Camino de Santiago: Only 22.8km to go!

Distance walked: 24.7km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 22.8km

I hadn’t intended to walk as far as Santa Irene but the hostel I’d planned to stay in earlier on the trail had already closed up for the winter. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was one thing to deal with hostels that were full but it was something quite different to come across hostels that had already been boarded up for the winter. Even when a hostel was full, there was human contact and the possibility of asking someone for advice. A hostel that’s been closed up offers none of that comfort or connection. With each passing day, I felt (acutely) that it was time to go home. My body was tired. My mind was full of reflections I didn’t have time to process. My heart was full of immense appreciation. The landscape around me was preparing for the colder weather and it felt like the right time to leave. I was glad to have a plane ticket and a home to go to.

It was almost mid October, and the trail between Boente and Santa Irene was busy and bustling with pilgrims walking the final 100km. There in Galicia, I could smell the damp, the moss, the clay beneath my feet. I could smell the dairy cows that grazed in the small, bumpy fields around me. I could smell the oncoming winter and the occasional waft of smoke from a wood fire, somewhere. The cafés sold hearty stews full of chorizo and kale, and the food became more like north European food – perfect for warming up in the autumn chill.

The hostel in Santa Irene was clean and comfortable, and I got a top bunk in a shared dorm. Most of the pilgrims around me were fresh-faced and excitable – clearly, they were walking for just a few days at the end! In the next bunk, an older man (in his 70s) sat on the top bed, alongside mine. Is it relevant that he was dressed like a medieval pilgrim with a brown cloak and a wooden staff? Is it relevant that he was openly hostile to his walking companions but his head literally swiveled to give me 1000% attention? I was not the youngest or prettiest female in that room but he zoned in on me for some uncomfortable reason.

He wanted to chat. More specifically, he asked prying questions and when I answered vaguely and tiredly, he peered into my face as though I’d given him a fake name and was only telling lies. Maybe I would have been better off… as he then started undressing, flexing his abs, and snapping his underwear a bit too enthusiastically, looking for my reaction. He revealed a bit too much and seemed to want my approval or shocked response. He did this in full view, in a crowded dorm with all the lights on, but while everyone around us absentmindedly tended to their sore feet and dirty laundry. No one noticed a thing. He seemed rather pleased with himself.

I think he was a bit of an exhibitionist. I also think he was on some sort of weird power trip, trying to rattle me in plain view but while no one was paying attention. It was one of the most surreal moments in sharing a space with random strangers, and it was *quite* uncomfortable. If there had been another hostel or room to go to, I would have gone. I’m not sure exactly what class of “crazy perv” he belonged to but I promptly got out of there, took the evening by myself, and returned only when the lights were already off and everyone was asleep for the night. Did I feel at risk? No, not with so many people around. But I wouldn’t have liked to meet him on my own, or somewhere quieter. He was a creep – thankfully, the only creep I’d met on all camino – and I wanted to get far away from him. I ignored him the next morning and walked out of there promptly and without looking back.

With so few kilometers ahead, my thoughts drifted to Santiago itself and when I would arrive. I could walk the remaining 22.8km in one day but with my feet feeling so sore, it would be a slow walk into the city. And what then…? Unlike (what seemed like) every pilgrim around me, I hadn’t booked private accommodation in advance. I’d spend the day walking but on arrival in the city I’d have to do what I’d done every day previously – I’d have to find accommodation, have a shower, wash my clothes, go get something to eat, and only around 8-9pm would I get to relax. It would turn a very special day into a kind of routine run-of-the-mill day. After so many weeks trying so hard to get to Santiago, I was tempted to make the final push in one day and just get there.

And yet, some other part of me wanted to arrive in a different way.

Every day for six weeks, I’d lived a nomadic sort of experience and felt that everything was sort of cobbled together. I didn’t book accommodation in advance at any stage of the journey – not even in St. Jean Pied de Port, at the very beginning. For six weeks I’d walked as best I could, and trusted that I would get food and bedding when I needed it. I’d arrived at many hostels feeling beaten and sore. Pushing myself to the limit had exposed a raw vulnerability and gratitude. I’d certainly been humbled. But Santiago was my last stop. I wasn’t going to walk on to the coast so it felt important to really “arrive” in to the city in the right kind of head space. I didn’t want to arrive feeling sweaty and spent: I wanted to arrive with a certain presence. I wanted to arrive and really feel the finality and achievement of walking those 800km. I wanted to arrive well.

This was the day to finally decide: would I walk to Santiago in one final push and find my friends? Would I split the remaining distance over two days instead?

I made no plan, no presumptions, no promises. I laced up my shoes, heaved my backpack onto my shoulders, and walked out into the cool morning air. The day would reveal all.

 

For All of You Preparing for Camino…

Everyone, hello.

At last, hello!

I don’t know about you, but this feels like one of the longest winters ever. I can’t say that I was snowed in for long periods or that my home was lost in winter storms. Thankfully neither of these things is true – although they would help explain my disastrous absence. Instead, it was a winter of family and personal illnesses. Lots of different ones, sometimes neatly, one after the other. Other times, not-at-all-neatly, in an unforgiving cluster. There has been a lot of “coping” and “day-by-day”-ing around these parts!

I am, of course, excited that the spring has sprung and I feel the potential of a dozen new projects all at once. It’s always the same with me when the light gets a bit higher from the horizon and the birds start nesting in my garden. I am distracted trying to do everything all at once and, it would seem, to make up for “lost” time (including the time I lost here with all of you.)

I’ve been reflecting a lot on this twitch in my personality – this expectation for excellence and fulfillment almost all of the time. It’s a lot of pressure! I want a bright and beautiful life as much as anyone, and at the same time I acknowledge that I sometimes have trouble seeing the brilliance. When I’m spending all my energy on staying afloat, it can be hard to manifest any extra magnificence.

It reminds me a lot of walking the camino. I’ve written at length about how difficult I found it – the crowding, the noise, the sheer scale of walking 500 miles not to mention the lack of arch support for my feet! So many other blogs, books, and verbal accounts swoon about how great and amazing it all is, so to admit to anything other than that feels like a personal defeat. It *was* great and amazing…and I also struggled. I won’t go into it all again but one of my trail friends revealed to me afterwards that she was worried about me along the way and thought I pushed myself too hard. Her words caught me by surprise. This isn’t a woman I’d known for years beforehand so I didn’t expect her to share such a personal perspective but as it turns out, she was absolutely right. She spotted it a mile off but I didn’t see it at all.

I didn’t know how to push myself any less. I was so dogged on my vision that I just kept going. I was worried that if I stopped long enough to take stock of my exhaustion, I’d lose the nerve to keep walking and I very much wanted to keep walking.

Was it a joyous way to experience camino? No, not really, but here’s something that not everyone will admit: not every day is about big, expansive joy. I know that jars with what the self-help books say but talk to anyone who’s survived something significant, and they will tell you it’s true.

Sometimes, it is a monumental success to get to the finish line in one piece. For me, that meant getting in out of the elements, having a hot shower, food of some sort, and a clean and secure bed for the night. I couldn’t hack the extra pressure of feeling immense joy and connection with all the universe as well – my hierarchy of needs was pretty inflexible that way! 🙂 Was I selling myself short? Perhaps, but those tough days were a test of my grit and I needed that to keep going. Others around me swooned about what a great time they were having. I took that to heart and then felt even more rubbish about my experience – clearly, I reasoned, I was “failing” when I didn’t feel immense joy from morning to night.

What a load of crap.

So. For all of you preparing for camino here are two small tidbits to do with what you may:

  1. Someone else’s experience (whether physical, emotional, or whatever) is a changing thing…as is yours. Try not to compare yourself, your ability, or your experience with anyone else’s. It’s a slippery (and speedy) slope to self-righteousness and misery, and it’s a no-win.
  2. There will be tough days – so acknowledge them now. Like me with the 6 months of winter illness, the tough days are exhausting and bleak, and it can feel like the feel-good happy party has left for good. It hasn’t. When the going gets tough, go back to basics – food, water, shelter, rest. The hierarchy of needs is a basic reminder but sometimes the basics are what’s needed. The other stuff comes after. Cut yourself some slack and acknowledge the days survived in one piece 🙂

That’s it!

More to follow soon, especially now that I have my ID and password unlocked again! Thanks for reading and Buen Camino to you all, irrespective of whether you’re walking!

 

 

Walking through Galicia: From Os Chacotes to Boente

Distance walked: 21.7km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 47.5km

It’s fun to stay at the Y…M….C…A…!

The hostel owner in Vilchá, just two nights earlier, announced that he would close up for the winter the following week. In my walk between Vilchá and Os Chacotes, just a day earlier, I saw two hostels already closed up for the winter. It was early October but everything was winding down and I was glad I was close to Santiago and “the end”. I was also glad that I wouldn’t walk the additional 100km to Finisterre. I had always imagined I would walk to the coast but I’d conceded that it wasn’t likely on that particular journey. Every time a hostel closed its doors for the winter, pilgrims had to walk further distances between one bed and the next. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but after walking 750km I was done with the uncertainty about accommodation. It was one thing to deal with hostels that were full or uncomfortably crowded, but it was another thing to deal with the end-of-season closures. I was tired of the nomadic lifestyle and endless strategizing: I wanted to go home.

Getting ready for winter

55km to go….

52.5km to go…

51km to go…

Compared to other parts of the camino, I thought the signage and distance markers in Galicia were plentiful and clear. This is the busiest section of the Camino Francés and most people who “do the camino” walk only those last 115.2km. So, the cafés, hostels,  and general services were plentiful. And yet, I met with an Australian this day who got really upset when she couldn’t see any yellow arrows. She had become so used to the plentiful directions that she panicked when they disappeared, even briefly.  She doubled-back on the trail, she contradicted me, and she even contradicted a local who gave her directions. She couldn’t trust what others told her and she couldn’t trust the markers that were available.

More tellingly, she couldn’t trust that even if she took a wrong turn, that she would cope with the outcome and figure it out.

Expecting such perfection brings a lot of pressure.

I had seen pilgrims wrongly rely on electronic devices instead of heeding the locals who gave directions. I understand the pilgrims who, like me, may not have had confidence in their language skills and may have felt more autonomous using the tech.  I get it.

But, what a missed opportunity.

Asking for directions is an opportunity to connect with another human instead of a screen – what a concept! All the talk about meeting great people on the camino is limited if all we do is meet other pilgrims. What about connecting with the café owners,  the farmers in the fields, the people standing behind shop counters? To understand a country and its people, we have to talk to the people who actually live there, work there, build their lives there. Walking the camino without engaging with the locals, especially when they have up-to-date information and correct directions, is a massive loss. We become consumers rather than pilgrims. We lose our humility.

Asking for directions allows locals to connect with us, too. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people pass through their villages and towns, crossing their land and changing the face of their communities. We don’t ask them how they feel about this: we just “do the camino” and give no thought to the consequences. It’s not right that we ignore them and prioritize our screens. Asking for directions allows them to meet us and learn a little about us, too. I think they deserve that opportunity given they open their towns and villages to the endless crowds, always on the move. It is a small way of acknowledging the disruption we cause and the change that we bring. It’s a small way of expressing our humanity instead of self-absorbed consumerism.

The days walking in Galicia were quite a contrast to the previous 700km across France and Spain. There were  more people, sure, but there was also a lot more entitlement and competition, too. I was disappointed by the amount of people wearing headphones, disconnected from even the other pilgrims around them. I was appalled by the amount of people who skipped queues in the café bars, who shouted their orders at the staff, and who barked for wi-fi codes without ever saying “Hello” or “Please”. There was a large cohort of people who behaved as though their individual experience was the only one that mattered. I don’t know which is worse: shouting orders at waiting staff or elbowing other pilgrims out of the way. I didn’t like either and I’m sorry to say I saw way too much of both behaviors on that final 100km stretch to Santiago.

And yet, seeing all of this helped highlight the goodness in my journey. My journal is full of reflections including this:

“I’m thankful to ever be here and to have been given the resources (physical, financial, mental, spiritual, emotional) and support to come this far. Over and over, I’ve put my sore and swollen feet into my shoes, and walked. It is a privilege to be given this time, these smiles and conversations, this sunshine, this reflection. Yes, it’s been tough but the strain is already wearing away as I come close to the end and as I realize what a blessing it is.”

Did I enjoy the day of elbowing, contradicting, and ignorant behavior? No. But getting a bed in Boente’s hostel was a relief, and re-connecting with people I hadn’t seen since Orisson was a lovely surprise. There was goodness to be found everywhere, I just had to pay attention to it.

Walking through Galicia: From Vilchá to Os Chacotes

Distance walked: 26.1km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 69.2km

The walk out of my hostel in Vilchá was the most uneventful departure of all my camino hostels. Given that there was no village cluster or even a café, I just walked out the door of the hostel, turned the corner, and lo, I was back on the trail and in a field again. The morning was foggy and later, as I crossed the high bridge at Portomarín, it was difficult to make out any real view. I knew that a town of 2,000 people would have facilities and services but in that damp chill, I didn’t feel like stopping just for the sake of it. I marched on.

I thought a lot about dinner the previous evening and the host’s expectation that I would sing for everyone. I felt edgy and agitated by his assumptions and I was miles along the trail before I realized this:

It was in the past.

Quite literally, the hostel, the event, and the man himself were all in the past. I had zero intention of going back so there was no reason to keep thinking about it all and tormenting myself with my lack of showbiz skills.

Let it go.

And I did.

I look back on my journal for this section of the journey and notice that I’d already started to account for what I had learned along the way. I suppose it was inevitable given that I was so close to “the end”. After five weeks on the move, some things had begun to crystallize for me.

Like what?

Well, the simple fact that I could walk away from people.

Before camino I would have thought it exceptionally rude to do such a thing but while I walked, I found myself hanging out with some people who were hard work to be around.

I mentioned Lucy* (not her real name) in one of my earlier posts and strangely bumped into her almost every day for a week in one section of the trail. It was suffocating. I also kept bumping into two other characters who were unknown to each other, had traveled from different parts of the world, started walking at different times, and had totally different plans…but had met and become walking buddies. They were each toxic, self-pitying, and utterly exhausting to be around. For instance, one of them talked about her tendonitis as a “disability” and I had to stop myself from slapping some sense into her!

I met each of them at completely different stages but when I saw them walk into a hostel one evening together with Lucy, well, I knew the rains really had descended. These three individuals had found each other and become a pack. The next night, they were in the very same dorm as me – there was literally no escape! Until, I realized, that there was – and I walked on alone.

The lesson isn’t new to most of you but it was particularly relevant on the last section of the trail – those remaining 115.2km between Sarria and Santiago. Some of the “new kids” were full of bright-eyed energy and enthusiasm. At random coffee stops they’d hit me with a dozen questions, eager to connect and make friends. They were at the beginning of their journey and I was coming to the end of mine. Rightly or wrongly, I wasn’t looking for new friendships by then: I was trying to get my head in gear for arriving in Santiago. I preferred to walk alone than to strike up new conversations.

Weeks earlier, other long-distance pilgrims and I discussed what day of the week we expected to arrive in the famous city. Rumour had it that there was a pilgrim mass every day but that on occasional Sundays, the enormous botafumeiro (thurible for burning insense) would swing. Apparently it was quite a spectacle and everyone wanted to be there when the event took place – but no-one seemed to know when it would happen. On top of that, most of my connections were further along the trail than I was. We may have started out in St. Jean Pied de Port around the same time but five weeks later, injury, illness, and tiredness had altered everyone’s progress. My stop-off in Sarria meant I would arrive into Santiago even later than I first imagined. Would I see any of these people again? After all the connection, the chats, and the coffee, would we even get to say goodbye to each other?

The hostel at Os Chacotes was clean, sparse, and extremely tight on space. I don’t just mean that it was busy – although it was – it was also densely packed.

Rumour had it that these state-built hostels were soulless and built purely for profit. Others told me that the hostels purposefully didn’t stock utensils in their new, modern kitchens because they wanted to discourage pilgrims from preparing their own food. Instead, they wanted to force pilgrims into buying meals from the local restaurants. I don’t know whether this is official policy on behalf of Galician local authority but this particular hostel succeeded in squeezing people where they shouldn’t have been!

All 112 beds in the hostel were taken and I shared a dorm with almost 40 people. I was glad to get a lower bunk, but the left side of my mattress physically touched the mattress of the bed next to me. There wasn’t even an inch of space between us. Overhead, a heavy-set Spaniard slept noisily. At my head and feet, the neighbouring beds touched mine. I was surrounded to my left, at my head, feet, and overhead. There was less than a metre of space between my bed and the next bed on my right. I felt a bit squeezed into place and wouldn’t want to do it ever again. Others around me tried to create a modicum of privacy by draping bath towels around their beds or by putting headphones in their ears. I was positioned in the middle of a school group that took up half the dorm so the group were *loud* and animated.

I was glad to be near the end. Before, I wasn’t sure about finishing up but a hostel like that made me keen to go home! 🙂

Camino de Santiago & A Noisy Night in Acebo

Remaining distance to Santiago: More than 200km…still ages to go….!

 

IMG_1097

My night in Acebo was a bit of a strange one. After walking in the cold and rain to Cruz de Ferro, I was glad to get a lower bunk bed in a private hostel. The place seemed clean and rustic, and I gladly changed in to some dry clothes. Still, I felt chilled and couldn’t quite shake the feeling of flu, so I asked the volunteer staff member (hospitalerio) if I could make a cup of tea in the kitchen. It was about 4pm, so not quite lunch time and still hours away from dinner. I had my own green tea and I just needed to boil a mug of water…I was already day dreaming of curling up in one of the woollen blankets to write in my journal and look out at the rain…it was going to be great!

But if ever there was a guy having a bad day, this was the guy!

The poor man snapped at me and fiercely told me, NO! He then gave me a long lecture about it being a private kitchen and if he let everyone in there to make a cup of tea then he’d never be able to prepare the evening meal that we would all eat later on…this wasn’t one of those self-catering hostels, and people couldn’t just walk in and out when they liked…

So, no way was I allowed to make a cup of tea. That was his decision and the answer was no!

His abruptness caught me off guard and I have to say, I felt rather meek after his lecture. I apologised. I understood his situation. And I explained that I was feeling very cold and I just wanted to warm up, but again, I was sorry for interrupting. I didn’t know the kitchen was out-of-bounds.

And I backed out of his way, feeling rather deflated.

How was I going to warm up now?

A minute later, he ran after me to apologise and tell me of course I could  make some tea if I was feeling unwell. He didn’t mean to lose his temper. He was very sorry. And he explained that he was under such pressure to check-in the new pilgrims while simultaneously prepare an evening meal for us all. He was struggling with the multi-tasking. But he was a flood of regret and sincerity as he apologised, and I was on the edge of tears as we hugged and reconciled.

IMG_1095

It’s hard to articulate it now but there were points on camino when I felt as though all of my nerve endings and sensitivities were on the outside of my body, instead of neatly tucked away inside. In my everyday life, a random stranger losing their temper isn’t usually something to cry about. On camino, his harshness and quick temper really took me aback. The cup of tea represented warmth, wellness, and self-care. In that cold and rainy place, miles and miles from home, I just needed a bit of everyday comfort to ground myself. While I walked those 500 miles, I desperately missed having my own kitchen and the freedom to prepare my own food when, and how I like. So, when this guy chided me for wanting a cup of tea it hit a very frayed nerve.

That evening, our generous hospitalerio announced that he needed help with doing the dishes afterwards. It was only fair, given that he’d prepared a feast for us and shouldn’t have to clean up after 20+ people by himself. I observed the show of hands around the table as people offered to help.

Sure.

I can do that.

No problem.

And then I observed a curious dynamic unfold.

Pilgrim 1 called the room to silence so she could make a speech. This didn’t ordinarily happen on camino but was clear that she was used to commanding attention and speaking to groups. Everyone at the table quietened to a hush, and she publicly thanked our host for all his hard work and great food. She smiled, she charmed, and she publicly offered to help with the clean-up afterwards.

And then we all happily clinked our glasses of wine and toasted our hospitalerio.

Later, when the time came, I observed her hone in on a physiotherapist for an intense conversation about her feet, while a dozen pilgrims around her carried plates and moved the chairs. She didn’t even look up when someone cleared away her plate, too. She had publicly offered to help but when the time came, she ignored the hullaballoo and all the people in it.

Did she help with the dishes?

Nope.

Did she do what she had so publicly offered to do?

Nope.

All talk, no action.

Pilgrim 2 sat quietly at the table and like the rest of us, ate a hearty meal and drank more than one glass of wine over the course of the evening. When our hospitalerio asked her directly, and publicly, to help with the 6-7 other people who’d volunteered to do the dishes, she said Yes. But when the time arrived, I watch her quietly slink away to a corner chair with a glass of wine in one hand and a paperback novel in the other. While other pilgrims carried platters and started scrubbing the saucepans, she disappeared into the half-light and ignored us all.

Did she help with the dishes?

Nope.

Did she do what was asked of her?

Nope.

Says one thing, does another.

For days afterwards, I struggled with a response to the evening’s events.

Should I have said something and if so, what?

I didn’t want to label the women as selfish asses but I also couldn’t understand how they had turned their backs. Maybe they didn’t know that our hospitalerio was under stress but still, shouldn’t they have done their bit to help?

That night, I curled up in my lower bunk bed glad of the warmth, the dry clothes, and the feast in my belly. Unlike countless nights before, there was no one snoring, no one getting up to the bathroom every five minutes, and no one packing their backpack at midnight. There was, however, a couple in the bunk above mine, and they didn’t let the lack of privacy interrupt their…ahem…cuddling!Even though I heard lots of things about camino, I had never heard about *that*.

In Acebo I heard it all!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

I had never heard of “The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim” before I started walking camino. I never knew there were such things and to this day, I’m not sure how widely these are circulated or known. I’m also not sure whether these have been passed through the years or they are a recent creation, and that lack of knowledge may be relevant to some. You might not want to embrace something that’s hundreds of years old. You might not want to embrace something that’s been around only twenty years.

Still, let me continue.

When I stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, I received a slip of paper with the ten points printed on them. Like everything else on camino, some things will resonate and others won’t so these may or may not be your groove.

Me?

I liked the message and I carried that slip of paper all the way to Santiago, and home, in case it took on a monumental significance with time.

I think the exact wording of these threw me off somehow but in my own way, I came to similar understandings and insights. I resonate with the sentiment. And I even resonate with the sentiment of sharing these because they might encourage reflection and compassion along the way. Camino is so much more than a budget walking holiday or a boozy way to see Spain. I’d like to contribute to the more reflective side – the side that encourages personal change in a positive way.

So, without wanting to be too religious-y, here they are. Just because.

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

  1. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” opens your eyes to what is not seen.
  2. Blessed are you pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others,
  3. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you contemplate the “camino” and you discover it is full of names and dawns.
  4. Blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered that the authentic “camino”begins when it is completed.
  5. Blessed are you pilgrim, if your knapsack is emptying of things and your heart does not know where to hang up so many feelings and emotions.
  6. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that one step back to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without seeing what is at your side.
  7. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you don’t have the words to give thanks for everything that surprises you at every twist and turn of the way.
  8. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you search for the truth and make of the “camino” a life and of your life a “way”, in search of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  9. Blessed are you pilgrim if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image in your heart.
  10. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” holds a lot of silence; and the silence of prayer; and the prayer of meeting with God who is waiting for you.

Passing the Half Way Point on Camino Francés…and Still Going

Distance walked: 23.7km

Distance to Santiago: 360.6km (Despite what the photo says!)

Walking the Camino de Santiago on a Sunday is a bit different to walking any other day of the week. Shops and supermarkets are closed so if you need to buy a new rain jacket or some picnic supplies on a Sunday, you might find yourself disappointed. Generally, I discovered the shutters pulled and the front doors locked. Smaller village shops *may* open for a couple of hours in the morning so you might be lucky in buying a few basic supplies but otherwise, you’ll have to wait.

This makes small villages particularly quiet on a Sunday. Depending on your preference, you might find this stifling and dull or delightfully relaxing.

Me? I had no reason to hang around San Nicolás del Real Camino that Sunday morning so I enthusiastically walked on to Sahagún 6-7km away. I was hungry and in search of breakfast, and while I walked I imagined plates of fresh fruit, with pancakes and syrup and pots of hot coffee and bowls of oatmeal. After weeks of baguette, I wanted something different. My taste buds cried out for berries and pears and pineapple. As I walked, I convinced myself that Sahagún would have such a feast on a Sunday morning. There’d be some quirky café open for breakfast and brunch, and I’d sit in, listening to funky music, eating my (no doubt) organic, sustainably sourced feast.

And it would be *am-a-zing!*

Right?

Ha ha….nope!

On the way in to town, I passed through these beautiful markers, reminding me that I was half way between St. Jean Pied de Port and Santiago. In some ways, I felt I  had already travelled more than that but I stopped for a break and aired out my feet. When other pilgrims came up behind me and wanted to take photos of the monuments I had to shuffle out of their view. Hence, I never got around to taking photos of my own 🙂

Click to image to see the photo credit

Sahagún has a population of some 170,000 people so I imagine that some version of my (imaginary) pancake & granola café is there somewhere. In a town that size, there’s surely some potential for it. On that Sunday morning, however, I didn’t find it. I didn’t come even close. Every little café and corner shop I passed on my way in to town was firmly closed up. My dream for pancakes and oatmeal seemed increasingly absurd. I’d be lucky to get breakfast of any sort, never mind my imaginings! Walking camino is not like everyday life and even though I craved a bit of normality that morning, it just wasn’t happening. So, when I finally happened on an open café I was thrilled. And I was happy to eat the baguette, the chocolate croissant, the eggs, and two cups of coffee. Hunger is a great sauce 🙂 And across the road? A small corner shop was open so I stocked up on baguette, tinned tuna, and fruit. I was set.

Sahagún is remarkably historical and significant and others have written about it far more than I ever could. If I had stopped off some other day of the week I might have made an event of it but that Sunday morning at 8am, everything was closed and looked like it would be for the remainder of the day. I crossed over the river Cea and walked on.

Making my way to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos was mostly uneventful. The day was hot and dusty, and I was hopeful that there’d be space for me in the 22-bed hostel. I had chosen to walk 8.7km of an old Roman road as part of my journey to get there so the walk was tiring and sore, and I didn’t really have it in me to go on any further.

In the last 2-3km, a woman appeared suddenly at my shoulder. She’d come up from behind without me even knowing she was there, and she started to chat.

Where had I come from?

Where was I going?

I revealed that I hoped to stay in the hostel up ahead. She too, hoped to stay there but then revealed all the fear. She’d heard that there were no beds left. She’d heard that they didn’t open on a Sunday. She’d heard that if there was no space there that we’d all be stuck because there’s not another hostel for more than 20km!

And then she abruptly ended the conversation with me and ran off ahead.

Why?

To beat me to the hostel.

To get a bed before I arrived.

To maybe take the last one available.

And not for the first time while I walked camino, my heart sank.

Maybe I am foolish and naïve but in *my* head, I would have thought we could walk those last 2-3km together, continue the chat, and investigate the hostel together. If there were beds available, great. If not, then we could unite in finding alternative accommodation or in taking a taxi to the next spot, 20km away. She wasn’t my friend but she wasn’t  my enemy, either. I had no reason to not walk and talk with her, and share some of the journey.

But how sad that she saw me as a threat and literally ran ahead of me. What would she have done if, after all that running, there was no space for either of us? What would she have done then? Would she have pretended to befriend me again or would she have ignored me while pursuing her own agenda? I’ll never know.

As it happened, there was plenty of space for both of us and for everyone who turned up after us, too. Our hospitalero was warm and generous in his welcome, and greeted everyone with a wide smile. He exuded positivity.

So all that fear and all those rumours about there being no space? Most of the time, the rumours weren’t true. There was no need for the fear. And there *really* was no need to outrun and outdo each other.

But that’s my feeling on it all. What’s yours?

 

 

What Camino taught me about Friendships

IMG_1116

Before I walked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago route in Spain, I felt a bit stuck when it came to friendships. Stuck and sad.

In the years prior, I’d noticed that certain friendships were dwindling or dying. After university, people had scattered to all corners of the world. They had busy jobs, as did I. They had partnered off, as had I, and maybe had new families of their own. They were trying to squeeze a lot of living into a small amount of time, and keeping in touch fell by the wayside. Logically, I got it, and in many ways I was in the same boat. But on a heart level, I missed my longterm friends badly. I missed the fun of hanging out, the spontaneity, the travel, and the parties. Most of all, I missed the connection.

I asked around and I was told it was all normal. It’s a life phase, apparently. Except, it wasn’t just a life phase. Some of the people in my life loved me for sure but didn’t prioritize friendship. Take for example, my friend Bendy (not their real name!). I’d call Bendy and say:

Hey friend, how you doing?

Bendy and I would have a big old chat for two hours and catch up. We’d laugh. We’d swap war stories and it felt great to connect. But at the end, Bendy would always say:

We must do this more often. We must make more of an effort.

I was heartened. It seemed Bendy and I both wanted to stay friends and stay in touch. And I agreed: Yes, we must do this more often.

Only, 6 months would go by with no word from Bendy, no reply to emails, no reply to text so I’d call again:

Hey friend, how you doing?

The cycle would begin again. After 2-3 years of this, I noticed an increasing upset within myself. It felt like I was the one initiating all the contact. It felt like I was the one making all the effort. Just like Bendy, I too was busy with a career and a relationship, but I still found time to reach out to my friends and check-in. I felt alone in my efforts, though. I felt Bendy was taking but not giving in return. Was that just a feeling or was there some truth to it? In 2010, Bendy and I were wrapping up a phone call when the usual script came up again:

We must do this more often. We must make more of an effort!

I was prepared for this and I wanted to do an experiment. I wanted to see what effort ‘we’ were willing to make to keep the friendship alive. I replied by saying:

Yes, we must! Next time you make the phone call!

Bendy laughed a hearty laugh and said goodbye down the phone line. And I didn’t hear from Bendy again for over two years.

I hadn’t imagined the one-sidedness of our friendship. I hadn’t imagined the imbalance of effort. I was the one initiating the contact and when I stopped doing it, Bendy and I had no contact at all. Turned out, there were lots of Bendy friends in my life. They loved me, for sure, but they weren’t ‘there’ any more. That sadness I felt? It was real.

By the time I walked Camino, my heart was heavy and sore from the loss of friendships in all corners of my life. Sometimes I took it personally, other times I brushed it off as normal but either way, I still felt sad.

Everyone who’d walked camino before me (or who’d known someone to walk it) all swooned in telling me:

You’ll meet so many great people along the way!

They imagined that I was worried about walking alone and this was their way of reassuring me. Only, I wasn’t afraid of walking alone. Honestly, that sounded like total bliss! Being an introvert, I didn’t really want to meet lots and lots of people every day. All that small talk made me sweat just thinking about it. Sure, I could do it but the very idea of it was exhausting. So, their reassurances had the opposite effect. But I did meet lots of great people along the way and over the course of those 500 miles, I learned some deeply-felt lessons for my heart and my life, too.

IMG_0879

For a start, I met far too many people who were self-absorbed and insensitive, and they reminded me of all the people like them in my ‘real life’ back home. They were the kind of people I didn’t want to hang out with in Spain and as it happens, I didn’t want to hang out with them at home either. What a revelation to finally and unapologetically realise that.

Secondly, camino helped me get really clear about the different levels of friendship I had in my real life. Not everyone was a close friend and not everyone should get a prime time slot of my time and energy. I hadn’t told anyone when I would return from Spain so I was ‘off the radar’ for a few weeks after I returned. I did this on purpose. I didn’t want the pressure to meet up with all the acquaintances in my life and tell them stories about the cheap wine and great sunshine in Spain. I was on a retreat even when I returned home. And in that quiet, still time, I sort of ‘graded’ my friendships, and gave my time and energy in accordance with the grading. The people I reached out to and met with first were the ones I really, genuinely, heartily wanted to see. All the rest came after. Again, what a revelation to finally and freely prioritize people in this way.

Perhaps the biggest lesson was this:

Camino taught me that people come and people go. And that’s okay.

Every day, I met lots and lots of great people on the trail. People who were open, friendly, generous, and good. People I loved spending time with. It was easy to make friends with these people and I was delighted with the connection. Only, there were some I never saw again.

I met people on my first 1-2 days of walking, had a fabulous connection, assumed I would bump into them further along the way, but never saw them again. Not once! To this day, I have no idea whether they lived, went home early, or ever made it to Santiago. My heart was sorry to have missed out on getting to know them.

And I also met people on my first 1-2 days of walking who appeared on my camino over and over again at the most unexpected and delightful times. We shared dinner and coffee. We connected, we chatted, we swapped stories. Every time we parted, we bade each other a Buen Camino, never quite sure if we would see each other again. But some of these friends met me in Santiago with warm smiles and hugs, and we are in touch ever since.

What was the difference between some friendships ‘sticking’ and others not?

Timing, for sure.

Intent? Yes.

But I’m gonna say that some of them worked because we were in each others’ orbit. Roughly speaking, we were doing the same thing, at the same time, in a roughly similar way, and we had a lot in common. Seeing each other regularly gave us a continuity that made connection easier. And rightly or wrongly, spending time together is important. Without that, some connections just fade away. And that’s what had been happening in my life at home.

On camino, some friends left early. Other friends stayed to the very end.

My heart was soft for them all but slowly, I really came to understand that friends come and friends go. And that’s okay.

So, all that sadness and hurt and anger I had felt over my dwindling friendships at home?

Let it go.

And all that fear I’d felt about not making new connections?

Let that go, too.

The Beatles said it far more poetically and sweetly when they sang, ‘In My Life’ but the sentiment is the same. We are all on a journey. Literally as well as figuratively. We change. We move. We meet people and lose people. Maybe we meet further down the line or maybe we never meet again, but we carry a softness of heart for them as long as we live.

Camino taught me all this. I forget it, sometimes, but I’m remembering again. And remembering the friends and strangers who were so kind to me along the way.

Thank you all.

 

 

 

 

Dick Measuring – On Camino & In Life

I had an unfortunate encounter this week. I crossed paths with someone I didn’t want to see. She isn’t part of my inner circle but she’s someone I have known a long time so I was obliged to say hello.

Exchange pleasantries.

Pretend to be interested.

I did all that and expected our conversation to wrap up quickly but before I knew it, she started asking more detailed questions. About what? About my plans. Career. Childcare. Things I don’t want to talk about right now. Things I am still figuring out. Things that take time to explain and require great listening, understanding, and trust. Just some of the things that are lacking between us.

I wasn’t prepared for the inquisition. She’s one of these people who hasn’t learned how to ask open-ended questions in a neutral tone. I didn’t want to get into details so I fudged a vague reply. She didn’t take the hint. She asked more questions. Pointed ones. The kind of questions that indicate judgement about my choices, my priorities, my heartfelt journey through life.

And I came home feeling sh*t about myself.

Sound familiar?

We all have people in life that rattle and upend us. The holiday season shakes up our social circle in all sorts of ways and we often come face-to-face with people we’d much rather avoid. It’s part of life.

And it’s part of camino, too. Every day that I walked, I met people who needled me for specific information: How many kilometers had I walked that day? How much money did I earn? What hostel would I stay in that night?

Sometimes these questions were just conversation starters. Most of the time they were benign and meaningless. But all along camino, I met people for whom these questions were far more important. They asked them as a means to gather information about me, often without answering them in return. Or they asked them so they could brag about their own achievements (in life, on camino, whatever). They asked them so they could judge me. Was I as rich as them? As fast as them? As fit as them?

I’m told this is called “Dick Measuring”.

And just as it happens in everyday life, so too on camino. You’d think all those pilgrims would know better.

They don’t.

They walk 500 miles asking pointed, nosey questions that undermine the people around them. They needle for binding, yes/no answers that are easy to catalogue. But I didn’t abide by the black/white rules of life: I was living proof of grey.

It took me a while to figure this out on camino. I went to France/Spain with my heart on my sleeve. I was open. I didn’t have a strategy in my conversations or in my everyday walking. I assumed that the people around me were wholesome and open-minded.

Sometimes, I was wrong.

I learned to keep some details to myself – mostly because they were irrelevant but sometimes because my honesty was used against me.

I had only one true plan: I would do my very best to walk all the way to Santiago. After that, I hadn’t a clue where I would sleep each night or how far I would walk each day. Some people thought I was being difficult or cagey when I didn’t answer their questions. They thought I had something to hide but the truth was less dramatic: I just didn’t have the answers. And I didn’t pretend otherwise. And that was an almighty liberation from my everyday life where I felt this ongoing, immense pressure to always have a plan and always be “on track” with that plan.

As soon as I started seeing a guy, people wanted to know when we would marry.

As soon as we married, people wanted to know when we’d have kids.

As soon as I had a kid, people wanted to know when I’d have another, return to work, and get the first child out the door already.

All this push push push to get to the next thing. And for what?

We’re all going to die. Fact. So why the rush to get through all of life and get to that end point already?

Truth is, I don’t really have a plan. I have aspirations and intentions, and sometimes they merge into a sort of plan. But that’s as organised as it gets around here. I don’t really get into Dick Measuring because it’s absolutely unhelpful in my life. Actually, genuinely unhelpful. And unhealthy too.

I’d like to be asked different questions, like: When did I last get a good look at the sky? What was my favourite thing to happen this week? What am I enjoying these days?

I walked my camino with a deep need to walk with trust instead of fear. And I try to carry that through to my everyday life, too.

So.

To all the people who have needled and pressed me for information: I’ll tell you if there’s something worth sharing but in the meantime, let me be. The answers will come when you stop harassing me with questions.

Just as it was on camino, so it is in life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life is a Camino

My good friend Jen is walking her second Camino Francés at the moment. This time, she’s walking it in reverse…she started at Finisterre on the coast and is making her way back towards St. Jean Pied de Port in the south of France.

Before she left, she made small inspiration cards to share with other pilgrims and I got a pack of them too. Every day, I randomly pick a new one from the pack, wondering what thoughtful reflection I will find.

Yesterday, this was my card:

IMG_5216

How is the camino like my life?

Funny, I think about this every single day.

Since the arrival of Little Baba, I have less time and energy than before. I desperately want to write blog posts but I get about an hour in the evening to eat, shower, and spend time with Handsome Husband before I fall into bed. I hate to say it but blog posts are a luxury I don’t have the time for.

It’s kind of fitting because I didn’t have time or energy to write blog posts while I was on camino, either. I don’t know how anyone does. By the time I found a place to stay each evening, had a shower, handwashed my clothes, and ate a dinner of some sort, I wasn’t fit for another thing. Some days I was too tired to eat at all and went straight to bed despite my empty belly. I can’t imagine the admin and energy it would have taken to write blog posts of any merit.

My life with Little Baba feels like another Camino. I think about that every day and I take great strength from knowing I’ve walked one Camino already. I know I’m a tough old bird and I’ve got pretty good stamina. And like my days in Spain, these days:

  • I am awake before 6am and in bed by 10pm. (I got fairly uninterrupted sleep back then whereas now…well, that’s a daydream!)
  • I am frazzled tired but I need to keep going. And like camino, I’m drinking the coffee but not feeling any difference to my energy levels or alertness!
  • I look a fright! I’m not really doing the “Yummy Mummy”thing right now. Similarly, when I went to Spain, I didn’t bring my nicest hiking gear. Instead, I brought the pieces that were reliable and durable, even though some of them were God damn ugly. I wasn’t trying to look the part, I wanted to be the part. And I’m doing the same thing now, too.

These are all fairly trivial similarities. The real meat is at a more private level.

How is the camino like  my life?

  • I am learning again that pacing myself is important. You can’t walk 500 miles to Santiago all at once. You can’t raise a small child all at once, either. Big things happen in increments over time. It’s taken weeks to write this blog post because I’ve snatched 10 minutes here, 5 minutes there. I can’t do it all at once any more. I am learning all over again what it means to get up every day, set realistic but flexible goals, and do my best to meet them…all the while knowing that the day could turn pear-shaped at any time. When that happens, I have to chalk it up to experience and start the next day afresh.
  • I’m learning again what it is to say Thanks for all that goes right on a given day. The water in the shower was hot? Awesome! I didn’t get rained on when I brought Little Baba for a walk? Wonderful! Every day, thousands of things go in my favour. Most of the time, I take them for granted and get on with my life. Lately I’m learning again what it means to have even a moment of mindfulness and say Thanks.
  • I’m reminded that when I compare myself to others, I usually put myself at the bottom of the pile and that sucks. So, I’m not rocking the “Yummy Mummy” vibe right now? I didn’t rock the “Trendy Hiker” vibe while on camino, either. I’m okay with that. Comparing myself to all the trendy hikers and glamorous Moms of this world is a quick slide into hell for me. The best thing? Just don’t go there.

Of course, there are things about camino that I really miss and long for. Mostly, I miss the time. I miss all those hours I had to myself every day to walk, reflect, and explore. I didn’t stay in any hotels or drink any champagne on my camino but my experience was still a luxury – I had a healthy body and time on my side. Everything was possible!

I knew this, of course. I left my job to go walk camino because my life was spinning in a frenzy and with each passing year, I seemed to have less and less time for the things that mattered. I wasn’t happy. I needed to hit the “reset” button and I knew that 6 weeks of walking was a luxury of time. I had to take it.

I am delighted that I did. Walking camino gave me an opportunity to be someone else for a while…not just a disgruntled employee or a newly married woman, but a solo traveller on a physical and metaphysical pilgrimage. Camino gave me time with myself. Even though my life is busy now, I still feel energised by my Camino experience. It’s kind of like having a bulk of savings in the bank before buying something really expensive. I had 6 weeks to walk and to reflect: what a tremendous asset before all of this other, very grown-up stuff started happening. Every day I draw on my Camino experience in some way and I take strength from it. Every day I find similarities between my 6 week journey then and my life now. I imagine I’ll keep finding similarities for years to come.

I’m just hoping I can start getting a bit more sleep soon. That would be good 🙂

What about you? How is the Camino like *your* life?

 

 

 

 

Camino: You are always on my mind…

You may have noticed another hiatus in this blog…there haven’t been so many new posts recently.

I admit it: I’ve badly neglected this blog, despite my best efforts to post often. True, I changed jobs and moved house in the last year and those things had a big impact on my availability…but not as big an impact as the arrival of “Small Baba” in my life.

A-ha! 

The *real* reason for my neglect these past few months!

People say that changing job, moving house, and having a baby are among life’s major stressors. I remember reading that they were in the Top 5. They may even be in the Top 3 list of life stresses. I’ve experienced all three in a 12-month period. Life has been so busy and unexpected that I often haven’t had the time to reflect on how it’s progressing. The landscape keeps changing and I just keep going. Years from now, I’ll probably look back at this time as somewhat insane. For now, I just keep plugging away as best I can, surfacing for air every once in a while.

Small Baba has proven to be the ultimate distraction. I anticipate an hour of quiet so I flip open the laptop lid and press the power button…only to get called away by the squeaks and squeals of this new little person needing my attention.

Writing anything – even a shopping list – is a big ask sometimes!

That said, I find myself thinking about camino every day. I find myself reflecting on camino-themed blog posts in my mind. I keep thinking of parallels between my camino experience and my daily life, and I keep thinking of material for new posts. Camino is always on my mind, hovering close to the surface.

These days, I’m continually reminded of how walking camino and caring for a small person are similar in ways: both feel like marathons, not sprints.

  • Pacing oneself is important.
  • Setting realistic expectations is important.
  • Celebrating the successes, however small, is important.

There were days on camino when my body felt so impossibly sore and tired that I couldn’t fathom how to keep going. With hundreds of kilometers stretching out in front of me, I wondered whether I had the stamina or resources to make it all the way to Santiago. Sometimes the challenge felt too huge to really comprehend. Sometimes Santiago felt like a mirage – one I couldn’t quite rely on.

I did the only thing I could do: I took it one day at a time. I left my hostels every morning, sore, stiff, and tired from a night of snoring roommates, and I put one foot in front of the other. I tried not to think too much about the aches and pains. Instead, I thought about the hot coffee awaiting me in the next village. I thought about the warm sun behind me, browning the backs of my legs. I thought about all the things that were working in my favour. And I prayed for everything I would need to keep going. Walking 800km all at once doesn’t happen in one day or in one week – the trail is too long for that. My mind struggled to understand what 800km really meant. The only thing I could do was take it one day at a time, one step at a time, and leave the rest up to the heavens.

Life with Small Baba is different but not dissimilar. Anything can happen. Plans change quickly and unexpectedly so sometimes it’s better to have a flexible aspiration for the day instead of a plan. That way, when the day goes better/worse than expected, there’s less upset about the plan working/not working.

My camino was a lot like that.

And everything I learned about myself on camino is standing to me now. All those noisy hostels, all those humbling aches, all those hours alone to reflect and reassess my life. I didn’t walk camino to “find myself” but I came home knowing and understanding myself on a whole new level. I came home knowing, and I mean *really knowing* that I am strong. I came home knowing that big things are possible when they’re broken down into smaller, manageable chunks. And I learned that there is a time for everything…so it’s okay to take the time and space, and just let the journey unfold.

There are lots of things I want to say about camino. There are photos and memories to be shared, and conversations yet to be had. If you can be patient with my comings and goings, I’d like to think that I will translate some of these thoughts and insights into written word over time.

And I’d like if you could stick around to read the words and tell me what you think.

In the meantime, there are squeaks and squeals to tend to, and a new journey unfolding before me every day. For all of us, January is over but the year is still young. Go gently. Pace yourself. Take it one day at a time. And celebrate the successes, however small they may be – they will give you the strength you need to go further, go higher, and go deeper.

We will all get there, wherever “there” is. Just give it some time.

 

 

 

 

 

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!

IMG_0940

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!

IMG_0941

IMG_0942

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.

IMG_0948

IMG_0950

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.

IMG_0960

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.

IMG_0962

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.

Camino Challenge: Great…but tough…

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

It’s great…but tough.”

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

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

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

How was it?

And I found myself replying in exactly the same way:

Great…but tough.

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

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

  1. Everything was accumulative.

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

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

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

Day 11: Finding my groove – aw yeah!

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

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

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

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

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

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

*That* was tough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. It’s not really a holiday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eewww!

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

I found *that* tough, too.

 

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

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

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

But there was greatness too.

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

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

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

Camino Challenge: Comparing Myself to Others

I’m back!

After a long hiatus, I’m back at a keyboard again and hopefully ready to write a bit more about my camino adventure. It’s been a long gap, I know.

Thanks for sticking around.

There are different reasons for my long silence but one of them, in particular, really caught me by surprise.

Short version: I subscribe to various camino blogs. Some of them are written by people who planned their walk for Spring/Summer this year. In some cases, it was their first camino. In others, it was their second or third. Either way, I signed up for these blogs ages ago and enjoyed reading about, and commenting on, their preparations and plans.  I still love reading about camino so the blogs are a great way for me to keep in touch with the good memories and anticipate my next walkabout.

So far, so good.

But 2-3 months ago, all at once, these people were ready to step away from the keyboards and go walk. Their bags were packed, their flights awaited, it was time to leave. All at once, my inbox was full of their updates. They wrote from France and Spain, from hostels along the way. They wrote about the friends they made, the blisters they drained, and the plates of pasta they gorged on. I empathized with their frustrations and disappointments. I smiled at their frank reports from smelly dorm rooms. I relished their photos from parts of the trail I surely passed, but didn’t remember. And then I felt bad for forgetting so much of the trail, especially when I thought I had remembered so much.

I don’t know any of these people personally but their journeys felt personal to me. I cheered them on from afar.

But surprisingly, with all the talk about *their* camino journeys, I felt less and less able to talk about mine. They blogged live from the trail and somehow, that seemed more interesting and more valuable than anything I had to say. After all, it’s nearly 2 years since I walked camino. I’ve had time to reflect but they had an immediacy that was attention-grabbing. I felt there wasn’t enough room in the blogosphere for both our voices.

So I went quiet for a while.

Oddly, I also went quiet because I knew that some of these people subscribe to this blog, and I didn’t want them receiving my updates while they walked their own journey.

Why?

Well, I subscribed to only one camino blog before, and during my camino. I enjoyed Jen’s style of writing. I enjoyed her honest accounts and vivid descriptions from the trail. It all seemed so easy. It all seemed like a lot of fun.

While I walked across Spain, my smart phone buzzed with email updates every time I found wi-fi. Some of the updates were from her blog and I couldn’t help but read them. She had finished walking by then but wrote about finding people to walk with every day. She wrote about laughter and chatter with the locals. She wrote about going at her own pace and taking early stops in charming, scenic villages.

It all seemed so easy. It all seemed like a lot of fun. But I couldn’t relate to it. Most days, I chose to walk alone. I didn’t have enough Spanish to have much chatter with the locals. I didn’t stop often enough and as time wore on, the small villages charmed me less and less.

Compared to Jen, I felt like Oscar the Grouch!

Her blog was full of insight and reflection, and she seemed to have it all figured out. Meanwhile, I felt I was dragging my sorry-ass corpse across Spain and was making everyone miserable – myself included.

Receiving Jen’s updates while I still walked my own path was a strange sort of torture. I read about all the things that went well, all the things she did right, all the things she was grateful for. I compared my experience to her experience, and felt I was failing. I felt I was “doing it” all wrong. I felt tired, over-stimulated, and very, very sore. I didn’t feel I was having any great epiphanies or profound experiences. I felt I was failing at the very act of walking a pilgrimage route, and I wasn’t having a lot of fun. As the days turned into weeks, this self-defeating criticism mounted. It brought me to a point of utter despair and I thought I couldn’t go on. I thought my entire camino journey was doomed. I thought I couldn’t walk all the way to Santiago.

I still remember the rawness of those particular days. I remember how the heaviness of my heart made my whole body feel like lead. Of course, I wasn’t just comparing myself to this one person. I compared myself to the hundreds of strangers around me, and I saw only their successes and my own failures.

It was my own, very personal form of hell.

You’ll be glad to know I found a way through it – otherwise, I couldn’t blog about camino with any kind of joy or fondness!

But still, I remember the ache as I compared myself to others and particularly, to this person at the far side of the world, on the other end of a blog post.

Somehow, these past few months, I couldn’t write about my camino while I knew there were people who might read it while they walked their own journey.

Most of them have finished walking by now and have made their way home, to reflect and recover.

And now that there’s a quietness to my inbox again, I feel it’s a bit kinder to talk about my camino. No comparisons, no judgements, but hopefully, a shared experience that is positive and good.

So on we go – and hope for the best!

I hope you’ll continue to join me! 🙂