Taking Stock and Starting Again in Cacabelos

Camino de Santiago: Would I stop walking or would I find a way to go on?

Distance walked: Almost none!

My quiet hotel room in Cacabelos was a real reprieve after the loud hostel the previous night in Ponferrada. I was glad to have stopped in the small town and even more glad to have had a private room for the night. There’s nothing like some sleep and some clean sheets to revive a flagging spirit.

The next morning, I sauntered downstairs for breakfast. Even that felt indulgent: instead of having to walk anywhere between 1 and 10km for my morning meal, I merely had to walk down two flights of stairs! The rain had cleared, the sky was bright again, and I had a decision to make: how far would I walk that day. As I sat nursing my coffee, I had to acknowledge that I still felt a heavy weariness within myself. I’d been walking for a month and my body was really feeling it. I could have pushed myself out the door and walked again but I didn’t want to. Somehow, I’d fallen into feeling the camino was something to be endured rather than enjoyed, and I wasn’t happy with that pattern. I needed to reclaim some joy and sparkle again. I also needed more sleep, some quiet time, and to figure out some sort of plan for my feet.

I inquired at the front desk about staying another night and to my surprise, the answer was no. I say, “to my surprise” because there seemed to be no one about and only 3-4 other guests having breakfast. I couldn’t imagine why they  couldn’t let me stay but they were expecting a tour group later that afternoon. They had no available room. So, feeling rather withered with the news, I went upstairs to gather my belongings and pack my bag. Half way through, there was a knock on my door. I hesitantly answered, wondering whether they were already kicking me out. The kindly man from yesterday stood there.

They’d made a mistake and turns out they could offer me a second night after all:

You can stay in this room, we can give the smaller room to the other person. Would you still like to stay?

Would I like to stay? YES please!

So, that’s how I stayed a second night in Cacabelos.

Tranquil ease at the archaeological museum

 

 

And to this day, the name of that small town is a sort of metaphor for me. When I hit that point of being over-stretched or overwhelmed, I think of Cacabelos. I think of what a tonic it was to get some extra sleep, to wander through the archaeological museum, and to eat a non-pilgrim meal for my lunch. I think of how it was to sit in the shade of a random coffee shop and invite a random pilgrim to join me, and of how she unexpectedly poured out her life story and camino lessons as though I were a long-trusted friend. I think of how much her story echoed mine and of how I was learning a lot of the same things as she. And then, when she was done with her latte, she gathered up her bag and was gone. I never saw her again and surprisingly, that was okay.

I think of how it “re-set” my well being to be quiet for a while, write in my journal, and wander around the town with no particular plan.

Shop window full of knitting wool

The tinned fish (and only fish) section of one supermarket

And I think, too, of going out for dinner by myself that second night, and of all the courage it took to approach a group of pilgrims I’d never even seen before, and ask to join them for dinner. Just think, a day earlier, I felt far too self-conscious and meek to spend time with Peter and Jeanne, yet there I was, boldly inviting myself into this group.  These Americans and Germans were new to me, and as it turned out, new to each other, but they welcomed me in with unquestioning warmth. And that evening, I remember the hearty bowl of broth, Marco’s rippling laughter, and his Dad’s kind smile while Marco translated for him all that I said. None of them knew that night that their company and kindness restored my faith in humanity again. And in myself, too.

Yes, there were self-absorbed jackasses on the camino. Chances are, someone thought was a jackass and all. Being sore and tired had made me cynical and weary, but taking time to rest in Cacabelos had turned things around again.

There was exceptional goodness.

There were genuine and generous people right at my elbow.

And with 200km to go, there was still everything to play for.

Fingers crossed!

 

 

 

 

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.

Camino Challenge: What if there are no beds?

A friend recently asked me:

What do you do if you arrive somewhere and there are no beds?

We were talking about my time walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, last year. In following my blog, they’d been surprised to read about the race for beds and the sense of competition I’d experienced in the early days. I was surprised by it too, and found it very upsetting. I’m no Holy Joe but I never expected to find power struggles and gloating on a pilgrimage route. I never expected to see people literally running past other pilgrims to get to the hostel before them. That was both sobering and sad.

I knew that there was pressure on the limited beds along the Camino. I also knew that there was a possibility I would get stuck for a bed somewhere in my 500 miles of walking. Apparently, some 200,000 people walked the French Way in 2013. With numbers like that, the chances are pretty high that many people get stuck for a bed. But I didn’t want to walk Camino in a state of fear about where to sleep at night. I made a decision about how I’d handle the situation if it ever arose. You can read about it here.

I did arrive in towns and villages to learn that there were no beds left and it was rather heartbreaking. Sometimes, I walked for 8-9 hours in over 30 degree heat, and desperately wanted to find a place to sleep for the night. Being told there were no beds left was gutting.

What did I do? Well, in case you missed it, I wrote about my experiences in these posts:

I felt the race for beds most acutely in the first week. After that, things quietened down a bit, for various reasons. Of course, there was still a pressure on the limited number of beds available: it just affected me differently.

So to answer my friend’s question, here’s what you can do if (like me) you don’t reserve your accomodation in advance but arrive somewhere to find there are no beds:

1. Politely ask the locals for help.

Chances are, they’ve seen other pilgrims get stuck before so they might know what options are available locally. Sometimes, that means sleeping on the floor of the local community centre. Sometimes it means sleeping on an armchair in someone’s living room. You might not get a bed but you just might get somewhere to sleep. Understand that there’s a distinction between these two things. Be grateful for whatever is offered.

Three women arrived in Zubiri the same day I did (and like me) learned that there were no beds left. They discussed their plight over a beer in the local café bar, and shared their story with the waiter. He felt so badly for them that he offered to host all three of them in his home. To some of us, that might sound inappropriate. In reality, he was being hospitable and sincere, and the three women were delighted to take him up on his kind offer. When he finished work, he gave them full use of his living room (complete with armchairs and a couch) and even cooked dinner for them as a way of apologising for the over-crowding in the town that night. Isn’t that sweet?

Not every local will want to be this helpful and they’re not obligated to host pilgrims in their own homes. But generally speaking, they do want to help. If you’re nice to them, they might help you figure out somewhere to stay, without having to resort to these next options….

2. Walk on to the next town or village.

I had to do this more than once, as did many others. Surprisingly, when you plan to walk 500 miles, some primal part of your brain kicks in and

walking = survival

So, walking a few more miles to the next town can be surprisingly okay!

It’s not easy when the weather is exceptionally hot, cold, windy, or wet. It’s also not easy when you’re injured, sick, exhausted, or depressed. You never know when you might have to give an extra push, so keep some energy in reserve. Feel like walking 25km? Well, you might need to walk 29km to secure a bed, so factor that in to your planning and your coffee breaks each day. Then, if you do have to walk on a bit further, you’ve got the energy to do it.

3. Take a taxi to the next town or village.

If you can’t walk on to the next town or village for whatever reason, you might find a taxi to bring you there. The first time I availed of a taxi, it was organised by a hostel owner in Zubiri because the town was full. She kindly organised taxis and accommodation for 20 of us that evening.

The second time I had to use a taxi was when I arrived into Los Arcos at 5pm, with three other women. Again, the whole town was full. One of my co-walkers requested a taxi to the next village and we were thrilled.

In both cases, the taxis got us safely and quickly to our new beds. But the next morning, we had to decide whether to go back and pick up where we left off. You’ll have to face the same decision, so be prepared!

4. Take a bus to the next town or village.

This follows the same sentiment as my previous point but this only works if you’re in a town or village that’s big enough to have a bus service. Oh, and if you arrive at such a time in the day whereby the bus hasn’t yet departed. I didn’t take the bus at all and never even looked at a bus schedule, so I don’t know how well this one works. If any of you reading feel like adding your two cents here, please do!

5. Sleep outdoors.

I met a guy who crossed the Pyrenees on his first day of walking, and arrived into the town of Roncesvalles at 7 in the evening. The hostel and private rooms were all taken hours earlier, so there were no beds anywhere. He’d already walked 27km that day, including the climb up, over, and down the mountains. There was no way he could walk any further so he slept on an outdoor bench that night. He admitted it was cold and uncomfortable but he said it was fine, really.

I think he might have been Rambo in disguise!

Weeks later, I walked alone and learned that two of the villages I passed through were full. Helpful pilgrims shouted to me in the street and confirmed that there were no beds left, and that I would have to walk on further. I didn’t know these people, and I didn’t even have to stop or take off my backpack to find out the information – they literally yelled to me from across the street!

I hoped the third one would have a free bed. I had enough energy to make it to the third village but I really, really didn’t have it in me to walk any further than that. So, I decided this:

If there are no free beds in the next village, I’m going to sleep outdoors.

I’m not beyond it!

I eyed the wheat fields and their bales of straw with a sort of exhausted lust. The straw looked soft and I figured it would provide extra warmth. I didn’t expect it to be terribly comfortable, but the ground was dry I was open to sleeping out, if necessary.

I know that some would never, ever consider sleeping outdoors, especially without a tent, a ground mat, and regular camping supplies. But people do it. It’s not that weird, really.

6. Sleep somewhere else.

I met a woman who arrived into the village of Villamayor de Monjardín to find there were no beds available. She didn’t have the energy to walk the 10k to the next town, so she asked the locals for help.

One said: I have a spare garage. You can sleep there, if you like.

Someone else said: I can give you some cardboard and old sacks to put on the ground.

Some pilgrims who’d already secured beds said: We have camping mats we don’t need tonight – you’re welcome to use them.

So, she joined 14 other pilgrims and slept on the ground in someone’s open garage. She wasn’t on a bed, a sofa, or a gymnasium floor, but she wasn’t outdoors either. She was safe and dry, and survived the night just fine.

Are there other options available? I can’t think of any right now. Maybe those of you who’ve already walked (some or all of) Camino can comment and remind me if I’ve missed something. Please do!

For those of you yet to walk, let me know if you have questions 🙂