The Logistics of Laundry on a 500 Mile Hike

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Breaking the rules by washing my clothes in the sink (instead of the outdoor stream) in the hostel at San Bol

I don’t know if my clothes had ever been so filthy as when I walked 500 miles across Spain.

Talk about the dust! It clung to everything…my hair, my skin, my shoes, and of course,  my clothes.

Every afternoon, finding a place to stay for the night wasn’t just about finding somewhere to sleep – it was also a task in finding somewhere to take a shower, and to wash and dry my clothes. For most of the journey, I walked with only two sets of clothes. I wore the first set as I walked  – usually from 6am until lunchtime.

Every afternoon, I walked into small villages, built-up cities, or countryside towns, and found a place to stay for the night. Every day, I scrubbed my clothes in a sink – usually with cold water and whatever detergent I had to hand. Mostly, I used shower gel to clean my gear. I couldn’t rationalise carrying a second type of detergent just for my clothes. So, the shower gel doubled-up as shampoo and laundry detergent too, in an effort to reduce the weight of my backpack.

I wore the second set of clothes while I washed the first set and waited for them to dry.

So, even though I alternated my wardrobe every morning and afternoon, I essentially wore the same clothes every day for six weeks.

As you can imagine, things got tricky when both sets of clothes needed to be washed at the same time. What would I wear then?!

Things also got tricky when the rain poured down and drying my clothes outdoors was impossible. The first time it happened, I stayed in Puente la Reina and 99 other pilgrims scrambled to use the electric washing machines and tumble dryers at the same time. I waited for 4 hours for my turn but eventually went to bed at 10:30pm exhausted and without getting a chance to dry my clothes from the rain – the machines had been in use all that time! I hung my clothes to dry indoors in the hostel but they didn’t dry at all, and I had no choice but to wear damp clothing when I left the next morning.

Along camino, a lot of the sinks were outdoors and had built-in washboards to help us scrub away the grime. They’re a smart design, and I felt like a Victorian washerwoman, bent double over a vat of stinking cloth!

In the hostel at San Bol, we were instructed to wash our clothes in the outdoor stream instead of in the indoor sink. I broke the rules on that one.

Sometimes, the hostel owners provided detergent and/or scrubbing brushes to help with the cleaning. Sometimes the water was warm or even hot, and I delighted in watching the grime melt away quickly. The smallest blessings can be the sweetest!

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A standard camino sink

Friends asked me: Why didn’t you use a washing machine instead?

After all, there were days when I was so physically spent from all the walking and my feet were so impossibly sore, that to stand at a sink and spend another 20 minutes labouring over dirty clothes was just *too much*. It takes a lot of time each evening to find a place to stay, shower, do the laundry, find somewhere to eat, and get ready for the following day. That small routine can take hours, and when I was tired and sore, it sometimes felt like the death of me.

So my friends wondered why I didn’t just throw my clothes in the machine every day and save my energy.

Short answer: many of the hostels didn’t have automatic washing machines….so I had no option but to scrub them by hand.

Secondly, washing clothes in a machine takes a lot of time. The quickest cycle might be 30 minutes in length…that’s quite a bit longer than it would take to wash them by hand. It’s actually labour-saving to quickly wash them by hand, hang them to dry, and walk away, than to wait for the machine to wash them. Plus, getting them washed was the easy bit: getting them dry was the greater concern. So, if you were to ask me whether I prioritised those extra minutes on the washing or on the drying I’d tell you that I tried to get my clothes into the hot sun as soon as possible. Only then could I fully relax.

Thirdly, it can be quite expensive to use the facilities every day along camino. Each time I used a washing machine, I was charged around €5-6. And it was the same each time I wanted to use a tumble dryer – an extra €5-6. I didn’t have enough clothes to fill a full load so I often shared with someone else and split the cost. But still, the costs add up pretty quickly and I didn’t want that expense every day. Assuming all the hostels had machines, I split the cost with someone, and I had time to wait every day…I’d still spend €6 on laundry every day for 6 weeks. Quite frankly, I’d rather spend the money on wine instead! 🙂

But in saying that, the few times I did avail of washing machines and dryers, the results were amazing! That photo at the top of the post is what I faced pretty much every day I had to wash them by hand in a sink. Don’t feel sorry for me…everyone else was the very same! But I’ll admit, my clothes were pretty grimey and I don’t know that I was much better myself. After throwing them in a washing machine, my clothes looked and felt truly clean.

Up to that, I appreciated washing machines in that kind of abstract, first-world way. During and after camino, I thought automatic washing machines were a truly awesome thing and I gave thanks for their mighty power!

Towards the end of the journey, in Galacia, I hung my clothes on an outdoors line and while I went away for dinner, the wind and rain blew everything across the fields. When I returned at 9pm, I had to walk around in the pitch black night and the pouring rain, looking for my clothes in dark, grassy field…and hoping that the wind hadn’t blown my few items into the cow dung!

Washing the gear was relatively easy but I found it trickier to dry the stuff.

Most of the time, I used outdoor clothes horses of all shapes and sizes. Occasionally, there were indoor clothes horses too. Often they were already full, so finding a free space was like shopping for gifts on Christmas eve – a bit of a competition.

Thankfully, in 6 weeks I had only a few days of rain so most of the time, my clothes were perfectly dry when I needed them at 6am the next day. In Ponferrada, however, my clothes were still wet when I woke the next morning, and I walked out into dark rainfall with the cold dampness seeping into my skin. My backpack too was full of damp clothing. I genuinely didn’t know when I’d get a chance to dry any of it properly – it would be hours at least, and maybe even days if the rain kept up. That was utterly disheartening.

But most of the time, I dried my gear on clothes horses sitting in the sun.

Sometimes, there were outdoor clothes lines hung between buildings or trees.

Occasionally, I hung my clothes from the end of my bed.

Once, in Carrión de los Condes, I had to weave my clothes through chicken wire to dry them.

And best of all was in Samos when the hostel guy told me they didn’t have a garden or any clothes horses, so I had to go across the road and throw my clothes on top of the shrubs and bushes there. 70 of us draped our laundry (including underwear) on the bushes, for the entire town to see as they walked past. I wish I’d taken a picture of it!

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Creative Clotheshorse in Carrión de los Condes

What were your experiences of laundry life on your travels? Did you wash your clothes by hand or use the machines? Did anything go missing, get eaten by goats, or show up in an unexpected place?

Navarette

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16th Century Church of the Assumption (heavily covered in gold on the inside)

I was delighted to secure a bed in the main hostel in Navarette. Brierley’s guide-book tells me that it sleeps 40 people, and I was assigned a bed in the attic. I carried my dusty, sweaty self up the steep stairs, with details of my bed number in my hand. The dorm was a mixture of single beds, bunk beds, and mats on the floor. I didn’t know what had been assigned to me but I made my way around the room, scanning the numbers on the bedposts as I went.

I found my bed tucked against the back wall of the room and thankfully, it was a bottom bunk.

Hurrah!

Bottom bunks are a blessing for sore feet.

The only snag was this: Someone had already taken my bed and laid their things all over it.

Not this again!

After my experience of pinching beds in Puente la Reina, I had mellowed a bit. Back then, someone had stolen my bed and tried to play innocent. I sent him packing, without feeling even the smallest bit of apology. He’d found a bed somewhere else in the hostel and I reclaimed that which was “mine”. Admittedly, it was awkward to bump into him around the albergue that evening, the next morning, and on the trail the next day. I bumped into him several times over the following 1-2 days. Though we were surrounded by countless new faces, he and I had a history and there was no easy escape from it. We were definitely not friends.

In the intervening days, I’d had a chance to reflect on my behaviour and I thought: maybe I shouldn’t have kicked him out so quickly. Maybe I should have shown some patience and care to this elderly man – this was the Camino, after all. Maybe I could have expressed more tolerance? And anyway, it’s not like I really owned the bed back in the hostel – I was lucky to have loan of it for the night. Maybe I should have been the one to go looking for another place to sleep?

I bumbled along the trail every day, and I reflected on such things.

By the time I arrived in Navarette and discovered someone had taken my bed, I felt more Zen.

I thought: No worries, I’ll just pick some other bed!

Before I had time to turn around, the woman from reception was right beside me. She’d come to see how many free beds were left in the room and took stock of everyone in it. In an instant, she realised my predicament:

I still wore my backpack but there were belongings all over “my bed”.

Clearly, someone had taken my spot.

She seemed to be more upset by the mix-up than I was, and instantly wanted to know what was going on.

Of a sudden, 4 women jumped up from a bed in the corner and started speaking loudly and quickly. They wore lots of Lycra and discussed distances covered. They’d been looking at photos on an iPad and uploading them to Facebook…

Ah, you again.

She had arrived with her 3 friends and laid claim to the best beds in the room. They had all chosen lower bunks against the wall, and had marked their territory clearly. My appearance seemed to complicate things, especially because the staff seemed to be on “my side” and demanded to know why someone was on my bed.

If ever there was a moment on Camino when I could say “All hell broke loose” – this was it!

The women argued loudly that they had arrived first and were entitled to choose whatever beds they liked. Our hospitaleria (volunteering staff member) argued that everyone had been assigned a certain bed number, and that no one got to choose their bed. She demanded that they move their belongings and take the beds they’d been assigned. The women shouted at the injustice of the situation; the hospitalerio shouted back.

I stood in the middle of all the shouting, feeling amused and self-conscious.  Personally, I didn’t actually care what bed I slept in. Sure, a bottom bunk beside the wall was a dream situation, but I’d have happily taken whatever was going. After all, the place slept only 40 people and I was one of them – I was lucky to be there at all.

Everyone else in the room looked on at the argument in silence. Whether they’d been sleeping or unpacking their gear, everyone stopped to watch the spectacle. We witnessed a clash between (what I call) “Old Camino” and “New Camino”.

“Old Camino” consists of those who understand that a bed is not a guaranteed thing, so they accept whatever kindness is offered – gladly and humbly. They walk for the journey, and don’t count miles or kilometres as badges of honour. They allow the unexpected to unfold.

“New Camino” consists of hikers, backpackers, and  holiday-makers, who walk for the physical challenge or adventure. They might even walk it because they want to “Do the Camino” and cross it off the Bucket List. They expect Camino to be like every other holiday – one where reservations are made and kept – otherwise someone is compensated.

These are not official names and I agree, they are unforgiving generalisations.

But you get the idea: the Camino has become fashionable and very popular in recent years. It attracts a new crowd and not all of them treat it with the same expectation or attitude. Rightly or wrongly, people have different agendas.

That evening in Navarette, we witnessed the uncomfortable clash of such differences.

In the end, the hospitaleria “won” and I got my bed back.

Gracias!

I shrugged my shoulders and smiled at the 4 women in an effort to say: I have nothing against you, this is just how things have turned out.

Only one of them smiled back. The others scowled and broke eye contact, and returned to their Facebook page.

Ouch.

Later that day, I happily bumped into Kevin and Liz again and feasted on some of the most delicious tapas of my whole Camino. They’d discovered the best eatery in town (this was to become a pattern) and I found them tucked inside, making friends with the whole place and drinking generous glasses of vino tinto.

I lit candles in the church, chatted with (some of) my roommates, and fell into a deep and grateful sleep. My new shoes had carried me many miles, I’d secured a good bed, and had a belly full of great food.

What more could you ask for?

 

Camino Continues: Puente la Reina to Villatuerta

Distance to Santiago: 678.5km

Calf muscles finally beginning to feel normal after the Pyrenees 🙂

The walk out of Puente la Reina the next morning was grey. The clouds hung low and just as it had done in Pamplona, the sky spat irregular, cold blobs of rain. My shorts were still damp from the previous evening, as were the socks I’d worn. I might have dried them in the albergue except that there were 99 other pilgrims trying to do the same thing at the same time, so the tumble dryers were fully occupied for hours on end. I left my shorts to hang indoors overnight and hoped for the best. The narrating Swede tossed and turned all night, shaking the frame of the bunk bed violently. The only image that came to mind was that of a dog, shaking himself off after getting wet. It felt like the Swede was shaking himself with the same force and when he did, he shook me awake too. Still, the mattress was dry and thankfully free from someone else’s foot skin, so I couldn’t complain!

This was one of the few albergues to offer breakfast, so for €3.50 I was given a hot coffee, an orange juice, and a crusty baguette with butter and jam. It was already becoming the standard fare and it would become a staple in the 5+ weeks to follow. Baguette, baguette, and would you like some baguette with your baguette?!

Stepping out the front door of the albergue that morning I looked at the sky with trepidation. The rain was heavy enough to soak my shorts and socks a second time, and I thought about walking a shorter day if the rain persisted. I had only three pairs of socks with me and I tried to keep a dry pair in reserve, especially for the evening time.

One pair were already wet from the previous day and were packed away in my bag.

The second pair were on my feet, in the process of getting wet.

Walking in wet socks can lead to blisters.

The third pair were still dry but I was reluctant to put them on because then all three pairs would be wet.

So I wondered:

Am I better off walking in wet socks all day, possibly getting blisters, and keeping a dry pair in reserve?

or

Should I walk in the second pair until they become really soaked, and then change into the dry pair? Would doing that prevent me from getting blisters? And if all three pairs are wet, will I be able to dry out any of them before I start walking again tomorrow morning?

When you’re hoping to walk 800km and keep going for a few weeks, foot care becomes a high priority. I reckoned getting blisters was inevitable but I wanted to avoid them for as long as possible. Walking around in wet socks didn’t really help my case, but I’d chosen to walk in hiking sandals so this was one of the downsides. (In retrospect, the hiking sandals posed very little threat for blisters because they gave my toes plenty of space to move about – unlike boots and shoes. So I probably didn’t need to ruminate on the socks quite so much – I’ll know for next time!)

I decided to figure it out as I went along and made a mental note to self:

Must investigate a pair of hiking shoes soon, especially if the rain keeps up.

There was no point hanging around Puente la Reina. After watching the rain for 10 minutes with a group of other pilgrims I realised it wasn’t going to ease up. I’d either have to stay put for the day or get walking.

I chose to walk.

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The morning was damp and heavy for hours, and we spent the day passing through farms, vineyards, and olive groves. This section of the Camino includes one of the best examples of Roman road (yes, that’s some 2,000 years old), which is impressive, but a killer on the feet. I walked with a 22-year old Italian who, like me, had resigned from her job just before walking Camino. She was petite, with perfect olive skin and cropped pixie hair, and told me she spent about €500 a month on clothing and make-up. It wasn’t by choice – she was a manager in her company and her manager had pulled her aside and ordered her to wear more make-up, dress smartly, and make more of an effort. She admitted she earned good money but €500 a month was a lot to spend. There was an endless pressure to have the latest gadgets, the most stylish clothing, the designer handbags. True, it was a cultural thing, but even she could tell that at the age of 22 the pressure was only going one direction: up. So, she packed in her job, decided to walk Camino, and her mother joined her for the first week of walking. The two of them beamed from ear to ear, clearly relishing the freedom, the time together, and the whole endeavour (and not a scrap of make-up in sight).

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When I stopped in Lorca that afternoon for a break, I was unsure which coffee shop to stop in. There were only two, and they sat on opposite sides of the small street, facing each other. The menu outside the first one included paella but the place was packed and there was nowhere to sit. I dropped my bag on the footpath and walked into the second café. The menu consisted largely of Spanish omelette, bocadillo jámon (cured ham on baguette), or bocadillo tortilla (Spanish omelette on baguette). There wasn’t much else on offer but there was free space, so I ordered a coffee and a bocadillo jámon, and sat to gather my thoughts. The rain had cleared up and I looked at my map for the day, trying to decide how far to go. The Brierley Brigade would no doubt walk the 21.9km to Estella. I decided to stop at the previous village in the hope there’d be a bed for me in the 42-bed private hostel. If so, I’d stay there for the night. If not, I would walk on to Estella as my backup plan.

After coffee, I walked back across the street to reclaim my backpack and bumped into:

  • Canadians, Barb and Dave, whom I’d first met in Orisson, who had saved my socks from blowing away on the grassy Pyrenees, and whom I hadn’t seen in days!
  • 2 other Canadian ladies whom I’d met in Zabaldika, and who’d lost their friend – the one who sat on my legs while I was asleep in bed!
  • Kevin and Liz, who’d been lucky to get the last hotel room in rainy Puente la Reina, and wondered where I would stay that night
  • The delightful Champagne Camino ladies, whom I hadn’t seen since Zubiri, when the town had no free beds (ahem!)
  • Along with others

The coffee shop held maybe 30 seats and I knew half of the people sitting in them – talk about high school reunion!

Celebrations all round.

Though I’d already had my coffee and lunch, I sat for a second serving and reasoned that I’d have the calories burned off by bedtime. Bumping into the Champagne ladies was an absolute joy, and a timely one too. They’d planned to walk for only a week and as it happened, they were on their last day of walking that very afternoon. If I hadn’t met them in Lorca – in that very coffee shop –  we might have missed each other forever, and I would never have had the opportunity to say hello again, and goodbye. I didn’t even know their last names and wouldn’t have known how to track them down in the real world.

Last time we’d seen each other, Amanda had generously carried my backpack and they’d all buoyed my heavy heart as I trudged towards Zubiri. But of course, we’d lost track of each other in the intervening days – I’d been with the nuns in Zabaldika, a private pensión in Pamplona, and a rather industrial hostel in Puente la Reina. Those had been three rather full days and nights, and we had lots to catch up on. I still remember introducing them to someone else I knew in the café and accidently saying, “I met them a few years ago…” Of course, I had to catch myself and think: no, I met them only a few days ago. But a few days on Camino translated to a few years in the ‘real world’ and already, they felt like familiar friends.

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The Champagne Camino: Beverley, Marian, Amanda, and Jenny

We spent another hour together over lunch, this time swapping contact details, and we later walked the 4.7km to Villatuerta together. Swapping contact details, for me at least, was a good sign of friendship and intention. By the time I’d reached Lorca, I’d already met hundreds of new people on Camino. I chatted with some of them for only minutes, and others for hours, sometimes spanning across several days. I’d made great connections with people while still in St. Jean Pied de Port but had never seen them again. So too for every single day since. So, I’d already come to realise that everyone on Camino was transient and there was no telling where we’d all end up. If I wasn’t that interested in spending time with someone, I could wave them off and there were no hard feelings. Similarily, if someone wanted to shake me off, they could stop to take a break and we might never see each other again. I’d begun to realise that friendships needed more than just a spark of connection or shared interests – they needed time together. In such a transient experience, bumping into each other over and over was our equivalent of amassing time — time that, in the ‘real world’ would be spent growing up in the same neighbourhood, working together as colleagues, or spent partying in pubs and clubs. So, though I knew most of these people only a few days, we swapped contact details because we wanted to, and have stayed in touch – that’s why I’m allowed call them by name 🙂

These women had taken me under their wing on my very first evening in Orisson, as we all sat looking across the mountains. In Roncesvalles, we’d shared bottles of wine in the warm evening sunlight, and on the way to Zubiri they’d literally shared my loaded backpack. We’d only known each other a few days but they had seen me through some of my (literally) highest points and (figuratively) lowest points in all of Camino, and I was thrilled to bump into them again. Our last hour walking together was bittersweet, knowing we were coming towards the end.

In Villatuerta, they waited on the street while I ran in to the private albergue to ask if they had any habitación. The building smelled of incense, and large hammocks hung from the ceilings. This was like no albergue I’d ever seen and I thought: I have arrived! This is my kind of place. To my surprised delight, the lady told me that Kevin and Liz had booked in earlier and asked her to save a bed for me too. So yes indeed, they did have habitación for me.

Cheers Kevin & Liz!

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Out on the street, I hugged the ladies goodbye. We were all glad to know I had a great albergue for the night but disappointed that I wouldn’t be walking on to Estella with them. Thinking on it now, we could have had dinner and drinks together. Why didn’t I go the extra distance? I have no idea, but it was probably to do with the time of day and the likelihood of getting a bed later on down the road. Fingers crossed we’ll have dinner and drinks another time.

That evening, our albergue hosts cooked dinner for us – paella in a special pan that was about 1m in diameter – I’m not kidding. We scooped huge spoonfuls of the flavoured rice, peppers, onion, and chicken, onto our plates, and poured heavy-handed glasses of wine. Buen Camino, indeed!

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Stairway to Heaven(ly) Bed

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The albergue’s stamp on my pilgrim passport

Pinching Beds in Puente la Reina

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Only 696.7km to Santiago!

Brierley’s guidebook tells me that Puente la Reina (the Queen’s Bridge) is named after Doña Mayor, wife of Sancho the 3rd. “She commanded the magnificent Romanesque bridge to be built to support the safe movement of the increasing number of midieval pilgrims who joined the route at this stage from both the camino francés and camino aragonés.” I have no head for remembering the dates and details of history, but I’m surprisingly tender about the building of the bridge – she built it for pilgrims hundreds of years ago and there I was, getting to use it hundreds of years later. Cheers, Doña Mayor!

I had to cross this bridge to get to my albergue on the far side of town. Descending from Alto del Perdón, I’d walked with Kevin and Liz for a few hours, discussing the problem of exploding water melons in China, but we had parted ways en route. By the time I got into town, I’d spent the last hour getting wet in the rain, and feeling the cold water drip from my raincoat down my shorts, my bare legs, my socks and hiking sandals.

I needed to find somewhere to stay and change into my long (and thankfully, dry) hiking pants, but learned that the first hostel I approached was already full.

So was the second one.

I worried about getting stranded again and especially in the cold rain – I didn’t have the option of sleeping outdoors. People talked about a third hostel on the far side of town. It was an extra 1.1km and dozens of us stepped through the narrow cobblestone streets to find our way. The rain was truly bucketing down on us by then, with flashes of lightning across the sky. Wherever we were going, we needed to get there quickly and hope for the best.

The albergue holds up to 100 people and it was spacious and modern.  It even had an outdoor swimming pool, though it wasn’t at all tempting in the middle of a lightening storm. The design of the building (with plastic door handles and indoor picnic tables) reminded me of public swimming pools and large-scale youth hostels – it was built to ‘get us in, get us a bed, and get us out again’ with swift efficiency. The place had no soul. It did, however, have available beds and a roof, so I was guaranteed a dry place to sleep for the night.

Hurrah!

I picked my bed in the corner (lower bunk, nice) and laid my sleeping gear out on the bed, put my water bottle down by the side, and left some small belongings on the pillow to mark the space as mine. I didn’t wanted to leave out anything that might be stolen, but I needed to mark my territory (so to speak). Bottom bunk beds are in high demand among people with very sore feet, and this bottom bunk was clearly taken.

The guy in the bunk above me must have been nearly 7 feet tall – a Swede, I think – and liked to narrate his movements.

Now we take this out of the bag and put it here…

Oh and that must go over there..

And we fold that up and put it like this for later…

On and on, for twenty minutes, he narrated his every move.

The guy seemed harmless enough but he challenged me about stretching my hamstrings. He proudly declared that he never did any stretches and he was fine.

Did I ask for your commentary? Did I ask for your judgement? No, I don’t think I did.

But clearly, I was a wuss.

He hung his wet rain pants from the frame of his (upper) bunk bed. In a room with 20 other people it wasn’t the smartest move – we all had wet clothes and the collective dripping meant the floor was already slippery and wet. But he had failed to notice that his pants weren’t dripping down on to the floor – they were dripping directly onto my mattress. I was only a few days into the whole Camino but already I’d become a bit tetchy about my bed space. God knows, it was hard enough to come by. It was a small token of personal space in a chaotic stream of people, and I felt a bit sensitive about protecting that small boundary line between me and the hundreds around me.

A few mornings previously in Zabaldika, I’d been awoken by some woman actually sitting on my legs, while I was still in bed, fast asleep! She’d been trying to put on her pants and decided to do so sitting down. My bed was the closest thing to sit on so she used me as her stool. She didn’t even aim for the corner or the end of the mattress – she plonked herself right in the middle, squashing my legs, and woke me with an almighty start and a growl. I bolted upright, she lost her balance, and she fell all over me, while I struggled to figure out what was happening. Whatever about being woken by LED torches, chatter, and the zipping backpacks, this was a new low. Handsome Husband will tell you I’m not a morning person, and this woman did herself no favours by waking me up so suddenly. She limply apologised but I was furious at being awoken in such a careless way – no wonder I needed a private room in Pamplona!

So, I was a bit tetchy about bed space, and I didn’t appreciate the Swede’s lack of attention with his rain pants. I took the liberty of readjusting them, and went about my business,  having a shower and finding some dinner. I didn’t want the confrontation and instead, decided to walk away.

An hour later, I returned to my room only to find some old guy sitting on my bed. I’m guessing he was in his 70s, brown as a nut, and bald as an egg. The shape of his veins and muscles was clearly visible, and he looked like he was all sinew and gristle. He was wet, sitting there in his green shorts and t-shirt, dripping water onto my bed, as he pulled the dead skin from his feet and popped his fluid-filled blisters. He smelled of rancid sweat – at least a few days’ worth – and of unwashed clothes. The wet boots and socks were strewn on the floor beside him, and his water bottle, sleeping bag, and clothing were spread across the mattress behind him.

<This blog is going to a public audience and I don’t want to upset anyone so you can insert your own expletive here!>

My sleeping gear was nowhere in sight. My water bottle was gone. My belongings that had laced the pillow only an hour earlier, were gone.

This guy had taken my bed.

I didn’t hesitate in confronting him.

This is my bed. What are you doing here, where is my stuff?

He looked at me blankly. He spoke no English and hadn’t a clue what I was saying. I didn’t have enough Spanish and didn’t care about his blank gaze. I was livid. The cheek of him, stealing my bed!

Again I challenged him: What are you doing? This is my bed! Where is my sleeping gear? Where are my things? This is my bed!

Goddammit but I walked more than 25km for that bed – some of it in the rain. It was mine – I’d earned it fair and square, and I wasn’t giving it up for anyone.

Christian generosity, indeed!

He continued to feign ignorance, but I found my belongings thrown to the side and gestured that they had actually been on the bed to begin with. I could see the understanding sweep across his face.

Ah, those are her things.

So this must be her bed.

She knows that I moved her things.

She knows I took her bed.

Okay, I’ll move.

He took his time as he reluctantly packed up his bits, and gave me a few dirty looks in the process. He didn’t appreciate a witch like myself hunting him out. I’d never heard of anyone on Camino stealing someone else’s bed, and I wasn’t going to let him start a tradition with me.

Take my bed? This means war.

I can put up with a lot of things but I won’t put up with this. I’m a big fan of watching out for fellow pilgrims but sorry, this is a step too far. This time, I’m watching out for myself.

The Camino is a great opportunity for human connection and humble gratitude, sure.

In my case, it was also a great opportunity to get tough!

 

 

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