Walking the highs and lows from Acebo to Ponferrada

Distance walked: 19.5km

Descent: Approx. 600m

My night in Acebo passed off uneventfully. Up there, some 1,110m above sea level, the air was crisp and damp, and I burrowed into my sleeping bag to keep warm. I was glad to have the loan of an extra wool blanket. It never occurred to me that the blanket might have had mites or tics from the previous pilgrim(s) so in retrospect, I was also glad that it had no hidden surprises!

I’ll admit, my memory of the day’s terrain is a little hazy. Some of that is due to the passing of time. Some of that is because I was trying to stay warm on a rocky descent into a cold landscape. This meant I looked down at my feet more so than at the sky and horizon. But separately, most of the haziness is because I happened upon Peter and Jeanne from the U.K., and I fell into happy conversation and step with them.

We had mutual Camino friends in common – people we’d met only days and weeks before – and we’d heard lots about each other. Most of it was good 😉

After the previous evening in Acebo, and the hypocrisy of pilgrims who said one thing and did another, I was feeling a bit disillusioned with the Camino and humanity.

Again.

This wasn’t the first time: I’d been upset by the pilgrims who’d left pools of water on the bathroom floors, and the pilgrims who’d shouted loud English at restaurant waiting staff. I had expected my fellow pilgrims to behave better but I was upsetting myself in the process. So, I asked Peter for his advice.

Peter had walked the first half of the Camino Francés some twenty years earlier. He confirmed what everyone else said: things had changed. Yes, there were more (and better) facilities now. The coffee stops were closer together. The navigation was much easier. And there were a lot more people – not all of them sensitive to the landscape or culture in which they walked. I felt relieved and heartened to hear him confirm all of this. Without realizing it, I had nursed a certain vision of what the Camino looked and felt like, all based on:

  1. Reports from friends, some 10-15 years earlier
  2. The many photos I’d seen of solitary pilgrims in wide open landscapes, looking entirely at ease
  3. The fact that I was walking in the off-season of September and October

*My* experience of the camino was often at odds to what I thought it would be, or should be. I found it immensely difficult to feel open-hearted and generous when there were so many jackasses about.

And yet, Peter gently pointed out that unless I spoke up at the time, there was no way of changing the events, people, or outcome of the previous evening. He was right. And since I had no way of going back in time and doing things differently, I’d have to just let it go.

His words were a balm on my agitated heart!

Quite literally, I felt the stress and tension melt away, and I felt an inner lightness again. I stopped getting so wound up about these strangers and found a way to continue on with renewed optimism. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I continue to lean on Peter’s words and wisdom to this day.

Meeting Peter & Jeanne, and sharing conversation with them was the absolute highlight. Their animated and gracious company made the walking easier and the time go faster. Later, Peter kindly treated me to coffee just the way I like it, which was a second highlight. In almost a month of walking, I hadn’t been able to convey to anyone just how I wanted my coffee so for him to breeze in with his superior language skills and make it look so easy – well, what a joy! We ate cake, took photos with friends, and eventually parted ways. I wanted to walk on to Ponferrada, so I waved them goodbye and hoped to meet them again.

By the time I arrived in Ponferrada late in the afternoon, it had already been raining for hours. The sky was heavy with even more rain, and it looked like a grim evening for the laundry. My shoes and socks were soaked through. My rain gear was wet and even my sweater and t-shirt underneath were soaked in patches. It wasn’t a good way to end the day but I was glad to get a bed in the hostel. At least it wasn’t all full up.

The hostel slept 174 pilgrims, most of them dripping wet. The queue for the shower was more than an hour long….and unsuprisingly, there were pools of water all over the floor! After, I queued to use a tumble dryer for my clothes but after 90 minutes, I gave up. They were “booked” for another three hours and I didn’t have the energy to stay up all night waiting for them. I hung my clothes on an indoor clothes line and went to bed feeling achy and cold. And just to top it off, I ended up sharing my small dormitory with some of the same personalities I’d seen in Acebo the previous evening. What luck!

Would I “speak up” at this late stage or would I keep to myself? I didn’t know what to do but decided to try and get an early night of it: hopefully the weather would be better in the morning and I could start afresh.

 

 

 

Camino Continues Westwards

Distance walked: 36km

Distance left to Santiago: 369km

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Not a lot of clothes line space in the hostel!

My evening and night at the Santa Maria hostel in Carrión de los Condes was happily uneventful. No crazy snoring. No crazy traffic outside the window. No stress. The nuns requested that we each contribute some food towards the evening meal so in the hours before dinner, the small kitchen filled up with a random display of watermelon, baguette, and chorizo. Always, everywhere, chorizo 🙂 The nuns added fresh vegetables and salad from their own garden and created an evening meal for everyone to share. Communal meals like this are really nice on camino. I had a share of them along the way in various hostels (whether religious or privately-owned) and I appreciated the sense of community that they created.

The next morning, I made my way from the hostel out into the countryside by the light of the moon and the rising sun. I didn’t have a set plan for the day, as usual, but I’d hoped to walk 26.8km to Terradillos de Templarios that day. It seemed like a reasonable distance to cover, especially as there were no coffee stops for the first 17km. I didn’t want to overstretch myself.

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My guidebook informed me that 70% of the route followed natural paths, most of which are part of the Via Aquitana, the paved Roman road that connects to Astorga. It also informed me that the landscape was flat and featureless, so it was another day of ambling along under the searing hot sun. My day was uneventful and I settled into the rhythm of walking westwards. My average walking speed on level ground is somewhere between 4-5km per hour. So, the 26.8km took between 5-6 hours that day, with extra time for breaks along the way. By the time I got to Terradillos de Templarios, the hostels were all full. All 83 beds had been taken already even though it wasn’t yet lunchtime.

This is okay, I thought. I’ll just walk on to the next village.

I walked 3.2km onwards to Moratinos, just under an hour away, but the hostels there were all full there, too. I didn’t even get a chance to investigate that for myself: some pilgrims shouted the information to me from across the road. You’d think that after my experience in Carrión de los Condes I would have taken the time to verify the facts for myself but honestly, it seemed like too much effort to walk from one doorway to the next. Rightly or wrongly, there were days on camino where I felt I didn’t have the extra time, energy, and footsteps required to walk from one hostel to another. In Moratinos, I trusted the pilgrims when they told me everything was booked up, even though they shouted it with big smiles while they went to get cold beers!

By now, I’d been walking nearly 7 hours, the temperature was over 30 degrees C. and you know what? I was tired. I was sweaty. I was very, very dusty. And I really wanted to find a bed for the night. I needed to get in to the shade, have a shower, take a break, but until I found a hostel there was no chance of any of those things. In Moratinos, I assessed my options. I would walk a further 2.8 to San Nicolás del Real Camino in the hope that the 20-bed hostel there would have some space.

That 2.8km was filled with anticipation and nervousness. As the day wore on, the heat increased to near unbearable levels. If there was no bed for me, I was going to have to stop for a few hours anyway. Maybe I could rest for a while and resume walking later in the evening when the day had cooled down. I observed the countryside around me and for the first time in all camino, I seriously considered sleeping outdoors that night. I didn’t have the energy to walk an additional 7km to the next village and even if I did, it would be early evening by the time I’d arrive. That meant there’d be little chance of getting a bed. But out there in the farming countryside, I peered at the enormous bales of straw and thought about sleeping underneath them that night. They were dry, they’d offer some sort of warmth from the cool night air. There were no washing facilities or privacy but I could get over that. I needed somewhere to sleep and those straw bales were a viable option. I wouldn’t rule them out.

When I arrived in Albergue Laganares in the small village of San Nicolás del Real Camino, I expected to hear the worst. The village was eerily quiet and the hostel didn’t even look like it was open for business that day. I tentatively asked for a bed, while thinking of the straw bales down the road.

Sure, we have a bed, the hostel-owner said. Would you like something to drink? You look tired!

Hallelujah! I rejoiced inside. I wouldn’t have to walk another step! After 36km and searing heat, I was finally able to relax for the evening. A shower. A bed. A place to rest for the evening.

And what a fabulous little hostel this was. Quirky with tonnes of personality and care. And couches! Oh my goodness but I hadn’t even seen a couch in weeks, much less sit in one. I sat luxuriously, indulgently on the cushioned seats and felt the weight of my nomadic existence just melt away. Having a couch felt like having a home. It was one of the sweetest moments in all camino!

That night, a feast with pilgrims from all over the world but most of them from Spain. And afterwards, shots of potent desert wine from Madrid – a heady rush of giddiness before falling happily, drunkenly, gratefully into bed.

And how lovely that it was a bed and not a bale of straw after all 🙂

 

 

The Things You Remember (and Forget)

IMG_1003.JPGIt’s been a while, I know.

Every day, I’m “writing in my head” and coming up with things I want to share here. That’s fine for a while but I need to write “outside of my head” every now and then, too.

So here I (finally) am.

And lately, I’ve been thinking about the Camino de Santiago in a new way and how I write about it. Let me explain:

A lot of camino blogs seem to act as digital postcards for friends and family back home. They list place names and hostel stops. The photos show smiling faces and plates of food. The blogs don’t give a lot of detail and they don’t get reflective. They are just a note to say “Hi, I’m still alive”.

I didn’t write a blog while I walked across Spain. I didn’t expect to write a blog at all but after I’d been home a while and the dust had settled, I discovered I had a lot to say. I decided to write. As time has progressed and my life has become busy with…well…everything, I can’t help but notice what motivates me, or blocks me in writing.

For example, you might have noticed that I had quite a bit to say about the small village of Boadilla del Camino. I wrote four posts about walking to, and staying in this tiny village:

That’s an awful lot of words for a village that (according to my guidebook) has only 140 residents. The reason? The day I walked to Boadilla del Camino was a day when my body felt supremely strong and capable. That day was a high. And everything that happened in the village that evening changed my perspective on my life at home. Outwardly and inwardly, the day affected me deeply. And that was easy to remember. It was easy to get excited about. It was easy to write and write and write.

But the next leg of the trip?

Oh, I hate to admit it but there’s a chunk of the day I just can’t remember. I look at the map and I don’t recognise the place names. I don’t remember the countryside. There are hours in the middle and I don’t remember a thing. I don’t know if that’s because I found the landscape fairly forgettable or if it’s because I was so content with the walking that I didn’t record anything to memory. Either could be true. But whatever the case, my lack of memory has been a block to my writing.

What do I write about when I can’t remember huge chunks of the day? I run the risk of creating a blog post that is just like the ones I mentioned above: brief, vague, and fairly dull. So, what should I write?

Maybe I should come clean and admit it: I can’t remember huge chunks of the day I walked from Boadilla del Camino to Carrión de los Condes. Even though walking the camino was one of the most outstanding and memorable events in my life, there are sections of the trail that I just don’t recall. Of course, I could never remember all 500 miles equally: that wouldn’t make sense. I forget bits. I remember bits. I guess certain bits were uneventful and forgettable. And the bits I remember? Well, those were the bits that changed and re-wired me from the inside out. Those were the bits that have stayed with me every day since.

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Here’s what I remember:

I left Boadilla in the early morning darkness after thanking the hostel owner for my bed & meal. He told me that out of 70 pilgrims who’d dined there the previous evening, I was the only one to thank him personally.

His comment was both saddening and sobering.

I walked westwards. I avoided conversation with Lucy* when I saw her in a café later that morning. It was awkward, for sure, but to resume company with her would have made me murderous: I was better off alone. I walked just over 20km that day through flat, sunny farmland. I took almost no photos but for some reason, I took this one:

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When I arrived in Carrión de los Condes that afternoon, I quickly learned that all the hostels were full. Or so it seemed. Strangely, as I entered the town, a woman in a smart blouse and skirt stood beneath a street sign that directed pilgrims to the different hostels. She spoke to me in English and asked me where I was staying.

I haven’t booked anything, I replied.

There are no beds left in these hostels, she said, and she listed the names of the hostels I had hoped to stay in. But then she (kindly? helpfully? deceptively?) told me the name of a private hostel that happened to have free space.

Disheartened but sort-of grateful, I found the hostel she had mentioned and rang the buzzer from the street. A raspy, muffled voice came through the speaker and I struggled to hear it over the sound of the loud traffic.

In my rusty Spanish, I asked for a bed.

How many?

One bed, please. I am alone.

Just one? No. We have a room with four beds so we will give it to a group of four people. Not one.

And the line went dead.

I stood on the busy street, soaked with sweat, tired, and suddenly disheartened.

That woman had told me all the hostels were full. She’d told me that these guys had space, but the greedy jerks were holding out for a bigger group and more money. I couldn’t blame them but still, there’s supposed to be an understanding that if a pilgrim shows up and needs help of some sort, that help is given.

So, I stood in the shady side of the street and I wondered:

What should I do? Spend valuable time searching the town for a free bed that may/may not exist? Or should I walk out into the countryside again and on to the next village, hoping for a bed there?

On camino, as in life, here’s something I should remember:

Don’t believe everything that you hear.

It turned out that the woman in the skirt & blouse might not have been telling the truth!

 

 

 

 

Camino Challenge: Great…but tough…

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

It’s great…but tough.”

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

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

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

How was it?

And I found myself replying in exactly the same way:

Great…but tough.

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

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

  1. Everything was accumulative.

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

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

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

Day 11: Finding my groove – aw yeah!

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

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

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

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

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

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

*That* was tough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. It’s not really a holiday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eewww!

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

I found *that* tough, too.

 

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

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

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

But there was greatness too.

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

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

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

Camino Statistics

I talk a lot about the crowds and the volume of people on camino in 2013. It really caught me by surprise, especially as September and October are said to be “quiet months” for the trail. I was never really sure whether my perception of the crowds had any factual basis – until I came home and looked up the statistics.

There are a few different sites crunching the numbers but this one is a pretty reliable source on camino forums and discussion groups.

“The total number of pilgrims registered with the Pilgrims´Office between 1 January 2013 and 30 September 2013 is 189,642.” [Remember, there were still another 3 months left in the year and the numbers kept coming.]

The total for the same period in 2012 was 168,722. This is an increase of 12%.

Another site says: “Each year the pilgrims office in Santiago publishes the number of pilgrims that have received the compostela [official certificate] for that year. Since there are pilgrims that does not care about the compostela, and never pick it up, it is difficult to know exact number. Even so, the numbers below is as close as we get to “official” pilgrim numbers.

Pilgrims in 2013 that received the compostelas at the Pilgrims Office in Santiago:  215,880 pilgrims

  • On foot: 188,191 (87,17%)
  • By bike: 26,646 (12,34%)
  • By horse: 977 (0,45%)
  • In a wheelchair: 66 (0,03%)

How many of them travelled Camino Francés? 151,761 (70,30%)

You can see that most of the people walk Camino Francés, so maybe I didn’t imagine the crowds after all.

Is that less or more than you expect?

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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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.

 

Blogging the Camino

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I get it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t walking for the entertainment or excitement.

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

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

I went on retreat.

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

do,

want,

or

be,

in life.

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

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

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

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

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

And you know what?

I’m delighted with my decision.

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

Absolutely.