Camino Continues: Samos to Sarria

Distance walked: 15km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 115.2km

Handsome Husband’s arrival in Samos was quite the surprise. He hadn’t made a plan beyond finding me, so we had to figure out the logistics of food and a place to sleep. Given that he wasn’t a pilgrim, he wouldn’t have been allowed stay in the hostel (and I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have wanted to if he’d taken a look at the place!). Instead, we found a private room over a café across the road. For me, this was one of the few times I got a private room, although it was no 5-star suite. It was basic but clean and the cotton sheets, as always, were a sublime treat. It was good to get a break from the chorus of snoring in the shared dorms, too.

The next morning, on our first wedding anniversary, we set off on the trail towards Santiago, some 14km westwards. By then I had walked some 700km across France and Spain and I hadn’t taken a wrong turn along the way. That morning, in the company of Husband, I took a wrong turn. Fifteen minutes after we’d strapped on our backpacks and set out, we found ourselves right back where we started. We laugh about it now but at the time I was immensely frustrated. I just wanted to walk and I wasn’t used to the daily company, slowing me down and leading me astray. Plus, I wondered whether our wrong turn was a metaphor for something bigger: was married life always going to distract me in the opposite direction?!

Handsome Husband was full of enthusiasm and questions as we walked along the trail. We found wild almonds and apples, and he was like a child in his amazement. Me? I was like the wizened old dog by then, I’d already seen 700km of grapes and figs, almonds and sunflowers: I wasn’t so excited by these things any more. The difference between us struck me as really sad: I had been so absorbed in the daily “task” of walking, I thought I’d stopped being in awe of the landscape around me. I know now that I took it all in on a quieter level. I didn’t express the same surprise as he did, but I still remember the smells and the countryside as though I was there only last week. It all went in.

Husband wore jeans (jeans!), trainers, and a hoodie while he walked. He stood out like a tourist and I could barely believe he’d not brought any proper walking gear! He also very kindly carried my backpack but exclaimed how tiring it was to do so. Again, in my “old dog” mode I commented: try carrying it for 700km! We stopped for coffee and omelettes along the way, and tried to catch up on all that had happened in the weeks since we’d seen each other.

When someone asks you: “How was the camino?” it can be very tricky to answer. The obvious replies cover the weather, the food, the company. It’s easy to respond on these terms as though it’s a regular vacation. But, if you get into a different head space with all that walking, then it’s very tricky to evaluate the experience in a few sound bites. How could I tell him that I had changed on a fundamental level? How could I evaluate what that change was, or would mean, when I hadn’t yet articulated it to myself?

The 15km were among the slowest of my whole camino but I put it down to the distraction and the company! By the time we eventually arrived in Sarria, it was obvious to me that the final leg of the journey was going to be busy. The streets were full of fresh-faced pilgrims who’d very obviously just arrived and were getting ready to walk the last 100km or so to Santiago. They stood out in their pristine-looking gear and energetic strides. I met plenty of pilgrims who, like me, had been rattling around on the trail for weeks and who took a skeptical view of these new pilgrims. I don’t like to get into the “us versus them” mentality of the camino because in my experience, there was always someone faster or slower, always someone who’d walked a greater or lesser distance, and there was always someone who was more arrogant or humble. Comparing ourselves to others is a dangerous game. And yet, as I looked around the streets in Sarria, I found myself resenting these “blow-ins” who were doing the easy bit at the end, all to get a bit of paper.

Husband and I found a basic but spacious private room for the next two nights, and enjoyed the relative cosmopolitan vibe of the town. By that, I mean there was an Italian restaurant so we had an anniversary dinner that didn’t involve chorizo! That “down time” was sweet for us. I had been away for five weeks and had another week or so of walking to do. By then, I’d given up on the dream of walking from Santiago on to Finisterre. My feet were too sore, the weather was turning cold, and I’d heard that the hostels along the way were already closing up for the winter. That meant there were longer gaps between hostels and there was no way I was able to walk 30km between them. I was heavy-hearted about not being able to “finish” the way I had wanted to, but it was for the best.

So, the reunion with Husband allowed us to re-connect while I was still in Spain, still en route. I didn’t realize it at the time but it took the pressure off us having a big reunion at an airport or bus station. Like I said earlier, I was in a different head space while I was on camino, so flying home and reuniting with him all at once would probably have been overwhelming. Getting to see each other in Spain helped defuse all of that.

We drank cheap but delicious red wine and gazed out on to the night lights of Sarria. We wished each other a happy anniversary. We had a hiatus from our lives – me, from the exertion of walking and he from the exertion of work – and enjoyed being.

And then it was time to go.

 

 

 

Walking the Camino: The Wild Dogs of Villafranca

IMG_1141Distance walked: 29km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 194.8km

I left the small hotel in Cacabelos feeling renewed and optimistic again. The remaining journey, which had felt impossible only two days earlier, felt doable once more. The two nights of rest and good food had revived my flagging body, and meeting Marco and his Ricard had restored my faith in humanity. I had less than 200km to go and I was hopeful again about getting to Santiago in one piece.

Unlike earlier days on the camino, I walked out of Cacabelos with a new strategy for self-care. Specifically, I decided to take the ibuprofen tablets the pharmacist had suggested, and to build in more rest stops for my sore feet. I’d refused all pain relief up to that point but after a month of walking, I was sore. If I was going to continue, I had to do something different.

I didn’t want to take a bus and skip a section.

I didn’t want to stop for a week to rest.

I didn’t want to stop entirely and go home.

(Stubborn, me??!)

I wanted to walk the remaining distance but I couldn’t afford to overdo it so I had to get a lot more strict about my distances and rest stops. In retrospect, I should have worn some sort of arch support but I’ll know that for next time. 🙂

That morning, I was to pass through a town called Villafranca del Bierzo. All along the route, I’d heard about the wild /crazy /rabies-infested/ angry /wicked dogs in Villafranca. Depending on who I spoke to, the dogs were anywhere from mildly irritable to outright savage, chasing innocent pilgrims for miles along the trail. The thing is, there are two towns called Villafranca along the Camino Francés. Even though lots of people warned me about the dogs, no one seemed to know which Villafranca was the one to watch out for. I’d passed through one already: would this be the morning that I’d meet these blood-thirsty beasts?

As it happened, it wasn’t the morning for being ravaged by wild dogs – happily so, I might add! I didn’t see a single dog that morning (wild or tame) and passed through Villafranca without incident. Outside of town, I had to decide whether to take the “high road” into the mountains or to follow the “low road” along a national route. The former is more scenic but has more ups-and-downs. The latter is more flat but runs alongside a road full of cars.

Which one would I choose?

All the pilgrims around me that morning were asking the same thing. I’m sure some people asked just as a way of making conversation but others were just plain competitive. I met a lot of competitive people on camino – way more than I ever expected. I often wondered whether I imagined all these personalities, or maybe they were reflecting some sort of sensitivity in my personality. But when I met pilgrims who got competitive about the strength of my ibuprofen tablets (yes, I’m serious), I knew it wasn’t all in my imagination. There are always people who are “more” of whatever I am, (faster, fitter, more injured, whatever), so I learned to tune out a bit.

Unsurprisingly, I took the “low road”, alongside the roadway that everyone told me would be dirty, noisy, dangerous, and un-scenic. I wondered how all these people could know such a thing given they’d never walked it. As it turned out, the route suited me just fine. Yes, there were cars, and yes, I walked inside a metal barrier that would have offered very little protection if a truck went off the road and slammed into me. In that sense, it was dangerous. But crossing the road and walking along with my backpack was no more dangerous than any other day of walking in the previous month. There were plenty of small villages along the way so I had ample opportunity to stop for coffee and food, and I was happy to avail of fresh salad and cake! (And when I say “fresh”, I really mean it. The woman who made the salad pictured below actually climbed over a stone wall to retrieve the head of lettuce, so you really couldn’t get fresher!).

Mixed salad with a basket of bread: a fine feast for €5

Slate rooftop…getting closer to Galicia

The new motorway running through the Valcarce valley

The small village of Vega de Valcarce felt quieter than the previous villages along the way. It felt like a place that everyone had forgotten. The newly-built motorway transformed the Valcarce valley so that there was no passing traffic on the road any more. Even the pilgrims on foot were only passing through, and there was an unusual quietness in the hostel and in the streets. True, it was early October and the trail was getting quiet. The cooler weather meant that many pilgrims had gone home, and already I started hearing that the hostels between Santiago and Finisterre were closing down for the winter. I’d hoped to walk all the way to the coast but I hadn’t made any solid plans to do so. I needed to see if my feet would hold up the 800km to Santiago before committing to a further 100km. Even if they did, I’d need accommodation along the way. With hostels starting to close, it might not be a good time to walk that far. I decided to wait and see.

In the meantime, the hostel in Vega de Valcarce was a little rough around the edges but mostly sufficient. I got a bed without problem, the shower was mostly warm, and I bumped into a Los Angeles woman I’d met weeks earlier in Roncesvalles. We spent the evening swapping stories on our 600km along the way…and comparing notes on anti-inflammatory medications…ha ha ha! 🙂

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Kitchen & dining area in the hostel

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Yum!

 

 

 

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! 🙂

 

 

Reflections for walking the Camino de Santiago

When I stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, I received a slip of paper containing The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim – ten reflections for pilgrims walking the way.  I shared them here recently and on the back of that slip of paper, there was another reflection. I’m copying this straight from the page so language or grammar oddities are not my own 🙂

“The Way: Parable and reality

The journey makes you a pilgrim. Because the way to Santiago is not only a track to be walked in order to get somewhere, nor it is a test to reach any reward. El Camino de Santiago is a parable and a reality at once because it is done both within and outside of the specific time that takes to walk each stage, and along the entire life if only you allow the Camino to get into you, to transform you and to make to a pilgrim.

The Camino makes you simpler, because the lighter the backpack the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive.

The Camino makes you brother/sister. Whatever you have you must be ready to share because even if you started on our own, you will meet companions. The Camino breeds about community: community that greets the other, that takes in interest in how the walk is going for the other, that talks and shares with the other.

The Camino makes demands on you. You must get up even before the sun in spite of tiredness or blisters; you must walk in the darkness of night while dawn is growing, you must just get the rest that will keep you going.

The Camino calls you to contemplate, to be amazed, to welcome, to interiorize, to stop, to be quiet, to listen, to admire, to bless…Nature, our companions on the journey, our own selves, God.”

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

My Best Day’s Walking: San Bol to Boadilla del Camino

Distance walked: 33.6km

Distance to Santiago: 440.8km

I loved this day. Somehow, it contained so much goodness that it became my best day’s walking on the Camino Francés. All this time later, I still think of it with great fondness. When the going gets tough, thinking back on this day fills me with strength. It was one of those days when pretty much everything went right and my body felt strong and able…a glorious synchronicity on my 500-mile journey.

My previous night in San Bol had been uneventful and restful. Once the generator had cut out, we had no choice but to go to bed at the unexpected hour of 8.30pm and I slept soundly under a mound of woollen blankets. I couldn’t have been happier!

The next morning, I left the hostel before 6am and headed west towards Hontanas, where I  hoped to find some hot coffee and breakfast. Out there in the middle of the meseta, there was no one on the trail ahead of me or behind me. The wheat fields had been cut so that only stubble remained in this completely flat landscape. I could see for miles around. The moon hung low in the sky ahead of me, in the west. The morning sun rose warmly behind me, in the east. For a time, they both sat in the indigo sky and I felt the magic of being right in the middle, walking ever closer to Santiago. The lights on top of windmills in the distance flickered on and off, a warning to low flying aircraft, and were the only movement on that otherwise still and quiet morning. I felt as though I had the world to myself.

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Early morning on the Meseta

In my “real life” I am not a morning person. I love lazy lie-ins. On camino, I was up before dawn quite a lot and those early hours became some of my favourite. I liked the quiet. I liked the changing light. I liked listening to the birds chirping and singing from their concealed perches. I felt altogether more wholesome and connected to the world when I was up early, walking, walking, warming up my body for the day ahead.

In Hontanas, I found a café with funky music and friendly staff, and I loaded up on hot coffee and carbs. I also spotted a swimming pool and for a moment, I stood at the chicken wire fence, gazing into the still blue water, so tempting, so clean.

If you can believe it, I debated on whether to bring my swimming togs with me on camino. In my real life, I swam 2-3 times a week and I knew I would miss it desperately while in Spain. I even researched some of the camino forums to find out whether there were swimming pools anywhere on camino but I struggled to find any real details. Anyway, the idea of packing my togs seemed ridiculous when the plan was to cross Spain by foot. I couldn’t justify carrying the weight of the togs (ahem!) when I’d surely get no use out of them…so I never packed them. That morning in Hontanas, I wished that I had!

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Doesn’t it look great?!

For those of you wondering about swimming pools on the camino route: I stayed in 2 places with swimming pools and passing the pool Hontanas was a third. So…I’ll know for next time! 😉

I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly made Hontanas seem so appealing that morning, but it had a definite vibe, even at 7am. My morning coffee stop was usually 15-20 minutes but in Hontanas I lingered for an hour. Whatever the reason, the little village felt cosmopolitan and hip, and somehow connected to the real world beyond camino. I was reluctant to leave.

But I did eventually leave and walked on to San Antón and its 15th century convent, and a hostel that was/is famous for pilgrims sharing an evening meal by candlelight. Rumour had it that an American doctor walked camino at the same time as I, but was followed by Oprah Winfrey’s TV crews and “people”. They wanted to film him on his profound and life-changing journey, so he was followed by camera crews from beginning to end. I’m not so sure how profound that would be…but hey, I’m the last person to promote reality TV. Apparently, he & the crew stayed in San Bol about a week after I passed through, and destroyed the intimacy of the evening by using strong lights for their filming. No candlelit dinners that night. 😦

I heard the Oprah rumours again further along the trail but I never did confirm whether they were true. If they were, I feel sorry for any pilgrims that chose to stay in San Antón the same night as that guy…anyone wanting to experience intimacy or quiet would have struggled to find either, I think.

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Magnificient!

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Brierley’s guidebook tells me that under St. Anthony’s archway (Arco de San Antón), bread was left for pilgrims of old. The tradition continues today but with pilgrims leaving messages instead. If only I’d read my guidebook at the time, I might have known this when I passed through! Instead, I wondered at why so many people had chosen to leave written prayers in that particular spot.

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When I think back on this day, lots of different things helped make it a particularly great day of walking. My body had grown stronger so I forgot the aching exhaustion I’d felt at the beginning. The weather was spectacular: azure blue skies and beaming sunshine for hours on end. And yes, there was lots to see along the way. But something in me had shifted. Way back in Burgos, I had checked into a private room feeling overstimulated and cynical about the camino thing. I had expected that everyone walking towards Santiago shared the same sense of spirit. I had assumed we’d all be walking with humility and compassion: I thought we’d all “go with the flow”. I never expected to find myself in the middle of a daily race for beds. I didn’t expect people to leave pools of water on the bathroom floor. I didn’t enjoy watching pilgrims shout at café staff in English, thinking this was somehow reasonable in rural Spain. I didn’t like the selfishness that I saw play out, day after day.

But somewhere between Burgos and San Bol, I stopped caring about what others did. I’d already spent way too much time being upset by others’ behaviour, their words, and their apparent intent.

Everyone else had *their* camino: now it was time for me to have *mine*.

I reflected on my behaviour, my intent, and thought about what I wanted.

What did I want?

I wanted some peace and quiet.

I wanted more time by myself.

Most of all, I wanted to walk.

This day, between San Bol and Boadilla del Camino, I walked 34km of solid, steady, strong walking…and I loved it! After so many painful, worn-out days on camino where I felt I was dragging my sorry-ass corpse across Spain, *this* day felt like a magnificent flourish.

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So what was the secret?

  1. I did what I wanted to do: I walked. I stopped thinking about whether that was fast or slow. I stopped thinking about pretty much everything and I just let my feet take over. Glorious!
  2. I noticed myself saying prayers of thanks as a way of passing the time. Hour after hour, I gave thanks for the weather being dry. I gave thanks for the high-tech gear that made my walk a bit easier. I gave thanks for not having blisters. Hour after hour, I listed off hundreds of things that were working well in my life. And you know what? I discovered that I had an awful lot to be thankful for.
  3. I also noticed myself saying the very few prayers I know since childhood. Hail Marys and Our Fathers,  mostly. I said them on a loop, hour after hour. Without thinking about it, I prayed for my first teacher at school and for the woman who drove my bus to school each day. I prayed for relatives who were living and dead. I prayed for healing. I prayed for people I hadn’t thought about in years. And when I had finished praying for all of these people and I felt I still had prayers to spare, I prayed for anyone at all who might need some help. I prayed for pilgrims ahead of me and behind me on the path who may have been having a tough time of it, just like I did a few days earlier.

Somehow, these things unlocked*my* camino magic.

My camino joy came from the very simple, but profound act of doing something that I loved. I walked, and I left people behind without feeling guilty or sad. It wasn’t because I didn’t like them anymore, it was just that I needed to really strike out on my own in a good way.

I didn’t (and don’t) do enough of this in my life. I get bogged down by responsibility and duty. I get bogged down by chores. I make decisions that are for a group’s benefit rather than my own. I run around with an endless “To Do” list and I leave the fun stuff to the very end. Neglecting this blog is an example of my misplaced duty for other parts of my life. Only if, and when the kitchen is spotless and I’ve replied to all my emails do I allow myself to do the things that nurture my soul. So you can be pretty sure that I don’t get to these things often enough…it sucks.

This day, I mentally & emotionally embraced what it meant to walk for myself, and I rejoiced at the glory of it!

The second bit – expressing gratitude – was truly profound for me. I chose to walk camino in a particular way and it meant I could never be certain of a bed to sleep in or of getting all the way to Santiago. Walking this way – and leaving myself wide open to the uncertainty – forced me to take note of all the things that worked in my favour every day. It forced me to pay attention to all the goodness and once I started doing that, the goodness seemed to multiply. There were, quite literally, hundreds of things to be thankful for. I spent hours listing them in my head and feeling like the luckiest woman in the world to have it all fall into my lap so effortlessly.

Out there in the meseta, walking towards Santiago, I walked exactly as I wanted to walk and I gave gratitude for every step along the way. It was a potent combination and by late morning I felt invincible.

In Castrojeriz, I had the unexpected delight of stepping into a photography exhibition in Hospital del Alma, where I drank mint tea and ate cookies in the cool shade. I never expected to find a photography exhibition on camino but it was delightfully normalising and I lingered for more than an hour, wandering around the shabby chic house that had been converted into a gallery.

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If I had looked at my guidebook (ha! if ever!) I’d have known that there as a 900m high point ahead of me that day. I’d have known to pace myself or to brace myself for a sweaty climb in the afternoon sun. But I didn’t read my guidebook. After hours of walking, in the scorching heat, I suddenly found myself half way up this hill that seemed to appear out of nowhere and I remember thinking to myself:

“Fuck me, this is a bit much, innit?!”

By then it was early afternoon and the sun was at its highest, and hottest part of the sky. I had walked for hours already and I had worked up quite the sweat. Climbing uphill in the early afternoon sun was the last thing I needed but there was no way out of it so I coached myself on with the thought that from the top of the hill I’d have a good view of the land on the other side. I expected to see the next little village up ahead. There’d be a cluster of trees and buildings. There’d be some cool shade and a café bar where I’d get an ice-cold coke instead of my usual coffee. There would be a chance to get in from the 100 degree heat and take a break.

When I got to the top, I looked out the far side. This is what I saw:

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No cluster of trees!

No little village!

No cool shade. No coke. No break!

Another day, I would have wept at the realisation. This day, I laughed out loud…and kept walking. I felt so entirely content. I didn’t really care that there wasn’t a break in sight. I was caked in sweat and dust, and my own odours were intense (nice!) but I didn’t give a hoot. The physical exertion felt like the most real thing I had experienced in years and I was only delighted to keep walking.

Bring it on!

An hour later in Itero de la Vega, I happily bumped into Denis and Fred, and some other familiar faces. I joined them in the shade of a café bar while they drank cool beers and I finally got my cold coke. They’d booked into the hostel already and would pass the afternoon with chat and laughter. I was tempted to join them…even more so because I hadn’t seen them in days and I loved their company. If I stayed, I’d have a fun evening and great company.

But…

I really, really wanted to walk.

I had walked just over 25km that day – a decent amount – and it was wise to quit while I was ahead and keep some of my energy. It was also gone past 3pm and the ground seemed to shimmer from the intense heat. To keep walking in that was madness…especially when the next hostel stop was over 8km away. Most pilgrims stopped walking by lunchtime every day to avoid the heat. It was a risky move to consider going on further:

What if I walked those extra 8.2km and got sunstroke?

What if I walked those extra 8.2km and exhausted myself?

What if I walked those extra 8.2km and found there was no bed in the next village? I’d have to walk even further and by then, it would be late in the evening. Did I really have the energy for all of that?

In the end, I decided that I did.

So at 3.30pm I waved goodbye to the guys and walked the fastest 8.2km of my life! I wanted to get out of the sun as quickly as I could, so I pounded my way to Boadilla del Camino where I hoped there’d be a bed for the night. I had felt invincible and blessed that entire day, and it was my best day by far. I wondered what awaited me in the village up ahead but there was only one way to find out!

I wonder: what was *your* best day on camino? Do you know what made it so great? And do you think those things could be replicated in your “real life” every day? 😀

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…

Burgos, Spain: You Get What you Need

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I stopped in Burgos for 2 nights to rest, re-group, and take some alone-time. I was tempted to join the public albergue in the centre of the city but after two very noisy nights on the camino trail, I needed some quiet time by myself. I picked out one of the private albergues recommended in Brierley’s guide-book (finally, I actually read it!) and perched myself in a quiet room near the grounds of the university.

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For the handsome price of €35 per night, this is what I received:

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It had a small private bathroom too, so I didn’t need to stand in line with 20 other people waiting for my turn in the showers – what bliss!

The room was a calm oasis after days of noise and tension. I lay on my bed (with sheets!) – and listened to the sounds of birds chirping in the ivy and flowers outside my window. It was a welcome change from the sound of washing machines and chatter.

Here, I had enough steady wi-fi to make calls home to Handsome Husband who was holding the fort without me.

Here, I slept solidly for hours on end.

Here, I was glad to take a break from walking and carrying my backpack, and give my feet a break.

I slept, I ate, I relished the quiet.

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Downtown, I browsed and wandered through the city, famous for its gothic cathedral. I ate alone, I sent postcards home, and contrary to what Brierley suggested, I welcomed the sights and sounds of the city. It wasn’t a shock to my system at all. Surprisingly, it was a source of revival.

In the city, I could come and go as I pleased. I could reclaim my independence. I could be anonymous for a day, while I browsed through tourist shops and city sights. Oddly enough, the city gave me a chance to rest, and I grabbed it with both hands.

And with 532km still to go, I would need all the rest I could get.

What did Burgos mean to you?

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Inspiration for Walking: Henry David Thoreau

Years ago, I came across a famous quote about walking, by Henry David Thoreau.

The quote comes from an essay that I haven’t yet read, so I’m guessing I saw it on a greeting card or in some other book. I feel like buying a copy of the essay soon and reading it over the dark, rainy winter – I’m in that kind of mood!

The quote rattled around my mind a lot before I left for Camino. It’s been rattling around my mind a lot lately too, as I prepare for an upcoming trip to India. I don’t expect to walk another Camino across Indian soil but still, the quotation rattles around my heart.

I have a conflicted feelings about this trip, even though I’ve wanted it for 10-15 years. I remember feeling conflicted before I left for Camino, too. It wasn’t easy to wave off Generous Husband, and leave behind my home and my familiar life. And yet, I felt entirely compelled to go. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I was called to walk the Camino. I knew on a gut level, absolutely and completely, that it was something I had to do – no delay, no excuses. To ignore the calling would have been a mistake.

It was a leap of faith it was for me to heed that impulse, and go.

I can’t overstate that enough.

At the same time, I had mixed feelings and thoughts about the whole thing. I had (and have) a lot of greatness and love in my everyday life. I’m very blessed in a myriad of ways. I was leaving a lot behind, and hoped that all of it would still exist when I came home. It’s a lot to ask for.

Preparing for Camino instilled excitement and fear into my heart. In the month beforehand (and remember, I planned everything in only a month) I often woke in the middle of the night,  filled with anxiety. Leaving everything – Handsome Husband, my home, my job, my plans, etc. was terrifying, even though it would only be for a few weeks.

What was I doing?

I kept thinking of Thoreau.

I wasn’t ready in any of the ways he suggests being ready. I’m not ready now, either! But there’s something compelling about this piece of writing that allowed me to think of my Camino journey as a pilgrimage or retreat – not a walking holiday or backpacking adventure. His choice of language is striking and strong, and there’s a certain purity to his proposal.

Only when you have let go of your past and have settled your present affairs, can you be truly open and receptive to life, and to the future.

Is that what he’s saying?

I’ve pulled this quote from the web so if you think it’s incorrect in some way, please let me know. I’d hate to misquote, when the whole point of this post is to share the quote.

It goes like this:

“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walking

I’m not ready in any of these ways but still, I’m taking a leap of faith as I prepare for my trip. It’s an itch I have to scratch.

But what about you – were you ready when you walked your own Camino?

Do you feel ready now?

Can we ever be ready for such a walk, I wonder?

“Doing the Camino”

I’ve debated whether to write this post but for a few minutes, I really want to explore the notion of “doing the Camino”. People say it all the time: “Oh, I’ve a friend who did that” or “Did you do the whole thing?” I’m trying to figure it out: what do we mean when we talk about doing the Camino?

I may be showing my age here but when I hear the phrase, I imagine Beavis and Butthead, sniggering and snorting, “Um…yeah…doing it…huh huh huh…” (That’s probably the first time that Beavis and Butthead have made it into a blog about the Camino de Santiago 🙂

I probably used the phrase myself before I packed my bag and went to Spain, but on my second day of walking, I met a woman who’s use of the phrase really challenged my thinking. She and I met in Roncesvalles, sitting in a restaurant with probably 70+ other people. We’d never met each other before, so we passed the next two hours eating fried fish and chips, drinking wine, and making small talk with the six other women at our table. For what it’s worth, the fish and chips were truly delicious, smothered in grease and salt.

This particular woman struck me as a real go-getter: ambitious, outgoing, and an achiever in life. She had travelled extensively to offbeat places like the Galápagos Islands. I found her stories interesting until she said things like:

“I’ve done South America. I’ve done Asia. Last year I did Kilimanjaro: now I’m doing Camino. After I finish Camino I’m doing the New York marathon.”

Or maybe it was Boston.

But you get the idea: everything was already “done” or on the “to do” list. And ideally, in quick succession.

Over time, I felt uneasy listening to her because her list was extensive. She had lots of stories and factual information, but had very little to say about how these things made her feel or had influenced her life. I wasn’t looking for a big Oprah revelation (or maybe I was) but it just seemed she had done all of these things and not reflected on any of them.

Had a trip to the Galápagos Islands been a childhood dream come true, for instance?

How did it feel at the top of Kilimanjaro?

Had these experiences changed her in any way or made her life richer?

I hadn’t a clue.

She had done lots of impressive and awesome things, but the way she listed them off made them sound trivial. I didn’t want to challenge who she was in the world, but internally, I found myself challenging her choice of language.

What is this fascination with “doing” all the time? Is it a western preoccupation? Do we have a fear of idleness? Maybe a fear of our own mortality? Is it a way of padding the job applications to demonstrate just how fabulous and qualified we all are, all the time? Maybe it’s a way of standing out in a world full of seven billion people?

There was something about her story telling that made me think of this:

Consuming, without engaging.

It’s like eating a meal without letting the taste of the food register in your mouth.

Consuming the experience, the travel, the mountain, the pilgrimage, whatever, without engaging with it or reflecting on it in any great detail. Consuming it, without even noticing it. Consuming it without acknowledging how magical it is to be alive at all, and in a position to experience such wondrous treats.

You know those books that list off 5,000 places to see before you die? Well, it felt like she was making her way through that list with great efficiency but with very little joy or wonder.

Galápagos Islands? Check!

Camino? Check!

Lived, died, dead, and buried? Check, check, check, check!

 

I really didn’t know, but I could imagine the rest of her script looking something like this: “I did Camino. I did the New York marathon. I did the old age thing. I did life.”

By all means “do the dishes” or “do the laundry” but don’t “do Asia” or “do Kilimanjaro”.

Save a bit of space for feeling delight or awe now and then. Please.

 

I reflected on her words for weeks afterwards. Do, do…done, did, did…everything sounded like a check box item, neatly ticked. Trying to equate this with Camino was unsettling because I met hundreds of people “doing it” in different ways.

For instance: I walked 800km between France and Spain, but I met a guy who walked from Prague. That’s right: he started walking six months before I did so by the time we met, he’d already crossed through the Czech Republic, Germany, France, and then Spain. Could you equate our walk in any way? Was he “doing the Camino” better than me, or more fully than me because he walked further, for longer? Compared to him, was I even “doing it” at all?

Were the mass-going Catholics “doing it” better? Were the people who walked only 100km from Sarria “doing the Camino”? What about the people who walked for a week at a time now and then – were they “doing the Camino” for just a week, or for years?

I met people walking and cycling. I had a group of people go by me on horseback. I heard of a guy who was “doing it” on a unicycle. One day, I saw two people on quad bikes! Were we all “doing” the same Camino?

Personally, I wanted to walk the Camino for more than ten years. I knew I wanted to walk westwards from the French side of the Pyrenees for 800km, alone, carrying all my belongings on my back, and in one full run. I didn’t want to do a week at a time or make do with a shorter version. Don’t ask me why but that was always my aspiration, and with the exception of two short and unplanned taxi trips, I “did” the Camino as I had hoped. I was very happy about fulfilling the dream with its detailed specifications. But in all my time walking, I met hundreds of people who were experiencing the same route in different ways. I couldn’t figure out who was “doing it” properly or truly, or how we would ever calculate that measurement to begin with.

So the only thing I could come up with was to change my choice of language. I stopped talking about “doing the Camino” and instead, talked about “walking the Camino”. I expect most people don’t notice the difference and don’t care either way but for me, my change of language marked a change in my thinking. That dinner in Roncesvalles, so early in the whole journey, reminded me of why I was there. I didn’t want to consume without engaging: I wanted to be open to the experience and even be changed by it. I wanted it to touch my heart. I wanted it to fill me with feelings of delight and awe. I wanted to live it and celebrate it, not just do it.

So, in all my writing and rambling, I’m aiming to keep that phrase to a minimum. It’s not my phrase and it’s not my preference, and I really need to explain my distinct reasons for rejecting it.

Phew.

So glad I got that off my mind, it’s been rattling around in there for quite a while!

That’s my thinking on the matter, but what’s yours? When you think of “doing the Camino”, what do you think of?