Camino de Santiago: When to Walk?

IMG_0879Someone recently asked me for my thoughts on when to walk Camino de Santiago. It’s a great question. I’ve walked the French route, Camino Francés, so it’s the only route I can comment on but there are lots of other paths to Santiago. Each one brings its own set of considerations. I need to point out that I’ve walked 800km, from St. Jean Pied de Port in France, over the Pyrenees, and across Northern Spain. For some people that’s “all of it” but for others it’s only a section of the journey. The length of the walk is relevant when you have to think about weather,  accommodation, and such.

It’s very tempting to tell you about the weather and the general conditions when I walked. That’s easy to recount but not necessarily very helpful. Instead, here are my tips for trying to decide when is *your* best time to walk.

In no particular order…

  • Get informed. Talk to someone you know who’s already walked a camino – any camino. If you don’t know anyone in your inner circle, see if your friends or colleagues know anyone, ask at your local outdoor shop, or see if there are camino talks in your area where you can meet people who’ve got some first-hand experience. Ask them what route they took and when they walked (what year and months). Why did they choose that route, and was it considered quiet or busy at that time? What was the weather like? Was it typical for that time of year? Some people may have experienced unusually wet summers or surprisingly warm winters – find out when others walked, why they chose that time, and what their overall experience was.IMG_1116
  • Remember that everyone is different. One person’s best time to walk  is another person’s worst. I’ve met people who walked in the July & August heat, and others who walked when there was snow and ice. With the right gear, preparation, and common sense, they all survived just fine. So, take some time to reflect on your own happy medium in terms of temperatures, rainfall, sunshine…that kind of thing.cropped-img_0748.jpg
  • Look at your life. How much time can you give to the trail and when? I’ve met lots of school teachers who, because of their profession, could walk only at certain, very specific times of the year. Do you have similar constraints in your life? If so, how will they impact on your journey? Let’s say you have two weeks vacation (clearly not a teacher, ha ha ha), you need to take a transatlantic flight, walk camino for ten days, then fly home and jump straight back into work and your daily routine. Doable? Sure – lots of people do it because it’s the only way they can experience camino at all. Question is: is this how you want to do it? Take the time to reflect on what you can realistically give, and when. IMG_1266
  • Do some real-time research. I spent a bit of time reading through the Camino de Santiago Forum, here: https://www.caminodesantiago.me/community/. It’s a great resource full of up-to-date information about weather conditions, accommodation details, transport links, security topics…you name it. The “up-to-date” bit is relevant here. Already, my experience of camino is outdated because things have changed quite a bit since I walked. Getting information from people who are there right now is really helpful, and hopefully will help you in your own decision making.IMG_1051
  • Consider your route. The Camino Francés is hugely popular but it’s not the only route to Santiago. According to the pilgrimage office statistics page, the figures confirm that the numbers of people on camino are growing every year. In 2013 in the office received 215,879 pilgrims. In 2017, the office received 301,036 pilgrims. That’s quite a jump. Did they all walk the Camino Francés? It’s unlikely, but the growing numbers have an impact on everything – from the structural integrity of the trail to the availability of hot water in hostels. When you’re trying to decide when to walk, also think about what route you have in mind. Maybe you automatically assume you’ll walk the Camino Francés, but have you thought about how busy it may be? Consider the other routes too: they may be a better option for you given the time of year you want to walk, the amount of time you have to offer, and the experience you seek.IMG_0917
  • Don’t try to be perfect. Unexpected things happen on camino and in life, and there is no time of the year that is perfect for a walk such as this. For all the research you do, know when to pull back from it, too. Give yourself some breathing space and know that you cannot control every single detail, so don’t even try.IMG_1133
  • Last but certainly not least, follow your inner voice. It’s very, very easy to get caught up in research and preparation but that’s all “head stuff”. Pay very close attention to the “heart stuff” and “gut” too, because these parts of ourselves can be remarkably clear when it comes to making decisions. Give yourself the time and quiet space to notice how you feel and to listen to your inner wisdom. In my own experience, the call to walk camino was quite clear and I found it impossible to shake off the feeling that I needed to walk from early September until mid October. I tried talking myself into waiting until the following spring so I would have more time to save money, do some training, and do some research. The gut said “Nooooooooooo!” and the heart said it too. So, my decision to go walk 500 miles wasn’t what-you-would-call logical, but I am proud I heeded my own inner voice. I heartily encourage you to do the same! 🙂IMG_0735Whatever you decide, enjoy it  – all of it! In the grand scheme of things, deciding when to walk a camino is a “first world problem” and isn’t one to agonize over. We are remarkably privileged to have the health, wealth, and mobility to even consider such a thing. Count your blessings and celebrate it all. x

Deciding to Walk the Camino de Santiago?

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2018 is full of goodness for all of us and hopefully lots of great hikes too.  😀

It’s very early January and even though I am still finishing off the Christmas chocolates, I am looking at the year ahead and wondering what it will bring. I’m lucky to have good health so looking ahead is something that brings hope to my heart. I have options. There are possibilities. I have everything to play for.

What lies ahead?

Between you and me, I’ve been reflecting a lot on when to walk another camino.

Like countless pilgrims before me, I thought it would be enough to walk 500 miles across Spain just the once. I thought I’d “do it” and get it out of my system. I never imagined that I would want to walk again – that is, until I came home and began to reflect on the enormity of my experience. Very quickly, I realized I wanted to walk several more camino journeys in my lifetime. I even had a sense of my next route and when I would walk it but I didn’t make any commitments. I wanted to keep the planning loose until I was sure of the timing. There are lots of things to consider, like the cost, the time it takes, and the preparation it takes for a successful walk. Still, I reflected on when is a good time to walk and how to make that decision, and I wrote a little about it here.

Since then, I’m still reflecting and still trying to figure out the timing for my next journey.

Things are different now. Unlike last time round, I am not in a position to quit my job and walk away from family for 6+ weeks any more. I’m also not really in a position to bring family walking the trail *with* me either.

I know my circumstances will change and I won’t always face these hurdles so I’m not very worried about the timing just now. I just have to be patient and trust that it will come together.

But all this wondering and waiting is a curious thing. I feel my way through a lot of my big decisions and my last camino (and next one!) are no different. But  I wonder how everyone else arrives at the choice to walk camino.

Did you feel called? Was it the answer to a prayer or a heart’s desire?

Did you mentally commit to a year and a route, and then forge your life around making the plans work?

Maybe you suddenly needed a time-out and camino seemed as good a place as any to go think and “be”?

Was it a whim? Were you in Europe with a bit of free time and just decided to go check it out?

Or was it a dream you nursed for twenty years until finally the obstacles fell away?

I know that thousands of people overcome all sorts of obstacles to embark on a camino journey. People with lives far more complex than mine can make it happen. Either life bends to their will or they make it bend for them. Whatever the case, they live colorful, meaningful lives and stay connected to what has meaning and heart.

So, I’m curious. I want to know how to make it all work.

How did you come to your choice to walk camino? What were your obstacles and how did you overcome them? And what would you say to someone thinking about walking but unsure about how to start?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! 🙂

 

 

Taking a Break Before the Break Takes You…

IMG_0904One afternoon in Spain, I got chatting to a friendly South Korean woman about our camino journey so far. Like me, she was taking a break in the shade of a café bar, so we naturally fell into chat about our walking experience and our lives in general.

She told me that in South Korea, the army have a particular policy when they bring their troops on long walks for training or active service. For every four miles they walk, they then stop for a fifteen-minute break.

Whatever the weather, they stop.

Even if people feel strong enough to keep going, they stop.

Even if people don’t feel like stopping, they stop.

The logic is this:

Taking timely breaks prevents the body from getting too tired.

Taking timely breaks prevents people from getting weary and mindless.

Taking timely breaks prevents people from burning out.

Ultimately, the troops are able to walk farther for longer, and are not an exhausted heap by the time they reach their destination.

What a concept!

Her story fascinated me. I’ve never met anyone from the South Korean military to verify whether her story was true but the message really struck a chord with me that day:

Take a break before the break takes you!

While I walked all those miles across Spain, I didn’t follow this advice very well. I walked and walked and walked, and then had some really bad days where I felt exhausted and utterly overwhelmed. I experienced a sort of all-or-nothing extremism and it meant that some days were really, really hard. It wasn’t how I wanted to experience camino but I didn’t quite know how to change the pattern.

It never occurred to me that I could create a schedule of some sort and, for example, take a day off for every five days I walked. It never occurred to me to book private accommodation in advance and avail of some quiet privacy. It never occurred to me to take a break before I hit that desperate, wrecked, breaking point. As a result, I was probably more tired and cranky than I could have been. I pushed myself too hard and that sense of exhaustion was a predominant part of my camino. Rightly or wrongly, it’s a huge memory for me, too.

I say all of this now because I need to take my own advice again.

The blog has been quiet for the past month while I wrestle with a flu and chest infection. It’s winter here, I know, but still…when sickness grinds my life to a halt like this, it forces me to pay attention. Maybe I’ve been doing too much. Maybe I’ve been pushing too hard. Maybe I should schedule breaks each week or month, just like I schedule my work meetings and grocery shopping and household chores and and and and and….

You get the idea 🙂

Even when I don’t get to write about camino, I find myself thinking about it a lot and applying the lessons to my everyday life. Honestly, the learning was so pragmatic that it’s hard *not* to apply it to my everyday life, and I take a huge amount of inspiration from that time on the trail. Quite literally, the camino continues to change my life and how I live it, usually with everyday examples like learning how to slow down a bit.

So, this weekend, I encourage you all to take a break. Whatever the weather, stop for a little while. Whether you feel strong enough to keep going, stop for a little while. Even if you don’t feel like taking a break, do it anyway.

Take a break before the break takes you.

It’s a good way to keep healthy and well! 🙂

 

The Things You Remember (and Forget)

IMG_1003.JPGIt’s been a while, I know.

Every day, I’m “writing in my head” and coming up with things I want to share here. That’s fine for a while but I need to write “outside of my head” every now and then, too.

So here I (finally) am.

And lately, I’ve been thinking about the Camino de Santiago in a new way and how I write about it. Let me explain:

A lot of camino blogs seem to act as digital postcards for friends and family back home. They list place names and hostel stops. The photos show smiling faces and plates of food. The blogs don’t give a lot of detail and they don’t get reflective. They are just a note to say “Hi, I’m still alive”.

I didn’t write a blog while I walked across Spain. I didn’t expect to write a blog at all but after I’d been home a while and the dust had settled, I discovered I had a lot to say. I decided to write. As time has progressed and my life has become busy with…well…everything, I can’t help but notice what motivates me, or blocks me in writing.

For example, you might have noticed that I had quite a bit to say about the small village of Boadilla del Camino. I wrote four posts about walking to, and staying in this tiny village:

That’s an awful lot of words for a village that (according to my guidebook) has only 140 residents. The reason? The day I walked to Boadilla del Camino was a day when my body felt supremely strong and capable. That day was a high. And everything that happened in the village that evening changed my perspective on my life at home. Outwardly and inwardly, the day affected me deeply. And that was easy to remember. It was easy to get excited about. It was easy to write and write and write.

But the next leg of the trip?

Oh, I hate to admit it but there’s a chunk of the day I just can’t remember. I look at the map and I don’t recognise the place names. I don’t remember the countryside. There are hours in the middle and I don’t remember a thing. I don’t know if that’s because I found the landscape fairly forgettable or if it’s because I was so content with the walking that I didn’t record anything to memory. Either could be true. But whatever the case, my lack of memory has been a block to my writing.

What do I write about when I can’t remember huge chunks of the day? I run the risk of creating a blog post that is just like the ones I mentioned above: brief, vague, and fairly dull. So, what should I write?

Maybe I should come clean and admit it: I can’t remember huge chunks of the day I walked from Boadilla del Camino to Carrión de los Condes. Even though walking the camino was one of the most outstanding and memorable events in my life, there are sections of the trail that I just don’t recall. Of course, I could never remember all 500 miles equally: that wouldn’t make sense. I forget bits. I remember bits. I guess certain bits were uneventful and forgettable. And the bits I remember? Well, those were the bits that changed and re-wired me from the inside out. Those were the bits that have stayed with me every day since.

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Here’s what I remember:

I left Boadilla in the early morning darkness after thanking the hostel owner for my bed & meal. He told me that out of 70 pilgrims who’d dined there the previous evening, I was the only one to thank him personally.

His comment was both saddening and sobering.

I walked westwards. I avoided conversation with Lucy* when I saw her in a café later that morning. It was awkward, for sure, but to resume company with her would have made me murderous: I was better off alone. I walked just over 20km that day through flat, sunny farmland. I took almost no photos but for some reason, I took this one:

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When I arrived in Carrión de los Condes that afternoon, I quickly learned that all the hostels were full. Or so it seemed. Strangely, as I entered the town, a woman in a smart blouse and skirt stood beneath a street sign that directed pilgrims to the different hostels. She spoke to me in English and asked me where I was staying.

I haven’t booked anything, I replied.

There are no beds left in these hostels, she said, and she listed the names of the hostels I had hoped to stay in. But then she (kindly? helpfully? deceptively?) told me the name of a private hostel that happened to have free space.

Disheartened but sort-of grateful, I found the hostel she had mentioned and rang the buzzer from the street. A raspy, muffled voice came through the speaker and I struggled to hear it over the sound of the loud traffic.

In my rusty Spanish, I asked for a bed.

How many?

One bed, please. I am alone.

Just one? No. We have a room with four beds so we will give it to a group of four people. Not one.

And the line went dead.

I stood on the busy street, soaked with sweat, tired, and suddenly disheartened.

That woman had told me all the hostels were full. She’d told me that these guys had space, but the greedy jerks were holding out for a bigger group and more money. I couldn’t blame them but still, there’s supposed to be an understanding that if a pilgrim shows up and needs help of some sort, that help is given.

So, I stood in the shady side of the street and I wondered:

What should I do? Spend valuable time searching the town for a free bed that may/may not exist? Or should I walk out into the countryside again and on to the next village, hoping for a bed there?

On camino, as in life, here’s something I should remember:

Don’t believe everything that you hear.

It turned out that the woman in the skirt & blouse might not have been telling the truth!

 

 

 

 

The Cost of Camino: Is it *Really* that Cheap?

When I first heard about the 500-mile walk in Spain, I was still a student at university. My mountaineering friends talked about the open landscape and the physical challenge….oh, and the affordability of everything along the way. Unlike other long-distance hikes that I knew across the US and Europe, walking the Camino de Santiago seemed surprisingly cheap. Could it be real?

When the time came to walk, I didn’t know how to budget for it. I’d heard and read the stories of people who walked it spending only €20 a day (paying for accommodation, food, and sundries) and I wanted to do the same. I’d just quit my job and didn’t have another one on the horizon so getting the budget right was a necessity. But still, €20 a day, every day, in Europe seemed unrealistic. Would it be enough? And if not, how much extra would I need for 6 weeks of walking?

During my journey, I met a couple who’s combined total spend was €10 per day (wow). I met alleged millionaires who spent thousands of Euro on their trip. And I met every sort of person in between.

Me? I spent more than the rumoured €20 a day. I averaged closer to €35 per day. If were on a super strict budget, that kind of increase would have been a major stress for me. It’s nearly twice the amount that other pilgrims and guidebooks claim is average. So what happened? Did I lose the run of myself and squander my savings on fine dining and lavish spa treatments?

Ha! Not a chance.

From what I could tell, the €20 per day spend was possible only if one did the following:

  1. Walk fast so you can arrive at a town/village early and nab one of the €5 beds before other pilgrims *or* camp out
  2. Cook evening meals in the hostels instead of eating out
  3. Split the cost of private rooms with other pilgrims

Can’t do these things? Don’t want to do these things? Then €20 per day is not feasible and you need to put more money in the purse.

So what did I get for €35 per day?

Things I did:

  • Paid for flights within Europe
  • Slept indoors every night (mostly in dorms)
  • Bought footwear & clothing beforehand and en route
  • Bought pharmacy items en route (Compeed plasters, Ibuprofen, sunglasses, etc.)
  • Sent 1.5kg of belongings home in the mail
  • Contributed to the cost of 2 taxis with other pilgrims
  • Paid for 2 return bus tickets
  • Paid to have my laundry washed & dried in machines on a few occasions
  • Gave between €10-20 to ‘Donativo’ hostels (I could have given less but that was my choice)
  • Stayed in private hotel rooms by myself for 5 nights en route
  • Bought postcards, chocolate gifts, and earrings
  • Bought food in corner shops, supermarkets, and the occasional stall
  • Ate out for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner every day
  • Ate picnics
  • Donated to a photography exhibition & church collections
  • Bought beers & coffee for other pilgrims

Things I didn’t do:

  • Camp or sleep outdoors
  • Plan my route around cheap hostels
  • Book a room in advance (not even my first night in St. Jean or my finish in Santiago)
  • Stay in any of the Parador hotels (alas!)
  • Buy fashionable clothing or anything made of Spanish leather
  • Cook my own food (with the exception of 3-4 occasions)
  • Order the cheapest item on the menu
  • Skimp on pharmacy supplies, food, or a place to sleep
  • Go to bed hungry

All in all, my experience wasn’t overtly decadent but it wasn’t all frugal hardship either.  I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, and in the quantities I wanted. I didn’t hold back on the coffee or wine! And I bought whatever clothing/medical supplies I needed along the way. Maybe it was just me, but I didn’t really see much that I wanted to buy en route. Sure, I could have bought fashionable jeans and winter sweaters in Leon….but then I would have had to carry them all the way to Santiago. There wasn’t a hope in hell I was going to do that, so the temptation to buy frivolous items disappeared quickly.

I bought what I needed and some of what I wanted, and I did just fine.

And you know, the differentiation between my ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ has never been more clear. It was an eye opener for me, not just while I walked but for everyday life too. It’s just another way in which camino changes those of us that walk it.

🙂

 

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! 🙂

Walking in Spain: From Villambistia to Atapuerca

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Distance walked: 23.6km

Elevation Gain: Approx. 300m

After breakfast in Epinosa del Camino, I pottered off into the early morning darkness. One of the sweet things about walking Camino is that the sun came up at my back every morning while I walked westwards. So, even though I may have started walking in darkness, the light gradually and gently changed as the morning wore on. Because I wasn’t facing into the sun, the change was beautifully subtle. And I developed a great tan on the backs of my legs from the sun behind me! I’m not a morning person at the best of times, but I came to relish the birdsong and changing light at the beginning of each day.

Somewhere along the way, I’d heard that there were packs of vicious wild dogs outside a town called Villafranca. The rumour had travelled backwards along the trail, and I had heard it days before – from a woman I walked with on the way to Los Arcos. She gave me 2 pieces of advice:

1. Before entering the town, grab a fistful of gravel from the ground and use it to throw at the dogs, if necessary.

and

2. Don’t walk into town alone. Walk in a group of 3 people, or more.

I love dogs but I thought both pieces of advice sounded reasonable, all things considered.

Thing is, there are two towns called Villafranca along the Camino route in northern Spain. I didn’t know which one she referred to. I looked at my map that morning and discovered that I would pass through Villafranca No.1, and I didn’t know whether to expect a pack of wild, vicious dogs.

I imagined a gang of them, with foaming mouths and matted hair. I imagined them covered in lice and ticks, half-starved and desperate to gorge on my innocent pilgrim blood. I’ve known my share of wicked dogs in life and they don’t generally scare me, but still, this was different. I was quite alone on the trail that morning, and my legs were very, very bare in just a pair of summer shorts. Depending on how vicious and angry they were, I thought my chances of coming away unharmed were somewhat slim. I psyched myself for the worst.

And at the same time, I wondered how a gang of vicious wild dogs were allowed patrol the camino like that, given the volume of people passing through each week. It just didn’t add up.

That morning, I passed through Villafranca Montes de Oca without major incident. Contrary to the rumours, there were no packs of wild dogs awaiting my arrival into town, or on my exit either. The highlight was the cup of coffee I stopped for, before embarking on the climb up through the mountains. There was nowhere else to stop for the next 12.4km and I needed all the sustenance I could get. I hoped to buy a takeaway sandwich (the daily infusion of baguette with chorizo) but there was no joy on that front. Even though the café bar had just received a delivery of 24 fresh, metre-long baguettes (and I should know, I saw the guy from the bakery drop them off), they declined to make me a sandwich. They explained politely, but very firmly, that sandwiches were for lunch and it was too early to serve lunch. So, they would not serve me a sandwich, even though I was one of the only customers there, and they had all the ingredients to hand. There was no way I was getting any lunch food until it was definitely lunch time.

Bureaucracy lives on!

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Looking at the photo above, I still remember the heady smell of pine trees and heather, as I walked through the morning fog. After the vineyards of Rioja and the open farmyard of previous days, the mountainy, woodland smells stood out as something different. I was somewhere new. The fog was cloying and damp, but I remained dry despite my summer shorts and bare legs. I could smell the dirt. I could hear the satisfying crunch of the gravel underfoot. I climbed slowly and steadily. Compared to previous mornings of bright sunshine and light, this particular morning felt like autumn. The weather and the smells were altogether different.

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Remembering this day brings up a mixture of memories. While I still walked through the 12km of woodland, I came across a Spanish family who walked camino together. They had the appearance of people on a day hike – small backpacks, or none at all. Tank tops and jeans. Running shoes. A mixture of ages – parents, aunts, teenage children, smaller children. They were quite a gang. They chatted loudly and their squeals broke the silence of the morning. I heard them long before I saw them.

By then, I was on my 12th day of walking and the initial sheen was starting to wear off. By then, the people who walked for only one week had already gone home. By then, the remaining pilgrims had divided between the people who walked fast, and the slower ones – like me. I sometimes felt that camino was like Darwin’s survival of the fittest. After all, the people who were strong or could walk quickly, often had their choice of hostels each day, while others got stuck for a place to sleep. Physical strength and financial resources created an unequal playing field, at times. I’d already met people who had their bags carried by bus, or who booked private accommodation days in advance. I wasn’t entirely sure that their behaviour was fair. I was in it for the long haul but it seemed to me there were certain inequalities on the trail. So, the sudden appearance of loud day-trippers hit a nerve.

I was still tetchy from the previous evening at Villambistia, and I wanted to walk alone. I wanted to walk in quiet solitude. The loud, boisterous antics of the family ahead of me was the antithesis of what I wanted. Their vibe jarred with my mood but I reasoned:

How nice: this family are spending quality time together in nature, this Sunday morning.

They could be staring at TV, or buying things they don’t need in the nearest shopping mall. Instead, they’re out here, doing this, together.

I could get on board with that.

But still, they made quite a din.

I overtook them on the trial and walked on ahead, alone. The noise followed me through the trees, through the village of Agés, and to my final destination of Atapuerca. After walking 23.6km I could go no further. I asked for a bed in one of the hostels there, and prayed for a quiet afternoon to garner some space.

As if!

 

 

 

Welcome to Villambistia

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Villambistia, like Tosantos, is a small place. Wikipedia tells me that in the 2004 census, Villambistia was listed as having a whopping 65 inhabitants.

The sign advertising Internet was misleading. Even though I sat inches from the router, I couldn’t get enough coverage to send a message home. A first-world problem, I know!

The walk from Tosantos was only 2km and I hoped to find a bed there for the night. My guide-book listed one hostel with only 14 beds. I may have wanted to stop there but there was no guarantee I’d get a bed. After all, I already decided to change my plans to stop off in Tosantos; I may have to change them again, too. Such is life on camino when you don’t book your accomodation in advance – every day is a guessing game. But considering I already walked 20+ km that day, I wanted to stop as soon as possible and get in from the blazing sun. I rested all my hopes on the 14-bed dorm and headed west.

Along the way, I happily bumped into two Canadian ladies I hadn’t seen in days. We first met in Zubiri, shared a dorm in Zabaldika, and lost track of each other until Logroño. Already, that felt like years ago and we had a lot to catch up on, so we chatted while we walked. Bumping into them was the sweetest part of my day, and I was glad of their warm company.

Out there in the middle of wide open farmland, hour after hour, all I could think of was this one term:

“Latifundia”

Lati-what?

Let me explain.

A lifetime ago, I studied geography and learned about how the European Union reformed agriculture across its member states. Northern Spain, for instance, was known as one of the “Bread Baskets of Europe”. Wheat and corn were grown there since Roman times and more recently, the area produced huge amounts of crops – all for profit. The area was full of commercial, large-scale farms (latifundia), which were owned by wealthy landlords. As a result, the northern half of the country was wealthy and prosperous, with well-developed road networks, markets, and industry.

So far, so good.

The southern half of the country, however, was the exact opposite. Andalusia, in particular, was riddled with small farms (minifundia), on land that was poor in quality and poor economically. The farmers themselves were tenants and peasants, working to feed their families or maybe for small profit. The holdings were small, so everything was done by hand, which made it slow and inefficient compared to activities in the north. As a result, southern Spain had poorly developed road networks and markets, and no money to speak of.

It was a tale of two countries, until the EU came along with massive amounts of funding and a plan of action.

The rest is history.

When I studied all of this a lifetime ago, I found it fascinating. Geography – both physical and social – explained the world in a practical, tangible way. I liked to hike, I liked to travel – geography gave me the backstory that no guidebook ever would.

That said, the farming practices of mainland Spain were somewhat abstract. I understood the theory perfectly: I just couldn’t relate to it in my own life.

But by the time I reached Villambistia that day in September, all I could think of, over and over, was the word “latifundia”.

All I could see around me were expansive fields full of golden wheat and straw. These were fields that followed the curves and slopes of the landscape, but had no beginning or end. These fields reached all the way to the horizon – on all sides of me. I had never seen so many golden fields all at once, especially on such a scale, and without any fencing between them. There were no boundary lines or walls to mark the beginning of one or the end of the other. The only thing that separated them was the patchwork of colour – all shades of amber and ochre, as far as I could see.

Enormous tractors and straw balers roared across the landscape. The evening hummed with the sound of engines and the clanking of iron.

Though the villages were small and appeared poor, I passed countless BMWs and Mercedes cars that day. Or rather, they passed me, as they whizzed by on the roads around the village. Spanking new, gleaming in the sunshine, with tinted windows and growling engines….this was no ordinary, poor little village.

*This* was latifundia in action.

I was relieved to secure a bed in the 14-bed dorm, and delighted that the 2 Canadian women had chosen to stay there too. Otherwise, the evening might have been one of my loneliest.

The village had just one café bar, and it doubled-up as my albergue for the evening. On the ground floor, the bar consisted of Formica-topped tables and brightly-lit slot machines. Those tables were cluttered with shelled nuts, bottled beer, and ashtrays filled with cigarettes. The room was neither inviting nor charming.

The wall-mounted TV showed Saturday sport, and the small room was filled with men – most of them 60 years and upwards, in oversized cotton shirts and polyester blend pants – yelling loudly at the screen. The blackboard menu offered 3 types of sandwich to choose from, and the ones already on display were surrounded by flies.  We were the only pilgrims in the village and stood out like sore thumbs, but were glad they had available beds. It saved us from having to walk further that day.

Upstairs, the dormitory extension was clean, modern, and newly built. The wooden bunk beds were probably the most sturdy on all of Camino, which meant they were quiet and comfortable. Small blessings.

The remaining 11 beds filled up over the next few hours. Each time a new pilgrim arrived, the hubbub began again.

The sounds from the shouting locals wafted upwards on the wind.

Backstage in the kitchen, pots and pans banged and clanged.

Pilgrims shouted back and forth between the bathroom, the bedroom, the washing line, the bar.

Bags rustled,

Doors banged in the crosswind,

Pockets were zipped and unzipped,

Things were knocked over, retrieved, and knocked over again.

Every new pilgrim followed the same pattern – shower, wash their clothes in the sink, eat some lunch, unpack and re-pack the bag…

It took hours for the room to settle.

I don’t mind saying it, but I ran out of there like my ass was on fire to find a quieter corner a few hours. One thing I really missed on camino was my own front door – and the boundary it creates in my life. No matter how demanding or crazy my day is, I get to go home, close the front door behind me, and keep the world at bay. That small gesture is a way of claiming some space. The front door is a dividing line between safety and storm. I love having one.

But on camino, I didn’t have a front door. I didn’t get to draw a dividing line between myself and the crowds around me. Every day, I was at the mercy of random strangers and their behaviours, as we competed for bathrooms, dormitories, washing line spaces, sandwiches, coffees, wi-fi, space, quiet, time, and energy. Of course, most of the time, my fellow-pilgrims were considerate, accommodating, and kind. But that afternoon, my new roomies banged and shouted their way around the hostel as though it were a shipyard. It pushed a few buttons.

My two new friends had gone for a walk by themselves so I was alone in a noisy hostel and an even noisier bar. I would have liked a drink but felt intimidated by the crowd downstairs. There was nothing else in the village – nothing to see, nowhere to go, and nothing to do. There were no corner shops, no amenities, no other “hub”. Even the doors of the 17th century church were locked. For miles around, there were fields of wheat and corn, but not a lot else.

I was surrounded by people but felt isolated and alone.

I was surrounded by open space but felt trapped in this nondescript village.

(You’ll be glad to know that this wasn’t a running theme for my entire camino. I’ll admit, the first two weeks or so were really intense between the crowds, noise, and the push/pull on my energy, but I did figure out a better way of being. By the time I arrived in Santiago, I was a different woman! Still, those early days were rather mixed, as I figured out my own way of walking camino and I think it’s only fair to mention it…)

I sat in dappled shade under a horse-chestnut tree, and closed my eyes. Even though I didn’t sleep, I got some rest and took some time to decompress. The sounds of farm life carried on the breeze, and my nose picked up the smells of the land. On the surface, it was a beautiful evening in autumnal Spain, and I was lucky to have it. Inwardly, I just wanted to survive the evening and get out the other side, hoping I would stay somewhere better the next day.

Fingers crossed!

 

Adiós Azofra (and a Coffee in Cirueña)

Distance walked: 22.4km (from Azofra to Grañón)

Just now, I looked at Brierley’s map for this day’s walking and was appalled to realise that I couldn’t remember anything about the first 9km of it.

I mean, not a single thing.

That really bothered me.

I know it’s going to happen for parts of my 800km journey but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon.

Sure, I was tired when I left my hostel in Azofra. My roomie’s snoring from the previous night meant I had less sleep than normal. But still, I was disappointed that I couldn’t remember anything other than chatting to my new Korean friend, who was ill and had decided to stay in the hostel another day. I hugged her goodbye and walked off into the countryside…apparently.

I looked at the map and thought to myself:

I probably stopped in Cirueña for a coffee and breakfast…

But I couldn’t remember any of it.

That is, until I Googled the name of the village and found these images, and then it all came flooding back.

Aaaahhhh yes….I remember this place!

For those who haven’t walked Camino yet, I know that all of these place names and references to coffee seem a bit arbitrary. They may even strike you as meaningless and you might find your eyes skimming over some of my words.

I was the same when I read other peoples’ accounts of Camino. All the place names sort of blurred together and I didn’t really understand why so many people thought coffee stops were so noteworthy.

I thought: Yeah whatever, hurry up and tell me more about the walking instead of ranting about café con leche!

So, I get it.

But when I walked Camino, my perspective changed.

The thing is, all these towns, villages, and side-of-the-road vans selling coffee can break up a day. Starting out from a hostel every morning, the prospect of walking however many kilometres can be a bit of a mental and physical drag. You need to know that you can take a break somewhere when you get tired, thirsty, or need to pee. You need to know that you can hit the “Pause” button for a short while and air out your sweaty feet.

On a practical level, small café bars offer breakfast when most of the hostels do not. So, stopping off is part of the morning routine.

They offer a chance to sit and take a break from the physical exertion of walking for hours every day. They give pilgrims a chance to step in out of the weather – whatever it may be. Cafés and bars provide food, drink, and bathroom services – all of which are in heavy demand. And of course, the cafés offer a chance to be social. I enjoyed surprise reunions and bumped into friends I thought I’d never see again, like the time I was reunited with the “Champagne Camino” women in a café in Lorca. That was fun.

So you get the idea – coffee stops are really relevant. They can make a day.

Forgetting 9km of trail after Azofra was disheartening until I remembered that this was the morning I passed through the ghost estate of Cirueña, where every house was newly constructed and almost all of them had a “For Sale” sign out the front. This was like no other town or village I’d passed through. It felt contrived and soulless, and was clearly a financial failure. I walked past dozens of houses, all silent, with pristine gardens and chicken wire fences. There were no signs of life and the place felt plain odd.

But by then, I’d happily bumped into Barb and Dave, and we rounded a corner to see a golf course club house – complete with plastic tables and chairs out front.

Hurrah…a chance for coffee…and breakfast!

They kindly treated me to my coffee and pastry and the three of us sat out front, enjoying the sunny morning. I used the free wi-fi to make a call to Handsome Husband, who was having a hard time at work that morning. This is the man who generously supported me when I resigned from my job, and wholeheartedly encouraged me to go walk Camino. This is the man who offered unconditional support, and was home alone while I spent my days rambling across Spain. I wanted to reach out and help him feel supported, too.

But I came away from the call feeling conflicted.

I wanted to stay on the call with him and give him more time, but I couldn’t spend all day at the club house. I had to keep walking but to do so meant losing the wi-fi and my chance to call him. It would be hours before I’d have a chance to call him again. It could even be days, if there was no wi-fi at my next stop. I felt guilty about being so far away from him when I wanted to help. I wanted to be a “Good Wifey” but was limited by geography.

I shared my conflict with Barb and Dave, who replied:

“We have a list of people we pray for while we’re walking. We pray for someone different every day but today, we don’t have anyone to pray for. We’ll pray for Handsome Husband, if you like.”

😀

I heard that prayers said on Camino are more potent. If this is true, then a whole day full of prayer would surely help Husband’s tricky work situation. And how nice for him to know that two people he’d never even met were rooting for him, thinking of him, and supporting him from afar.

I shared the news with him before we departed the club house. The next town was only 5.9km away and it looked like a fairly big one: I hoped to find wi-fi there and call him again. In the meantime, two generous Canadians were keeping him in their thoughts – as was I – as we strapped on our backpacks and headed west.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Cheers for Everyone Walking the Camino de Santiago!

Only 589.2km left before I reach Santiago!

Sometimes, even now, I look at those numbers and I’m quietly stunned.

How on earth did I walk 800km across France and Spain?

How does anyone walk such distances, especially in just a few weeks?

I think the human body is an impressive piece of work. We’re built to move and even in this age of high-speed travel, we’re capable of walking hundreds of miles. We’re quite a bit removed from our caveman ancestors but I’m glad we haven’t lost our capacity to walk long distances and go see what’s out there.

Despite all the modern conveniences, we’re still able to go back to basics. I love it.

And to all the pilgrims, past, present, and future – I salute you!

I salute your willingness to embark on the Camino journey. I don’t care how many miles you walked or how many blisters you endured. I don’t care whether you went home after a day, “finished it”, or have walked it a dozen times. I’m hoping it was a positive experience but even if it wasn’t, I salute your willingness to get up from your couch, move away from your desk, and go take your body for a long walk. I applaud your sense of spirit and adventure, and your courage to go do something different.

It would have been easier and quicker to take the train, right? And I’m sure it would have been more convenient to book a beach holiday instead of sweating your way across the Iberian peninsula!

Beach holidays have their place but they’re no Camino. Sometimes the world tells us that the beach holiday is normal and that to walk 800km across Spain is not. Whatever your reason for choosing Camino – whether you wanted a pilgrimage or a cheap walking holiday –  I’m sure there were some people who couldn’t relate to your choice.

Maybe they thought it all sounded a bit dull. They might have thought it was very odd. They might have thought you were having some sort of mid-life crisis.

I’m sure you knew people, just like I did, who thought you were mad to propose walking across Spain, especially if they’d never heard of Camino before. Some of my nearest and dearest hadn’t heard of Camino and thought I was heading off into the wilderness alone, to navigate and trek my way across rural Spain, for however long it took. “Mad” doesn’t even begin to describe what they thought of me! I will always remember their worried looks, trying to decide whether to be more concerned about my mental health or my chances of getting killed in rough scrubland.

It took a long time to convince them that I wasn’t unwell and I would be okay. Spain is quite a civilised country, really!

But I understand their concern and their desire to talk me out of my hair-brained idea.

Maybe some of the people in your life responded in a similar way? I’m sure it made your decision-making just a bit more complex. It’s one thing to head off on Camino when the whole world is applauding your choice. It’s a bit more tricky when the people around you are scared or resistant.

And yet, you did it anyhow. That took courage and faith. And I’m hoping you got to feel what I felt, at least once somewhere along the way:

That walking Camino was one of the most sane things I ever did!

I came home proud of, and awed by, the power of my human body. I came home feeling proud of everyone I met along the way, and of their enormous achievement to have walked the path, too.

I started out with the best intentions in the world but with no idea of whether I would be able to fulfill them.

800km (500 miles) sounded like an awful lot.

Make no mistake about it – 500 miles is a long way to walk.

But like many great things in life, it’s not something to be done all in one go. It takes steady perseverance, one step after the other, one day at a time.

Before you know it, you’ve covered more than 200km.

Before you know it, you arrive in a small village called Azofra and find that you’ve only 589.2km to go.

Magic!

Navarette

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16th Century Church of the Assumption (heavily covered in gold on the inside)

I was delighted to secure a bed in the main hostel in Navarette. Brierley’s guide-book tells me that it sleeps 40 people, and I was assigned a bed in the attic. I carried my dusty, sweaty self up the steep stairs, with details of my bed number in my hand. The dorm was a mixture of single beds, bunk beds, and mats on the floor. I didn’t know what had been assigned to me but I made my way around the room, scanning the numbers on the bedposts as I went.

I found my bed tucked against the back wall of the room and thankfully, it was a bottom bunk.

Hurrah!

Bottom bunks are a blessing for sore feet.

The only snag was this: Someone had already taken my bed and laid their things all over it.

Not this again!

After my experience of pinching beds in Puente la Reina, I had mellowed a bit. Back then, someone had stolen my bed and tried to play innocent. I sent him packing, without feeling even the smallest bit of apology. He’d found a bed somewhere else in the hostel and I reclaimed that which was “mine”. Admittedly, it was awkward to bump into him around the albergue that evening, the next morning, and on the trail the next day. I bumped into him several times over the following 1-2 days. Though we were surrounded by countless new faces, he and I had a history and there was no easy escape from it. We were definitely not friends.

In the intervening days, I’d had a chance to reflect on my behaviour and I thought: maybe I shouldn’t have kicked him out so quickly. Maybe I should have shown some patience and care to this elderly man – this was the Camino, after all. Maybe I could have expressed more tolerance? And anyway, it’s not like I really owned the bed back in the hostel – I was lucky to have loan of it for the night. Maybe I should have been the one to go looking for another place to sleep?

I bumbled along the trail every day, and I reflected on such things.

By the time I arrived in Navarette and discovered someone had taken my bed, I felt more Zen.

I thought: No worries, I’ll just pick some other bed!

Before I had time to turn around, the woman from reception was right beside me. She’d come to see how many free beds were left in the room and took stock of everyone in it. In an instant, she realised my predicament:

I still wore my backpack but there were belongings all over “my bed”.

Clearly, someone had taken my spot.

She seemed to be more upset by the mix-up than I was, and instantly wanted to know what was going on.

Of a sudden, 4 women jumped up from a bed in the corner and started speaking loudly and quickly. They wore lots of Lycra and discussed distances covered. They’d been looking at photos on an iPad and uploading them to Facebook…

Ah, you again.

She had arrived with her 3 friends and laid claim to the best beds in the room. They had all chosen lower bunks against the wall, and had marked their territory clearly. My appearance seemed to complicate things, especially because the staff seemed to be on “my side” and demanded to know why someone was on my bed.

If ever there was a moment on Camino when I could say “All hell broke loose” – this was it!

The women argued loudly that they had arrived first and were entitled to choose whatever beds they liked. Our hospitaleria (volunteering staff member) argued that everyone had been assigned a certain bed number, and that no one got to choose their bed. She demanded that they move their belongings and take the beds they’d been assigned. The women shouted at the injustice of the situation; the hospitalerio shouted back.

I stood in the middle of all the shouting, feeling amused and self-conscious.  Personally, I didn’t actually care what bed I slept in. Sure, a bottom bunk beside the wall was a dream situation, but I’d have happily taken whatever was going. After all, the place slept only 40 people and I was one of them – I was lucky to be there at all.

Everyone else in the room looked on at the argument in silence. Whether they’d been sleeping or unpacking their gear, everyone stopped to watch the spectacle. We witnessed a clash between (what I call) “Old Camino” and “New Camino”.

“Old Camino” consists of those who understand that a bed is not a guaranteed thing, so they accept whatever kindness is offered – gladly and humbly. They walk for the journey, and don’t count miles or kilometres as badges of honour. They allow the unexpected to unfold.

“New Camino” consists of hikers, backpackers, and  holiday-makers, who walk for the physical challenge or adventure. They might even walk it because they want to “Do the Camino” and cross it off the Bucket List. They expect Camino to be like every other holiday – one where reservations are made and kept – otherwise someone is compensated.

These are not official names and I agree, they are unforgiving generalisations.

But you get the idea: the Camino has become fashionable and very popular in recent years. It attracts a new crowd and not all of them treat it with the same expectation or attitude. Rightly or wrongly, people have different agendas.

That evening in Navarette, we witnessed the uncomfortable clash of such differences.

In the end, the hospitaleria “won” and I got my bed back.

Gracias!

I shrugged my shoulders and smiled at the 4 women in an effort to say: I have nothing against you, this is just how things have turned out.

Only one of them smiled back. The others scowled and broke eye contact, and returned to their Facebook page.

Ouch.

Later that day, I happily bumped into Kevin and Liz again and feasted on some of the most delicious tapas of my whole Camino. They’d discovered the best eatery in town (this was to become a pattern) and I found them tucked inside, making friends with the whole place and drinking generous glasses of vino tinto.

I lit candles in the church, chatted with (some of) my roommates, and fell into a deep and grateful sleep. My new shoes had carried me many miles, I’d secured a good bed, and had a belly full of great food.

What more could you ask for?

 

Thanksgiving and Spiritual Inspiration for Camino de Santiago

I heard a prayer recently that really struck a chord and made me think of Camino.

I’m not kidding when I say I know about five prayers in total and I’m not usually fluent in this sort of thing. But I heard this prayer from Teresa of Avila in recent days and it really resonated…especially all the references to feet.

It made me think of Camino and of the walking I did every day over six weeks. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of walking – it kind of defies belief. Somewhere along the way, I realised just what a profound gift it was to be there at all. I don’t just mean that I was lucky to have the time off or that I could afford the air fare to get to France/Spain. Of course, those things are relevant.

But what a tremendous gift it is to have a body that works, a body that moves, walks upright, and is capable of covering such impressive distances. The world is full of people in various states of ill-health and disability. Some day, I may be one of them. But right now, thankfully, I am healthy and strong. On Camino, my body rose to the biggest physical challenge I’d ever presented, and it carried me across Spain the old-fashioned way – on my own two legs.

How amazing to have such awesome legs!

Hearing the prayer below, I thought of some of the people I know who are disabled or unwell.

I wondered: What would it be like if they could manifest themselves through my hands, my eyes, my feet, and live in my body for a day?

What would they do?

Would they go dancing? Would they drive a sports car? Would they bring the dog for a walk?

It’s a tremendous gift to stand upright and go for a walk. Those of us who can do it every day probably take it for granted.

I know I do.

But on Camino, I developed a growing sense of this profound blessing – that of a healthy body, and the blessing of an open road and an open sky. It was a gift to be there at all and to be able to experience any of it. Lucky me, I was able to experience all of it – day after day, week after week.

I did the best I could at the time. A year later I’m inclined to think I did quite a bit of whining about my sore feet. Only those who walked with me can confirm or deny the volume of my whining. To those of you who were there: I’m sorry if I went on a bit.

Hearing the prayer below has given me a different perspective. It has made me want to go walk Camino again, and this time walk it with more grace and less whining. I think that was my aspiration the first time round too, and I guess I had a sort of “hit-or-miss” success rate with that. But hearing this prayer has stirred my heart-strings in a new way and makes me want to go again, but in a better way.

It’s not that I am having a religious epiphany.

But I’m re-remembering this simple reality: No matter how hard it gets, we all have something to be thankful for.

Even if we ache and hurt, there are parts of ourselves and our lives that still work, still move, still rise to the challenge of being alive in the world. Those parts of ourselves and our lives are a gift.

On Camino, my feet hurt like hell but you know what?

They still carried me 500 miles across Spain.

They did everything I asked of them.

To celebrate Thanksgiving, I am thanking my feet for rising to the Camino challenge. I am thanking my body for carrying me (and my belongings) every day across all sorts of terrain. I am thankful for the gift of Camino, and all that it entailed.

And in the meantime, a word from Teresa of Avila (from Spain):

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Camino Continues: Viana to Navarette

Distance walked: 22.7km

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

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

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

Beautiful!

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is normal for Camino.

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

Ouch!

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

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

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

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

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Rioja vineyards 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly, a gift experience.

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

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

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

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

Hurrah!

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

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

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

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

 

Blogging the Camino

As I said in my “About” page, many people asked in advance whether I would blog my Camino experience live from Spain. Others suggested I should do it and told me they’d happily follow my reports. I was flattered by their interest but ultimately, I had no interest in blogging as I walked.

Why?

I didn’t want the pressure of finding decent wi-fi and providing daily updates. I carried a smart phone with me but couldn’t be bothered squinting into its small screen and trying to write anything coherent. Writing a blog from a desk, where I have access to internet, a monitor, and a proper keyboard, is relatively easy. Anything other than that felt like a lot of work, especially while also trying to walk 800km and carry all my belongings on my back. Having walked it, I can say that trying to find decent wi-fi and provide daily updates would have driven me to drink. And you’d have had nothing to read in the meantime!

I met people en route who did blog as they walked. I can only applaud them from afar – they must have been more organised than I. 🙂

In Viana, I met a woman in our albergue who spent an hour sitting on the floor in the reception area, inches from the Internet router. She carried a full-size iPad to take photos and later upload them to her Facebook page. I’d seen her days earlier taking quick snaps at the top of Alto del Perdón. She walked with 3 friends but didn’t stop long enough to take in the view with her own eyes. Instead, she unleashed the iPad to take a panoramic video of the windmills and iron sculptures, and was gone. Back then, I looked at that block of technology and wondered how she carried the weight of the thing – those babies ain’t light!

But in the albergue I noticed something else: in the hour that she sat on the tiled floor, that machine took all of her attention. The device allowed her to send photos and messages to people back home. It enabled connection with them, thousands of miles away. But she was oblivious to the people standing next to her, just inches away. Watching pilgrims do their laundry or smoke a cigarette are hardly the height of entertainment, I admit.

But the point remains: that machine discouraged connection with the people standing right next to her.

She reminded me of myself, and of an imbalance in my own life.

There’s something unnatural about that, don’t you think? That we could all stand so close to each other and not make eye contact, not say hello, not connect in some basic, human way.

And I’m upset that it has become an accepted norm.

In terms of walking the Camino for weeks at a time, I understand that email updates provide reassurance to loved ones at home, who may be worrying. Writing blogs and sharing photos are a good way of including loved ones in the excitement.

I get it.

But every hour spent uploading photos to Facebook is one less hour ‘in the present’. You do that every few days over an 800km journey and you’re bound to miss out on some real-life people. You do that over a lifetime, you find yourself documenting life instead of being moved by it.

Before I departed for Spain, I couldn’t articulate my disinterest in blogging but these were some of my reasons:

I didn’t want to ignore real people in favour of virtual ones.

I didn’t want to treat Camino, or life, as one big broadcasting opportunity.

I wanted to be moved by the experience of being there in real-time. I wanted to feel the rawness of that exposure. Sure, it meant that some days I was a ball of tears, and others I felt frustrated by my fellow humans. More often, I felt gratitude. I felt an ever-growing contentment. I felt a freedom in my own skin that I hadn’t known in years and with it, a deep-rooted sense of being truly alive.

I wanted to walk for myself – not for other people. Being asked (or told) to blog my experience was flattering in some ways, but largely misguided.

I wasn’t walking for the entertainment or excitement.

I didn’t really think of Camino as an adventure holiday or long-distance hike.

I don’t consider myself religious in any organised way but I inherently understood that my reasons for being there were bigger than needing writing material, or a public audience.

I went on retreat.

Mine was a retreat from scheduling, planning, and trying to control my everyday fate. I retreated from the voices that told me what I ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’:

do,

want,

or

be,

in life.

I went on a retreat from spending my days looking at a computer screen, conversing with people around the world and ignoring the ones sitting next to me. I took a retreat from worrying and instead, learned how to trust myself and my gut instinct even more. I retreated from technology and found a deep-rooted delight in looking at the open sky every day. Selfishly, I did it for myself and I didn’t want an audience interfering with, what was, a profound and personal experience.

Over a year later, I wish I could remember more of the plant life and sunlight so I could write evocative and picturesque blog posts. I’m sure you would love to know more about the terrain and the countryside. I may get to that – I haven’t really decided yet. By all means, tell me what you’d like to hear more of – this whole endeavour is a work in progress and I’m open to suggestions!

I wish I could give more accounts about the architecture and history, or even share wild stories from nights’ spent drinking the plentiful bottles of wine. I have some stories but they don’t dominate my journey (thankfully, as I’d never have managed to walk if I were hung over every day! :-))

Blogging my journey now, over a year later, has its limitations.

That said, it’s easier for me to write about my experience now. I’m following a gut instinct on this – it’s a leap of faith. Despite the personal stretch, and the fact that I’ve forgotten some things, I’m finding it easier to blog now than I would have, live from the trail.

And you know what?

I’m delighted with my decision.

Walking the Camino is one of the best things I have ever done for myself in life. Walking it without a live, virtual audience was a liberation. Would I choose the same decision again?

Absolutely.