The Secret to Happiness

I don’t know if people say this very often but here, let me say it:

Walking the Camino de Santiago wasn’t always a barrel of laughs.

A lot of the time, it felt like a tough grind from one dusty day to the next. Am I a bad sport for saying that? I don’t know. I walked and walked and walked, and I wasn’t always sure that there was a point to my efforts. My body hurt in a gazillion different places and I was upset by the competitive race for everything….beds, wi-fi, even a free spot on a clothesline. Maybe I was ‘doing it‘ wrong but I found it immensely physical to walk 500 miles in less than six weeks. I found it emotionally taxing, too. I met pilgrims who swooned about feeling immense joy. Often, I felt I couldn’t relate to their fervent excitement.

But the day I walked from San Bol to Boadilla del Camino (I know, I know, quit talking about this one day already!) I had real, emotional breakthroughs. Yes, I learned to follow my own impulse instead of following anyone else’s pace. And yes, I learned that my social circle needed some heavy pruning. But I also learned something I had forgotten: I learned the secret to happiness.

At this stage in the journey, I’d already been walking for about three weeks. That was long enough to have experienced some rain, some frustration, and lots of tears. It was also long enough to have experienced some solid connection and tender kindness. Walking through the Meseta gave me a chance to put these things in some sort of order. I think the flat, open landscape was so under-stimulating that my mind had a chance to do some internal processing. As I walked, I found myself giving thanks for…well, everything.

I gave thanks for the new, lightweight shoes that were just *so* comfortable compared to my hiking sandals.

And I gave thanks for the fact that I didn’t have any blisters.

I gave thanks for the Factor 50 sunscreen that was protecting my skin from going lobster red.

And I gave thanks for my healthy body that somehow carried me from place to place.

Hour after hour, I ran through lists of things for which I was thankful. I gave thanks for everything I could think of, from my sunglasses to my healthy knees. I gave thanks for every hot shower along the way. I gave thanks for all the coffee, all the clean bedding, all the yellow arrows that pointed me in the right direction. I gave thanks for having the health and finances and impulse to go walk camino. Millions of people would never know that triage of good luck in their life: I was very blessed to have it in mine.

By now you’re thinking: What, that’s it? That’s your big, ‘A-Ha’ lesson? And I bet you’re thinking you’ve heard this kind of thing before. You’ve read this kind of thing before. Blah blah blah.

Right?

If you’re like me, you breeze through your day with a certain confidence about things going a certain way. There’s food in the cupboard. There’s hot water in the shower. There are clean clothes in the closet. Me? I don’t think to give thanks for these things every day, I just assume (and expect) them to be there. They are the baseline, the starting point to my day. I take them for granted.

But on camino, I didn’t have my own cupboards so I didn’t know when, or what I would eat. Similarly, I didn’t know if I’d ever have a hot shower. After all, when sharing a hostel with dozens of other people, there was always the possibility that the hot water would run out just before my turn. On camino, I couldn’t assume anything. I didn’t book my accommodation in advance so from one day to the next, I never knew where I would sleep. Other people were stressed by my lack of planning but I did it by choice: it kept me from getting complacent. And I was grateful for every single bed, regardless of its state.

I had six weeks in my own company so I noticed certain trends. There were days when I gave thanks throughout the day, dozens, if not hundreds of times. Those days were light and full of serendipity. Other days, I felt burdened by all the aches and pains. I felt burdened by disappointments. I didn’t give thanks for much and consequently, felt beaten down by both the camino and by life.

There’s a connection there. It sounds trite but really, giving thanks and literally counting my blessings made me a happier person. I felt light. I felt capable. I felt confident and playful and free.

It really was that simple. The secret to happiness? Give thanks for what you’ve got.

I say all of this because it’s relevant on two fronts:

  1. Giving thanks was a potent experience for me on camino and in my everyday life since then. Quite literally, it transforms the seemingly banal hum drum into something exquisite and profound. I can always use more of that 🙂
  2. When I left the albergue in Boadilla del Camino, I sought out the owner to say thanks to him in person. You’ll remember that he took me in even though he had no room and later, found a bed for me. He cooked a superb meal the evening before for everyone in the village…not just the pilgrims in his own hostel but the other ones too. He was the personification of a generous host. I was full of sincere and heartfelt thanks, and I wanted to say it to him before I walked off into the 6am light. The hostel was full of people putting on their boots and zipping up their packs for the day ahead. I found him in kitchen, already preparing for the day ahead. In my rudimentary Spanish I thanked him for being *such* a nice guy and for being so kind to me. And you know what he said? Of the 70 people who’d eaten his meal the previous evening, none of them had said thanks. And of all the pilgrims who’d slept on beds, sofas, and the floor, none of them had said thanks either. That morning, I was the only one who sought him out. We stood there, thanking each other.

I was glad I’d made the effort to reach out and say a nice word. But I was disappointed and saddened too. So many of my fellow pilgrims barreled through camino with a sense of entitlement. They assumed that the dinner would appear just because they were paying for it. They didn’t think of the people who spent the day planning and cooking it for them. They didn’t think to say thanks. Worryingly, they didn’t think they had to.

Walking to Santiago isn’t just about the cheap wine or the interesting people from all over the world. It isn’t life-changing if you spend your days racing for beds and being a dick to the hostel owners along the way. Everyone wants the adventure and the glory. Everyone wants the ‘A-Ha’ experience but to get it, we have to exercise a bit of kindness. Humility. Gratitude. Decency. They’re simple concepts but not always easy to put in practice. But when we do? Wow, what happiness awaits. So today, give thanks. Count your blessings. And tell someone just how much you appreciate something they’ve said/done that made your life easier. *This* is what camino is all about.

 

 

 

 

 

My Best Day’s Walking: San Bol to Boadilla del Camino

Distance walked: 33.6km

Distance to Santiago: 440.8km

I loved this day. Somehow, it contained so much goodness that it became my best day’s walking on the Camino Francés. All this time later, I still think of it with great fondness. When the going gets tough, thinking back on this day fills me with strength. It was one of those days when pretty much everything went right and my body felt strong and able…a glorious synchronicity on my 500-mile journey.

My previous night in San Bol had been uneventful and restful. Once the generator had cut out, we had no choice but to go to bed at the unexpected hour of 8.30pm and I slept soundly under a mound of woollen blankets. I couldn’t have been happier!

The next morning, I left the hostel before 6am and headed west towards Hontanas, where I  hoped to find some hot coffee and breakfast. Out there in the middle of the meseta, there was no one on the trail ahead of me or behind me. The wheat fields had been cut so that only stubble remained in this completely flat landscape. I could see for miles around. The moon hung low in the sky ahead of me, in the west. The morning sun rose warmly behind me, in the east. For a time, they both sat in the indigo sky and I felt the magic of being right in the middle, walking ever closer to Santiago. The lights on top of windmills in the distance flickered on and off, a warning to low flying aircraft, and were the only movement on that otherwise still and quiet morning. I felt as though I had the world to myself.

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Early morning on the Meseta

In my “real life” I am not a morning person. I love lazy lie-ins. On camino, I was up before dawn quite a lot and those early hours became some of my favourite. I liked the quiet. I liked the changing light. I liked listening to the birds chirping and singing from their concealed perches. I felt altogether more wholesome and connected to the world when I was up early, walking, walking, warming up my body for the day ahead.

In Hontanas, I found a café with funky music and friendly staff, and I loaded up on hot coffee and carbs. I also spotted a swimming pool and for a moment, I stood at the chicken wire fence, gazing into the still blue water, so tempting, so clean.

If you can believe it, I debated on whether to bring my swimming togs with me on camino. In my real life, I swam 2-3 times a week and I knew I would miss it desperately while in Spain. I even researched some of the camino forums to find out whether there were swimming pools anywhere on camino but I struggled to find any real details. Anyway, the idea of packing my togs seemed ridiculous when the plan was to cross Spain by foot. I couldn’t justify carrying the weight of the togs (ahem!) when I’d surely get no use out of them…so I never packed them. That morning in Hontanas, I wished that I had!

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Doesn’t it look great?!

For those of you wondering about swimming pools on the camino route: I stayed in 2 places with swimming pools and passing the pool Hontanas was a third. So…I’ll know for next time! 😉

I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly made Hontanas seem so appealing that morning, but it had a definite vibe, even at 7am. My morning coffee stop was usually 15-20 minutes but in Hontanas I lingered for an hour. Whatever the reason, the little village felt cosmopolitan and hip, and somehow connected to the real world beyond camino. I was reluctant to leave.

But I did eventually leave and walked on to San Antón and its 15th century convent, and a hostel that was/is famous for pilgrims sharing an evening meal by candlelight. Rumour had it that an American doctor walked camino at the same time as I, but was followed by Oprah Winfrey’s TV crews and “people”. They wanted to film him on his profound and life-changing journey, so he was followed by camera crews from beginning to end. I’m not so sure how profound that would be…but hey, I’m the last person to promote reality TV. Apparently, he & the crew stayed in San Bol about a week after I passed through, and destroyed the intimacy of the evening by using strong lights for their filming. No candlelit dinners that night. 😦

I heard the Oprah rumours again further along the trail but I never did confirm whether they were true. If they were, I feel sorry for any pilgrims that chose to stay in San Antón the same night as that guy…anyone wanting to experience intimacy or quiet would have struggled to find either, I think.

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Magnificient!

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Brierley’s guidebook tells me that under St. Anthony’s archway (Arco de San Antón), bread was left for pilgrims of old. The tradition continues today but with pilgrims leaving messages instead. If only I’d read my guidebook at the time, I might have known this when I passed through! Instead, I wondered at why so many people had chosen to leave written prayers in that particular spot.

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When I think back on this day, lots of different things helped make it a particularly great day of walking. My body had grown stronger so I forgot the aching exhaustion I’d felt at the beginning. The weather was spectacular: azure blue skies and beaming sunshine for hours on end. And yes, there was lots to see along the way. But something in me had shifted. Way back in Burgos, I had checked into a private room feeling overstimulated and cynical about the camino thing. I had expected that everyone walking towards Santiago shared the same sense of spirit. I had assumed we’d all be walking with humility and compassion: I thought we’d all “go with the flow”. I never expected to find myself in the middle of a daily race for beds. I didn’t expect people to leave pools of water on the bathroom floor. I didn’t enjoy watching pilgrims shout at café staff in English, thinking this was somehow reasonable in rural Spain. I didn’t like the selfishness that I saw play out, day after day.

But somewhere between Burgos and San Bol, I stopped caring about what others did. I’d already spent way too much time being upset by others’ behaviour, their words, and their apparent intent.

Everyone else had *their* camino: now it was time for me to have *mine*.

I reflected on my behaviour, my intent, and thought about what I wanted.

What did I want?

I wanted some peace and quiet.

I wanted more time by myself.

Most of all, I wanted to walk.

This day, between San Bol and Boadilla del Camino, I walked 34km of solid, steady, strong walking…and I loved it! After so many painful, worn-out days on camino where I felt I was dragging my sorry-ass corpse across Spain, *this* day felt like a magnificent flourish.

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So what was the secret?

  1. I did what I wanted to do: I walked. I stopped thinking about whether that was fast or slow. I stopped thinking about pretty much everything and I just let my feet take over. Glorious!
  2. I noticed myself saying prayers of thanks as a way of passing the time. Hour after hour, I gave thanks for the weather being dry. I gave thanks for the high-tech gear that made my walk a bit easier. I gave thanks for not having blisters. Hour after hour, I listed off hundreds of things that were working well in my life. And you know what? I discovered that I had an awful lot to be thankful for.
  3. I also noticed myself saying the very few prayers I know since childhood. Hail Marys and Our Fathers,  mostly. I said them on a loop, hour after hour. Without thinking about it, I prayed for my first teacher at school and for the woman who drove my bus to school each day. I prayed for relatives who were living and dead. I prayed for healing. I prayed for people I hadn’t thought about in years. And when I had finished praying for all of these people and I felt I still had prayers to spare, I prayed for anyone at all who might need some help. I prayed for pilgrims ahead of me and behind me on the path who may have been having a tough time of it, just like I did a few days earlier.

Somehow, these things unlocked*my* camino magic.

My camino joy came from the very simple, but profound act of doing something that I loved. I walked, and I left people behind without feeling guilty or sad. It wasn’t because I didn’t like them anymore, it was just that I needed to really strike out on my own in a good way.

I didn’t (and don’t) do enough of this in my life. I get bogged down by responsibility and duty. I get bogged down by chores. I make decisions that are for a group’s benefit rather than my own. I run around with an endless “To Do” list and I leave the fun stuff to the very end. Neglecting this blog is an example of my misplaced duty for other parts of my life. Only if, and when the kitchen is spotless and I’ve replied to all my emails do I allow myself to do the things that nurture my soul. So you can be pretty sure that I don’t get to these things often enough…it sucks.

This day, I mentally & emotionally embraced what it meant to walk for myself, and I rejoiced at the glory of it!

The second bit – expressing gratitude – was truly profound for me. I chose to walk camino in a particular way and it meant I could never be certain of a bed to sleep in or of getting all the way to Santiago. Walking this way – and leaving myself wide open to the uncertainty – forced me to take note of all the things that worked in my favour every day. It forced me to pay attention to all the goodness and once I started doing that, the goodness seemed to multiply. There were, quite literally, hundreds of things to be thankful for. I spent hours listing them in my head and feeling like the luckiest woman in the world to have it all fall into my lap so effortlessly.

Out there in the meseta, walking towards Santiago, I walked exactly as I wanted to walk and I gave gratitude for every step along the way. It was a potent combination and by late morning I felt invincible.

In Castrojeriz, I had the unexpected delight of stepping into a photography exhibition in Hospital del Alma, where I drank mint tea and ate cookies in the cool shade. I never expected to find a photography exhibition on camino but it was delightfully normalising and I lingered for more than an hour, wandering around the shabby chic house that had been converted into a gallery.

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If I had looked at my guidebook (ha! if ever!) I’d have known that there as a 900m high point ahead of me that day. I’d have known to pace myself or to brace myself for a sweaty climb in the afternoon sun. But I didn’t read my guidebook. After hours of walking, in the scorching heat, I suddenly found myself half way up this hill that seemed to appear out of nowhere and I remember thinking to myself:

“Fuck me, this is a bit much, innit?!”

By then it was early afternoon and the sun was at its highest, and hottest part of the sky. I had walked for hours already and I had worked up quite the sweat. Climbing uphill in the early afternoon sun was the last thing I needed but there was no way out of it so I coached myself on with the thought that from the top of the hill I’d have a good view of the land on the other side. I expected to see the next little village up ahead. There’d be a cluster of trees and buildings. There’d be some cool shade and a café bar where I’d get an ice-cold coke instead of my usual coffee. There would be a chance to get in from the 100 degree heat and take a break.

When I got to the top, I looked out the far side. This is what I saw:

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No cluster of trees!

No little village!

No cool shade. No coke. No break!

Another day, I would have wept at the realisation. This day, I laughed out loud…and kept walking. I felt so entirely content. I didn’t really care that there wasn’t a break in sight. I was caked in sweat and dust, and my own odours were intense (nice!) but I didn’t give a hoot. The physical exertion felt like the most real thing I had experienced in years and I was only delighted to keep walking.

Bring it on!

An hour later in Itero de la Vega, I happily bumped into Denis and Fred, and some other familiar faces. I joined them in the shade of a café bar while they drank cool beers and I finally got my cold coke. They’d booked into the hostel already and would pass the afternoon with chat and laughter. I was tempted to join them…even more so because I hadn’t seen them in days and I loved their company. If I stayed, I’d have a fun evening and great company.

But…

I really, really wanted to walk.

I had walked just over 25km that day – a decent amount – and it was wise to quit while I was ahead and keep some of my energy. It was also gone past 3pm and the ground seemed to shimmer from the intense heat. To keep walking in that was madness…especially when the next hostel stop was over 8km away. Most pilgrims stopped walking by lunchtime every day to avoid the heat. It was a risky move to consider going on further:

What if I walked those extra 8.2km and got sunstroke?

What if I walked those extra 8.2km and exhausted myself?

What if I walked those extra 8.2km and found there was no bed in the next village? I’d have to walk even further and by then, it would be late in the evening. Did I really have the energy for all of that?

In the end, I decided that I did.

So at 3.30pm I waved goodbye to the guys and walked the fastest 8.2km of my life! I wanted to get out of the sun as quickly as I could, so I pounded my way to Boadilla del Camino where I hoped there’d be a bed for the night. I had felt invincible and blessed that entire day, and it was my best day by far. I wondered what awaited me in the village up ahead but there was only one way to find out!

I wonder: what was *your* best day on camino? Do you know what made it so great? And do you think those things could be replicated in your “real life” every day? 😀

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago: The Things Strangers Say…

On my walk from Burgos to San Bol, I stopped for a few minutes to take off my backpack and stretch out my shoulders. The morning was warm and bright and though we’d never met before, an older Australian woman stopped beside me to chat. She was full of loud enthusiasm while I felt more subdued.

I could sense that she mistook my quiet responses for disinterest or plain rudeness. What she didn’t know about me that morning was that I was on my second day of bad cramps and I was tentative about being on the trail at all. In Burgos, the private room, extra sleep, and heavy pain meds had got me through the worst…but I wasn’t out of the proverbial woods yet. I wasn’t sure about my body’s ability to carry a backpack long distances and walk in the searing heat. So, I followed my body’s needs that morning – walking slowly and gently. I wanted to at least try walking some of the trail but decided that if my body needed to stop after just a few kilometers then that’s what I would do.

For once, I was willing to go a bit easier on myself. I didn’t care about covering a certain distance or the speed of my walking: I was doing well to stand upright!

She said two things to me that morning that rattled around in  my system for weeks and months to follow. Without ever realizing it, she sparked a new direction for my inner camino.

She enquired: Are you going all the way to Santiago?

That’s the hope, I replied.

Well you don’t sound very positive! she snorted.

I thought my response was honest and realistic. Given the morning that was in it, I thought it an accurate sentiment. I wanted to walk all the way to Santiago. I intended to try walking all the way to Santiago. But I never knew whether I would walk all the way to Santiago. I couldn’t guarantee anything. Her impatient dismissal caught me off guard and I spent the rest of my camino wondering which one of us was “right”. Was I lacking in confidence or was she overly so? I never could tell.

It struck me that she held a certain expectation of how I should respond, as though the conversation was tightly scripted in advance. If that’s the case, then we tell people what we think they want to hear and they do the same to us. If we do this, none of us are allowed to change, or grow, or be/do/feel something unexpected. It takes time to have a real conversation. I don’t mean that it has to be a long one, but if I ask someone how they are and I really listen to their response, I might find the conversation goes somewhere surprising. It might get uncomfortable and I might need a few extra minutes to respond to properly, instead of replying with a common platitude.

Otherwise, we’re all running the same old script day in, day out.

How are you?

I’m fine/great!

Good to hear! See you soon.

And we don’t get any deeper than that.

She was right, of course. I didn’t sound very positive because I wasn’t very positive. But on that sunny autumn morning, I had every reason to believe that my chances of making it were as good as anyone else’s. I gave an honest response but she either didn’t know how to listen, or didn’t want to. Either way, her judgement and quick scorn caught me by surprise and I instantly wanted to put some distance between us. I had enough of that BS in my life already without inviting it from random strangers!

But still….it was a remark that followed me all the way to Santiago, and beyond.

She also asked me all about my stop off in Burgos, and shared that she’d suffered some stomach troubles so she’d organized a bus to carry her backpack that day.

She declared: You have to take care of yourself!

She said it with such authority that it struck me to my core. And I instantly recognized:

I’m not doing that very well.

I was physically tender and my body really needed to be horizontal and still, but there I was, carrying a heavy bag across the countryside and hoping to walk nearly 25km to San Bol. I thought that allowing myself to stop off earlier was “taking care of myself”.  I thought that was “going easy on myself.”

It never occurred to me to stay on in Burgos until I felt well enough to walk. It never occurred to me to book a private room somewhere so I’d be guaranteed a bed, without the daily guessing game of where I’d sleep that night. It never occurred to me to have a bus company carry my bag and spare my body the extra strain.

The way she took care of herself and the way I did it, were quite different.

Honestly, I thought she was a wuss. I thought she was a cop-out. I thought she was being way too soft on herself. But her comment needled me in a tender spot and I spent the rest of my camino journey quietly reflecting on the ways in which I do, and don’t take care of myself.  I thought that eating my broccoli and getting regular exercise were enough. Turns out, I need more than that. The camino experience had already challenged me by then – I’d learned (the hard way) that I needed alone time and rest in quantities that my fellow pilgrims didn’t always share. Her off-the-cuff remark gave me a starting point to reflect on how best to take care of myself in life.

I considered it every day on the trail.

I still find myself reflecting on what it means to take care of myself. In the months that have passed since I finished walking camino, I’ve been continually surprised by what it means to take better care of myself. In some cases, it’s meant disengaging from conversations and relationships that no longer sustain me. In others, it means allowing myself to be still and wait for my inner knowing to come up with the answers to my questions. It’s an ongoing discovery. It’s one of the ways camino continues to change who I am in my own life, and in the world.

I bet she’s long forgotten me and our conversation that morning. I bet she never imagined she had such a profound effect on me, and shook me up in unexpected ways.

The people we meet on camino are not always the people we want to hang out with, but some of them have a lesson for us all the same. Gotta love it!

 

 

 

 

Camino Continues: Bye Bye Burgos!

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Distance left to Santiago: 501.2 km

After stopping off in Burgos for two nights, I felt ready to hit the road again. I had walked over 1/3 of the journey by then and found myself still up for the challenge. Sure, I was sore and tired but I wasn’t done with the walking. The city was beautiful but full of trinkets I didn’t need or want to carry. I left my private room around 7am and tentatively stepped my way down the stairs. It felt good to go.

I was surprised to find myself in open countryside in no time, and the sound of early morning traffic was replaced by birdsong and insects. The morning was cool and still: it felt ripe with possibility. My belly was still sore but emotionally, I felt robust again. Some “alone-time” and decent sleep had done me the world of good.

I hoped to walk to San Bol that afternoon and at 24km, it seemed like a reasonable distance. But with only 12 beds, I had my doubts that this private hostel would have space for me by the time I’d arrive. Pilgrims swooned about San Bol as some sort of mini-retreat or oasis spot…lots of people wanted to stop there but we couldn’t all fit. I pinned my hopes on it anyway and started walking west. In between, there were other places I could stop off if I really needed to. Having a get-out clause was important that day.

I don’t know whether it was because I had slept well, or began to find my rhythm, or what, but the next 1/3 of my camino journey was probably my favorite part of the whole thing. I was surprised by that. I knew I was heading into the Meseta region and was facing a week of flat landscape with nothing but wheat fields and beating sun. People around me had talked about skipping the Meseta region entirely because they’d heard it was “boring” or “too hard”. I’d heard that the Meseta was the mental part of the camino – all that open space and the lack of shady trees can do strange things to your mind. Apparently, it’s the section where people either:

  • Lose their minds
  • Find themselves
  • Find God
  • Start hallucinating, or
  • Give up and go home

It sounded pretty extreme.

I didn’ t believe in taking a bus or train across it just because the flat landscape sounded dull. But so far, I had enjoyed the undulating trail, with humpback bridges, woodland, and vineyards. I’d enjoyed the variety of colors and textures. The ever-changing landscape had fed my spirit, even on difficult days. So, how would it be to walk for a week across a flat, empty landscape, in 35 degree heat, for hours at a time?

Turns out, I loved it!

That morning, walking out of Burgos and into the open countryside was like being able to breathe again. The sound of my feet crunching on gravel, the sound of my walking poles tapping the earth, and the swing of my body with each step forward were, together, a liberation. I was on my third week of walking and things were starting to look up.

As early morning turned to late morning, the sunshine burned away the lingering clouds and dew to reveal yet another, azure blue sky. I could get used to a life like that!

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One thing I loved about the openness of the Meseta, in particular, was being able to see when the next town or village lay ahead. The flat, expansive landscape made it easy to spot the rooftops and shade of human habitation. With it, there might be the prospect of a coffee or some lunch, maybe the chance to sit in the shade for half an hour and air out my sweaty feet. The 100m descent into Hornillos de Camino (above) gave me a great vantage point of the village ahead. Though it has a population of only 70 people or so, my chances of getting a coffee in a half hour were good. It motivated me to keep walking.

I’ve followed other camino blogs and seen versions of the photo above, taken in the spring when the ground was lush and green. To me, it was almost unrecognizable. The day *I* walked into the village, the earth was a dusty brown color for miles around. The crops had already been harvested and only coarse stubble remained. This was the beginning of my Meseta experience.

Hornillos de Camino did, indeed, give me a chance to enjoy the shade, air out my feet, and enjoy some tasty, tuna empanadas for my lunch. Afterwards, I pottered around the Gothic church, lit some candles, and gathered my thoughts for the next leg of my journey.  There were less than 6km to San Bol but I wasn’t sure of my chances of scoring a bed there. If I couldn’t get one, I’d have to walk another 5km to Hontanas, and the afternoon was only getting more hot. I needed to make sure I had the energy to walk that far, and more, if it came to it.

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The hostel is a bit in off the roadway so you could spend half an hour walking there to ask for a room only to find none available, and have to double back to the main trail. There were days on camino when those half-hour detours were a luxury I couldn’t afford – in terms of time and in terms of minding my sore feet. This day, however, I felt good. I felt strong enough to risk it, and strong enough to walk another hour to Hontanas if I had to.

Even though two pilgrims ran past me on the trail to get to the hostel (and secure beds) that day, I kept my pace and my calm. I didn’t worry about it. Their anxiety about accommodation had dogged them every day for nearly three weeks already. We’d met earlier on the trail, chatted, laughed, and compared notes. But here they were, literally racing for beds and pushing ahead of me to do so.  I had expected (and assumed) the camino was all about camaraderie, humility, and surrender. There were days when I was surprised to find otherwise.

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As luck would have it, I made it to San Bol in the early afternoon, just in time to score the second last bed…what relief! I even got to choose a bottom bunk bed inside the cool, stone bedroom. The facilities were clean and modern, but basic. There was one toilet and one shower, so there was always a line of people waiting their turn. We were asked to wash our clothes in the ice-cold stream outside, so the scene of a dozen pilgrims rubbing their clothes against the rocks was….rustic. We sat in the shade of the tall trees, dipping our aching, blistered feet into the cold water, and getting to know each other. Somehow, the usual scramble for beds, showers, and laundry facilities was lessened here.

There was quiet.

There were pilgrims writing quietly in their journals and falling asleep under the trees. There was the sound of clothes on the line, snapping and flapping in the brisk, summer breeze. And there was a sort of idyllic calm to it all. It reminded me of childhood summers spent in summer meadows, lying in the long grass, gazing at the sky, with not a lot going on.

It was exactly what I needed that day.

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Later that evening, our hospitalera cooked up an enormous paella for us in a pan that was 1m wide, and we feasted on the seasoned rice and sticky chicken with gusto. With a green salad, lashings of red wine, and baskets of bread with olive oil, and we were happily sated. More pilgrims had arrived by then and would sleep on the tiled floor that night, but we shared a meal with merriment and laughter.

Our generator stopped working at 8pm so it was lights-out then, with no electronics, no lights, and no interruptions from the outside world. A small group sat outside by the stream to smoke cigarettes, finish the wine, and play soft guitar music while the evening sky gently darkened. I was in bed by 8:30 that evening (a record!) and fell into a deep sleep within seconds.

Bliss.

The Logistics of Laundry on a 500 Mile Hike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A standard camino sink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Creative Clotheshorse in Carrión de los Condes

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