Camino Challenge: Great…but tough…

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

It’s great…but tough.”

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

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

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

How was it?

And I found myself replying in exactly the same way:

Great…but tough.

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

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

  1. Everything was accumulative.

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

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

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

Day 11: Finding my groove – aw yeah!

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

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

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

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

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

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

*That* was tough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. It’s not really a holiday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eewww!

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

I found *that* tough, too.

 

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

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

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

But there was greatness too.

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

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

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

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?

 

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.