Walking the Camino: The Wild Dogs of Villafranca

IMG_1141Distance walked: 29km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 194.8km

I left the small hotel in Cacabelos feeling renewed and optimistic again. The remaining journey, which had felt impossible only two days earlier, felt doable once more. The two nights of rest and good food had revived my flagging body, and meeting Marco and his Ricard had restored my faith in humanity. I had less than 200km to go and I was hopeful again about getting to Santiago in one piece.

Unlike earlier days on the camino, I walked out of Cacabelos with a new strategy for self-care. Specifically, I decided to take the ibuprofen tablets the pharmacist had suggested, and to build in more rest stops for my sore feet. I’d refused all pain relief up to that point but after a month of walking, I was sore. If I was going to continue, I had to do something different.

I didn’t want to take a bus and skip a section.

I didn’t want to stop for a week to rest.

I didn’t want to stop entirely and go home.

(Stubborn, me??!)

I wanted to walk the remaining distance but I couldn’t afford to overdo it so I had to get a lot more strict about my distances and rest stops. In retrospect, I should have worn some sort of arch support but I’ll know that for next time. 🙂

That morning, I was to pass through a town called Villafranca del Bierzo. All along the route, I’d heard about the wild /crazy /rabies-infested/ angry /wicked dogs in Villafranca. Depending on who I spoke to, the dogs were anywhere from mildly irritable to outright savage, chasing innocent pilgrims for miles along the trail. The thing is, there are two towns called Villafranca along the Camino Francés. Even though lots of people warned me about the dogs, no one seemed to know which Villafranca was the one to watch out for. I’d passed through one already: would this be the morning that I’d meet these blood-thirsty beasts?

As it happened, it wasn’t the morning for being ravaged by wild dogs – happily so, I might add! I didn’t see a single dog that morning (wild or tame) and passed through Villafranca without incident. Outside of town, I had to decide whether to take the “high road” into the mountains or to follow the “low road” along a national route. The former is more scenic but has more ups-and-downs. The latter is more flat but runs alongside a road full of cars.

Which one would I choose?

All the pilgrims around me that morning were asking the same thing. I’m sure some people asked just as a way of making conversation but others were just plain competitive. I met a lot of competitive people on camino – way more than I ever expected. I often wondered whether I imagined all these personalities, or maybe they were reflecting some sort of sensitivity in my personality. But when I met pilgrims who got competitive about the strength of my ibuprofen tablets (yes, I’m serious), I knew it wasn’t all in my imagination. There are always people who are “more” of whatever I am, (faster, fitter, more injured, whatever), so I learned to tune out a bit.

Unsurprisingly, I took the “low road”, alongside the roadway that everyone told me would be dirty, noisy, dangerous, and un-scenic. I wondered how all these people could know such a thing given they’d never walked it. As it turned out, the route suited me just fine. Yes, there were cars, and yes, I walked inside a metal barrier that would have offered very little protection if a truck went off the road and slammed into me. In that sense, it was dangerous. But crossing the road and walking along with my backpack was no more dangerous than any other day of walking in the previous month. There were plenty of small villages along the way so I had ample opportunity to stop for coffee and food, and I was happy to avail of fresh salad and cake! (And when I say “fresh”, I really mean it. The woman who made the salad pictured below actually climbed over a stone wall to retrieve the head of lettuce, so you really couldn’t get fresher!).

Mixed salad with a basket of bread: a fine feast for €5

Slate rooftop…getting closer to Galicia

The new motorway running through the Valcarce valley

The small village of Vega de Valcarce felt quieter than the previous villages along the way. It felt like a place that everyone had forgotten. The newly-built motorway transformed the Valcarce valley so that there was no passing traffic on the road any more. Even the pilgrims on foot were only passing through, and there was an unusual quietness in the hostel and in the streets. True, it was early October and the trail was getting quiet. The cooler weather meant that many pilgrims had gone home, and already I started hearing that the hostels between Santiago and Finisterre were closing down for the winter. I’d hoped to walk all the way to the coast but I hadn’t made any solid plans to do so. I needed to see if my feet would hold up the 800km to Santiago before committing to a further 100km. Even if they did, I’d need accommodation along the way. With hostels starting to close, it might not be a good time to walk that far. I decided to wait and see.

In the meantime, the hostel in Vega de Valcarce was a little rough around the edges but mostly sufficient. I got a bed without problem, the shower was mostly warm, and I bumped into a Los Angeles woman I’d met weeks earlier in Roncesvalles. We spent the evening swapping stories on our 600km along the way…and comparing notes on anti-inflammatory medications…ha ha ha! 🙂

IMG_1151

Kitchen & dining area in the hostel

IMG_1153

Yum!

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Villambistia: Stifling the Screams

This is such a small village that Brierley’s guidebook doesn’t even list the size of its population. Wikipedia tells me that according to the last census, there are 65 inhabitants.

There’s not much to say about the village of Villambistia.

Spending the night in the small village was rather depressing and difficult. Earlier in the evening, the noise of my 1-bedroom hostel was enough to make me scream, but I chose to run out of the building instead of shouting at my fellow pilgrims. I can put up with all sorts of bullshit but I will admit that there were days on camino when I was fit to kill, and that afternoon in Villambistia was one of them.

All 14 beds were taken and we were a mixture of nationalities and ages, sharing this one room. Weeks earlier, I stayed in Roncesvalles, where one of the biggest camino hostels is situated. There, I could hear the sounds of 99 other people around me but it was quieter there than it was in this 14-bed dorm in Villambistia.

Just Great.

Is it intolerant to say that the German man who walked around in only a pair of tight Speedos, shouting around the building, was an ass? Do I sound like a princess if I say that the Spanish cyclists who came in afterwards were loud and boorish, leaving pools of water across the bathroom floor and banging doors as they went?

I felt exhausted and sore, and the only restful spot available was in that shared dorm. Am I a prissy wimp if I say I felt hounded out of it because my fellow pilgrims made so much noise?

I admit I was emotional and strung out, and badly needed some private space. In Villambistia, there was none to be had. The dorm was full, the downstairs bar was full, and there was simply nowhere else to go. Even the doors of the church were locked.

Sharing a dorm with my fellow pilgrims made me cry out of sheer frustration, and I ran from them rather than scream at them. In my head, I cursed every single one of them and called them every foul-mouthed name under the sun.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t know who was “in the wrong”.

It’s possible that I was over-sensitive that afternoon and made a mountain out of a molehill, crying like a child for no good reason.

It’s also possible that some of my roommates were priggish loudmouths, who elbowed their way through life with little consideration for other people.

Which story is the real one? Which one is the truth?

The Camino forums are full of people like me, giving out about the noise and insensitivity of other pilgrims on the trail. Lots of yak, yak, yak about how shitty people can be.

And yes, people can be shitty.

And the forums are full of opposing voices too – the people who say:

You know what? It’s a pilgrimage and you’re sleeping in a public dorm for a measly €8 a night. If you don’t like it, go elsewhere.

It’s a valid point and I couldn’t agree more.

But does sharing a public dormitory and a bathroom give anyone the right to treat it like a shipyard? Just because we paid small money for our bed, does it mean it’s okay to spend the day shouting our lungs off and banging doors, ignoring the needs of the people around us?

I didn’t think so.

But that day in Villambistia I was in the minority.

I felt bullied out of my bed. There was no way I could rest among all that chaos and I found a shady tree to lie under instead.

I could have tackled my roommates, my fellow-pilgrims.

I could have challenged them on their antics and asked them to take their brawling conversations to the outdoor courtyard, to the downstairs bar, or to the middle of the village square. In reality, there were several public spaces available to them and any one of them would have been suitable for social chatter.

But there was only one private space available, and that was the bedroom in which I tried to rest after hours of strained walking. It was also the same room I shared with 13 other pilgrims, so I was kind of screwed.

My thinking was that a bedroom – even if it was a public dorm – was a place for rest and healing. If you want to drink beers, make Skype calls, or pull dead skin from your feet…go do it somewhere else. There were plenty of places to choose from but there was only one bedroom, one place to rest, one place to sleep. I thought:

Don’t mess with the bedroom.

That day, I felt terribly alone in my thinking and there was no one there to back me up.

My roommates were louder than me, taller than me, more boisterous than me. They took over that space like it was their own private party and I didn’t feel strong enough to push back. I also wasn’t entirely sure I was entitled to push back – I mean, maybe I was being over-sensitive and unreasonable.

Was I right to run away for a few hours while I calmed down and gathered my thoughts?

Or should I have stood up to them, demanded some privacy in the only room that could be private?

That day, I saw both sides of the argument and I thought it more reasonable to upset myself than to upset the strangers around me. As a lifelong pattern, that’s a poor way to live, so one of my camino challenges was to learn how to take better care of myself and fight harder for my own needs. You’ll be glad to know, I got a handle on that eventually.

In Villambistia though, my experience of the hostel was messy and sore. Part of me wishes I’d let off all my steam and pent-up frustration instead of bottling it all up. It would have been healthier for me than feeling isolated and exploited. I wanted to say everything to them but in the end, I said nothing.

However, I will say this:

That evening, we sat cramped in a small dining room, elbows touching, with harsh flourescent strip lighting overhead. The 2 staff did all the cooking, serving, and cleaning up, and it took more than 2 hours to get through our meal. There was nowhere else to eat and there was nowhere else to hide so we had to make small talk, and find some common ground while we ate our fried chicken and chips.

Though they drove me nuts, I was glad I didn’t scream blue murder at my roommates hours earlier.

Imagine how awkward the dinner would have been if I had?!

Camino Continues: Puente la Reina to Villatuerta

Distance to Santiago: 678.5km

Calf muscles finally beginning to feel normal after the Pyrenees 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

Walking in wet socks can lead to blisters.

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

So I wondered:

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

or

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

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

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

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

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

I chose to walk.

IMG_0831

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

IMG_0832

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

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

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

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

Celebrations all round.

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

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

IMG_0836

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

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

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

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

Cheers Kevin & Liz!

IMG_0843

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

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

IMG_0844

Stairway to Heaven(ly) Bed

photo(1)

The albergue’s stamp on my pilgrim passport

“Doing the Camino”

I’ve debated whether to write this post but for a few minutes, I really want to explore the notion of “doing the Camino”. People say it all the time: “Oh, I’ve a friend who did that” or “Did you do the whole thing?” I’m trying to figure it out: what do we mean when we talk about doing the Camino?

I may be showing my age here but when I hear the phrase, I imagine Beavis and Butthead, sniggering and snorting, “Um…yeah…doing it…huh huh huh…” (That’s probably the first time that Beavis and Butthead have made it into a blog about the Camino de Santiago 🙂

I probably used the phrase myself before I packed my bag and went to Spain, but on my second day of walking, I met a woman who’s use of the phrase really challenged my thinking. She and I met in Roncesvalles, sitting in a restaurant with probably 70+ other people. We’d never met each other before, so we passed the next two hours eating fried fish and chips, drinking wine, and making small talk with the six other women at our table. For what it’s worth, the fish and chips were truly delicious, smothered in grease and salt.

This particular woman struck me as a real go-getter: ambitious, outgoing, and an achiever in life. She had travelled extensively to offbeat places like the Galápagos Islands. I found her stories interesting until she said things like:

“I’ve done South America. I’ve done Asia. Last year I did Kilimanjaro: now I’m doing Camino. After I finish Camino I’m doing the New York marathon.”

Or maybe it was Boston.

But you get the idea: everything was already “done” or on the “to do” list. And ideally, in quick succession.

Over time, I felt uneasy listening to her because her list was extensive. She had lots of stories and factual information, but had very little to say about how these things made her feel or had influenced her life. I wasn’t looking for a big Oprah revelation (or maybe I was) but it just seemed she had done all of these things and not reflected on any of them.

Had a trip to the Galápagos Islands been a childhood dream come true, for instance?

How did it feel at the top of Kilimanjaro?

Had these experiences changed her in any way or made her life richer?

I hadn’t a clue.

She had done lots of impressive and awesome things, but the way she listed them off made them sound trivial. I didn’t want to challenge who she was in the world, but internally, I found myself challenging her choice of language.

What is this fascination with “doing” all the time? Is it a western preoccupation? Do we have a fear of idleness? Maybe a fear of our own mortality? Is it a way of padding the job applications to demonstrate just how fabulous and qualified we all are, all the time? Maybe it’s a way of standing out in a world full of seven billion people?

There was something about her story telling that made me think of this:

Consuming, without engaging.

It’s like eating a meal without letting the taste of the food register in your mouth.

Consuming the experience, the travel, the mountain, the pilgrimage, whatever, without engaging with it or reflecting on it in any great detail. Consuming it, without even noticing it. Consuming it without acknowledging how magical it is to be alive at all, and in a position to experience such wondrous treats.

You know those books that list off 5,000 places to see before you die? Well, it felt like she was making her way through that list with great efficiency but with very little joy or wonder.

Galápagos Islands? Check!

Camino? Check!

Lived, died, dead, and buried? Check, check, check, check!

 

I really didn’t know, but I could imagine the rest of her script looking something like this: “I did Camino. I did the New York marathon. I did the old age thing. I did life.”

By all means “do the dishes” or “do the laundry” but don’t “do Asia” or “do Kilimanjaro”.

Save a bit of space for feeling delight or awe now and then. Please.

 

I reflected on her words for weeks afterwards. Do, do…done, did, did…everything sounded like a check box item, neatly ticked. Trying to equate this with Camino was unsettling because I met hundreds of people “doing it” in different ways.

For instance: I walked 800km between France and Spain, but I met a guy who walked from Prague. That’s right: he started walking six months before I did so by the time we met, he’d already crossed through the Czech Republic, Germany, France, and then Spain. Could you equate our walk in any way? Was he “doing the Camino” better than me, or more fully than me because he walked further, for longer? Compared to him, was I even “doing it” at all?

Were the mass-going Catholics “doing it” better? Were the people who walked only 100km from Sarria “doing the Camino”? What about the people who walked for a week at a time now and then – were they “doing the Camino” for just a week, or for years?

I met people walking and cycling. I had a group of people go by me on horseback. I heard of a guy who was “doing it” on a unicycle. One day, I saw two people on quad bikes! Were we all “doing” the same Camino?

Personally, I wanted to walk the Camino for more than ten years. I knew I wanted to walk westwards from the French side of the Pyrenees for 800km, alone, carrying all my belongings on my back, and in one full run. I didn’t want to do a week at a time or make do with a shorter version. Don’t ask me why but that was always my aspiration, and with the exception of two short and unplanned taxi trips, I “did” the Camino as I had hoped. I was very happy about fulfilling the dream with its detailed specifications. But in all my time walking, I met hundreds of people who were experiencing the same route in different ways. I couldn’t figure out who was “doing it” properly or truly, or how we would ever calculate that measurement to begin with.

So the only thing I could come up with was to change my choice of language. I stopped talking about “doing the Camino” and instead, talked about “walking the Camino”. I expect most people don’t notice the difference and don’t care either way but for me, my change of language marked a change in my thinking. That dinner in Roncesvalles, so early in the whole journey, reminded me of why I was there. I didn’t want to consume without engaging: I wanted to be open to the experience and even be changed by it. I wanted it to touch my heart. I wanted it to fill me with feelings of delight and awe. I wanted to live it and celebrate it, not just do it.

So, in all my writing and rambling, I’m aiming to keep that phrase to a minimum. It’s not my phrase and it’s not my preference, and I really need to explain my distinct reasons for rejecting it.

Phew.

So glad I got that off my mind, it’s been rattling around in there for quite a while!

That’s my thinking on the matter, but what’s yours? When you think of “doing the Camino”, what do you think of?

A Day of Ups and Downs

The hostel at Roncesvalles was the largest one I stayed in while walking Camino. It housed close to 200 pilgrims. People had talked about the enormity of the hostel in advance, with rumours that it was impersonal. True, it was big and bustling, but also clean, well equipped, and efficient. The large space was divided into cubicles and each one contained only 4 beds. They weren’t soundproof (so I could hear the snoring of dozens of people further down in the room) but they provided privacy. I didn’t have to look at nearly 200 other people when I sat on my bed. That helped things considerably.

My 3 “roommates” were friendly but spoke no English so our conversation was limited to smiling. They were awake before me the next morning and again I woke to bright headtorches. Only then did I realise that these strategic pilgrims had slept in their hiking clothes the night before. I can’t imagine sleeping with t-shirt, shorts, and socks all underneath the sleeping bag in a warm hostel but these guys had done just that. It meant that they were ready very quickly the next morning but I felt unsettled.

They might have chosen to sleep in their clothes so they wouldn’t disturb me.

They might have chosen it for reasons of privacy.

They didn’t have English and I didn’t have Spanish, so I’ll never know what their reasons were.

It did seem, however, that they’d slept in their clothes so they’d save time. They packed their sleeping bags and were gone before 6am, and had surely saved a few minutes by being pre-dressed. It unsettled me to think that the race for beds had turned into one big race for everything, and that people might shave off the minutes wherever they could. I hadn’t joined the Olympics but still, I began to feel I was in a competitive race of some sort.

The staff roused us from our beds by playing Gregorian chants across the stereo and switching on all the lights, so I was out the door around 6:30am. I didn’t avail of the vending machines with coffee and snacks before I left – that would mean being out of bed some 15 minutes earlier, and bed time is too precious. So, this was the first day to start walking without food in my belly. An early-opening supermarket allowed me to stock up on fruit, and the nearest coffee stop was only 3km away. The café solo was a bitter jolt to my system and I sampled my first (and most delicious) empanada.

Mental note to self: don’t order café solo again but do eat empanadas.

IMG_0791

Early morning and getting a tan on the back of my legs

Like the days before it, this day was a swelter. I remember sitting on the side of the trail at one point in the early afternoon, dying to take a nap in the ditch. Really, I was looking at the grassy edge as though it was a king-size bed in a four-star hotel, and imagined all sorts of lovely sleep. Sleeping on the side of a dirt gravel trail is not a classy look, and I realised that if I stopped then I’d never arrive at my destination. Instead, I sat for a while in the shade, trying to plan my energy for the afternoon. After the steep descent from the Pyrenees, my body was both painful and slow, and I was concerned about my lack of progress.

John Brierley’s guidebook breaks down the 800km walk into stages, with each day (or stage) averaging around 25km. Some days are longer, others are shorter, but if you keep to Brierley’s plan every day, you’ll reach Santiago in just over a month. His plan for this particular day was to walk 27.4km but I decided to go 22.2km to Zubiri instead, in the hope that I’d find it easier to get a bed there. Plus, my calf muscles were really sore, and those extra 5km were beyond me.

Sometime around 3pm I was still shuffling along with my very sore calf muscles, my very heavy backpack, and my very tired body. The trail had quietened down considerably but I felt embarrassed to be still walking so many hours after leaving Roncesvalles. I started with a small group of Canadians that morning but they had a quicker pace and had gone on ahead hours earlier. No doubt, they were sitting in a town square somewhere, enjoying a beer, and taking it easy. It sounded good.

Behind me I heard chatter and laughter as a group of pilgrims approached. I felt too tired to turn around and instead, kept putting one foot in front of the other, focusing on my eventual destination. I didn’t expect to meet anyone I knew (and I knew 20 people or so at that stage in the trip), and I didn’t have the energy to strike up conversation with new faces. But as happens so often on Camino, the four women approaching were not new – I actually knew them. We met initially in Orisson, and the next evening they invited me to join them for a bottle of wine (or two) as we sat in the evening sunshine in Roncesvalles. They were buoyant, beaming, generous women with warm laughter and hearts. I was happy to see them and at the same time, felt deeply ashamed.

Ashamed? Isn’t that a strong word?

Yes, and yes.

Let me explain.

I left Roncesvalles hours before them, but I was walking so slowly they caught up to me. How embarrassing. They were still joyous and energetic but I was feeling over-stretched and tearful. I felt like a failure standing beside them because I was slow and I wasn’t feeling very gracious about it. Earlier in the day, I shared with someone that I was very tired. The guy was twice my age, walked twice my speed, and seemed very surprised to hear that I was struggling. In that split second, I felt judged and ashamed, and the feeling lingered with me for the day. So, by the time the 4 lovely ladies came along, I had already spent a few hours ruminating on my inadequate performance. I felt exposed somehow, as though they were seeing me at a low point. I didn’t want anyone to see me at a low point.

I don’t know if they saw any of this when we met on the trail but if they did, they handled me with great sensitivity. They exclaimed with excitement when they saw me and again, they took me under their wing. Since we were all heading to Zubiri, we would walk together. And so, for the rest of the day’s walking, they kept me distracted with their laughter and chatter. Of course, my calf muscles still ached but their warm company meant that I kept walking in the right direction. Their timing was sweet and it totally transformed my day.

Now, here’s a small Segway: Anyone who knows me knows that I am rather independent, maybe even fiercely so. I like being capable and self-sufficient. I consider it a strength to be independent. I have little patience for getting sick. Apparently, I’m stubborn and I don’t always accept help. Lovely Husband calls me “willful”. I think he’s being very kind in his choice of words.

I knew all of this going on Camino and knew that it would come up – after all, how do you walk 800km in a different country and not ask for, or accept, help at some stage? I’d already experienced spontaneous (and delightful) kindness in my previous 3 days, and I was very grateful for the Camino magic. But this particular day I was feeling sore and rather sorry for myself, and I was not so enthusiastic about having anyone witness me in that state. On the last stretch into Zubiri, when my body ached so badly I thought I couldn’t go on, something beautiful happened out of the blue:

One of the ladies spontaneously asked if she could carry my backpack.

Umm…what?

“Can I carry your backpack?”

I thought she was taking pity on me, or that maybe she was getting impatient with my slow progress and wanted to speed things up a bit. That thought is more of a reflection on me than on her, because there was nothing to suggest that she was impatient with my pace. I struggled to understand her request. Internally I thought: This backpack is heavy and it’s been hurting my shoulders all day, so it’s not fair to put that burden on anyone else. Anyway, she’s only saying it to be nice because I’m a mess.

So I said, “Ah no thanks, you’re okay.”

It’s an Irish thing – someone offers you a cup of tea and you decline it at least once, out of politeness and not wanting to be an inconvenience.

Someone offered to carry my bag and I said no. And the bag felt twice as heavy as it had felt a minute earlier.

She went on to explain that they were having their bags transported by van from town to town. On top of that, they were walking for only a week so she didn’t have as much stuff to carry. Her small daypack probably weighed 1-2kg compared to my bigger 8-9kg. She was thinking of returning to Spain to walk the full Camino with a bag on her back at a later stage. So, she wanted a test run. She wanted to carry my pack to see what it felt like. Her request had nothing to do with getting impatient or taking pity on me. Instead, it was an experiment, motivated by her own needs and request for information, and I would be helping her if I let her carry my bag.

Ahhhhh…..that changes everything.

She asked me again and this time, my self-sufficient, willful self was happy to hand over the weighty beast. Secretly I was thrilled and could hardly believe my luck. Before we knew it, we’d swapped bags and I was securing the light little daypack across my shoulders. There was no comparison between the two, and hers was feather light. I felt my eyes well up with tears out of sheer relief and gratitude. Without me asking, and without her knowing it, she had spared me from reaching a breaking point and totally transformed my day – again.

I don’t consider myself a religious person but I’m going to say that it felt like a “Hand-of-God-comes-down-from-above-and-directly-changes-the-course-of-events” kind of moment. There I was, shuffling along all day, alone, sore, tired, and feeling too ashamed of myself to make eye contact or conversation with anyone. There was no option of hitch-hiking but still, there might have been some other way to approach the day only I didn’t know what it was. Unexpectedly, these newfound friends came along with warm hearts and moral support. Just when I was at a breaking point (and I do mean I was moments away from crying like a baby) they offered unconditional and practical assistance. I would never have thought to ask anyone to carry my bag: that’s an enormous request but it was exactly what I needed. Having that weight lifted from my shoulders gave me enough energy to make the final stretch to Zubiri. I ached, I was exhausted, I was covered in sweat and dust, but I was also humbled in a most extraordinary way. Those 4 ladies, collectively, and individually, saved my sorry ass and gave me hope.

We arrived in Zubiri and went in different directions – they in search of their pre-booked accommodation and I to the nearest hostel. I was relieved to arrive at last and looked forward to meeting with them later in the evening for dinner and a drink. I knew I arrived hours later than most but I was still hopeful of a bed, or a mat on the floor, or a mat on the ground in the back yard. I didn’t really care where I slept, I just needed a shower and a snooze. So imagine my heartbreak when I learned that there were no free beds in that hostel, or in any of the hostels in town. After walking for nearly 9 hours, I learned that every bed in town had been taken hours beforehand. The next town on the trail was having a fiesta and all of its hostels were closed, so people had stopped off in Zubiri instead. Every hostel bed and B&B were fully booked. They’d even put mats on the floor of the local gymnasium and all of those were taken too. There was, quite literally, nowhere to sleep.

I thought back to the bridge I’d crossed only minutes earlier.

Beneath it, there was a river and I thought: I can wash myself there.

Beside it, there were grassy banks and I thought: I can sleep there.

I was that tired.

It was close to 5pm and I was close to tears. My new friends were nowhere in sight and I didn’t have a plan.

There was no room at the inn.

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.

IMG_0773

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?

IMG_0769

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

IMG_0774

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).

IMG_0772

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.

IMG_0788

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.

IMG_0762

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

IMG_0764