great company over dinner.

Some had criticised her for going too fast and for “missing out” on the real Camino. I guess there were people like me who were slower, and who looked on with the idea that she wasn’t “doing it right“. She explained that she naturally woke at 4-5am and was restless in bed, so the only thing she knew to do was to walk. She wasn’t trying to prove a point or rub anyone’s nose in it – she just happened to be very fit and very fast. And as it happened, she was reflective, articulate, and spoke of having a transformative experience along the way.

So it would seem, she didn’t ‘miss out’ on the inner Camino after all.

I started out wondering if the people with schedules, plans, and daily targets, were an enemy in some way. No doubt, the Camino was far more commercial and goal-orientated than I ever expected. I wasn’t sure whether I was overly sensitive, or was really inadequate and naïve.

Was Camino to be like “the real world” – a competition for the survival of the fittest?

Sometimes it felt like it, despite also feeling the sense of community and camaraderie.

I didn’t know what my own pace was, but I seemed to have little consistency from one day to the next. Some days were 25km in length, then others were only 8-10km. I wasn’t sure where my happy medium lay. And I wasn’t sure whether the Type A pilgrims were creating a standard that was atypical for the “true Camino”. They were able to walk fast enough and far enough to secure beds early in the day, and spend their afternoons drinking beers and sightseeing. Surely the trick was to set my own pace rather than try keeping up with them – right? And yet, there seemed to be so many of them, and they seemed to set the tone for so many things.

Were they a hindrance or a help?

Were they the true representation of Camino and life, or were they destroying the Camino spirit with their ambitious targets and KPIs?

I couldn’t quite tell.

“This walk is a pragmatic lesson in pacing. Quite literally, there is always someone ahead of me and always someone behind me. Quite literally, there is no winner or loser. We are each doing our best. We are each making our own way.”

“On more energised days, I have collected litter along the way. I have been able to make people laugh…I’ve picked up peoples’ washing off the ground and re-hung it for them, without them knowing. I’ve prayed for Handsome Husband and given thanks for the people who have supported me.

The quality of what I do is enormously important. Yes, I would love to energetically bounce along 25km every day without issue. But when I can’t do that, I like that my slower pace allows me to do other things – and that I do them.

There is tremendous power in the small gestures, the intention, the quiet support. For me, this is Christian living….I am only partially interested in Santiago as a destination and even less interested in the certificate. I am more interested in the process.”

By the end of  it all, I came to realise that we all have a different pace and rhythm – on Camino and in life.

I forget this far too easily and quickly, negatively comparing myself to others and their progress.

Mental note to self: Remember to respect my own pace in life.

 

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?

Camino Francés: The First Week

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

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

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

I was on walkabout

I was on a quest

I was on pilgrimage

I was crossing a country on foot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And prayed there was more to follow.

Pamplona to Puente la Reina

Distance walked: 24.1km  25.2km

Waking up in Pamplona, my room was still dark and I could hear the sound of light rain spitting against the window. Surprisingly, I was awake before my alarm sounded, and even more surprisingly, I was ready to go walking. I probably could have stayed in my private “B” until 10-11am but the thought never crossed my mind. Already, I had adapted to the daily routine of Camino – getting up early (without question) and going for a very long walk. It was quite a change from my lifelong habit of clutching the warm bedcovers for another five minutes.

The arrival of rain meant that the morning was a bit chilly but I had only one pair of long hiking pants in my possession and no rain pants to wear over them. If I walked in my hiking pants by day and they got wet, then I would have no dry clothing to change into later that evening. It was a luxury I couldn’t afford, so I put on my shorts – pretending it was a sunny morning – and braced myself for the worst. The goose bumps and shivering motivated me to move quickly 🙂

Outside, the streets were quiet and the sky was heavy with rain as I made my way out of the city. My map from the tourist office clearly directed me across the lanes of traffic, past early-morning coffee shops, and children on their way to school. Occasionally, a yellow arrow would appear, spray-painted onto a random wall or signpost and I knew I was going in the right direction. The footpaths were marked with scallop shell symbols and again, I knew I was on the route towards Santiago, and not towards the nearest IKEA store!

Many people think that walking the Camino means spending endless hours in the countryside on gravel trails, with big horizons, and blue skies. Walking Camino also means walking through towns and cities with concrete footpaths, loud traffic, graffiti, and general pedestrians going about their ‘real life’ business. Many people told me had gotten lost in Pamplona, and spent up to two hours going around in circles, trying to find the way out. In the early morning light, they found it frustrating and disheartening, and they felt the passing of time without the passing of kilometres. I understand how it can happen. Even after only a couple of days walking, we had become familiar with the country setting and having just one path ahead. In a city, there are countless roadways, footpaths, and alleyways to navigate – it’s easy to get disorientated and spend time cursing the map. That morning, I was thankful to find my way out of town easily and was even more delighted when it stopped raining.

A year later, I have to admit that I don’t remember all of the sights between Pamplona and Puente la Reina. I wish I did, but honestly, there were long stretches of Camino that I just experienced, without mentally recording them. I walked on my own, I didn’t wear earphones, and I didn’t consult my guidebook, so now, some of the place names are entirely unfamiliar and I have no memory of ever passing through.

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What I do remember though, are these small events because they shaped my day:

Stopping at the side of the trail to look at a tree festooned with ribbons, photos, and holy medals…We weren’t quite sure what we were looking at until we got closer and saw that it was a memorial to someone who had died while walking the Camino. I’m sure that like us, they set off walking full of hope and great intention, and never expected to die on the way to Santiago. I’m no theologian and I don’t know the ‘rules’ of Camino very well, but I still hope that their pilgrimage brought them a sense of peace and joy before they died. And maybe some bonus points in getting into heaven.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few of these sites along the way – some of them with small headstones or wooden crosses. Some of them are decades old while others have been there only a few months. They’re a sober reminder that any of us could befall the same fate – sometimes all it takes is some unsteady ground for us to lose our balance, trip, and bang our head.

Mental note to self: take care on downward slopes and loose ground.

I think this is the first memorial I saw on Camino and while we stood there, contemplating the precariousness of our own pilgrimage, a young American guy came along to join us. Is it relevant that he was American? Probably not, but I can’t call him by name so I have to call him something.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked

Oh, we’ve just stopped to have a look at this…

Without coming any closer to take a look at the memorial, he asked:

So, what is it, like a good luck thing or something?

Erm…no…it’s a memorial to someone who died while walking the Camino

Without missing a beat he replied:

Ah okay, I thought it was some special good-luck thing – thought I was ‘doing it wrong’ there for a minute

And without further pause, he was gone.

A year later, I still find this memory stunning. I was simply flabbergasted to witness his insensitivity and disinterest. I was even more rattled with his choice of language in our short exchange – this whole idea of “doing the Camino” (and doing it “right”) resurfaced, and I was quietly horrified. He would have come closer to the tree if we told him that tying a ribbon on its branches was a tradition for safe arrival in Santiago. He had no interest in pausing for a moment to reflect on the person who had died, and even less interest in speaking with us. Alas, this is the difference between “doing the Camino” as a physical challenge, and going on pilgrimage. I hate to say it but there is a distinction between those who treat it like one long-distance hike with cheap wine, and those who open themselves up to human connection and vulnerability.

How depressing.

I also remember sitting on a bench, eating a pack of chocolate biscuits, and watching the world go by. Two men approached, and though I’d never seen either of them before, one of them took a look at my hiking sandals and socks (a fashion disaster, I readily admit) and exclaimed:

‘You’re Ger!’

I am, but who are you and how do you know my name?

I’ve met Kevin and Liz – you know them, right? Great guys! They told me all about this girl who’s out here walking in hiking sandals instead of boots. They hadn’t seen you in a few days and they were hoping you were okay and that your feet were holding up. How are your feet holding up?

And so, we spent the next twenty minutes eating chocolate, catching up on people we knew, and talking about our feet – a beautifully normal day on Camino.

A bit of background:

Kevin and Liz are a couple I met on my first night at Orisson. We shared dinner and laughter, and the next morning we walked together up into the grassy Pyrenees full of horses and sheep. They were open, generous, and great fun, and I liked them a lot. I’d known them only a couple of hours but it felt like months’ worth of time in the ‘real world’.

The thing is, I met other great people on my first day of walking, shared a great connection with laughter and heart, and then never saw them again. Ever. Not once, in 6 weeks. I enjoyed Kevin & Liz immensely but wasn’t sure I’d ever see them again either, so to meet one of their new friends was a sweet surprise. I was thrilled to know that they were still holding up, and were somewhere within 1-2 days of walking from where I stood.

Walking the Camino is like one big high school reunion. The disadvantage is that sometimes you run into people you would happily never see again. They’re the ones who like to remind you of all the ways in which their life/pilgrimage is far more exciting/successful than yours. They’re a pain in the neck and you need to keep a wide berth from them. However, the great advantage of the high school reunion is bumping into people you haven’t seen in ages, sharing genuine warmth and kindness, catching up on the state of your feet/heart/spirit, and sharing a meal together. That stuff is wholegrain magic!

The second man also knew Kevin & Liz so we walked together to the top of Alto del Perdón (Hill of Forgiveness), through the windmills, and through the men who were out hunting wild boar. I’m not kidding when I say the wind carried the sound of gunshot and excited hunting dogs, and we reasoned it was best to move quickly and get out of there as soon as possible. This guy ran marathons (plural) for fun, so he was strong, fast, and fit. I walked as quickly as my little legs could carry me but I felt I was holding him back all the way to the top of the 790m hill. Still, he never once indicated that I was cramping his style and I appreciated that enormously.

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Alto del Perdón, featuring a wronght iron represntation of midieval pilgrims, heading westwards

He walked the Camino to raise funds for an Irish charity called Pieta House, and was averaging more than 40km each day with enough time to spend his afternoons drinking beer in the sunshine. When we got to the top of the hill, he bought me a coffee from another “banana man in a van” and within minutes, was gone. I needed to rest, he needed to walk, and we parted ways with a wave and a smile. I assumed I would see him again and wanted to sponsor him for his fundraising but I never saw him after that day.

While I rested at the top of the hill and took in the landscape below me, Kevin and Liz appeared from around the corner.

Yay!

What a great surprise, and what a sweet delight to be reunited.

Photos for everyone, and some great company for the remaining walk to Puente la Reina 🙂

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The Lovely Liz

Camino Challenge: Go forwards or go backwards?

Waking up in Zabaldika, I had a few decisions to make for the day ahead.

Even though I’d walked on my own a lot of the time, keeping company with dozens of people and following their schedule wasn’t working for me. I needed to minimise the pressure I felt in the race for beds. I’d started pretty well but if I were to continue, I needed to recalibrate. I needed to find a new way of being on Camino and to follow my own rhythm.

At the same time, I kept thinking of the 10-12km that the taxi had covered the previous evening: should I get a taxi back to Zubiri and pick up where I left off? Was I “cheating” if I didn’t walk every inch of the trail on my own two feet? I really didn’t know. I was surprised to feel so sore after the steep descent from the Pyrenees and knew that if I insisted on walking 22-23km that day, I was going to be slow. That was going to put me in the same position I’d known the previous day, and I’d be right back to square one.

It was clear that my fellow pilgrims had no intention of getting a taxi back to Zubiri to pick up those missing kilometres. They were delighted to be closer to Pamplona, and were excited about arriving into town early enough to secure a bed and enjoy some tapas. They relished the thought of extra time in such a colourful city.

Chatting to them, I realised I had all sorts of conflicts about how I wanted to walk the Camino. I didn’t feel a need for self-flagellation but I wasn’t sure that taking a taxi to cover some of the trip was entirely wholesome. Were we lesser pilgrims if we availed of transport and creature comforts? Weren’t we missing out on some greater, metaphysical learning experience if we took the “easy option” instead of walking on foot? I wasn’t sure.

For thousands of years, people walked the Camino without access to the comforts we know today –no taxis, no private B&Bs, and no minibus service to carry the bags. Many people think that these modern services pollute the very essence of Camino. They think that people who avail of these conveniences are (negatively) interfering with the ethos or the true way to “do the Camino”. (I deeply object to that very phrase, but I’ll go into that at some other time!). So, I met lots of people who had strong opinions about the pilgrims availing of taxis and buses, and who didn’t carry their bags on their own backs. Personally, I felt it was important to walk on my own merit and carry my own bag, and in an ideal scenario everyone else would do the same. I liked the idea of a level playing field (so to speak) and that we would all be equally humbled in our journey across Spain. That said, I wanted to be diplomatic and restrict my judgement of others because I realised this:

Pilgrims from medieval days didn’t have taxis and minibuses, but they also didn’t have daily hot showers or café con leches. I didn’t hear anyone complaining about these comforts. I also didn’t hear anyone propose that these modern conveniences were interfering with the ethos of Camino. It’s funny, that!

It’s easy to judge the person who’s having their bag carried on a bus but for all we know, that person could have cancer in their upper spine and be physically incapable of shouldering the weight. I met a woman who was in that very situation. So what would we propose – that she shouldn’t have had a bag, and be denied a change of clothing and toiletries? Or would we propose she shouldn’t be on Camino at all, but instead sit at home and let cancer eat her insides until she died? I knew nothing of her life but thought she was entirely generous to walk 800km when she was so unwell. That was a Camino within a Camino. There was nothing about her choice to have her bag carried that was “wrong” or “less than” my choice: it was just different and it was appropriate for her circumstances.

Judging her would have made it impossible for us to become friends. Judging her would have kept us apart, feeling defensive and self-righteous about our respective lives and experiences. Judging her would have created a very anti-Christian sentiment while we both walked the same route towards the same destination.

I don’t know what “true Camino” is but I’m pretty sure that’s not it.

So, for all my idealism about levelling the playing field, I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about the people around me, the lives they lived, the struggles they’d known, or the reasons they were walking. Personally, I was glad of the hot showers and the hot coffees along the way, and I was equally glad of the taxi that had saved me in Zubiri the previous evening. Had it interfered with the ethos of Camino? Not really, because it had brought me to a place of kindness and support that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. It had also enabled me to feel vulnerable, humble, and deeply grateful. I imagine those feelings are part of the Camino spirit.

So, I made a conscious decision that morning: Accept the help I’d been offered and use it to keep going forward, not back.

The walk to Pamplona was only 8-10km and I did it slowly, with definite plans for when I arrived. I would use the city’s services to my benefit, and I would take some space to take better care of myself. I wanted to find a post office so I could post home some of the things in my backpack that were weighing me down. I wanted a private room so I could sleep in peace. I wanted a private bathroom so I could take my time without feeling the impatience of 50 people outside the door, waiting for their turn. The city offered me all of these possibilities and I was delighted to have access to it so soon. I arrived into town at the unprecedented hour of 11am and followed street signs to the central tourist office, where the staff kindly helped me find a cheap, single room in a B&B.

The previous day had been tough but this one was going to be better: I decided to Make it So.