Camino Challenge: Preparing for Camino de Santiago

Before I walked the 500-mile Camino Francés, my good friend Jen told me “You can’t prepare for camino”. In essence, I think she was telling me that so much happens on camino (internally and externally) that you can’t possibly prepare for it all. At the time, however, I took her words a bit more literally. I planned my trip in just 4-5 weeks, so it suited me to hear that I couldn’t prepare because I didn’t have time to!

I didn’t do much preparation for my camino. There are pluses and minuses to that but given the circumstances in which I decided to walk, I couldn’t have planned it any better. And I wouldn’t have had the transformative experience I did have, if I’d plotted it all in advance.

But I learned that there *are* some things you can do to make things easier. And honestly, walking 500 miles is often hard, so knowing how to make your life a bit easier can be the difference between being utterly miserable, or not.

So, in no particular order, here are some of my thoughts on how to prepare for camino. I wonder whether you’ll agree!

  • Take some time to reflect on why you want to walk.

Doing the camino” is really popular right now and many people treat it as something on a “bucket list” that needs to be checked off. Others treat it as a physical challenge like a triathlon or marathon. Rightly or wrongly, this attitude creates a whole load of competitive thinking as people race to walk more quickly, or farther, than the people beside them. Take some time to reflect on why you’re there, or what you’d like to get from the experience – it will help you focus your attentions on your needs and your experience, and buffer you from some of the “group-think”.

  • Learn how to take care of your feet.

Really. Walking long distances every day cause the feet to swell by a shoe size or more. Go up a size when you buy your footwear. And know that one size up may not be enough – so be prepared to buy new shoes along the way if you need to.

You also need to know that two things cause blisters: moisture and friction. Do everything you can to minimise both of these things and you increase your odds of being blister-free. For the worst-case scenario, learn how to treat blisters so they don’t get infected. Blisters are not your friend so don’t invite them in the first place and don’t let them hang around!

On a related note, I didn’t realise until afterwards that carrying a backpack affects your posture. Walking long distances affects your energy levels. Bad posture and tiredness affect how you walk and how much pressure is on your feet. Tendons and ligaments get strained and swollen. Learn how to take care of your feet with ice packs, taping, massage, etc. *My* knowledge in this area was rudimentary. Next time, I’ll do my research in advance!

  • Research the weather forecast for your planned route and season – it dictates your packing list.

I say this because *I* live on a coast where wind and rain are a year-round reality. When *I* go hiking and camping, I need waterproof and windproof gear. All of my previous training in hiking and backpacking told me to bring thick wool socks, boots, a raincoat, and rain pants. However, the Spanish weather forecast told me that the route had been rain-free for weeks, so I knew the ground would be hard and dry underfoot. This meant lighter footwear, lighter socks, and less clothing.

Research the weather forecast for the time you intend to walk and for the weeks beforehand. Knowing how wet/dry it’s been can help you plan your gear.

  • Bring less “stuff” and bring more money.

“Stuff” will literally weigh you down but extra cash allows you to avail of an unscheduled dental visit, a private room when the hostel is full, or a new poncho in the unexpected thunder storm. Plus, carrying cash and cards is lighter than carrying gear!

  • The lighter your pack, the better.

Really. Lots of people obsess about the weight of their packed bag – and rightly so. I carried too much water and my pack often weighed 10kg, which was far too heavy for long distance. Choose lightweight gear, bring the bare minimum, and don’t get talked into carrying 4 litres of water, like I did!

  • Get active.

For most people, this means doing training hikes for weeks in advance but it’s not the only way to prepare the body. Unless you already walk 25km every day, you can’t prepare your body for walking 25km every day. But training hikes do help and being active in other ways still helps build physical strength – so get off the couch and get moving.

  • Learn some Spanish.

Anyone can learn 5-10 key phrases and it’s a small mark of respect to at least start a conversation in Spanish. It’s not rocket science. Don’t be the ass who insists on speaking English all the time: learn some Spanish (with a smile) and you’ll find transactions easier.

  • Learn some stretches.

This one was a massive benefit to me. I stretched at every rest stop and every evening when I finished walking. I imagine some people thought I did it to look sporty but I didn’t care: stretching stopped me from seizing up and getting injured. I did every yoga pose and physiotherapy pose I could think of – hamstrings, calf muscles, shoulders, and hips. Highly recommended.

  • Don’t compare yourself to others.

The camino is all sorts of things all at once but it’s not always what you expect, want, or were told it would be. There were times I walked a happy 6km per hour and times I walked a depressed 2km per hour. Both times, I did my best. My “best” was something that changed every day.

I compared myself to others and berated myself for being slow, sore, and emotionally overwhelmed.

Turns out, lots of other people were slow, sore, and emotionally overwhelmed, too – go figure!

It’s easy to find people who are having more fun, who are more fit, or who have more money for pampering treats. There is always someone faster and there is always someone slower – literally, as well as figuratively. Comparing yourself to others is a lose-lose situation – one that’s best avoided.

Next time I walk, I want to get my footwear and foot care sorted in advance. I should have worn my customized insoles and spared myself the agonizing tendonitis and swollen ligaments. Next time, getting that stuff organized in advance is number one on my list of preparations (ideally with a foot specialist who understands long distance hiking or running).

After that, I’d plan my rest days in advance and book private rooms with crisp, clean sheets and luxurious hot baths. I didn’t do that enough last time round…I know better for next time!

But what about you? How did you prepare for camino or how would you prepare? What points would you add? What points do you disagree with? And do you think it’s possible to prepare at all?

Camino Challenge: Live in Fear or Learn to Trust?

One of *my* personal challenges in walking 500 miles across Spain was to trust….the overall process, the people around me, and myself. I planned my trip in just 4-5 weeks. Compared to many of the people online and on the trail, I was grossly unprepared.

I hadn’t done any physical training.

I hadn’t learned any Spanish.

I hadn’t tested my gear in advance.

I wasn’t confident about the route because I hadn’t researched it very much. I wasn’t confident in my language skills because they were largely non-existent. I was only partially confident about my physical skills. I had hiked, backpacked, and camped for years but I had never walked 800km before – how could I be sure I was capable? Truth told, I wasn’t sure – not by a long shot.

I didn’t know how far I could walk each day, so I also didn’t know where I would sleep each night. I didn’t know whether I’d stay free of injury and illness. And even though thousands of people walk the French Way every year, I felt like I was stepping off into a great void. I didn’t know how far I’d get on the trail so when I started, I hadn’t even booked my return flight home. Quite literally, I didn’t know how long I’d be gone or what would happen in the meantime.

Unless you’re someone who thrives on this kind of uncertainty, all these unknowns can rack up the anxiety levels pretty quickly. There are a lot of “What Ifs”. Nice, neat answers are not always available.

What if there are no beds: where will I sleep?

What if I get injured and I can’t go any further?

What if I get lost? What if I run out of money? What if I don’t make any friends? What if my gear is all wrong?

What if, what if, what if…..

The list is as long as your mind will allow. In the month before I left, my mind buzzed from asking a litany of questions, and I didn’t have the time to research for sensible answers. I can only thank the part of myself that realised that there was only a certain amount I could do to control the journey ahead – and the rest was beyond my control. I made some brief, but big decisions:

  1. I will not worry about the availability of beds.
  2. I will figure it out as I go along.

I decided these things. They were mental choices.

They weren’t just emotional aspirations or wishful intentions; somehow I ring fenced my mind so that I had answers to all of those “What If” questions.

Not having a bed to sleep in at night would have sucked ass. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I think having a secure place to sleep at night is low down on the pyramid, somewhere between physiological needs and safety needs. This means it’s considered quite essential. So, not having that lined up in advance is a bit of a gamble, especially in a foreign country and in walking cross-country for weeks at a time.

Unless I booked private accommodation in advance, there was no way I’d ever be sure of a bed at the end of each day. But I didn’t want to book in advance. I didn’t want the pressure of making it to Guesthouse A on Wednesday, Small Hotel on Thursday, and Private Pension on Friday. What if I got injured in the meantime and couldn’t walk that far? What if I got sick? I didn’t want the stress of making, and keeping plans with anyone. I also didn’t want the stress of reading my guidebook to find accommodation days ahead, and then go through the effort of conversing in Spanish over the phone as I tried to book a room – day after day, for weeks on end.

I just couldn’t commit to that much scheduling.

So I did the only thing I could do:  I threw the challenge up to the heavens and trusted that somehow it would all work out. I wasn’t sure whether that meant trusting a divine source of Trip Advisor or trusting the locals in Spain. Who knows, maybe they’re one and the same thing. But either way, I made a mental decision that *I*was not going to fret about it. Worrying about beds felt like something that was way above my pay grade. I surrendered and left it in the hands of something, or someone else.

That was a big lesson: Trusting that which is outside of myself.

Somehow, even though I couldn’t see every detail of the 500-mile journey ahead of me, I trusted that I would find my way. Quite literally, I trusted that the path would be there, and not washed away by flooding or erosion. Quite literally, I trusted that there would be enough food and shelter for my needs, and that things would be fine.

Just because I couldn’t see the path ahead, it didn’t mean that the path didn’t exist.

I had to walk in my hoped-for direction to find the path I was looking for.

The next one was also big: Trusting that which is inside myself.

No matter what disastrous scenario or anxiety my mind came up with, being able to respond with the thought: “I’ll figure it out as I go along” was a powerful reassurance to my over-zealous, inner drama queen. I could apply it to any scenario and feel better about my prospects. In the beginning, it was a way of calming my apprehension and it worked a treat.

What if my hiking sandals aren’t suitable for walking long distances?

Then I’ll figure it out and buy a pair of new shoes along the way.

What if I’m not able to walk 500 miles all in one go?

Then I’ll walk as far as I can and I’ll figure out how to come home early.

Even though I didn’t have all the answers in advance, I had at least some capacity to find them along the way. And the great thing is, the more I told myself that I would figure things out, the more I did figure things out….and my capacity grew even more.

It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

That’s the funny thing: what we tell ourselves has a huge impact on how well our minds perform. If we allow anxiety and scaremongering to roam freely, then all of life becomes a disaster. The world is full of problems and life is full of threat. There is only pain and strife.

I’ve played around with positive affirmations over the years but you know, when I tell myself something like: “I am a glorious creation, full of positivity and light”, the inner cynic in me balks. I’ve no sooner proclaimed my greatness than some other part snidely remarks, “Yeah, right!” My greatness is swiftly ridiculed.

So, telling myself I am infinitely wonderful doesn’t always bring the most wonderful results! 🙂

But, telling myself, “I’ll figure it out as I go along” reassured me on my Camino journey. It meant I didn’t have to have everything planned and researched in advance. It meant I was allowed make mistakes. It also meant I didn’t have to follow anyone else or do what the guidebook said.

It meant I was allowed have my own experience, in my own way.

That’s a massive lesson – not just for camino but for life itself.

***

In my “real life”, lots of things are in flux right now because lots of things have changed in the last six months. I thought I had a good sense of what 2015 would look like but it turns out, I was waaay off the mark. Some of the changes are more welcome than others. Some of them are above my pay grade and the outcome is still unknown. I carry disappointment about the plans that have been thwarted and some anxiety about the ones that have come in their place.

I’ve noticed my mind looping through the litany of “What Ifs”.

It’s disheartening.

It’s all-consuming.

And I know I am missing out on everyday goodness in trying to ward off some doomsday disasters that might not even happen.

I’ve found myself wistfully daydreaming about camino, and sort of pining for the “simple life” I knew then. I’ve found myself romanticising life on the trail, back when “all I had to think about” was where I would sleep at night.

I’ve also found myself marvelling at what it was to ring fence my mind and decide not to worry.

And I’ve thought: If only it were that simple.

But here’s the thing: Maybe it *is* that simple.

If I could ring fence my mind once, I can do it again. If I could decide not to worry then, I can decide now, too. My current concerns may feel more grown up and dramatic than anything I faced in Spain but I know where my bed is every night. That’s a huge bonus.

It was possible to reign in my worry back then. Maybe it’s possible to reign it in now, too.

So, I have two main options: I can choose to trust in that which is outside of myself or that which is inside of myself. I might even choose both, simultaneously. Or maybe I’ll choose both and interchange them, depending on what the issue is.

Either way, I can choose how much mental space I give over to anxiety and fear. As it is, I make the choice every single day – often without realising it – and my over-zealous mind frets too much. This is not how I lived on camino. This is not what I learned on camino. And this is not what I took away from my camino experience.

In Spain, the everyday challenge was real: Would I live in fear or would I learn to trust?

Right now in my everyday life, the challenge still exists.

What will I choose? What about you?

 

2015: The Year to Walk Camino?

Happy New Year, and happy new year resolutions to you, too!

I haven’t made any new year resolutions yet (so I haven’t broken them either! :-p) but I’ve been reading blog posts from people who hope to walk the Camino this year. I’m excited for them, and I know their goal is both inspiring and ambitious. It takes a certain amount of preparation and organisation to fulfil such a massive goal. It takes a leap of faith. It’s a stretch, but thousands of other people have walked before so we can trust that it is doable. That gives us hope.

Most of us don’t walk 20-25km on a regular day. Even fewer of us walk that every day, for weeks at a time. So I’m going to be honest here and say:

Walking 500 miles of Camino in one go, and carrying all your belongings on your back is sweaty, exhausting, and sore.

No doubt about it.

But the rewards are tremendous! And the rewards are many.

A year later, I’m still articulating my own journey. It re-wired me from the inside out and had a profound impact on my life.

Actually profound.

I don’t use that word lightly.

I feel tenderly grateful for that because I planned my Camino journey in just 4-5 weeks and it could have been very different. My decision to go was a spontaneous one. My head told me I was crazy to quit my job and go walking, especially when I hadn’t done any prior training.

My head told me I was very reckless.

My heart responded with buoyant excitement.

My gut assured me that I was safe and that everything would be taken care of.

My biggest challenge was to trust my gut. Everything depended on it but as soon as I did trust, the logistics and details came together smoothly.

Before I decided to walk, I hadn’t done any physical training.

I didn’t have all the necessary gear.

I had only a few words of Spanish.

And I had never attempted to walk such long distances every day, for weeks at a time.

In my 4-5 weeks of planning, I bought a guide book but didn’t have time to read it. I bought new gear and didn’t have time to take the labels off. I certainly didn’t have the time to test it out! I read a few online forums but often came away from the chats feeling grossly under-prepared and clueless.

I thought to myself:

What am I doing?!

I don’t mind saying it but there were days when my aspiration to walk Camino felt impossibly huge. I didn’t have time to prepare myself in all the ways I wanted to prepare. I had a strong heart and a strong gut but I felt ill-equipped, both physically and mentally.

I wasn’t sure how to proceed.

But I found a series of video blogs on YouTube that gave me some perspective and some hope. I watched a few of them – just enough to see that this young couple planned to walk the same route but under very different conditions.

They walked in the depths of winter but I planned to walk during the warm autumn.

They carried a lot of heavy bags with them but I would travel lighter.

They carried a baby with them but I would be infant-free!

And they were vegan, which somehow tipped the scales for me. Walking Camino with dietary restrictions is rather difficult, and I couldn’t imagine how this family would mange theirs.

I thought:

If they can do it, then so can I!

And you know what?

We all did!

So, if you’re feeling a little daunted by your decision to walk Camino, take a look at some of the video blogs at the link below. I think the trick is to watch only a couple of them so you don’t pre-empt your own journey too much. Personally, I watched only six (just to see how they coped with a certain stumbling block) and left it at that. The videos gave me the confidence I needed and some reassurance that all would be well. After that, I wanted to go live my own journey.

Let me know what you think!

 

 

 

The People you Meet on Camino

Everyone who walked the Camino de Santiago before told me:

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

Even if they hadn’t walked it themselves, invariably they knew someone who had (a friend, a cousin, a neighbour, or a friend’s cousin’s neighbour….!) who said the same thing.

I did meet many great people on my Camino journey. Quite literally, I met some of the most generous, interesting, and inspiring people along the way – the kind of people I just wouldn’t have met if I’d stayed at my desk job and been sensible 🙂

Thinking back to the night I spent in the small village of Azofra, I’m reminded of one particular lady…

She and I met on the road out of Navarette days earlier (remember, when I couldn’t find the yellow arrows and I backtracked several times before a group of Koreans kindly pointed me in the right direction?)

Back then, this lady and I walked beside each other in the early morning darkness, with the tap-tap-tap of our walking poles on the gravel trail. She spoke softly and apologised for her poor English every few minutes, but the woman was the very epitome of goodness and grace on that cold morning.

Through her, I learned that some 20% of the population in South Korea are Catholic. I was equally surprised to find her spoken English was so good that we had plenty of things to chat (and giggle) about. Jokes are a real test of fluency in any language and she was delightful company.

She recognised very little of the food presented to her each day, given that Camino cuisine is rather Spanish-centric. She wasn’t used to eating so much baguette, and had never encountered chorizo and Iberian ham before, but surprised me by saying she enjoyed the food along the way. Rice cakes could be found in occasional supermarkets and eggs, it seems, are the same everywhere 🙂

She was in her mid-40s and worked as a housekeeper. Her husband was a small-scale farmer who grew rice and vegetables, and also worked for an NGO organisation to ensure fair conditions for other farmers. She explained they had a very modest income and together, they had two sons who were in high school. No doubt, but those two boys were their pride and joy. Quite simply, she beamed when she spoke about them. In the early morning light, surrounded by farmland and trees, she oozed softness and love when she spoke about her sons. She hoped they’d have great lives of opportunity and prosperity. She hoped they’d never have to struggle in the way she and her husband had.

Listening to her made me choke up a little.

And then she told me about how she came to be standing there that morning…

Some years earlier, she saw a TV programme about the Camino (apparently there was a very famous one that most South Koreans quote as their inspiration for walking). She hadn’t heard of this old pilgrimage route before but after watching the TV show she just knew:

I want to walk that.

But, she and her husband had a modest income and two sons to raise – they didn’t have the money for such an extravagant trip. Travelling from South Korea to Europe is expensive and that was only the start of the bill: there were weeks’ worth of living expenses to finance, too. Her family could see that the Camino tugged at her heart-strings but the sons were still in school. It would be several more years, if ever, before she and her husband would have spare cash for such a journey.

The Camino could wait.

But just as she wished a life of goodness for her sons, they wished that her life, too, would be filled with dreams-come-true.

The two young men took up part-time jobs and without her ever knowing it, joined her husband in secretly saving for her trip.

Quietly, steadily, they saved the money to give this woman a once-in-a-lifetime gift.

They surprised her and in the loveliest way possible, they sent her packing!

They wanted her to know that although they were thousands of miles away, they loved her with all their hearts. They prioritised her dream, knowing that she never would. They wanted for her dream to come true.

She had travelled alone to Spain without knowing a word of Spanish, and had since met other Korean pilgrims with whom she walked. The morning she and I met, we kept pace with each other and swapped stories about our lives, our generous husbands, and what we hoped to get out of our time walking the Camino. We both choked up when she spoke about her gratitude to her family. It was hard not to.

She married a good man and was raising two more. Together, they had seen to it that this good woman had a chance to make her dream come true.

Their generosity and selflessness buoyed her all the way to Spain, and every day she walked Camino. For her, it didn’t matter how sore she got, how tired she got, how little of the food or language she understood – she felt blessed to be there at all. Everything was a bonus. She soaked up every micro second for the gift that it was.

Pretty special, eh?