Walking through Galicia: From Os Chacotes to Boente

Distance walked: 21.7km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 47.5km

It’s fun to stay at the Y…M….C…A…!

The hostel owner in Vilchá, just two nights earlier, announced that he would close up for the winter the following week. In my walk between Vilchá and Os Chacotes, just a day earlier, I saw two hostels already closed up for the winter. It was early October but everything was winding down and I was glad I was close to Santiago and “the end”. I was also glad that I wouldn’t walk the additional 100km to Finisterre. I had always imagined I would walk to the coast but I’d conceded that it wasn’t likely on that particular journey. Every time a hostel closed its doors for the winter, pilgrims had to walk further distances between one bed and the next. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but after walking 750km I was done with the uncertainty about accommodation. It was one thing to deal with hostels that were full or uncomfortably crowded, but it was another thing to deal with the end-of-season closures. I was tired of the nomadic lifestyle and endless strategizing: I wanted to go home.

Getting ready for winter

55km to go….

52.5km to go…

51km to go…

Compared to other parts of the camino, I thought the signage and distance markers in Galicia were plentiful and clear. This is the busiest section of the Camino Francés and most people who “do the camino” walk only those last 115.2km. So, the cafés, hostels,  and general services were plentiful. And yet, I met with an Australian this day who got really upset when she couldn’t see any yellow arrows. She had become so used to the plentiful directions that she panicked when they disappeared, even briefly.  She doubled-back on the trail, she contradicted me, and she even contradicted a local who gave her directions. She couldn’t trust what others told her and she couldn’t trust the markers that were available.

More tellingly, she couldn’t trust that even if she took a wrong turn, that she would cope with the outcome and figure it out.

Expecting such perfection brings a lot of pressure.

I had seen pilgrims wrongly rely on electronic devices instead of heeding the locals who gave directions. I understand the pilgrims who, like me, may not have had confidence in their language skills and may have felt more autonomous using the tech.  I get it.

But, what a missed opportunity.

Asking for directions is an opportunity to connect with another human instead of a screen – what a concept! All the talk about meeting great people on the camino is limited if all we do is meet other pilgrims. What about connecting with the café owners,  the farmers in the fields, the people standing behind shop counters? To understand a country and its people, we have to talk to the people who actually live there, work there, build their lives there. Walking the camino without engaging with the locals, especially when they have up-to-date information and correct directions, is a massive loss. We become consumers rather than pilgrims. We lose our humility.

Asking for directions allows locals to connect with us, too. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people pass through their villages and towns, crossing their land and changing the face of their communities. We don’t ask them how they feel about this: we just “do the camino” and give no thought to the consequences. It’s not right that we ignore them and prioritize our screens. Asking for directions allows them to meet us and learn a little about us, too. I think they deserve that opportunity given they open their towns and villages to the endless crowds, always on the move. It is a small way of acknowledging the disruption we cause and the change that we bring. It’s a small way of expressing our humanity instead of self-absorbed consumerism.

The days walking in Galicia were quite a contrast to the previous 700km across France and Spain. There were  more people, sure, but there was also a lot more entitlement and competition, too. I was disappointed by the amount of people wearing headphones, disconnected from even the other pilgrims around them. I was appalled by the amount of people who skipped queues in the café bars, who shouted their orders at the staff, and who barked for wi-fi codes without ever saying “Hello” or “Please”. There was a large cohort of people who behaved as though their individual experience was the only one that mattered. I don’t know which is worse: shouting orders at waiting staff or elbowing other pilgrims out of the way. I didn’t like either and I’m sorry to say I saw way too much of both behaviors on that final 100km stretch to Santiago.

And yet, seeing all of this helped highlight the goodness in my journey. My journal is full of reflections including this:

“I’m thankful to ever be here and to have been given the resources (physical, financial, mental, spiritual, emotional) and support to come this far. Over and over, I’ve put my sore and swollen feet into my shoes, and walked. It is a privilege to be given this time, these smiles and conversations, this sunshine, this reflection. Yes, it’s been tough but the strain is already wearing away as I come close to the end and as I realize what a blessing it is.”

Did I enjoy the day of elbowing, contradicting, and ignorant behavior? No. But getting a bed in Boente’s hostel was a relief, and re-connecting with people I hadn’t seen since Orisson was a lovely surprise. There was goodness to be found everywhere, I just had to pay attention to it.

Camino de Santiago: From Sarria to Vilchá

Only 100km left to Santiago

Distance walked: 19.9km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 95.3km

Handsome Husband’s trip to Sarria was at an end, as was mine, so we found an early morning café and had our breakfast of juice and croissants. The morning was dark and foggy – very foggy – and while we ate, I wondered how I’d manage to navigate the trail. Getting around town was one thing but it would be tricky in the open countryside. Suddenly, it was time to say goodbye – he had to catch a bus to the airport and I had to follow the yellow arrows back to the gravel path. Samos and Sarria had been good to us and we had a lovely first wedding anniversary, despite (or maybe because of?) the rustic facilities. I’d be home in a week and we would catch up again then but for now, it was time to go. Buen Camino to us both.

The trail was busy and noisy with new pilgrims starting out. For many, walking the camino means walking the last 115.2km from Sarria to Santiago, and their energy and enthusiasm are obvious to all. I found it a bit challenging to find my place among them. In retrospect, I’m glad I had the break with Husband in Sarria: it gave me a chance to rest and to prepare my head for what lay ahead. The trail was going to be busier and noisier than ever, but I was on the last leg of a very long journey. After all that walking towards Santiago was I really ready to arrive there?

I wasn’t sure. It was a strange sensation: after all the effort, the pain, and tears, I still wasn’t fully ready for it to be over. There’s that saying that the destination is not what matters but rather, the journey you have along the way. Suddenly, that saying made a lot of sense to me. All those weeks, I’d been walking every day towards Santiago but now that I was nearly there, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to arrive. Good thing I still had a few days to get my head around the idea.

So, I took it really slowly that morning. The darkness and fog slowly lifted, and I found myself in undulating countryside with grey stone walls and a chill in the air. The chill never really lifted in the week ahead: some of that was because I was in Galicia and some of it was because it was early October. The summer was over and the long, light days of the Meseta were all behind me.

Free fruit along the way 🙂

My walking that day was tinged with a sort of sadness. I missed Handsome Husband and hoped his journey home was going well. Strangely, about half an hour after saying goodbye to him in Sarria, I lost network coverage on my phone. I didn’t have any 3G coverage or even regular phone coverage. This meant no texts, no phone calls, no impromptu messages to let him know I was still alive. It was a strange state, and one that persisted for my week of walking through Galicia. It struck me as really odd: here was the busiest stretch of the camino trail and I had no phone network: what was that about? I couldn’t tell whether there was a limited infrastructure because it’s a poor part of Spain, or whether this imposed silence was somehow part of *my* last days on the trail. Either way, the lack of phone network made things a lot quieter for me and that was surprisingly welcome.

Hearty meaty and veggie soup: amazing!

My days walking in Galicia were strange and emotional for a number of reasons. I noticed changes in the café menus: the mixed salads had been replaced by hearty broths, and the dishes were meatier and more stew-like. It made sense to me: the climate here was different to every other region I had walked through and that damn damp was chilly. I craved the soups, stews, and large cups of tea for comfort.

The trail was loud and busy, and there was nearly always someone within sight either ahead of me or behind me. I’m an introvert and that particular day I was feeling even more insular than usual: I didn’t feel like conversing with the scores of pilgrims who’d only just started and were all chatter. Many of them were on “vacation mode” but I was in a very different head space. On top of that, I noticed quite a few women in full make-up as I stopped for coffee along the way. When I say “full”, I mean the works – the foundation, the eye shadow, the mascara and eyeliner, the lip liners and lipsticks, and even blusher – at 9am in the middle of a dirty, dusty gravel trail, looking like they were on their way to an evening gala. And with the smell of damp moss and cow manure all around us. Very odd. I’m sure they looked amazing in the photos they posted on Facebook but their appearance was so, so out of context that I recoiled even more. Make-up and social media updates held no appeal for me: I had a job to do and I wanted to keep walking.

Help-yourself coffee stop along the way with an honesty box to pay for anything taken

I stopped for the night in a tiny village called Vilchá, with a population of just 30 people and no cafés or shops. I was just 2.5km from Portomarín but I wanted to avoid the throngs of people heading for the big town. I thought I had a better chance of getting a bed in a small village like this, and it turned out to be true. Surprisingly, I bumped into some German and South African women I had’t seen since St. Jean Pied de Port, and we were all thrilled to see that we were each still alive, still walking, and in good health.

Our private hostel was a restored farm house, with solid furnishings and exposed wooden beams. There were only eight of us staying there that night – all women, too – so it was a quiet evening while people wrote in their journals and napped before dinner. Our South African host cooked a fine three-course meal for us (you can’t go wrong with Spag. Bol.!) and afterwards gave us liqueurs that smelled like rocket fuel! We talked politics, farming, and music, and I got the sense that our host would have loved a party late into the night. I was the youngest one there so he was adamant that I should sing for them or do some sort of a party piece. I squirmed at the attention and repeatedly declined his uninviting suggestion. If we had all sang together it would be one thing but singling me out like that didn’t feel right. I politely told him no, and he looked disappointed and bored with me for the remainder of the evening. I got the impression that I’d somehow defied his expectation of how camino “should” be, as though I had snubbed his hospitality and warmth, somehow. A strange way to end the day but I was glad of the warm and solid bed, and grateful for the chance to rest before going further.

Camino Challenge: Comparing Myself to Others

I’m back!

After a long hiatus, I’m back at a keyboard again and hopefully ready to write a bit more about my camino adventure. It’s been a long gap, I know.

Thanks for sticking around.

There are different reasons for my long silence but one of them, in particular, really caught me by surprise.

Short version: I subscribe to various camino blogs. Some of them are written by people who planned their walk for Spring/Summer this year. In some cases, it was their first camino. In others, it was their second or third. Either way, I signed up for these blogs ages ago and enjoyed reading about, and commenting on, their preparations and plans.  I still love reading about camino so the blogs are a great way for me to keep in touch with the good memories and anticipate my next walkabout.

So far, so good.

But 2-3 months ago, all at once, these people were ready to step away from the keyboards and go walk. Their bags were packed, their flights awaited, it was time to leave. All at once, my inbox was full of their updates. They wrote from France and Spain, from hostels along the way. They wrote about the friends they made, the blisters they drained, and the plates of pasta they gorged on. I empathized with their frustrations and disappointments. I smiled at their frank reports from smelly dorm rooms. I relished their photos from parts of the trail I surely passed, but didn’t remember. And then I felt bad for forgetting so much of the trail, especially when I thought I had remembered so much.

I don’t know any of these people personally but their journeys felt personal to me. I cheered them on from afar.

But surprisingly, with all the talk about *their* camino journeys, I felt less and less able to talk about mine. They blogged live from the trail and somehow, that seemed more interesting and more valuable than anything I had to say. After all, it’s nearly 2 years since I walked camino. I’ve had time to reflect but they had an immediacy that was attention-grabbing. I felt there wasn’t enough room in the blogosphere for both our voices.

So I went quiet for a while.

Oddly, I also went quiet because I knew that some of these people subscribe to this blog, and I didn’t want them receiving my updates while they walked their own journey.

Why?

Well, I subscribed to only one camino blog before, and during my camino. I enjoyed Jen’s style of writing. I enjoyed her honest accounts and vivid descriptions from the trail. It all seemed so easy. It all seemed like a lot of fun.

While I walked across Spain, my smart phone buzzed with email updates every time I found wi-fi. Some of the updates were from her blog and I couldn’t help but read them. She had finished walking by then but wrote about finding people to walk with every day. She wrote about laughter and chatter with the locals. She wrote about going at her own pace and taking early stops in charming, scenic villages.

It all seemed so easy. It all seemed like a lot of fun. But I couldn’t relate to it. Most days, I chose to walk alone. I didn’t have enough Spanish to have much chatter with the locals. I didn’t stop often enough and as time wore on, the small villages charmed me less and less.

Compared to Jen, I felt like Oscar the Grouch!

Her blog was full of insight and reflection, and she seemed to have it all figured out. Meanwhile, I felt I was dragging my sorry-ass corpse across Spain and was making everyone miserable – myself included.

Receiving Jen’s updates while I still walked my own path was a strange sort of torture. I read about all the things that went well, all the things she did right, all the things she was grateful for. I compared my experience to her experience, and felt I was failing. I felt I was “doing it” all wrong. I felt tired, over-stimulated, and very, very sore. I didn’t feel I was having any great epiphanies or profound experiences. I felt I was failing at the very act of walking a pilgrimage route, and I wasn’t having a lot of fun. As the days turned into weeks, this self-defeating criticism mounted. It brought me to a point of utter despair and I thought I couldn’t go on. I thought my entire camino journey was doomed. I thought I couldn’t walk all the way to Santiago.

I still remember the rawness of those particular days. I remember how the heaviness of my heart made my whole body feel like lead. Of course, I wasn’t just comparing myself to this one person. I compared myself to the hundreds of strangers around me, and I saw only their successes and my own failures.

It was my own, very personal form of hell.

You’ll be glad to know I found a way through it – otherwise, I couldn’t blog about camino with any kind of joy or fondness!

But still, I remember the ache as I compared myself to others and particularly, to this person at the far side of the world, on the other end of a blog post.

Somehow, these past few months, I couldn’t write about my camino while I knew there were people who might read it while they walked their own journey.

Most of them have finished walking by now and have made their way home, to reflect and recover.

And now that there’s a quietness to my inbox again, I feel it’s a bit kinder to talk about my camino. No comparisons, no judgements, but hopefully, a shared experience that is positive and good.

So on we go – and hope for the best!

I hope you’ll continue to join me! 🙂

Breaking the Blogging Rules

I’m sure someone, somewhere has put together the Top 10 Tips for Blogging and one of those tips is “Get up at 4am to make sure you blog every day!” (or some other Type-A, Tiger-Mom equivalent that says “No excuses, you lazy bum!”)

You know the types: Get your message out there, build your network, command that spotlight, etc.

I get it.

Social media can be pretty fickle and it takes effort to stand out in the online world. Millions of people are competing for attention this very minute and sometimes you have to shout loudly, and often, to get heard at all. When it comes to blogging, you have to have something to say. You have to say it often. You have to say it loudly. You have to say it across different platforms. Otherwise, no one will read, no one will follow, and no one will care.

I get it.

And I admit, I have failed miserably to do any/all of these things the past few months. I’ve broken the blogging rules. I’ve neglected to write in all areas of my life – be that emails, text messages, and this lovely blog. There have been a collection of factors: illness, bereavement, and some major changes in my daily workspace. Even when I’d navigated my way through *those* distractions, I was faced with a broken laptop, a water-damaged smart phone, and had no broadband for a while. Quite literally, I lost use of the very tools I need for communicating online.

My list of hurdles became comical in that “The dog ate my homework” kind-of-way. I’m sure they read like an elaborate list of excuses.

And as the weeks rolled on, I wrestled with frustration, exasperation, and guilt about this non-writing life I seem to be living lately. Sure, my life has become busy in unexpected ways and my days have been full to the brim…but still, I expected that I should somehow make the time, conjure the wi-fi I needed, and find a way to keep writing – regularly and diligently.

This blog is my candle in the wind. If I don’t keep it lit, then who will?

If I don’t keep it lit, won’t it just fade away?

I went round and round in my head with all the reasons why I want to blog and all the reasons I found it hard to sit down and write.

I admit, sometimes I just didn’t feel like it.

There, I’ve said it.

And if I’m being really honest, I sometimes liked the feeling that came with being offline and somewhat inaccessible for a while. It reminded me of my days walking in Spain and the freedom of being “off the map” for a few weeks. In Spain, the leave of absence allowed me to ignore all the white noise of modern living and just “be”.

But this recent period of silence didn’t sit so easily with me.

I wondered: Have I beached up already?

I’ve written only a portion of my camino journey – the section from St. Jean Pied de Port to Burgos. There is still *so* much I want to say – about the walking, the terrain, and the things I learned along the way. But have I already grown bored and lost my self-discipline to see this thing through?

I wondered all of this until quite recently, someone pointed out to me that writing a blog about the camino is a bit like walking the camino.

There are days full of bright-eyed, bunny-eared enthusiasm and things go easily. There are days of exhausted reluctance, when the biggest challenge is to physically show up and look interested. Camino presents a litany of challenges – weather conditions, illness, sore feet, loud snorers, lack of vegetables – the list goes on. And yet, thousands of people every year, find a way to sidestep all the reasons why they should not walk camino. Every year, thousands of people find a way to keep going, despite the odds.

I was one of those thousands of people.

I found a way to keep going despite the challenges. I hope to do it again, now, with blogging.

Bear with me. I know the journey can feel like a long one but I still think it’s worth it.

Do you?

A New Beginning in Burgos

When I decided to stop in Burgos and get a private room, I knew a few things:

  • I was running on empty
  • I needed some space and time to myself
  • I needed a chance to mentally regroup

I slept soundly the first night in my little single bed. Such bliss! I planned to continue walking the next day but when I woke in the morning, my body said otherwise.

I asked if they had space to let me stay a second night.

, the receptionist replied.

Delighted and relieved, I went back to bed and slept for another 5 hours!

This was *my kind of camino!*

Even though I planned my camino journey in just a month, I knew in advance what my “challenges” were likely to be. I wasn’t that worried about breaking a leg or getting lost on the trail. I wasn’t even worried about the alleged lack of beds or the fact that I spoke very little Spanish. Before I ever strapped the backpack to my shoulders I knew that these would be my main personal challenges:

Separately, I had a sense of what my physical challenges would be but funnily enough, they tied into the personal challenges above. I guess it’s a case of:

Where the mind goes, the body will follow.

How did I know what my stumbling blocks were? Well, these were my challenges in everyday “real life”. I knew I carried them with me to France and Spain, too.

I knew who I was “going in”.

Question was, who would I be “coming out” at the end?

Time, and lots of walking, would tell.

I’m not ashamed to admit that by the time I got to Burgos, I was starting to get a little crazy around the edges. My nights in Villambistia and Atapuerca pushed my buttons and I felt frazzled almost all the time. I had a notion that walking Camino would fill me with blissful contentment and radiant connection with my fellow pilgrims: so why was I feeling grouchy and tearful?

I put it down to being exhausted and over-stimulated, and just not getting enough sleep to recalibrate. Simple as that.

I’m like this in my everyday life, too. If I work too hard, play too hard, and don’t get enough “down time” on my own, I get strung out and sick. In my “real life”, I have a private room every night. I have a front door, which keeps some of the madness at bay. When my life gets too loud, I have ways of turning down the volume.

On Camino, I didn’t have any of those things, so taking 2 nights in a private room in Burgos was my equivalent of “turning down the volume”.

I slept a lot, I explored the city on my own, and I ate a beef burger (not chorizo, not baguette, not pork!) in a trendy, hip wine bar full of young people in a party mood.

Burgos was one of the spots on my Camino where I got to hit the “RESET” button and it gave me a new beginning.

Getting some sleep helped quieten some of the crazy and I came to realize a few things:

  • I need what I need. Some days I need to walk fast, others I need to walk slow. Some days I need a private room to sleep and be quiet. Instead of judging myself and berating myself for needing these things, I’m better off just tending to those needs as best I can, and getting on with things.
  • I was roughly 1/3 of the way into my 500 mile journey. For almost 2 weeks, I’d walked with a tentative hope in my heart. I hoped to make it to Santiago and I wanted to make it to Santiago, but I was never sure I would make it to Santiago. I had done no physical training and I was never sure whether my body would continue to rise to the challenge. In Burgos, I realized I was 1/3 of the way “there” and that knowing filled me with confidence for the next leg of the journey.
  • I needed to walk more for myself. At different points up to then, I’d changed my pace and plans to suit others – usually because I didn’t want to offend them. I had a notion that walking Camino meant we were all equal, all humble, and all with the same agenda. I was a bit misguided in that belief. In Burgos, I realized I needed to get a bit more selfish about my own process, my own needs, and my own journey. I needed to “grab it by the horns” and go make it my own.

I got the rest and sleep I needed. I turned down some of the crazy. I left my little bed and the city feeling a bit tougher, a bit stronger, and a bit more focused.

I didn’t know what it would bring but I knew I felt ready for the challenge. Burgos had given me a chance to hit “RESET” and start again.

Does this sound familiar at all? What did *you* do to hit the “RESET” button in your life – whether on camino or elsewhere?

 

 

 

 

 

Burgos, Spain: You Get What you Need

IMG_0928

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.

IMG_0923

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

IMG_0922

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.

IMG_0930

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?

IMG_0927

 

Adiós Azofra (and a Coffee in Cirueña)

Distance walked: 22.4km (from Azofra to Grañón)

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

I mean, not a single thing.

That really bothered me.

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

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

I looked at the map and thought to myself:

I probably stopped in Cirueña for a coffee and breakfast…

But I couldn’t remember any of it.

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

Aaaahhhh yes….I remember this place!

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

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

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

So, I get it.

But when I walked Camino, my perspective changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hurrah…a chance for coffee…and breakfast!

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

But I came away from the call feeling conflicted.

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

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

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

😀

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camino Continues: Navarette to Azofra

Distance walked: 23.2km

In Navarette, I woke at 5:30am, to a room filled with noisy alarm clocks, mobile phones, and rustling sleeping bags. The small space was filled with bright LED torches bobbing left and right, as people packed up their gear. I lay in the warm comfort of my bed but eventually realised there was simply no getting back to sleep.

I’m not a morning person, and I didn’t really support the ethos of rushing out the door before dawn, but here I was:

Awake and with a day of walking ahead of me. I decided to get up and go. I decided to start walking as soon as the front doors opened at 6am.

Downstairs, I put on my walking shoes, grabbed my walking poles out of the basket, and secured the backpack across my shoulders. Outside the door, the others walked off quickly into the early morning, and I slowly walked along behind them. Before long, they’d rounded a corner and were out of sight.

I tried to leave Navarette – really, I did.

But the morning was dark and I couldn’t distinguish any yellow arrows against the dark footpath.

I couldn’t distinguish any yellow arrows on the side of buildings, either.

The town was small, so the Camino signs were handmade and irregular. There were no formal signposts, or symbols embedded into the footpath. There was no one on the streets either, and that concerned me more.

I knew that dozens of pilgrims had poured onto the streets only minutes beforehand, but I couldn’t see any of them. There are always pilgrims around somewhere, so I doubted my sense of direction. I thought I’d taken a wrong turn.

I doubled back, and started again but still, there was no-one around, and I was sure I had missed a turn somewhere.

I walked to the edge of the small to town – to the point where the street lamps ran out, with only dark countryside ahead.

As a woman walking alone, I took stock. I didn’t feel I was in any danger – my gut instinct indicated that it was safe to proceed. But my mental training kicked in: Don’t risk it. It’s not a good idea to walk off into the unknown darkness alone. So I turned around, and went back towards my hostel.

I spent nearly an hour doubling back on myself. I walked the stretch of road several times – back and forth – trying to find arrows or yellow paint anywhere along the way. I could see nothing.

From an upstairs apartment window, a local shouted out to me in Spanish and confirmed which way to go.

Another local looked like he was just returning home (from working a night shift job? from a night of heavy partying?) and confirmed which way to go.

Eventually, I heard the tap, tap, tap, of walking poles behind me. I couldn’t see anyone in the darkness but I could hear the sound of footsteps and could see the bobbing of a head torch. The Korean pilgrims confirmed which way to go.

After three confirmations I felt more confident of my direction, and was glad of their warm assistance.

And wouldn’t you know it: I had been going the right direction all along 🙂

IMG_0874

In Ventosa, I stopped for morning coffee, breakfast, and free wi-fi.

In Nájera, I stopped in a small corner shop to buy postcards and stamps, and found a sunny bench on the side of the street. There, I took off my socks and shoes, and felt entirely comfortable in my bare feet – even though busy traffic and pedestrians bustled all around me.

The Camino passes through so many towns, villages, and cities along the way, and there is a steady stream of pilgrims en route. Pilgrims need to tend to their feet – so this means taking off socks and shoes, bursting blisters, applying ointment and bandages – all in plain view. It becomes normal to see people on the side of the trail, tending to their feet. I don’t know what the locals think of all this but I imagine it’s become a normal sight for them, too.

I sat on the bench and took a few minutes to apply sunscreen, drink water, and let my feet cool down. I wrote a postcard, and listened to the sounds of children shrieking and laughing in the nearby schoolyard. I also observed the only Chinese restaurant I saw on my whole Camino, and it made me realise that I hadn’t seen very much non-Spanish food on the journey to date. Funny, I hadn’t noticed that and hadn’t missed it, either.

IMG_0876

Crossing the river in lovely Nájera

I arrived in Azofra at 1pm, and hoped I was early enough to secure a bed in the hostel with 60 beds.

Thankfully, I was.

To boot, I would share my room with only one other person! After so many noisy, busy dorms, the prospect of such (relative) privacy was intoxicating, and I delighted at the prospect of getting some decent sleep.

Outside, pilgrims sat in the afternoon sunshine, bathing their feet in the cold, outdoor fountain. What luxury! I happily bumped into Barb and Dave, whom I hadn’t seen in days, and it was a joy to see their friendly faces. Dave even helped me find an empty sunny patch on the clothes line, for my newly-washed clothes 🙂

It might sound ridiculous now but with dozens of others competing for the same patch of sunshine, in the same courtyard, and at the same time, free space on a clothesline was precious. Inherently, I would have tried to find a free spot without moving anyone else’s belongings. It’s polite and respectful, sure, but I would have sooner denied my own need for dry clothing than presume it was okay to move someone else’s stuff.

(Maybe I needed assertiveness training?)

My reserve would have been a problem because at the same moment I was needing a sunny space, three other pilgrims emerged beside me with armfuls of dripping, wet clothes. They too were looking for a spot and there was no way the four of us could squeeze our gear onto the existing line space. This might have turned into a “survival of the fittest” moment except that Dave magically and effortlessly found space for all of us! He took care of me first and pointed out a free patch. The three women beside me started to get a bit edgy in seeing that I would need every bit of that space. No fear, Dave jumped in with news of another free spot, and he led them down to the far end of the courtyard.

Without being any way pushy or domineering, he found prime sunny space for all of us. He made it look easy and effortless. To him, it probably was. He took care of each of us in the most natural and gentle way, and we all got what we needed. I’m pretty sure he won’t even remember this incident but without realising it, he got me out of a tight spot that afternoon. You see, I’d decided to wash almost all of my clothing that day, including my sweatshirt that I hardly wore but which had become really grimey nonetheless. I needed a lot of sunshine and heat to make sure everything was dry before evening. I wouldn’t have pushed my way onto the clothesline by myself, and Dave’s generous intervention meant that I found a way – and got what what I needed.

I’m pretty sure you don’t remember any of this but Dave, Thank You!

For the second day in a row, I had covered a considerable distance (Brierley would approve!) and had arrived into town early enough to secure a bed. I’d even arrived early enough to wash everything and ensure it was dry before nightfall – no more grimey sweatshirt!

Those new shoes truly changed my Camino.

Blogging the Camino

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I get it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t walking for the entertainment or excitement.

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

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

I went on retreat.

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

do,

want,

or

be,

in life.

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

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

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

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

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

And you know what?

I’m delighted with my decision.

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

Absolutely.

Camino Challenge: No Beds (again)

Arriving into town and learning there were no available beds, was disheartening.

At the end of a long, sweaty, dusty day of great physical exertion, it was particularly gutting.

If, like me, you’d plan to spend the night in such a town, then the news is rather problematic.

Finding a bed doesn’t just mean having somewhere to sleep that night. Finding a bed also means:

  • You can have a shower, at last!
  • There’s somewhere you can wash and dry your laundry
  • You may have wi-fi contact or phone coverage – and let your loved ones know that you’re still alive
  • You can settle somewhere for your evening meal and a beer
  • You can relax into conversation and friendship
  • Your day’s effort is done. There is nothing to do but rest.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

In everyday life, it is the equivalent of going home after a long day. Except, I was a long way from home. Life on Camino is transient and temporary, and not having a place of rest was the closest I’ve known to being homeless.

Not so much fun.

Arriving into Los Arcos only to learn that there were no available beds, was terribly disappointing. Priority 1 was to find a bed. Everything else came after that. The shower, the laundry, the dinner and drinks, were all delayed. There would be no resting until I’d secured a place to sleep.

I was just over a week into walking Camino and this was the second evening I’d arrived too late for a bed. In case you missed it, I wrote about my first experience of it here: A Day of Ups and Downs.

Certainly, the volume of people walking Camino in the past few years has sky-rocketed. I read somewhere recently that a few years ago there were 35,000 – 45,000 people walking the route each year.

In 2013, those numbers had risen to over 200,000.

Of course, that kind of increase puts pressure on everything – accommodation, water supply, waste disposal, cafés – you name it. I didn’t take it personally that I was left without a bed. If those numbers are true then it’s likely on a given day that someone gets stuck for a place to sleep – why shouldn’t it be me?

Still, getting stuck for a place to sleep (twice) coincided with pushing my body extra hard, on days that were very hot. I did wonder if there was a correlation there, and maybe something to be learned from it all.

The four of us went from hostel to hostel across Los Arcos and everywhere the message was the same:

No room at the inn.

At the last hostel, the staff confirmed that not only were all the beds taken, but every inch of floor space was full too. There wasn’t enough room to take in a stray cat.

Before I’d even had time to think: “What now?” my fellow-pilgrim from Australia said one word:

Taxi.

There wasn’t even a moment of hesitation. She said it with absolute confidence and conviction. She spoke it clearly and immediately. She had created a plan. She spoke for all of us.

Ordering a taxi was entirely practical:

We had to get a bed

We had to go to another town

There was no way we were able to walk it

 

I wouldn’t have thought of it, and I was thrilled that she did.

Quick as a flash, the hostel-owner jumped into her mini-van parked outside the front door, and ushered us in. We had no idea where she planned to bring us, but we also didn’t really care. I trusted her local expertise and knowledge, and felt confident that she’d help us figure out a place to stay. Plus, I felt relieved that I could hand over this task to someone more knowledgeable than me.

Complete surrender.

I was thankful too that we were in a group. Not only did it equate to a cheaper taxi fare for each of us, but it meant that she would take our request seriously. It can be easy to turn away one solitary pilgrim. It’s harder to ignore a group of them.

Just as it is in life, there is strength in numbers.

After a few minutes of driving, she stopped at the first albergue and found it was full.

She stopped at the second and found they had space. Yay.

Until the guy stamped my Pilgrim Passport, I didn’t know where we were. It tells me that I was in Torres del Rio, some 8km outside Los Arcos. Those were 8km I didn’t walk, and would have to decide on the next morning.

Our albergue held a bar and restaurant on the ground floor, with bedding and bathrooms upstairs. They even had a swimming pool! The bar was loud with metal and punk music, with medieval-looking armour and crossbows on the walls. The courtyard in front was full of people drinking beer in the cool evening shade. They didn’t wear quick-drying sports gear or zip-off hiking pants, but instead, were covered in black clothes, with lots of tattoos and chains.

My guess? They weren’t pilgrims 🙂

How great we were getting to “mix with the locals” a bit!

And like an old woman, I found myself thinking: I hope they’re not going to stay out here all night making noise!

That evening, I filled my belly with paella, delighted to take a break from baguette. I felt profoundly grateful for my bed. I shared an open dorm with the 3 women, in a room with low ceilings, exposed wooden beams, and very few bunks. I slept like a rock, and when I woke the next morning, I hadn’t changed position at all. I’d heard snoring and people going to the bathroom but I had been so tired, I hadn’t stirred an inch.

But here’s a thing:

The hostel was privately owned, and they told us that some of the beds in the dorm were reserved. When we arrived at 6pm there was no sign of our roommates but we presumed they’d show up later. By 9pm the beds were still empty. Given that the hostels had a “lights out” rule for 10pm, these pilgrims were cutting it fine.

When we awoke the next morning, we discovered the beds were still empty. They had never been slept in at all.

6 pilgrims had reserved beds in a private hostel and for whatever reason, didn’t show up.

By the time the staff realised this, it was too late in the day to accept replacement pilgrims.

I wondered:

How many people like us, had arrived in Los Arcos to find there were no available beds?

How many of them took a taxi – alone or in groups – to Torres del Rio and were told that there were no beds there either?

And how many of them would ever guess that upstairs there were 6 available beds, with clean sheets, lying empty all night?

How many of them had to travel further, when what they needed was available right in front of our eyes?

Yes, 200,000 people on Camino puts pressure on services. But making private reservations and not keeping them has an impact too. I’m pretty sure there were pilgrims who could have used those beds that night but were never given a look-in.

It was a sort of Camino Capitalism.

Not cool.