Camino de Santiago and The Highest Point

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Distance walked: 17.1km

Ascent: Approx. 700m to O’Cebreiro (1330m above sea level)

My walk from Vega de Valcarce took me from the region of Castilla Y León into Galicia: I was (finally!) officially on the home stretch into the rainy, coastal home of Santiago. The day’s walking also took me on an ascent some 700m upwards to O’Cebreiro (which is itself 1330m high). Others assured me this was even higher than our ascent in the Pyrenees only a few weeks before. Knowing all of this, I set out early in the morning with a healthy dose of humility and my new ibuprofen pills. I had been walking for more than a month already but I still felt that nothing was guaranteed. I’d do my best but like every other day before, the plan was loose and wishful.

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Gorgeous to look at, pain-in-the-feet to walk on!

There were lots of great things about this day: One, I kept dry, which was a welcome bonus at that altitude. Two, I met sunny Margaret from Australia who somehow wrangled out of me one of the deeper truths about why I was walking the camino. She also filled the walk with a rolling, hearty chuckle that comes from a woman who’s lived a big and fearless life. Honestly, I don’t know where else I would have met an Indonesian language teacher who’d worked for the Olympics in between running a dairy farm in Australia. I certainly wouldn’t have met her in my every day life. Lots of people talk about the “great people” walking the camino and they are right: there is huge kindness and compassion and heart. There are also a lot of really interesting people who just so happen to live really interesting lives, and being immersed in that wave of movement for six weeks was such a refreshment. I would never have met someone like Margaret while sitting at my work desk at home and she was a real tonic. And somehow, I got the sense that here was a woman just “doing her thing” and making no apology, no excuse, and no story about it. Really, I don’t know that many (other) motorbiking, 70-something-year-old Grandmas but boy, Margaret tops the list!

Crocus flowers (I think) but with no stem

The climb to O’Cebreiro was lush and steep, but what a lovely delight to get to the top. And what a huge surprise to see that the pubs (because by now, we had moved away from tiled café bars to rustic pubs) specialized in serving octopus. I’m not sure how this came about given that the place is more than 100km from the coast, but there you have it – another surprise for me because I still wasn’t reading the guidebook!

Like so many days before, I quickly popped into the church to light some candles and take a moment. I’m not sure I even had an active, articulate cluster of words here that might have constituted a prayer. Like so many other times, I had just the swelling contentment and gratitude for having made it that far. I say that as though that’s a simple, everyday thing but really, I often forget these very sentiments in my every day life. I walk around with all my limbs intact and totally take for granted that they are there and are performing so well. On camino, I had an acute awareness of my body’s greatness every day, and the huge privilege it was to be there.  Every day that I am above ground I have choices and possibilities. I forget this all the time but on camino, the reality of this was made clear to me countless times a day. Often, when I sat in the quiet churches, it was to just let that knowing settle for a minute. Just to acknowledge that I was healthy enough to be there, I had money enough to be there, I had a passport and an airplane that carried me some of the way, and, and, and….the list of things to be grateful for was actually endless.

And still is.

So, the church in O’Cebreiro gave me a moment to be still and silent, and let the gratitude settle into my bones a little.

And then, I strapped on my backpack and kept on walking.

A lot of pilgrims chose to end their day’s walking at this (literal and figurative) high point and I was kind of sorry I wasn’t joining them. I hadn’t booked into the hostels and I felt I was missing out on some sort of party atmosphere by continuing west. Still, I was glad to have the energy to keep moving so that’s what I did, and spent the night in a 20-bed hostel in Hospital de la Condesa.

Most of the distance was behind me and the highest point was also in the past: Santiago was closer than ever.

 

The Joy of Walking Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking alone allowed me to do that.

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

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

I think we have.

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

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

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

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

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

Walking alone demands a certain self-sufficiency.

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

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

It still does.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Camino Challenge: 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…

Atapuerca

In Atapuerca, I was assigned a bed in a room just inside the front door of the albergue. I was relieved to find that 2 of the beds in my room were not bunk beds, so I happily took the one nearest to the window. I felt utterly spent, but I enjoyed the afternoon shade and rested for an hour while 35 other people around me raced for showers and laundry facilities.

On the surface, my room was great. It was clean and bright, and my bed was nicely tucked in beside the wall so I felt cosy in the corner.

So far, so good.

Over time, I realised that the room had one major disadvantage – it was situated beside all of the noise.

Outside my bedroom window, a wooden ramp and deck area provided the entrance and exit to the building…and it sounded like a herd of cattle were on the move.

Stomp stomp stomp all the way up….thud thud thud all the way down.

The movement and noise were continuous.

Over and back, up and down….everyone entered and exited the building using that wooden ramp. I tried to ignore it but the noise reverberated through the thin wall and shook the very bed that I lay on.

Not good.

Outside my bedroom door, the shower rooms, laundry rooms, and washing machines were in full swing. The spin cycles from the multiple washing machines were *particularly* loud. Separately, a group of teenage pilgrims explored their new rooms through squealing, banging doors, and shrieking in laughter. It sounded like they were everywhere all at once – in every room, and in every corner of my brain.

Not great.

At the front door, the Spanish family I passed on the trail earlier – all 14 of them – cooked up a storm in the small kitchen, with pots and pans banging and clanging, and loud shouts back and forth. They treated the hostel as though it were their own private home and held their family get-together in the outdoor dining area. Quite literally, they took over.

I was close to the end of my rope and couldn’t think straight. For the previous 12-13 days I had thrown myself into the middle of shared accommodation with hundreds of new people from all around the world. By day, I conversed with them over lunch and on the trail. By night, I listened to them snore in their sleep. The boundary line between us felt non-existent and all my defences were down.

Over that time, my body had grown stronger and my new shoes were working well. Physically, I was finding my stride. But my emotional resources were spent. I was exhausted and over-stimulated, and felt disheartened to find that side of things still felt quite difficult. The previous night in Villambistia had pushed me to an edge and I’d pinned all my hopes on a quieter night in Atapuerca.

It looked unlikely.

Just as I did in Villambistia, I escaped the madness by taking a walk down to the village. Even though most businesses along the camino route close on a Sunday, I’d heard that the small shop would stay open for another 20 minutes – so if I wanted something to eat, this was the time to go get it.

There, I bumped into Canadian Don, whom I hadn’t seen in what felt like months, though it was really only days.

He and I first met in St. Jean Pied de Port, when we happened to stay in the same hostel together – full of bright-eyed hope and nervousness.

A day later, we met again when we both stayed in Orisson, where we laughed and chatted our way through one of the best meals of all Camino.

The day after that, we both stayed in Roncesvalles, where he came to my rescue with laundry struggles.

Simply: my bottle of shower gel/shampoo/laundry detergent had cracked and split, so the contents had spilled on the inside of my bag. I wasn’t so worried about that – the gel could be replaced, but finding a replacement bottle was a bit more tricky. Not so! Don came to the rescue with a spare one that he just happened to carry for such a situation, along with an extra sink plug. These are small things but his open generosity meant that I could do laundry that day – and every day – without headache and hassle. In a hostel of some 200 pilgrims, he was the one who willingly came to my aid, and cheerily shared his resources with me.

The following morning, we were part of the same group who left the hostel in the 6am darkness to cross the Pyrenees. His new friends had kindly welcomed me into their pack and I was glad of their warm company. He seemed to be permanently chipper, as well as curious, gentle, and remarkably generous with everyone around him. Quite literally, he brightened the days.

But he and I had lost track of each other after crossing the Pyrenees, and hadn’t seen each other since then. There was much to catch up on.

He greeted me with excitement and warmth, and seemed genuinely delighted to see me.

I’m afraid I didn’t handle the reunion as well as I should have.

I looked at him and saw a man who was still full of bright-eyed wonder and capable strength. I looked at myself and saw a whining, ill-prepared mess. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t been strong enough to keep pace with him after the Pyrenees. He wanted to know how I was getting on, but I didn’t know how to surmise my experience in 10 words or less. I felt over-stretched and very tired….and then felt even more bad-tempered with myself for being such a wuss.

Don eagerly quizzed me about where I’d stayed the previous night but in  my fatigue I couldn’t remember…and I dismissed his question with a limp reply:

Somewhere...” was all I could muster.

I didn’t mean to be evasive. I didn’t mean to be grouchy or mean or dismissive in any way. But his face dropped and I felt like the rudest, most princess-y pain-in-the-ass pilgrim that ever was.

And then I felt *even worse* about myself.

Though we chatted for another few minutes, I needed to get to the shop so I loosely arranged to meet him later that evening. I hoped to see him for dinner in one of the village restaurants, and I hoped to correct my poor behaviour after I’d had a chance to decompress. Don was one of the good guys and I wanted to put things right between us.

Instead, I happened to bump into Dave and Barb, who warmly invited me to join them for dinner in the private cabin they shared with two other couples. Where I would have shared a kitchen with 35 people, they shared a kitchen with just 4. They had plenty of space, bought mounds of food, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

By then, I had a few extra hours to ruminate on my bad attitude. Don had only tried to be nice to me. Barb and Dave were the same. I felt I was the worst company in the world and entirely undeserving of such kind care. I missed out on putting things right with Don that evening while my two friends cooked a meal and served it straight to me. I bought a bottle of wine but otherwise felt I couldn’t contribute – not to the dinner, not to the friendship, and not to the camino as a whole. What right did I have to accept any of this kindness? What right did I have to feel sorry for myself, grumpy and sore? Surely everyone was sore, over-stretched in some way, and homesick. I’d chosen to be there so what was my problem?

I thought:

Clearly, I’ve got an attitude problem here and I am spoiling this for myself and for everyone I meet. I am the surly, sulky one, and I’d be better off going home instead of making life a misery for everyone here.

Was I brutally honest or too hard on myself?

That evening, to my embarrassment, I broke down in a flood of tears in front of Dave and Barb.

As a general pattern, I don’t easily cry in front of people – not even people I know and love. I’m even less likely to cry in front of people I don’t know at all. And while I knew Barb and Dave for nearly 2 weeks by then, they were still “strangers” in my overall life. They weren’t to know that when I broke down in a sobbing mess in front of them, I was at the end of my invisible tether.

Everything got the better of me – including, (and especially) my own negative thinking.

I had to get some private space to myself. I simply *had* to pull myself together. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to go on.

 

 

 

The Things I Missed

A few days ago, I wrote a post about spending the night in the small village of Villambistia, in northern Spain. In case you missed it, you can read about it here.

I mentioned that while I walked 500 miles of the camino pilgrimage route, I really missed having a front door. I missed being able to separate myself from the dozens, and even hundreds, of people around me. I missed the private space and the boundary line that a front door offers. Without one, I sometimes felt exposed and over-stimulated, especially because I shared public dormitories in hostels every day for 6 weeks.

I’ve been idly reflecting on other things I missed while I walked camino. Ordinarily, I don’t reflect on these things at all because I remember my journey with fond gratitude. Choosing to walk the camino was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. Mostly, I remember the journey with humble appreciation and fond memories. I forget that there were challenges along the way. I forget that there were things that I missed.

Like what?

Couches or comfortable armchairs, for a start!

I walked 400km before I saw a couch and then I exclaimed with joy.

A comfortable seat!

An orange one, with fabric and cushions and with space to stretch out! I hadn’t seen a couch or comfortable armchair in weeks and hadn’t realised how badly I missed them until I saw one right in front of me.

I missed my own bed too, and the luxury of clean sheets. The few times I stayed in a private room, the clean sheets alone nearly drove me to tears!

I missed muesli…or indeed, any breakfast food that wasn’t a baguette. I can’t emphasise this enough….I don’t think I ever saw Bran Flakes, Rice Krispies, oatmeal, or pancakes. I think I saw Corn Flakes only once, about 200km from Santiago. I don’t think I ever saw scrambled eggs or sliced fruit, yogurt or crispy bacon. There might have been omelettes but I don’t remember them at all. Every morning, I drank coffee and ate a croissant, a baguette, or both. I missed having the choice of something less bready. Eventually, I bought my own bag of muesli and shouldered the extra weight on my back, just to have a bit of variety.

I missed having a kitchen…or at very least, somewhere to prepare food. I remember being in a supermarket somewhere along the way – an expansive, white-light, modern supermarket where everything was marketed with high sheen gloss….and seeing fresh pineapples for sale. Though it was only weeks since I’d last seen one, it may as well have been years. I had walked hundreds of miles by then and I felt like a nomad. The display of fresh pineapples was nearly too much for me – they lay there with casual abandon, and my mouth watered in anticipation.

I wanted one.

But I only passed through the town that day: I didn’t plan to stop there for the night. There was no way I could carry an extra 1kg of pineapple on my backpack, on top of the 10kg I already carried.

In the meantime, I didn’t have a knife with which to cut it.

And in such a glossy, slick supermarket, I couldn’t see any member of staff who’d have a knife behind the counter. Everything about the place looked like it was for display in a fancy magazine. It didn’t look like anyone there was doing any *real* work. I couldn’t see anyone that would be likely to deviate from their job description for five minutes and chop up the sweet, fleshy fruit. Truth told, I didn’t ask anyone either, mostly because I didn’t have enough Spanish to stick my neck out. If I were walking again though, I’d stick my neck out and ask anyway – I left the supermarket without it and the thought of that pineapple haunted me all the way home!

Occasionally, I stayed in hostels that did have a self-catering kitchen, and I enjoyed the opportunity to prepare my own food. It was never anything fancy but at least I could squeeze in some extra vegetables – another thing I missed! Pity that the availability of self-catering kitchens never coincided with the availability of fresh pineapples though – otherwise, I would have taken care of that craving and wouldn’t be rambling on about it here!

What else did I miss?

I can’t remember. I’m sure other memories will come to me but honestly, I missed very little. My basic needs (shelter, food, water) were taken care of, and the walking took over my days. Out there with all that horizon and all that sky, I forgot my everyday desires. I survived comfortably on two sets of clothing and with very few possessions. I didn’t really miss very much because I felt I didn’t really need very much. That was a glorious liberation for me.

What about you? What did you miss when you walked camino or went on your own travels? What do you think you’ll miss? And is there anything you just can’t bear to be without, so you’re definitely bringing it with you? I’d love to know.

Camino Continues: Viana to Navarette

Distance walked: 22.7km

I left Viana and its resident population of 3,500 in the early hours the next morning.

After a short walk the previous day and an afternoon of rest, I felt physically stronger. My new shoes allowed my feet to feel wonderfully cushioned, and my clothes were newly washed and dried. I felt good to go!

My fellow pilgrim and I walked in the early morning light, with the sound of the gravel trail crunching beneath our feet. There wasn’t much to say in the early hours and neither of us had eaten yet, so we enjoyed the quiet. I kept pace with her for most of the 10km to Logroño and there, we stopped in a café bar for breakfast, while the cathedral bells beside us rang out for early morning mass.

Beautiful!

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We feasted on several rounds of coffee and tea, and gorged ourselves on sticky pastries and savoury tapas, draped in roasted, sweet peppers. Wonderfully, the guy behind the bar offered us glasses of wine at the early hour of 11am. The two of us were in a giddy mood and would have loved the chance to sit drinking vino, while people bustled their way to work. We were tempted, but we playfully declined.

Walking the Camino sort of normalises early-morning drinking. Back in the “real world” you’d look like an alcoholic to open a bottle of wine at 10am but on Camino, the attitude is different. When you’re up at 6am and have walked a few hours already, a beer or wine at 10-11am seems entirely reasonable!

Personally, I liked to wait until 12 or 1pm to have my wine. It was probably a psychological ploy to convince myself that drinking in the afternoon was less shocking than drinking in the morning – but you know, the results would probably have been the same either way!

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Embedded into the pavement, yellow arrows point the way to Santiago. Each region uses a different style of sign.

On the far side of town, we bumped into 2 Canadian ladies we hadn’t seen since Zabaldika. One of them had just bought a new pair of hiking shoes and like me, was breaking them in while she walked.

She’d travelled to Spain with a pair of sturdy hiking boots – a pair she’d owned for less than a year and had already broken in. The boots had been the correct size to begin with, but her feet had swollen in the heat and with the exertion of daily walking.

This is normal for Camino.

The steep descent of the Pyrenees had caused her toes to press against the front of her boots for hours on end. This had led to bruising and blisters so by the time she reached Logroño, her toe nails were starting to fall off.

Ouch!

She’d just purchased a pair of lightweight walking shoes and had abandoned her boots back in the city.

“My husband will kill me!” she said, knowing the €200 boots would never be seen again.

She didn’t care at all – those boots were killing her toenails and they were too heavy to mail home: let some other pilgrim make use of them.

And she practically skipped her way out of the city, along the tree-lined pavements, and out into the open countryside!

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Rioja vineyards 🙂

I gently separated myself from the group to walk on ahead, alone, for a few hours. That afternoon, I passed through miles of vineyards where the soil was truly reddish-brown, and gave its name to the regional wine: Rioja. Funny how I’ve drunk it for years without ever really considering its origins. Only then, walking through the region and watching the red soil cover my fresh new shoes and socks, I realised that all of these things I consume each day, have an origin.

I know this, of course. I buy organic vegetables in farmer’s markets and I read the labels on things. I know where my food comes from.

But I don’t really consider what that place looks like or smells like.

I don’t really consider just how far my food travels before it appears on my supermarket shelf, and just how exotic it is to have global food available at arm’s reach.

When I bought Rioja wine at home, I never imagined that I would one day walk through that very region – maybe even the very vineyards that produced the bottled goodness.

And yet, there I was – happily plodding along, putting one foot in front of the other, and breathing in the smell of earth, vines, and live, growing grapes. How utterly exotic and yet, from a Spanish perspective, how utterly normal.

Truly, a gift experience.

When I arrived in Navarette later that day, I was thrilled to get a bed in the main albergue. It holds only 40 pilgrims and was the only albergue in town to run on a first-come, first-serve basis. All the others were privately owned and were probably already booked up.

Getting a bed in the main albergue, early in the day, felt like a new pattern for me.

Unlike previous days, I’d covered quite a bit of distance without feeling defeated by the effort. The new shoes had transformed my walking experience and I was in an unusual position:

I’d just walked nearly 23km but felt like I could go on further.

Hurrah!

I booked myself into the hostel and asked the staff if they could reserve a bed for my fellow pilgrim, who was somewhere behind me on the trail. They spoke no English and I had only a spattering of Spanish but we managed to come to some agreement:

They would keep a bed for her, but only for another 2 hours. If she didn’t arrive by then, they’d have to give the bed to someone else.

Fair enough, I thought, that sounds like a reasonable deal.

I paid my fee, they stamped my pilgrim passport, and I made my way upstairs to find a bed.

 

Pilgrim Blessings on Camino de Santiago

In Viana, I bumped into Kevin and Liz outside the cathedral. The warm evening sunlight turned the building a golden brown, and we delighted in seeing each other again. As ever, they enquired about my feet and how I was getting on with the sandals. I confirmed that I’d just bought new hiking shoes that very day, and the sandals were getting the heave-ho and would be sent home in the mail.  They looked relieved and glad that I’d finally come to my senses in deciding to walk in shoes!

Though we’d chosen to stay in different hostels, we attended 8pm mass that evening and availed of the special blessing for pilgrims afterwards. By then, I felt enormously grateful to have survived those early days of the Camino – the Pyrenees, the issues with beds, and the distance I had already walked. I’d resigned from my job to walk the Camino and I really wanted to walk the 800km to Santiago.

Ego didn’t want for me to get so injured that we’d have to go home early, and face an audience who might judge me, and call me foolish and reckless.

Left a permanent job to walk the Camino, only to come home after just a week?

Fail!

In  reaching Viana intact, and in sourcing a new pair of walking shoes, I felt I was really making progress. I felt renewed.

The very least I could do was attend mass, give thanks, and avail of the pilgrim blessing. I’ve been reared a Catholic but by my own admission, I’m not a poster child for organised faith of any kind. Still, I’ve been reared to say “Thank You” and I felt strongly about doing that – even if the world disagrees about who, or what, to thank. I was delighted to have made it that far but there was still over 600km to go and I would need all the help I could get. I didn’t expect to do it all on my own.

Back in St. Jean Pied de Port, I attended a mass and gladly received the pilgrim blessing before I ever started walking. There, it was spoken in French, and I managed to understand only bits of it. Crossing over the Pyrenees meant we had all arrived into Spain, so the blessings from there on were spoken in Spanish. I hadn’t a clue what was being said, and some online research reveals that there several versions of the blessing. There may not be one exact prayer that’s said in all instances but this is one below is at least one version, and I’m presuming the sentiment is the same across all versions – even if the translation varies a bit:

O God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, protecting him in
his wanderings, who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, we ask that you watch over us,
your servants, as we walk in the love of your name to Santiago de Compostela.

Be for us our companion on the walk,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our albergue on the Camino,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.

So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and enriched
with grace and virtue we return safely to our homes filled with joy.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Apostle Santiago, pray for us.
Santa Maria, pray for us.

I popped in and out of churches a lot in my time walking the Camino. I do this in “real-life” too, and leave a trail of burning candles in my wake. On Camino, I liked the cool shade of the churches and they were a welcome reprieve from the heat. Conversely (given the Camino’s Christian tradition), the churches were often the quietest places to sit and take stock. I found the albergues loud and busy, and the café bars were equally packed. Thankfully, the churches offered some breathing space and an opportunity for quiet reflection, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs.

I attended mass in a sporadic fashion, and availed of pilgrim blessings whenever they were offered. Some priests rattled through the blessing with perfunctory speed and little heart. I had no problem with that – sometimes priests are men who need to get home and eat some dinner, like the rest of us. I don’t expect them to infuse every day with divine significance! Still, I was glad to receive whatever blessings they offered – regardless of their delivery.

Of all the pilgrim blessings I received along the way, this one in Viana was truly tear-jerking and I came away from it feeling choked up. Whoever he was, the priest that evening brought a tender humanity to the proceedings, and caught a few of us off guard with his warm humour. At the end of the mass, he gathered all the pilgrims together to the front of the church. We stood in a semi-circle in front of the alter, in our dusty shoes and hi-tech clothing. We were a mixture of young and old; women and men; Catholic and not, but we stood there united in our pilgrim status.

We all hoped to walk to Santiago.

We all intended to give it our best shot.

We all hoped to make it safe and sound.

Usually, we were blessed in a group and as a group.

This particular evening, the priest took the time to bless each of us individually. He asked each of us where we were from, and found something small and encouraging to say to each of us – whether it was about the football teams, the weather, or the music from our home countries. That small gesture was profoundly powerful. Of a sudden, we weren’t just a random scattering of alien pilgrims. Instead, we were people with homes, lives, and loves – all acknowledged by a simple question and warm comment.

Magic!

With each of us, he gently placed his hands on our shoulders and, looking straight into our eyes, said a blessing. He spoke softly. The whole thing was over in seconds. I want to say that he made the sign of the cross on my forehead but I don’t know if this is a real memory or an imagined one. Either way, the ceremony of blessing us was deeply moving. It took only a few minutes to make it personal, and I came away with tears in my eyes.

Total wuss!

I’m not sure what exactly brought me close to tears:

Was it because he spoke to each of us individually?

Or that he placed his hands on my shoulders?

Was it because he joked about football and made each of us smile?

I have no idea.

All I know was the pilgrim blessing gave me a few moments of gentle, mindful, connection. In that exchange I felt welcomed and acknowledged. Here I was, entirely human:

Sore

Floundering

Emotional

Stubborn

Grateful

Proud

Pilgrim

I was doing my best, but I was less and less sure what my “best” actually was, or what that even meant.

Without any flash dramatics, this priest had gently gathered us all together and shown us a few moments of gentle compassion and humour. With that, he infused our hearts with a little bit of hope for the days ahead, so even if our feet failed us, we felt blessed. That counted for something. I came away from the church feeling that my Camino was bigger than me, and stronger than my sore feet. Some deeper part of myself had just been fortified.

The woman who’d walked with me over the previous 2 days was not Catholic but admitted that something special had just happened. Even she felt the sincerity of the blessing and took it to heart, with renewed hope.

Pilgrim blessings – I’m a fan 🙂

 

 

Camino Footwear: Do my feet look big in this?

Choosing your Camino footwear is a big decision.

Every year, hundreds of pilgrims log on to online forums to discuss this very thing – along with the weight of their backpacks and how to prevent blisters. First timers like me want to know what they should wear on their feet.

Boots or walking shoes?

How heavy or light?

Waterproof or not?

Should you wear the pair you’ve owned forever or invest in a new pair?

Everyone wants to talk about footwear.

 

A lot of people thought I was crazy to walk in hiking sandals.

Maybe I was.

In terms of footwear, I already owned a pair of 3-season, GORE-TEX, leather hiking boots from a German company called Han Wag. They were sturdy and reliable on wet, unsteady ground. I loved those boots. I thought about bringing them with me but they were too heavy and strong for gravel trails. They were also too warm for walking in September and October.

I crossed them off my list.

Next, I had a pair of hiking shoes from a company called Keen. I’d had the shoes for years and they were well broken in, but they scraped my heels after just a few hours’ wear. If I wore them more than one day at a time, they gave me blisters. There was no way I could walk 800km in them.

I crossed them off my list, too.

The only other thing I had left were a pair of hiking sandals from a company called Chaco. I’d had them even longer than the Keens. Parts of the straps were starting to fray, and if I wore them in the rain they sometimes sliced my skin, which hurt. On the plus side, they had pretty good arch support and they would keep my feet cool. The week I started walking in France, the temperatures were in the mid-30s (Celsius). I needed to keep my feet cool for as long as possible, and minimise the risk of developing blisters.

The sandals were the most likely contender.

Honestly, I tried to figure out a more sensible option before I departed for France, but it just didn’t work out. I planned my Camino in just a month, while at the same time resigning from my job. My days were busy, my weekends were packed, and I had a head full of ‘to do’ lists. I didn’t have much time to find a new pair of shoes and I had almost no time to break them in before departure.

A small aside: ordinarily, I’m supposed to wear custom-made orthotic insoles in my shoes. It’s something to do with having overly flexible feet. I’m not flat-footed and I don’t have fallen arches, but apparently I’m somewhere on the scale towards being double-jointed. So, my joints and ligaments are just a bit too stretchy and when I go walking long distances, it can affect my gait, my knees, hips, and overall alignment. I like to walk long distances but I don’t like having sore knees. So, some years back, I was fitted out for a very practical pair of insoles to keep my feet in a steady position within my shoes. They aren’t sexy and they make shopping for shoes rather tricky.

So, when it came time to look for Camino footwear I was looking for something:

Durable

Comfortable

Lightweight

Possibly waterproof

Affordable

Supportive

Blister-free

Cushioned

Trustworthy

and

Orthotic-friendly

 

I’m not joking when I say I found only one pair of hiking shoes that accommodated my orthotics properly. They were waterproof, sturdy, and trustworthy. They were relatively comfortable but heavy. They also looked remedial and made me look more club-footed than I wanted.

The shoes were ugly and ‘too much’ commitment when I was under time pressure.

So, I started Camino in my Chaco sandals and I wore them for the first 154km to Viana. All things considered, I think that was pretty good going – especially since those kilometres had included the ascent and descent over the Pyrenees. I knew my shoes weren’t perfect but I was open to buying another pair if necessary.

I don’t need to be perfect: I’m willing to change and I will figure this out as I go along.

The benefits of wearing my hiking sandals:

  1. I’d already broken them in
  2. They kept my feet cool
  3. They allowed my feet to swell without giving me blisters or chafing

The downside of wearing my hiking sandals:

  1. They had no cushioning
  2. They had limited support
  3. The straps cut into my skin a bit, even when dry, which hurt. I wore socks to minimise the abrasion and keep my feet clean. That was one of many fashion disasters 🙂

In the evenings, I wore a pair of newly purchased Crocs:

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The plus side:

They were really light

The holes allowed air into my feet

I could wear them in public showers and they drained out pretty quickly

 

The minus side:

They were bulky and took up quite a bit of space in my backpack

The occasionally scraped the skin off my toes. Ouch. But this was because the skin on my feet grew softer over time, from wearing shoes and socks every day. Not exactly the Crocs’ fault.

 

Why didn’t I wear flip-flops?

I thought I might need to wear socks in the evening and if I did, they would fit better in a pair of Crocs than in a pair of flip-flops.

The few times that I did wear socks, the Crocs allowed me to do so without having a thong thingie between my toes. That would have been another level of fashion disaster!

Flip flops seemed to be more popular but one woman told me that the thong between her toes gave her chafing and blisters. Like me, the skin on her feet had grown soft over time and the flip-flops seemed to dig in and cause problems.

I’m sure there’s some way around that.

 

Would I recommend walking the Camino in hiking sandals?

Not really.

They served me well in the first few days – particularly in the heat – but by the time I’d reached Viana my feet were horribly sore from over-stretching and flexing. I needed better support and structure. That said, by the time I’d reached Viana, my feet had swelled so much that I needed shoes that were a full size bigger than normal. I wouldn’t have known that if I’d bought my footwear before departure.

A lot of people thought I was crazy to buy shoes on Camino and break them in while I walked.

Maybe I was.

But I was delighted to find an outdoor gear shop in Viana, and deeply grateful to have a range of shoes available to me. I tried on everything in the shop – with my hiking socks and swollen feet, and in the end chose these, a pair from a company called Solomon:

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The upside:

LOADS of cushioning – they were like walking on springy mattresses!

Great support

Lightweight

Breathable

Non-remedial in appearance 🙂

 

The downside:

They didn’t accommodate my orthotics

They weren’t waterproof (time would tell whether that was an issue)

 

When I walked out of Viana in them the next morning, I knew a transformation had taken place. My first week or so of Camino had been painful and had taken a lot out of me. I thought I was being soft or whiney. I didn’t like that about myself, and thought I should shut up complaining. No one else seemed to be whinging, even though many people had nasty blisters by then. I’d come away without a single blister to date: what was I complaining about?!

When I put on the new shoes, I realised that the walking was instantly easier. No more screaming tendons, no more overly stretched ligaments – my feet felt comfortable and supported for the first time. Comparing the two sets of shoes:

Walking in the sandals felt like walking on cement in my bare feet

Walking in the shoes felt like bouncing on mini trampolines

It just goes to show: getting the right footwear makes all the difference.

Choosing your Camino footwear is a big decision but you don’t necessarily have to get the perfect gear before you depart: you can buy footwear along the way and break it in as you go.

 

 

Pamplona

In Pamplona, the staff at the main tourist office helped me find private accommodation for the night. I had just done my 4th day of walking and it had been a short one, at only 10km. If I kept up that pace, I’d never reach Santiago. But I hoped that taking some time out to rest and reconfigure would help me start again with renewed strength.

In looking for a bed, I wanted something central and cheap. Nothing was going to be quite as cheap as the main albergue but I didn’t fancy sharing with 113 other pilgrims. The woman behind the desk pointed out a few options from a list and after a little bit of sweet-talking, agreed to phone the establishment and book the room for me.

When would I like to check in?

Oh…in about ten minutes!

I followed the map and walked around the corner, down the street, and found myself at the front door of a non-descript building with the name of the pensión over the door. I’m guessing the building also held private apartments because my sort-of B&B was on the third floor (though, given they didn’t serve breakfast I really should just call it a “B”). Outside, the sun was bright and white hot but the inside of my “B” was dark. The wooden hallway was narrow, and the space inside the door was barely large enough for me to stand there with my backpack on my shoulders. I had to squint my eyes to adjust to the artificial lighting. Without any major welcome or ceremony, the woman took my cash and handed me a bunch of keys. My room was the last one down the hall. And she went back to watching TV.

Initially, I was relieved to have found a private room – especially with such ease. The place was quiet, and after the daily scramble and hustle of the albergues, I was glad. Getting a private room in a busy city for such a price was great, and I was delighted to keep the costs down. But when I turned the key the lock and opened the door to my room, my heart sank: the space was tiny. I had never thought to view the room before committing to pay. Had I done so, I might have seen the chipped paint, the exposed wiring, and the metal bars on the windows. The single bed was backed into a corner. There was maybe 30cm of floor space at end and maybe a metre of floor space to the side, which somehow included a wardrobe, a small table, and a beside locker. There was enough room to turn around, but there was nothing to spare. Thinking back on it now, I’m inclined to think it was fine – I mean, how much space did I really need? At the time, however, I took it personally.

There’s a saying that goes something like this: The way you do anything is the way you do everything. I don’t think that’s the exact quotation but I first learned this saying nearly 20 years ago and it’s been churning away in the back of my mind ever since. I’ve spent the years analysing it and trying to establish whether it is really true. The moment I walked into my private box room, I had an immediate thought:

Is this what I have amounted to?

After all the ups and downs of my life, is this the best I can do?

And if I were to die here, is this a reflection of my life, my achievements, and my worth?

The thought had slipped in so quickly that I might have missed it. I felt I had failed again and looking around, I was rather miserable. I guess I had expected a bit more space, a bit more modernity, and something that looked more like a hotel, as I know it. This room was rough around the edges and oppressively small, and I suddenly felt lonely. Surprisingly, I found myself missing my fellow pilgrims and imagined they were all back in the albergue, chatting, laughing, and making plans to explore the city together. I thought: I’ve made a huge mistake, coming here. I missed the sense of community that I’d come to know. I still remember feeling hugely conflicted about how to proceed, and how best to take care of myself on Camino. Being in loud hostels and being around so many people had reduced me to tears, but removing myself from the crowd and taking time to rest also reduced me to tears. I wasn’t usually so teary-eyed and I was really unsure about how to mind myself. What should I do?

Thankfully, I remembered another saying.

‘HALT’ stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and it’s an acronym for a sort of emotional stock-take. When life is busy or intense, it can be easy to get swept along and lose track of how we’re feeling. Being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired can make us vulnerable and extra-sensitive, and lead to further problems. So taking a minute to stop and check whether we’re feeling any of these things gives us information to make informed, supportive decisions. The man who taught me this has a lovely way of explaining it and encourages us to, “Take it easy. Don’t make any big decisions. Stay in out of the cold and mind yourself.” Simple advice, but a revelation for the likes of me, who spends a lot of life living in my head.

On quick reflection, I seemed to be:

somewhat hungry

not at all angry

quite lonely

and very tired

So, instead of looking for another room or regretting that I wasn’t in the main albergue, I decided to make the best of what I had. Yes, the room was cramped and a bit dingy but it was mine. It allowed me more personal space than I’d known in the previous five days. It was quiet, it was central, and from what I could tell, the sheets on the bed were clean. Heck, there’d been no sheets at all the previous few days and sheets were a luxury! The bathroom down the hall was spacious and clean, and I had the comfort of washing both my clothes and myself without a line of people waiting outside the door. There were certain benefits to the place, and I had to remind myself that this was one day and one night in my life – it wasn’t a reflection of my entire experience.

However, the attitude I applied to myself was an accurate reflection of my everyday experience. I’d walked for only four days but I’d spent a good chunk of that time comparing myself to others and deciding I was a failure. I was too slow, too emotional, and too sensitive. They’re rather damning judgements, really. I don’t know whether I had a great realisation then, or if it came later, but somewhere over the course of Camino I realised that being really harsh with myself wasn’t going to give me the desired results. Somehow, I had to befriend myself and support myself a bit better. Otherwise, I’d end up crying myself all the way home. So, the room was a dump and my friends would be horrified if they saw it – so what? It would give me a chance to rest and to wash my clothing. That’s what I needed, and once I was asleep, I wouldn’t have to look at the bad décor. I made a decision to stay and my Ego just had to suck it up.

Out on the street, I enjoyed the buzz and the colour of downtown Pamplona. The winding streets were busy with tapas bars and tourist shops, and I felt that there were possibilities there – things to see, things to do, things to buy. I could feel the hive of activity. Pilgrims were easily recognisable with their hiking gear and backpacks, and just seeing them on the streets helped me to relax. It was reassuring to know that I wasn’t entirely isolated and that if I wanted to join them, I could. I was still part of the community.

At the post office, I decided to send a few of my belongings home in the mail. My bag was too heavy, so I cleared it out and waved goodbye to my long-sleeved thermal top, some pages from my guidebook (paper is heavy to carry), and my waterproof rain pants. All week, the weather had been hot and sunny, with cloudless skies at night. I felt confident about not needing raingear for the next phase of walking, and gladly sent the pants away in the post.

That afternoon, I bumped into some pilgrims I’d met on my first night in St. Jean, before we’d started walking at all. One of the German women had injured her knee rather badly in descending the Pyrenees and was hobbling along the street. Frustrated, she told me that it had been very steep and she’d twisted it somehow, and now the doctor wanted her to rest it for a couple of days before going on. She was pragmatic and sensible about her predicament, but grumpy and unhappy. She’d taken time off work to walk the Camino and couldn’t afford any time delays – the knee injury messed with her plans and she didn’t like it. On top of that, her new friends had decided to walk on ahead so she was facing an extra day in Pamplona, alone. This didn’t sit well, either.

Another German, a student we’d both met in St. Jean had also injured himself crossing over the mountains. He’d decided to walk the long stretch from St. Jean to Roncesvalles, up, over, and down the far side of the Pyrenees, all in one day. He was feeling healthy and strong, and was up for the challenge but by the time he’d arrived in Pamplona, he’d injured his feet so badly that he couldn’t walk at all. I never learned the details here but she told me that he was grounded: he would have to stay in Pamplona all weekend and see the doctor again on Monday, but already it was looking like his Camino was over. The doctor already wanted to send him home.

Together, we were disappointed for him–he was excited and hopeful, just like us, but had pushed himself too hard. After just 3 days, it seemed his Camino was cut short. What a loss. That’s among the worst news we could have heard and in the afternoon sunlight we hoped he was ok. Any of us could sustain the same injuries at any time: any of us could be sent home early. All we could do was to take it one day at a time. To this day, I’ve no idea what happened to him next. We didn’t meet in Pamplona and I never saw him again. It’s part of Camino–connecting with people and somehow never seeing them again, but wondering months later how they are getting on in life. I may never know but I still hope he is ok.

That evening, I ate a picnic of chorizo, cheese, and grilled asparagus on the grassy grounds of the citadel (La Ciudadela). Above me, a leafy tree provided shade and sent dappled light dancing across the grass. The wasps wanted my pineapple juice and I wouldn’t give it up, but I sat for an hour quietly content. It was the space and alone-time I needed, and I could feel my batteries recharge. That night, I relished the clean sheets and privacy of my own room, and closed my eyes to the world.

The rain fell heavily and unexpectedly, with loud claps of thunder and bright flashes of lightening. It sounded wild outside and I could think of only one thing: my rain pants are in the post office, waiting to go home.

From Zubiri to Zabaldika

Zabaldika is one of 26 small villages, stretched out along the Esteribar Valley. Apparently, it consists of only 13 homes, 40 neighbours, and a community of Sacred Heart nuns. I didn’t know any of this at the time, given I arrived there by taxi and hadn’t been reading my guidebook very closely. This wasn’t because of negligence or disinterest in the Spanish countryside, but because I hadn’t caught up with myself yet. My Camino and my arrival in Zabaldika came about rather quickly, and reading up on tourist information was low on my list of priorities.

The village is about 10km from Pamplona so I imagine many pilgrims don’t stop at all, but keep going to Hemmingway’s old haunt instead. In my short time there, I didn’t see a coffee shop or bar, and unless a person wanted to stop off at the 13th century church, they might not have given the place a second thought. Rightly or wrongly, the availability of food, drinks, and a place to sit determine the daily schedule for pilgrims, and the absence of these things probably mean that Zabaldika is rather quiet.

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The Church at Zabaldika

I remember stepping inside the front door of the albergue, to the cool, clean, interior. We had arrived unexpectedly, covered in dust and weariness from the day, yet the woman greeting us at the door welcomed us warmly and sincerely, with a wide smile and open arms. Literally. She seemed glad to have us, despite our state.

Within minutes, we realised we had arrived somewhere special. A living room space with armchairs and couches, books and magazines, was a sweet reminder of the everyday comforts we had all left behind at home. The nuns could have easily converted that space into a downstairs dorm to pack in more pilgrims and bring in more money. The fact that they hadn’t done this was telling, and I welcomed the conscious decision to create a space that was both communal and restful.

It was a bit of breathing space from the racing and competition.

The second thing to surprise us was that our host didn’t ask us for payment upfront.

In fact, she didn’t ask for payment at all.

There was a bed for each of us and we would share a communal dinner later that evening. If we wanted, we could join a session of prayers and singing afterwards in the church. They hadn’t put a price on anything but welcomed donations, and she pointed to the donation box placed discretely in the corner. I already felt humble gratitude for the bed, but their unconditional generosity marked the distinction between “doing the Camino” and “being on pilgrimage”. Their support wasn’t dependent on money. They thought of it as a vocation and were glad to be of service to our journey. If we couldn’t afford to pay, we’d still be given the same warm welcome, the same food and shelter, the same kindness. Their insight and mindfulness created a shift of energy in the group, and there was an immediate lightness to our mood.

You mean you’re not trying to rip us off because we happen to come from another country and have money in our pockets?

You mean to tell us that pilgrimage has nothing to do with profit?

You mean to tell us that our presence here is measured not just in terms of the Euro we spend?

How wonderful!

While the rest of the hostel scrambled for showers and a space at the sink to wash their clothes, I lay down on my bed for an hour to rest. I was enormously grateful to get a bed in the corner and with it, some small opportunity to turn my back on the roomful of strangers. I didn’t mean to be anti-social but in the previous three days and nights, I met dozens and dozens of new people and I was worn out from all the talk. I’m simply not used to talking from 6am until 9pm every day.

On top of that, I felt over-stretched from the noise that accompanied life on Camino. All the photos I had seen were of vast stretches of countryside, with big, open skies, and a gravel trail reaching to the far horizon. The pictures implied a life harmony with nature, and I’d thought my days would be full of quiet reflection. The photos didn’t show the crowded cafés, the queues for bathrooms and showers, or the harried-looking restaurant staff, trying to feed the ongoing crowds of hungry pilgrims.

They also didn’t show the rustling of plastic bags, and the zipping and unzipping of backpacks every morning for an hour, and every evening for another hour. That’s two hours of every day, listening to the noise of people:

packing their bag,

zipping up the bag,

unzipping the bag,

unpacking their bag, and

rooting for something in their bag that may/may not actually be there

Only to pack it up and zip it up all over again.

Added to that, there was the noise of:

doors opening and closing,

phones ringing,

alarms sounding,

things falling on the floor,

chatter about blisters and bedding….

You get the idea.

Getting to bed early or sleeping in late were impossible. Lying there, I realised just how over-stimulating the whole thing had been. That evening, I cried because of everything. I was just like a small child, over-stimulated and up way past my bedtime. But there was no way I was getting any sleep, so I resigned myself to going downstairs to wash out my clothes and eventually get some food.

Walking down the stairs was torture on my calf muscles. Those damn Pyrenees had me ruined! My hamstrings felt like badly rusted wire, ready to snap. The last thing I wanted to do was hand wash my clothes in an outdoor sink, but I did it anyway and cried my eyes out from beginning to end. I might be a bit embarrassed to admit it all now, but at the time, it was an escape valve. They say that when you’re on Camino you don’t always get what you want, but you do get what you need. I definitely needed some way to decompress and in the absence of a bottle of wine, crying my eyes out did the trick.

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Over dinner, the head nun joined us for courgette soup and chicken stew, and explained a little about their ethos and missionary work around the world. Their local community was elderly and small in number. In previous years, the declining numbers attending church had led to diminished funds for them, so they’d opened an albergue as a new source of revenue. If I were very cynical, I might have decided she was on a moneymaking agenda, but I think that would have been an unduly harsh judgement, and a very one-sided one too.

It’s true that many people make their living through the Camino Francés, in providing food, accommodation, or transport to the (hundreds of) thousands of people who pass through every year. That’s the practical reality, and every Euro that pilgrims spend, contributes to the economy in some way. At the same time, the Camino is a pilgrimage route, pre-dating even the Christian tradition. People walk it for a variety of reasons, some of which are religious or spiritual in nature.

At the dinner table that evening, we were a mixture of nationalities and backgrounds, and no doubt, we were a mixture in terms of our religious or spiritual zeal, too. When I arrived, I felt over-stretched and somewhat cynical about the whole enterprise. I was running low on reserves, and I felt heavy-hearted after the effort of the Pyrenees. That wasn’t a religious experience: it was a physical reality and I had a very emotional response. My spirit was flagging.

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Put Your Prayers on a Post-It Note

I cried my eyes out while washing my clothes and again, when the group sang hymns in the church. I cried the next morning when we had a misunderstanding about breakfast. In fact, I could barely keep the tears inside. I doubted whether I had the stamina to proceed. I felt rather bleak.

The nuns at Zabaldika welcomed me with warmth and tenderness. They didn’t ask for money, they didn’t push an agenda or schedule on me, and when I broke down in tears, they offered hugs and reassurance.

They willed me to be well.

They willed for me to have a Buen Camino.

And they meant it.

They gave me a bed, a homemade meal, a community of people to eat with, and somewhere to wash. More than that, they showed me that the Camino I was searching for, did exist.

I felt like my heart had cracked open and some gooey liquid had unexpectedly leaked all over the kitchen floor. They’d helped me mop it all up, put it back in its rightful place, and reinforce my heart with an extra layer of sealant and love.

They gave me hope for the next phase of the journey. I don’t know how to explain that without using the word “spirit”, because what they gave me was spiritual sustenance. And I took on the next leg of the walking with a little more lightness in my heart and understanding of my needs. They helped me find a way to go on.

The funny thing about my Zabaldika experience is this:

Days later, I happily bumped into the four lovely ladies again – they called themselves “The Champagne Camino” in honour of all the wine they were drinking along the way. When they found their private accommodation in Zubiri, they’d discovered that one of their rooms had an extra bed. They went back out on to the streets to find me, and offer me the spare bed. I could have stayed with them and shared an evening of dinner and vino. How wonderful! But I had been told that the town of Zubiri was completely full (ahem!) and had taken a taxi to Zabaldika. The rest is history, but I learned two things:

  • When someone tells you that the town is completely full, they might not have all their facts straight.
  • In the words of Mick Jagger: You can’t always get what you want but you might just find you get what you need.

I would have gladly shared the evening with the ladies but had I done that, would I have found the non-commercial, vocational Camino I was looking for? Probably not. So they may never know the true extent of their influence, but those nuns changed everything for me. I felt it then, and I feel it now: I got what I needed. Exactly and entirely.

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Other albergues with the same spirit/sentiment as Zabaldika – sorry it’s a bit blurry

The Road to Roncesvalles

 

John Brierley‘s guide and maps plot the route between Orisson and Roncesvalles as (more or less) like this:

Distance: 15km

Elevation Gain: 750m

Descent: 500m

When I woke in the hostel at Orisson in the very early a.m. I knew that all of this lay ahead of me for the day. It was still dark outside (and inside) so my roommates got good use out of their headtorches while they packed up their sleeping bags and got ready to go.

I don’t remember my reaction but I imagine it was a shock to my system: I am not a morning person and being woken by bright, bobbing LED torches in such a small space is not my ideal way to wake up. It doesn’t exactly bring out the best in me. It’s part of the Camino culture that people are out the door by 6am, so nocturnal people like me are at a bit of a disadvantage. I lay in bed for another few minutes, trying to mentally prepare for the day ahead.

I’m not in the habit of walking 15km on a given day but I know I can do it. I’m also not in the habit of climbing up 750m and/or down 500m but again, I know it’s within my physical capability – I’ve done it before and know I’m able.

In some ways, the prospect of climbing up and over the Pyrenees was less daunting to me when I crunched the numbers re: distance, elevation gain, and descent. I realised it wasn’t impossible. But I had to factor in the gradient on the way up and down (very steep), which adds strain to the body and tires out the legs more quickly. The gradient can determine whether the 15km feel like only 8km or more like 37km, and even in the early morning half-light I realised that these 15km weren’t going to be the breeziest of my life.

Like many pilgrims, I carried too much weight in my backpack despite my best efforts to keep it to a minimum. I had about 7kg worth of ‘stuff’ but carried another 2L of water, which added an additional 2kg to my load. 9-10kg is not a lot by regular everyday standards but carrying it up the side of a steep mountain, over distance, in mid-30-something-degree heat made it a lot more “challenging”. It was too much but I didn’t know that then.

My breakfast in Orisson was brief and consisted of strong, bitter coffee in a bowl (first time I’d ever done that) and baguette with butter and jam. I was half asleep while I ate it but realised my body would need the sustenance later, so I ate and drank as much as I could comfortably manage.

All around me, the bustle of pilgrims filling up their water bottles and lacing up their boots added noise, laughter, and an excited tension to the room. Today would be a big day – today was crossing the Pyrenees and making our way across the border from France into Spain. It was important to get on the road early so we could beat the heat of the sun.

Added to that, I’d heard that the hostels didn’t /don’t allow pilgrims to stay later than 8am so there was no option of sleeping in and starting the day later: I simply had to get out the door.

On top of that, the people around me had some concern about “getting a bed” in our destination later. Many of the hostels run on a first-come, first-serve basis so once the beds are taken, any late-arriving pilgrims have to make alternative arrangements.

At the beginning of the trip, the fear of being without a bed was real and regularly spoken about. While I’m not an early-morning lark, I realised that the sooner I left Orisson then the sooner I’d arrive in Roncesvalles, and the better chance I’d have of getting a bed. I felt I couldn’t walk further, so going on to the next town or village wasn’t an option that day.

I was also on a budget for the whole trip, and foregoing the hostel for a more pricey hotel was beyond my price point for that stage of the trip. There was no where else to stop off en route and I didn’t feel like sleeping outdoors that night. So, I felt I simply had to make it to Roncesvalles in time to get a bed.

Whether we ever admit it, that means walking to a set pace instead of having a leisurely stroll, and it changed the emotional energy of the hostel in the half-light at Orisson.

The Pyrenees were far more grassy and open than I had expected. For hours, I pottered along putting one foot in front of the other, with a chorus of bells sounding on the wind. They sounded like Swiss cow bells but all I could see were horses and sheep – dozens and dozens of them, munching the grass and running across the open landscape. It was one big advert for “Black Beauty” with cowbells, and it was a romantic bliss.

The early morning light cast golden shadows across the hills and to this day I remember the expansiveness – so much horizon, so much sky.

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I found the walking steep that day, but the incline and decline were both managable. They weren’t easy breezy but with the weather, the good company, and some strategic breaks, I’m happy to report that I managed just fine.

In advance of my Camino I’d read forums with countless people wondering and worrying about how bad it would be, and always wondering whether they’d be able for it. I wondered the same thing – after all, some people say that it’s truly terrible but are they the exception or the norm?

It’s hard to tell.

I went into it knowing that my body, while generally unprepared, was strong.

I also went into it knowing that I really, really wanted to cross the mountains and see the views from a height, so my mental and emotional fortitude was strong too.

I knew the weather would be dry so I wouldn’t have slippery paths underfoot or any dangerous winds to contend with, but I’d have to be careful to stay hydrated and not get sunburned.

My body was only sort of prepared and I knew there was no going back and there was no way out – there was only one option and that was to go forward. Lack of choice in the matter was a great motivator!

My highlights included “banana man in a van”, whom appeared like a mirage on the side of the road and provided timely sustenance to weary pilgrims like myself. This enterprising man drives up into the mountains each day, parks his little van on the side of the road, and sells coffee and fruit juice to passing pilgrims. He was a pure delight to our day.

He also sold Lidl-brand chocolate at a highly-profitable price, bananas, hard-boiled eggs, and locally-made cheese. The bananas were welcome freshness.

Even in those very early days of the trip I felt I was deprived of fresh fruit and veg compared to my usual routine, and I was thrilled to eat something fresh, other than bread. The eggs in particular, struck me as a mark of genius!

I was impressed by his insight – boiled eggs are very portable so it’s easy for pilgrims to buy a few and eat them later.

They don’t even need refrigeration, which was a “win” for everyone in that heat.

They’re packed with protein (handy for long-distance endurance), and they’re cheap and quick to prepare.

From a business perspective, he was on to a definite win-win, and even had salt and pepper to hand for flavour.

I toasted his business excellence with coffee, bananas, and chocolate, (but no eggs) and sat on the grass to take off my socks and air out my feet.

Big thanks to Canadians Barb and Dave, who kindly collected my socks after they blew across the grass in the breeze – it wouldn’t have been fun to lose them down the side of a mountain so early in the trip!

Crossing from France into Spain was also a highlight, though I’m not sure exactly when it happened that day. We crossed under a makeshift-looking iron archway of sorts, with plastic flag-like bits attached to it. It wasn’t fancy or formal but rumour had that it was the official border line between the two countries.

Some non-EU pilgrims around me wondered if they’d be asked to show their passports but there was no one there to show them to, and I didn’t see any marker to confirm that this was indeed the boundary line.

I took a photo of it but I might have taken a close-up if I’d known for certain that it was the boundary line. Maybe someone more knowledgable can confirm either way?

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Banana Man in a Van (but I’m sure he has a real name)

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Is that the border up ahead?

I enjoyed the decline to Roncesvalles through the woods and relished the cool shade. I walked in hiking sandals and didn’t relish the steep gradient, so I walked slowly, mindfully, and with a lot of weight on my walking poles to help me keep my balance and stability. Thankfully the preceeding days had been equally dry and bright, so the ground underneath was stable (though my calf muscles still had some complaints to make).

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Shady Woodlands

In the end, I made it to Roncesvalles in enough time to secure a bed in the hostel, wash my dusty clothes in the sink, hang them out to dry, and find new friends for a glass of vino and dinner.

I was sore and spent, but delighted that I’d covered the distance without breaking any bones, and was still intact.

For the second time in three days, I wasn’t in time for the full pilgrim mass but I heard afterwards that it was emotional and moving. I’d managed to attend a bit of a mass in St. Jean (by happy accident rather than any pre-planning) so I didn’t feel so bad that I had missed one in Roncesvalles. I hadn’t thought about attending mass at every stop,  or even at all. I had only planned to walk my best each day and let the rest unfold. Sometimes, that meant being open to a mass. Other times, it meant spending my time differently.

Roncesvalles gave me a hot shower, great laundry facilities, a safe, secure bed, and friendly people with whom to share wine and food. As days go, it had been a good one.

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These boots were made for walkin’…

Staying in Orisson

I forgot to mention (forgive me, I’m new to this) that when I left St. Jean to cross the Pyrenees, I had a choice of two routes: the Napoleon route, which followed high mountain paths, or the Valcarlos route, which followed lower mountain paths. Both go from St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side but obviously, they each have different scenery and different stopping points along the way. But they both begin at Point A and end at Point B, so you would think that there’s not much difference between them.

You would be wrong.

It seems that people can spend a long time debating which path to choose and trying to determine which one is the “true Camino”. Whether we admit it, the ego can influence this decision: we all want to demonstrate that we’re fit, strong, and totally able to cross up and over the Pyrenees on the high mountain route. No problem! Many of us start out full of energy and excitement, and want to prove our enthusiasm and commitment by choosing the high Napoleon route. Crossing from St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles is just over 25km in distance and if you factor in the ups and downs of the hills, the distance amounts to 32km. That’s not a walk in the park. On the Napoleon route, the altitude goes from less than 200m (at St. Jean) to a high of 1450m, before it steeply descends down into Roncesvalles. I don’t know about you, but I’m not used to climbing 1200m every day and then having steep descents too. So the Napoleon route is both steep and long, and it requires fitness and stamina, especially if you’re to walk it all in one day. Many people do, and they experience what’s known as the “baptism of fire”. Many people sprain or break their bodies on the way over. Others survive relatively intact but find themselves unable to walk 2-3 days later, either through exhaustion or delayed injury. Many people survive it and find it genuinely comfortable, and come away neither injured nor exhausted. I met all sorts on the Camino.

I walked in early September when the weather was good and the paths were free of snow. I also walked at a time when it happened to be sunny and clear. It’s not always this way. I met a person who left St. Jean a week after me and found the Pyrenees to be so foggy and misty that she couldn’t see a thing. So, people use their ego, their level of fitness, and the weather report in deciding which route to choose. I’ll say it now: forget about the ego and use common sense. There is no “true path” if you break your ankle on Day 1 from over exertion. There is no admiration for anyone who gets lost in the fog on Day 1 and puts their life in danger from hunger and exposure. Mountains are mountains, and they don’t care whether you live or die, make it to Roncesvalles or collapse in a heap. They don’t care about keeping up with other people or being embarassed. They don’t care whether you cover the same distances as your friends or enemies. The Pyrenees are beautiful and expansive, and more grassy than I expected, but they don’t have any ego about your Camino. The track is the same length and the same steepness every day of the year and those things are not changing. The weather, however, does change, along with one’s level of fitness and stamina, so these are the best measures for deciding which route to take. The Pyrenees are what they are and there is no “easy route”, there is only the route you feel most equipped to handle.

I chose the Napoleon route. I wanted to have the view and in my heart of hearts I knew I wanted that experience. I made the decision with a lot of humility, and a prayer for the necessary stamina and strength. There was no way I could cover the full distance and altitude on my first day out, so I decided that the most sensible thing to do was to pace myself and to stop in Orisson for the night. Ego was not entirely happy – I walked (only) 8km and climbed 600m and by noon I was finished for the day. Ego thought I was being soft and that I should join the dozens of others making their way to Roncesvalles. I even met people who were going further than that, so Ego told me I was definitely a wimp when compared to them. Once I’d confirmed my reservation at Orisson, Ego had to just shut up becasue there was no way I was turning down that bed. I wasn’t tired enough but I’m delighted I stayed because:

  • It was a definite act of self-care, pacing myself, and listening to my own body
  • It was very, very hot that day and I was glad to get in to the shade
  • It gave me a chance to process the fact that I had arrived, I was there, and I was on my way
  • I had dinner with the entire hostel and I met some of my best friends from the whole trip
  • The food was great and the wine delicious

In the middle of the night, a group of 100 or so pilgrims passed outside our window in the dark, walking from St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. I already thought that walking that distance and covering that altitude was pretty extreme, but to do it in the dark seemed even more dramatic. Even in my state of half-sleep, Ego really thought I was a wuss. I woke long enough to hear the sound of boots, walking poles, chatter, and laughter pass outside my window. They stopped to have coffee and drinks, knowing that there was no where else to stop in the next 15km. Head lamps broke through the darkness and I thought the light would wake me entirely, destroying my beauty sleep. No fear, I was asleep again in seconds. I thought they were kind of crazy but from my bottom bunk bed I silently wished them a Buen Camino. Walking in darkness? Well done to them. Maybe I’ll do it next time.

Orisson was a chance to catch my breath and ease in gently. Stopping off was the right decision for me.

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The view from Orisson: I expected the Pyrenees to be rocky – who knew they were so grassy?!

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A year ago today…

A year ago today, I set out walking from St. Jean Pied de Port for my grand adventure on Camino Francés. I remember the morning sunshine and the sounds of walking poles tapping on cobblestones. After all the packing and re-packing of backpacks, with bellies full of coffee and bread, we were on our way.

Happy anniversary, fellow pilgrims from September 2013!

Unlike many people on Camino, I left my hostel at the late hour of 8-8:30am, more nervous than excited, and not really sure how far I would have to walk that day. I thought I’d made a reservation at the albergue in Orisson, but my school-level French was so bad that I couldn’t be sure of a bed. I’d heard “You can’t book the hostels in advance” but two days before I started, I learned that Orisson was an exception because it was in France, not Spain, and because it was a privately-run hostel (as opposed to a state-run or church-run one). So I could and indeed, should reserve a bed unless I was definitely going the full distance to Roncesvalles, up, over, and down the far side of the Pyrenees. I was doubtful of making the trip on my first day and prayed that the lovely people at Orisson had understood my request.

Unlike many pilgrims, I’d planned my trip in only a month and hadn’t had time to physically train my body for what was to come. The previous evening, I told a group of people over dinner that I was relying on “muscle memory” to get me through the physical challenge. I said it with a smile but I wasn’t joking – I’d come from a desk job and I wasn’t that fit; I hadn’t done any training; I had no idea if I could walk the 800km to Santiago. The German man sitting across the table from me shook his head and looked utterly unimpressed.

Without ever asking him, I had a good idea what he thought of me and my plan. I couldn’t disagree with him if he thought me a fool.

But, I also felt that if I could pace myself and let go of trying to plan for every eventuality, I would be fine. My Camino was a daily exercise in letting go. I wanted to “Lean In” (as Sheryl Sandberg would say) and trust that somehow, I would figure it out as I went along. I purposefully and consciously decided to “do the Camino” without planning and pre-booking. I wanted to see how it would unfold and how I would manage. In a world full of sat-nav, social media, and endless wi-fi, I wanted to wander without a schedule. I wanted to test myself.

So, on the morning of September 3rd, 2013, I followed dozens of other pilgrims down the hill, over the bridge, and out into the countryside beyond St. Jean.

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No excuse for getting lost

I’d put on too much clothing, my bag was too heavy, and my hamstrings were shocked at the effort of walking steeply uphill to Orisson. I heard afterwards that it was about 34 degrees Celsius that day, and I was a sweaty mass while others skipped past me in effortless style.

In St. Jean, I’d been so nervous about my reservation that I asked a Dutch man, who spoke great French, to phone the hostel at Orisson and confirm my details. He kindly agreed to make the call but wasn’t leaving St. Jean for hours – how would he relay the message to me? By happy coincidence, we met on the side of the road hours later and he told me I had a sort of tentative reservation – if I got there by 1pm they would give me a bed but if I arrived later, they might be full up and I would have to walk on to Roncesvalles. What relief! And what gratitude to him for his kind help. Oh, to live in central Europe and to be fluent in many tongues!

Late morning, I arrived at the famous hostel and gladly stopped for a coke and my first of many, many ham sandwiches. In poorly-accented French I asked the lady behind the bar about a bed. “I have a reservation”, I explained, or at least, I hope I do. While she fumbled in a ledger for my details, I stood nervously, hoping that it would all work out. She looked at me, looked back at the book, looked up at me again and said something that I took to mean: “A guy phoned earlier this morning about this reservation and I told him the details but you’re not him – so who are you?” I explained as best I could and we managed a giggle, before she confirmed my reservation that was not-so-tentative-after-all . Maybe my school-level French wasn’t so appalling after all. She handed me the gold metal token I’d need to use the shower, and told me which dorm I would sleep in.

Hurrah! I had a bed and a dinner for the night, and I didn’t have to walk to Roncesvalles in the heat. It was a good beginning. A year ago today, I walked my first 8-10km, up the steep hillsides, following the friendly yellow arrows as the track passed through lush green fields in the golden morning light. I remember thinking to myself: “I’m not in the office now!” and being delighted.

My leap of faith had begun in earnest.

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Early morning on the way to Orisson