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.聽 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 馃檪

“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 Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

I had never heard of “The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim” before I started walking camino. I never knew there were such things and to this day, I’m not sure how widely these are circulated or known. I’m also not sure whether these have been passed through the years or they are a recent creation, and that lack of knowledge may be relevant to some. You might not want to embrace something that’s hundreds of years old. You might not want to embrace something that’s been around only twenty years.

Still, let me continue.

When I stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, I received a slip of paper with the ten points printed on them. Like everything else on camino, some things will resonate and others won’t so these may or may not be your groove.

Me?

I liked the message and I carried that slip of paper all the way to Santiago, and home, in case it took on a monumental significance with time.

I think the exact wording of these threw me off somehow but in my own way, I came to similar understandings and insights. I resonate with the sentiment. And I even resonate with the sentiment of sharing these because they might encourage reflection and compassion along the way. Camino is so much more than a budget walking holiday or a boozy way to see Spain. I’d like to contribute to the more reflective side – the side that encourages personal change in a positive way.

So, without wanting to be too religious-y, here they are. Just because.

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

  1. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” opens your eyes to what is not seen.
  2. Blessed are you pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others,
  3. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you contemplate the “camino” and you discover it is full of names and dawns.
  4. Blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered that the authentic “camino”begins when it is completed.
  5. Blessed are you pilgrim, if your knapsack is emptying of things and your heart does not know where to hang up so many feelings and emotions.
  6. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that one step back to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without seeing what is at your side.
  7. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you don’t have the words to give thanks for everything that surprises you at every twist and turn of the way.
  8. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you search for the truth and make of the “camino” a life and of your life a “way”, in search of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  9. Blessed are you pilgrim if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image in your heart.
  10. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” holds a lot of silence; and the silence of prayer; and the prayer of meeting with God who is waiting for you.

The Camino Provides in Carri贸n de los Condes

When I arrived in the town of Carri贸n de los Condes, I was sweaty and dusty and tired. A seemingly helpful woman told me the church hostels were all full, but kindly directed me towards a private hostel that still had space.

At least, she seemed kind and helpful, and I assumed her office attire and clipboard meant she was from the local tourist office or some other professional organisation. My mistake.

When the private hostel staff refused to give me a bed, I stood in the street feeling speechless and numb. I understood being refused a bed because of no space…but this? Being refused because I was a solo traveller was alien to me on camino. And it was a bitter blow after the immense kindness and welcome shown me just a day earlier in Boadilla del Camino. So, what would I do – would I try to find a private B&B? Or would I walk on to the next spot, some 17km away?

I walked through the town for 20 minutes and found a park bench in the shade. Grateful, I removed my sweaty backpack and my even sweatier shoes, and sat to gather my thoughts. I really didn’t have the energy to walk on to the next town so I’d either have to get a taxi there, or I would have to find somewhere to stay in Carri贸n. The town was busy and popular, and I felt a deep dread at the thought of finding private accommodation. The shoals of people following Brierley’s guidebook would have started in Fr贸mista that morning and ended their day’s walking in Carri贸n de los Condes, just like the guidebook instructed. They would have checked into the hostels early or booked private B&Bs in advance. The Brierley brigade were good at following instructions and staying organized. They made it difficult for free range walkers, like me, to show up unannounced and find somewhere to stay.

After half an hour in the shade, I re-read my (Brierley!) guidebook and reviewed the options. I still wanted to stay in the Santa Mar铆a hostel, if possible. You’ll remember that on the trail, I had stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, and they had recommended this particular hostel in Carri贸n. IMG_0797

Even though the “helpful” woman had told me all the hostels were full,聽 I decided to walk over there and see if they could squeeze me in.

And boy was I glad that I did!

I arrived at the heavy wooden door expecting to be told that all beds were taken. I stood on the threshold uncertainly but a gracious young nun gently ushered me in the door. From behind the desk, she welcomed me in with a warm smile.

By now, it was mid-afternoon. Most hostel beds fill up by noon so I had arrived at least two hours later than everyone else. And I had spent one of those hours following the misdirection of other people who’d convinced me that all beds in the town were taken. Asking for a bed here, now, seemed like a ridiculous long shot.

Hello, I said, do you have any beds? I need a bed for one, please.

I held my breath.

S铆, she replied casually, as though they always have beds. No biggie.

I exhaled! Oh my God!

There is only one thing, she said tentatively.

Oh, here we go, I thought to myself.

It is up high, yes? Is that okay?

She was trying to tell me that my bed was at the top of a bunk. I suppose some pilgrims don’t want (or maybe can’t quite make it to) the top of a bunk, so she was mindful enough to mention it to me in advance – just in case. Thankfully, it was no problem for me. High, low, in beside the washing machine, out in the back garden…I didn’t care where I slept. I was just massively relieved to have found somewhere to stay…and in my choice hostel, too.

That night, I slept soundly in my upper bunk beside the window. Glad, grateful, and in awe of how simple it was to get a bed – again. I say “simple” because the beautiful nun made it seem like an effortless and easy process. And maybe to her, it was. But for me, securing that bed required me to “simply” sidestep the mistruths I’d been told. Securing that bed required me to have a bit of faith.

My takeaway things-to-remember that day?

  1. Don’t believe everything you hear – even people who seem professional and helpful can mislead you.
  2. Go for the thing you want. Be brave and give it a shot. Even if you’ve been told it’s unavailable, you never know what might happen. There might be a way of simply squeezing you in 馃檪

 

 

 

 

 

Good Night Gra帽贸n

Distance walked: 22.4km (from Azofra to Gra帽贸n)

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Crossing the main road to follow the trail to Santiago

I left Santo Domingo after finishing my cheesy, bread-y lunch, and walked on 6.2km to the small village of Gra帽贸n. You can see by the photos below that the day was another stellar, sunny, scorching hot day – I miss those!

I hoped to secure a place in the parish hostel adjoining the Church of St. John the Baptist, where they had room for 40 pilgrims between 2 rooms. I wanted to stay there because the hostel ran on donations (“donativo”). I learned, from staying with the nuns at Zabaldika, that the hostels financed by donations tend to have a different atmosphere and ethos to other types of accommodation on Camino. Thanks to the nuns, I’d enjoyed a communal meal with my fellow pilgrims and made new friends. I even enjoyed the hymn singing (although I cried my eyes out all the way through!). I appreciated their kindness and support, and their donation-based hostel gave me some much-needed tender care. Experience had taught me that donation-based hostels felt nurturing and kind. I wanted to stay in as many as I could, so I prayed for a space in Gra帽贸n.

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Only 560km to go!

When I arrived, I was thrilled to learn that there was free space for me!

And I was even more thrilled to bump into American Fred and his friends, sitting out on the grassy lawn out front. We first met in Roncesvalles, on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. He stood out because of his John Deere hat, but they were each smiling, friendly, mischievious men. I enjoyed getting to know them. We’d lost track of each other in the intervening days, but bumped into each other the previous evening in Azofra. I happily joined them for dinner and drinks there, but once we left the hostel the next morning I never knew if, or when, I would see them again. Life on Camino is like that.

So it was a real delight to find them again in Granon, and to have some time to sit in the sun, chatting, laughing, and to catch up on our walking. A few days on Camino can feel like a few months or even years in “real life”, and there is always so much to catch up on.

I was thrilled to see them, and thrilled to have a free space in the hostel.

There was only one small snag with the hostel. I knew it in advance but the thing was:

They didn’t provide beds.

They didn’t have beds of any sort.

Instead, they offered mats on the floor, with woollen blankets and cushions too. The blankets and cushions weren’t exactly clean but I took them anyway to provide a little extra padding beneath me.

What’s it like to sleep on a mat on the floor? Something like this:

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You’ll see that the mats are tightly packed in there, with only 2-3 inches between them. Sometimes, there’s no space between them at all, so you can find yourself sleeping very close to someone you’ve never met before! As a woman travelling alone, this could have been weird in a thousand and one ways. Honestly, it wasn’t weird at all. I’d never met the guy sleeping right beside me but we exchanged hellos and then politely avoided eye contact for the rest of the evening. When you sleep that close to a stranger, you need to create boundaries any way you can, and that’s what we did to create ours.

But that afternoon, I sat out on the grassy front lawn with Fred and friends, chatting, giggling, and enjoying their company. That evening, I went to mass in the church next door. In keeping with a long-held family tradition, I was very, very late. To my credit, I was on a call to Handsome Husband so I figured I had the very best of reasons for being late, right?

But I was so late that I arrived in towards the end of the mass, during Holy Communion, and just about in time to receive a pilgrim blessing at the very end. In the photo below you’ll see that the priest gathered all the pilgrims together in front of the alter, before saying the blessing in Spanish. I wrote a little bit about the blessings in an earlier post, which you can read here: Pilgrim Blessings on Camino de Santiago.

You’ll also notice from the angle with which the picture was taken, that I was outside the group. I had arrived in so late that I didn’t want to stomp my way up to the front *just for the blessing* – that would have made me quite the “脿 la carte Catholic”! Instead, I snapped this brief photo from behind, said “Amen” when necessary, and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. It might have worked except for the fact that when mass ended, some older Spanish women stopped to chat with me at the front door of the church. They looked like women who attended mass every day, at least once a day, and maybe twice on a Sunday. I very obviously stood out as a pilgrim in my quick-drying outdoor gear, but one of them tried to engage me in conversation nonetheless.

I hadn’t a clue what she said to me, but I tried to explain that I was very sorry but I didn’t speak Spanish.

She kind of laughed, as if to say:

Ah of course you speak Spanish! Don’t be pulling my leg!

I insisted:

No, really I don’t speak Spanish. I am very sorry. But I hope you have a lovely evening.

Again she looked at me with merriment in her sparkling eyes, as though I were playing the world’s biggest practical joke – and she were in on it! And again, I insisted that even though I spoke just enough Spanish to explain that I didn’t, in fact, speak any Spanish…I knew how to say very little else!

She didn’t believe a word.

We went back and forth like this for about 5 minutes. By that time, her friends had joined her and they all circled around me at the doors of the church. I had no idea why they’d earmarked me, when there were dozens of other pilgrims walking right past them. I wanted to get back to the hostel to avail of the communal meal there, but I didn’t want to be rude and break away from the ladies either. And anyway, they seemed so sweet and warm – they reminded me of all the nice grandmothers I’d ever known! With their long, knitted cardigans, their mid-length polyester blend skirts, and their sturdy shoes, they reminded me of women I knew in my childhood and I felt a natural affinity with them. I felt they might even have sweets in their pockets, or have a stash of knitting wool hidden somewhere behind a statue!

She looked at me with a warm gaze and quickly spoke to her 5-6 friends standing beside her. I, of course, have no idea what she really said, but her tone and clucking noises made me feel she was saying something like this:

Doesn’t she look just like Manuel’s daughter, Isabella? Look at that hair, and she has the very same eyes! I’d swear it was her!

With all her friends saying:

Ooooh yes, you’re right! She looks just like her. And you know who else she looks like?

Who?

Carlos’s neice….the one that moved to Madrid….what’s her name again?

Maria.

Yes! Maria. She looks like her too. But they’re related anyhow, so that would make sense. Their mothers are second cousins.

Ah yes, I’d forgotten that. And their related to Jos茅 in the shop, too. You’d swear she was one of them.

Pity she doesn’t speak any Spanish though.

And she’s a bit pale…

Poor thing has no sense of fashion…

But she looks just like that side of the family!

I stood on, like a village idiot, smiling without understanding what they really said. But they were endlessly kind and welcoming to me, and I glowed with the warmth of it all.

If I had any grasp of the language I would have stayed to chat because she was a warm, mischievous gem of a woman. I know she and I would have laughed together. Instead, I gave her my arm as I escorted her down the steps of the church, to the safety of the level footpath below. I had an albergue to return to, and a dinner to eat. And hopefully she had a family and feast of her own to return to too, that evening.

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Look at all that gold! With Dave and Barb in the blue and pink, to the left.

Camino Continues: Viana to Navarette

Distance walked: 22.7km

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

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

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

Beautiful!

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is normal for Camino.

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

Ouch!

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

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

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

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

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Rioja vineyards 馃檪

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly, a gift experience.

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

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

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

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

Hurrah!

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

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

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

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

 

Viana: Camino Begins Again

Distance Walked: 8.8km

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After the previous day’s physical struggle to get to Los Arcos,

And the logistical issues with finding a free bed,

This day’s walk was short and sweet.

Days earlier, I had to take a taxi from Zubiri to Zabaladika, just to find a free bed. It meant ‘losing’ or ‘cheating’ on 12km of trail. I agonised over whether to go back and walk those missing kilometres but in the end, decided not to.

There was no going back: there was only forward.

So, when I ‘skipped’ another 8km days later, I was not entirely pleased. I hadn’t intended to taxi my way through the Camino. Even though I’d genuinely been stuck for a bed on both occasions, I didn’t want to get into a pattern of taking taxis. That wasn’t why I’d travelled to Spain.

A Scandinavian woman in my company was very displeased at missing those 8km. She’d spent years planning her trip and reading her guidebook in advance. She wanted to ‘do it right‘ and wanted to experience every inch of the trail for herself. She wanted to experience everything listed in the guidebook. She also wanted to ensure she stamped her Pilgrim Passport in every coffee shop or bar she stopped at along the way. Those rubber stamps of coloured ink were proof that she had walked the distance. A break in the narrative – even 8km of a break – was truly upsetting for her. So much so that she swore loudly and spent the night feeling too annoyed to join the rest of us for dinner.

I can understand her frustration, and at the same time wondered if she was so strict with herself in all areas of life. I imagine she was. She had a plan for how she wanted to experience and achieve Camino. Taking a taxi and missing any of the trail was literally intolerable.

Sometimes, life throws an unexpected curveball and our plans go out the window. What do we do? Do we dig our heels in, rigidly arguing for the plan? Or do we open our arms to the unexpected and abandon the plan in favour of the new reality?

A good friend had told me before I started: ‘You can’t prepare for Camino’. I was delighted at the time, and thought she confirmed I didn’t need any physical training. In retrospect, I think she was telling me: ‘So many unexpected things happen on Camino, whether you want them, and you can’t prepare yourself for every eventuality. The best thing you can do for yourself is go with the flow of it. Make it up as you go along, and see what happens. Be open, be flexible, and be willing to change.’

When we woke in Torres del Rio, our group of 4 people divided:

2 decided to take a taxi back to Los Arcos and pick up the trail. They wanted to cover the 8km they’d skipped the previous evening.

2 of us decided to walk onwards to Viana. We needed to re-group and take care of some errands. We also decided there was no going back.

We arrived into Viana in the late morning, and delighted at arriving early enough to secure a bed in the Albergue Municipal. After days of staying in private accommodation, we welcomed the opportunity to stay at a cheaper place – 鈧6 for the night! The staff assigned us to different numbered beds and we made our way upstairs to find where we’d sleep.

The funniest thing about this hostel was that the dorms contained triple bunk beds.

That’s right: not double, but triple.

I’d never seen such a thing before. And as it happened, I’d been assigned a bed right in the middle of the bunk. There’d be someone sleeping above me and someone else below me.

Getting into my bed was easy enough – climb up the metal ladder on the side, and propel myself forwards and sideways at the same time – think ‘Bruce Willis jumping onto a moving truck’.

Easy!

Getting out of that same bed was altogether more complicated.

The space between my mattress and the one above me wasn’t big enough for me to sit upright. I had to sit hunched over, like Quasimodo.

From there, I wriggled along the mattress until I got to the ladder, and made my attempt to climb down, backwards. Naturally, I needed to steady myself somehow but I couldn’t grab the bed above me – there was someone in it and that was their ‘private space’. I also wanted to stabilise myself by stepping on the mattress beneath me but I couldn’t do that either – there was also someone there, and I didn’t want to disturb them.

Getting out of my bed meant I had to get both hands and both feet onto the ladder, without putting a foot or hand out-of-place, and without losing my balance. The trick? Stick my bum way out (like doing a standing half forward bend in yoga) and move quickly!

Viana was a sweet reprieve and it gave me a chance to begin my Camino again.

How so?

I bought new hiking shoes, and they transformed my feet. After days of painful tendonitis and small sprains, the shoes offered me cushioning and support. Hallelujah!

I also splashed out on an Altus poncho, as recommended on Jen’s Camino blog. The previous days’ rain made me realise that I needed something that would cover my whole body, not just my torso, and keep me dry. If I was going to walk the remaining 630km or so to Santiago, I wanted to stay dry as much as possible. My raincoat was too short, so a poncho was the most sensible alternative. I had a choice of colours: Fanta Orange or Fluorescent Lime Green. I chose the orange, and paid 鈧45 for the privilege. It was the most hideous and most expensive poncho I’d ever known, but it had come recommended and I decided to give it a go. I found myself half wishing it would rain, just so I could get my money’s worth. And at the same time, I didn’t want it to rain at all while I walked my way across Spain.

Fickle Pilgrim wants the best of both worlds!

That evening, I joined a pilgrim mass in the Viana Iglesia de Santa Mar铆a, and gave thanks for arriving in Viana safe and sound. My timing there was fortuitous 鈥 just when my sandals were really starting to give me grief, I鈥檇 arrived in a town that was large enough to have a shop for outdoor gear and footwear. Not every town on Camino has such a shop, despite the thousands of pilgrims needing gear along the way.

I鈥檇 prayed for the resources I needed to keep going and in a very practical way, my prayers, and needs, were fulfilled.

That night, my fellow pilgrim from Torres del Rio and I feasted on steak and chips, and were given a bottle of wine each with our meal. God bless the 3-course, 鈧10 Pilgrim Menu, with baguette and wine! The pilgrims around us were jovial and in a party mood, drinking brandy and laughing loudly. I fell into bed that night feeling satisfied and fortified, in one.

There was no going back 鈥 there was only forwards.

 

 

Camino Continues: Puente la Reina to Villatuerta

Distance to Santiago: 678.5km

Calf muscles finally beginning to feel normal after the Pyrenees 馃檪

The walk out of Puente la Reina the next morning was grey. The clouds hung low and just as it had done in Pamplona, the sky spat irregular, cold blobs of rain. My shorts were still damp from the previous evening, as were the socks I鈥檇 worn. I might have dried them in the albergue except that there were 99 other pilgrims trying to do the same thing at the same time, so the tumble dryers were fully occupied for hours on end. I left my shorts to hang indoors overnight and hoped for the best. The narrating Swede tossed and turned all night, shaking the frame of the bunk bed violently. The only image that came to mind was that of a dog, shaking himself off after getting wet. It felt like the Swede was shaking himself with the same force and when he did, he shook me awake too. Still, the mattress was dry and thankfully free from someone else鈥檚 foot skin, so I couldn鈥檛 complain!

This was one of the few albergues to offer breakfast, so for 鈧3.50 I was given a hot coffee, an orange juice, and a crusty baguette with butter and jam. It was already becoming the standard fare and it would become a staple in the 5+ weeks to follow. Baguette, baguette, and would you like some baguette with your baguette?!

Stepping out the front door of the albergue that morning I looked at the sky with trepidation. The rain was heavy enough to soak my shorts and socks a second time, and I thought about walking a shorter day if the rain persisted. I had only three pairs of socks with me and I tried to keep a dry pair in reserve, especially for the evening time.

One pair were already wet from the previous day and were packed away in my bag.

The second pair were on my feet, in the process of getting wet.

Walking in wet socks can lead to blisters.

The third pair were still dry but I was reluctant to put them on because then all three pairs would be wet.

So I wondered:

Am I better off walking in wet socks all day, possibly getting blisters, and keeping a dry pair in reserve?

or

Should I walk in the second pair until they become really soaked, and then change into the dry pair? Would doing that prevent me from getting blisters? And if all three pairs are wet, will I be able to dry out any of them before I start walking again tomorrow morning?

When you鈥檙e hoping to walk 800km and keep going for a few weeks, foot care becomes a high priority. I reckoned getting blisters was inevitable but I wanted to avoid them for as long as possible. Walking around in wet socks didn鈥檛 really help my case, but I鈥檇 chosen to walk in hiking sandals so this was one of the downsides. (In retrospect, the hiking sandals posed very little threat for blisters because they gave my toes plenty of space to move about 鈥 unlike boots and shoes. So I probably didn鈥檛 need to ruminate on the socks quite so much – I鈥檒l know for next time!)

I decided to figure it out as I went along and made a mental note to self:

Must investigate a pair of hiking shoes soon, especially if the rain keeps up.

There was no point hanging around Puente la Reina. After watching the rain for 10 minutes with a group of other pilgrims I realised it wasn鈥檛 going to ease up. I鈥檇 either have to stay put for the day or get walking.

I chose to walk.

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The morning was damp and heavy for hours, and we spent the day passing through farms, vineyards, and olive groves. This section of the Camino includes one of the best examples of Roman road (yes, that鈥檚 some 2,000 years old), which is impressive, but a killer on the feet. I walked with a 22-year old Italian who, like me, had resigned from her job just before walking Camino. She was petite, with perfect olive skin and cropped pixie hair, and told me she spent about 鈧500 a month on clothing and make-up. It wasn’t by choice – she was a manager in her company and her manager had pulled her aside and ordered her to wear more make-up, dress smartly, and make more of an effort. She admitted she earned good money but 鈧500 a month was a lot to spend. There was an endless pressure to have the latest gadgets, the most stylish clothing, the designer handbags. True, it was a cultural thing, but even she could tell that at the age of 22 the pressure was only going one direction: up. So, she packed in her job, decided to walk Camino, and her mother joined her for the first week of walking. The two of them beamed from ear to ear, clearly relishing the freedom, the time together, and the whole endeavour (and not a scrap of make-up in sight).

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When I stopped in Lorca that afternoon for a break, I was unsure which coffee shop to stop in. There were only two, and they sat on opposite sides of the small street, facing each other. The menu outside the first one included paella but the place was packed and there was nowhere to sit. I dropped my bag on the footpath and walked into the second caf茅. The menu consisted largely of Spanish omelette, bocadillo j谩mon (cured ham on baguette), or bocadillo tortilla (Spanish omelette on baguette). There wasn’t much else on offer but there was free space, so I ordered a coffee and a bocadillo j谩mon, and sat to gather my thoughts. The rain had cleared up and I looked at my map for the day, trying to decide how far to go. The Brierley Brigade would no doubt walk the 21.9km to Estella. I decided to stop at the previous village in the hope there’d be a bed for me in the 42-bed private hostel. If so, I’d stay there for the night. If not, I would walk on to Estella as my backup plan.

After coffee, I walked back across the street to reclaim my backpack and bumped into:

  • Canadians, Barb and Dave, whom I’d first met in Orisson, who had saved my socks from blowing away on the grassy Pyrenees, and whom I hadn’t seen in days!
  • 2 other Canadian ladies whom I’d met in Zabaldika, and who’d lost their friend – the one who sat on my legs while I was asleep in bed!
  • Kevin and Liz, who’d been lucky to get the last hotel room in rainy Puente la Reina, and wondered where I would stay that night
  • The delightful Champagne Camino ladies, whom I hadn’t seen since Zubiri, when the town had no free beds (ahem!)
  • Along with others

The coffee shop held maybe 30 seats and I knew half of the people sitting in them – talk about high school reunion!

Celebrations all round.

Though I’d already had my coffee and lunch, I sat for a second serving and reasoned that I’d have the calories burned off by bedtime. Bumping into the Champagne ladies was an absolute joy, and a timely one too. They’d planned to walk for only a week and as it happened, they were on their last day of walking that very afternoon. If I hadn’t met them in Lorca – in that very coffee shop –聽 we might have missed each other forever, and I would never have had the opportunity to say hello again, and goodbye. I didn’t even know their last names and wouldn’t have known how to track them down in the real world.

Last time we’d seen each other, Amanda had generously carried my backpack and they’d all buoyed my heavy heart as I trudged towards Zubiri. But of course, we’d lost track of each other in the intervening days – I’d been with the nuns in Zabaldika, a private pensi贸n in Pamplona, and a rather industrial hostel in Puente la Reina. Those had been three rather full days and nights, and we had lots to catch up on. I still remember introducing them to someone else I knew in the caf茅 and accidently saying, “I met them a few years ago…” Of course, I had to catch myself and think: no, I met them only a few days ago. But a few days on Camino translated to a few years in the ‘real world’ and already, they felt like familiar friends.

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The Champagne Camino: Beverley, Marian, Amanda, and Jenny

We spent another hour together over lunch, this time swapping contact details, and we later walked the 4.7km to Villatuerta together. Swapping contact details, for me at least, was a good sign of friendship and intention. By the time I’d reached Lorca, I’d already met hundreds of new people on Camino. I chatted with some of them for only minutes, and others for hours, sometimes spanning across several days. I’d made great connections with people while still in St. Jean Pied de Port but had never seen them again. So too for every single day since. So, I’d already come to realise that everyone on Camino was transient and there was no telling where we’d all end up. If I wasn’t that interested in spending time with someone, I could wave them off and there were no hard feelings. Similarily, if someone wanted to shake me off, they could stop to take a break and we might never see each other again. I’d begun to realise that friendships needed more than just a spark of connection or shared interests – they needed time together. In such a transient experience, bumping into each other over and over was our equivalent of amassing time — time that, in the ‘real world’ would be spent growing up in the same neighbourhood, working together as colleagues, or spent partying in pubs and clubs. So, though I knew most of these people only a few days, we swapped contact details because we wanted to, and have stayed in touch – that’s why I’m allowed call them by name 馃檪

These women had taken me under their wing on my very first evening in Orisson, as we all sat looking across the mountains. In Roncesvalles, we’d shared bottles of wine in the warm evening sunlight, and on the way to Zubiri they’d literally shared my loaded backpack. We’d only known each other a few days but they had seen me through some of my (literally) highest points and (figuratively) lowest points in all of Camino, and I was thrilled to bump into them again. Our last hour walking together was bittersweet, knowing we were coming towards the end.

In Villatuerta, they waited on the street while I ran in to the private albergue to ask if they had any habitaci贸n. The building smelled of incense, and large hammocks hung from the ceilings. This was like no albergue I’d ever seen and I thought: I have arrived! This is my kind of place. To my surprised delight, the lady told me that Kevin and Liz had booked in earlier and asked her to save a bed for me too. So yes indeed, they did have habitaci贸n for me.

Cheers Kevin & Liz!

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Out on the street, I hugged the ladies goodbye. We were all glad to know I had a great albergue for the night but disappointed that I wouldn’t be walking on to Estella with them. Thinking on it now, we could have had dinner and drinks together. Why didn’t I go the extra distance? I have no idea, but it was probably to do with the time of day and the likelihood of getting a bed later on down the road. Fingers crossed we’ll have dinner and drinks another time.

That evening, our albergue hosts cooked dinner for us – paella in a special pan that was about 1m in diameter – I’m not kidding. We scooped huge spoonfuls of the flavoured rice, peppers, onion, and chicken, onto our plates, and poured heavy-handed glasses of wine. Buen Camino, indeed!

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Stairway to Heaven(ly) Bed

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The albergue’s stamp on my pilgrim passport

Pinching Beds in Puente la Reina

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Only 696.7km to Santiago!

Brierley’s guidebook tells me that Puente la Reina (the Queen’s Bridge) is named after Do帽a Mayor, wife of Sancho the 3rd. “She commanded the magnificent Romanesque bridge to be built to support the safe movement of the increasing number of midieval pilgrims who joined the route at this stage from both the camino franc茅s and camino aragon茅s.” I have no head for remembering the dates and details of history, but I’m surprisingly tender about the building of the bridge – she built it for pilgrims hundreds of years ago and there I was, getting to use it hundreds of years later. Cheers, Do帽a Mayor!

I had to cross this bridge to get to my albergue on the far side of town. Descending from Alto del Perd贸n, I’d walked with Kevin and Liz for a few hours, discussing the problem of exploding water melons in China, but we had parted ways en route. By the time I got into town, I’d spent the last hour getting wet in the rain, and feeling the cold water drip from my raincoat down my shorts, my bare legs, my socks and hiking sandals.

I needed to find somewhere to stay and change into my long (and thankfully, dry) hiking pants, but learned that the first hostel I approached was already full.

So was the second one.

I worried about getting stranded again and especially in the cold rain – I didn’t have the option of sleeping outdoors. People talked about a third hostel on the far side of town. It was an extra 1.1km and dozens of us stepped through the narrow cobblestone streets to find our way. The rain was truly bucketing down on us by then, with flashes of lightning across the sky. Wherever we were going, we needed to get there quickly and hope for the best.

The albergue holds up to 100 people and it was spacious and modern.聽 It even had an outdoor swimming pool, though it wasn’t at all tempting in the middle of a lightening storm. The design of the building (with plastic door handles and indoor picnic tables) reminded me of public swimming pools and large-scale youth hostels – it was built to ‘get us in, get us a bed, and get us out again’ with swift efficiency. The place had no soul. It did, however, have available beds and a roof, so I was guaranteed a dry place to sleep for the night.

Hurrah!

I picked my bed in the corner (lower bunk, nice) and laid my sleeping gear out on the bed, put my water bottle down by the side, and left some small belongings on the pillow to mark the space as mine. I didn’t wanted to leave out anything that might be stolen, but I needed to mark my territory (so to speak). Bottom bunk beds are in high demand among people with very sore feet, and this bottom bunk was clearly taken.

The guy in the bunk above me must have been nearly 7 feet tall – a Swede, I think – and liked to narrate his movements.

Now we take this out of the bag and put it here…

Oh and that must go over there..

And we fold that up and put it like this for later…

On and on, for twenty minutes, he narrated his every move.

The guy seemed harmless enough but he challenged me about stretching my hamstrings. He proudly declared that he never did any stretches and he was fine.

Did I ask for your commentary? Did I ask for your judgement? No, I don’t think I did.

But clearly, I was a wuss.

He hung his wet rain pants from the frame of his (upper) bunk bed. In a room with 20 other people it wasn’t the smartest move – we all had wet clothes and the collective dripping meant the floor was already slippery and wet. But he had failed to notice that his pants weren’t dripping down on to the floor – they were dripping directly onto my mattress. I was only a few days into the whole Camino but already I’d become a bit tetchy about my bed space. God knows, it was hard enough to come by. It was a small token of personal space in a chaotic stream of people, and I felt a bit sensitive about protecting that small boundary line between me and the hundreds around me.

A few mornings previously in Zabaldika, I’d been awoken by some woman actually sitting on my legs, while I was still in bed, fast asleep! She’d been trying to put on her pants and decided to do so sitting down. My bed was the closest thing to sit on so she used me as her stool. She didn’t even aim for the corner or the end of the mattress – she plonked herself right in the middle, squashing my legs, and woke me with an almighty start and a growl. I bolted upright, she lost her balance, and she fell all over me, while I struggled to figure out what was happening. Whatever about being woken by LED torches, chatter, and the zipping backpacks, this was a new low. Handsome Husband will tell you I’m not a morning person, and this woman did herself no favours by waking me up so suddenly. She limply apologised but I was furious at being awoken in such a careless way – no wonder I needed a private room in Pamplona!

So, I was a bit tetchy about bed space, and I didn’t appreciate the Swede’s lack of attention with his rain pants. I took the liberty of readjusting them, and went about my business,聽 having a shower and finding some dinner. I didn’t want the confrontation and instead, decided to walk away.

An hour later, I returned to my room only to find some old guy sitting on my bed. I’m guessing he was in his 70s, brown as a nut, and bald as an egg. The shape of his veins and muscles was clearly visible, and he looked like he was all sinew and gristle. He was wet, sitting there in his green shorts and t-shirt, dripping water onto my bed, as he pulled the dead skin from his feet and popped his fluid-filled blisters. He smelled of rancid sweat – at least a few days’ worth – and of unwashed clothes. The wet boots and socks were strewn on the floor beside him, and his water bottle, sleeping bag, and clothing were spread across the mattress behind him.

<This blog is going to a public audience and I don’t want to upset anyone so you can insert your own expletive here!>

My sleeping gear was nowhere in sight. My water bottle was gone. My belongings that had laced the pillow only an hour earlier, were gone.

This guy had taken my bed.

I didn’t hesitate in confronting him.

This is my bed. What are you doing here, where is my stuff?

He looked at me blankly. He spoke no English and hadn’t a clue what I was saying. I didn’t have enough Spanish and didn’t care about his blank gaze. I was livid. The cheek of him, stealing my bed!

Again I challenged him: What are you doing? This is my bed! Where is my sleeping gear? Where are my things? This is my bed!

Goddammit but I walked more than 25km for that bed – some of it in the rain. It was mine – I’d earned it fair and square, and I wasn’t giving it up for anyone.

Christian generosity, indeed!

He continued to feign ignorance, but I found my belongings thrown to the side and gestured that they had actually been on the bed to begin with. I could see the understanding sweep across his face.

Ah, those are her things.

So this must be her bed.

She knows that I moved her things.

She knows I took her bed.

Okay, I’ll move.

He took his time as he reluctantly packed up his bits, and gave me a few dirty looks in the process. He didn’t appreciate a witch like myself hunting him out. I’d never heard of anyone on Camino stealing someone else’s bed, and I wasn’t going to let him start a tradition with me.

Take my bed? This means war.

I can put up with a lot of things but I won’t put up with this. I’m a big fan of watching out for fellow pilgrims but sorry, this is a step too far. This time, I’m watching out for myself.

The Camino is a great opportunity for human connection and humble gratitude, sure.

In my case, it was also a great opportunity to get tough!

 

 

Camino Challenge: Go forwards or go backwards?

Waking up in Zabaldika, I had a few decisions to make for the day ahead.

Even though I’d walked on my own a lot of the time, keeping company with dozens of people and following their schedule wasn’t working for me. I needed to minimise the pressure I felt in the race for beds. I’d started pretty well but if I were to continue, I needed to recalibrate. I needed to find a new way of being on Camino and to follow my own rhythm.

At the same time, I kept thinking of the 10-12km that the taxi had covered the previous evening: should I get a taxi back to Zubiri and pick up where I left off? Was I “cheating” if I didn’t walk every inch of the trail on my own two feet? I really didn’t know. I was surprised to feel so sore after the steep descent from the Pyrenees and knew that if I insisted on walking 22-23km that day, I was going to be slow. That was going to put me in the same position I’d known the previous day, and I’d be right back to square one.

It was clear that my fellow pilgrims had no intention of getting a taxi back to Zubiri to pick up those missing kilometres. They were delighted to be closer to Pamplona, and were excited about arriving into town early enough to secure a bed and enjoy some tapas. They relished the thought of extra time in such a colourful city.

Chatting to them, I realised I had all sorts of conflicts about how I wanted to walk the Camino. I didn鈥檛 feel a need for self-flagellation but I wasn鈥檛 sure that taking a taxi to cover some of the trip was entirely wholesome. Were we lesser pilgrims if we availed of transport and creature comforts? Weren鈥檛 we missing out on some greater, metaphysical learning experience if we took the 鈥渆asy option鈥 instead of walking on foot? I wasn鈥檛 sure.

For thousands of years, people walked the Camino without access to the comforts we know today 鈥搉o taxis, no private B&Bs, and no minibus service to carry the bags. Many people think that these modern services pollute the very essence of Camino. They think that people who avail of these conveniences are (negatively) interfering with the ethos or the true way to 鈥渄o the Camino鈥. (I deeply object to that very phrase, but I鈥檒l go into that at some other time!). So, I met lots of people who had strong opinions about the pilgrims availing of taxis and buses, and who didn鈥檛 carry their bags on their own backs. Personally, I felt it was important to walk on my own merit and carry my own bag, and in an ideal scenario everyone else would do the same. I liked the idea of a level playing field (so to speak) and that we would all be equally humbled in our journey across Spain. That said, I wanted to be diplomatic and restrict my judgement of others because I realised this:

Pilgrims from medieval days didn鈥檛 have taxis and minibuses, but they also didn鈥檛 have daily hot showers or caf茅 con leches. I didn鈥檛 hear anyone complaining about these comforts. I also didn鈥檛 hear anyone propose that these modern conveniences were interfering with the ethos of Camino. It鈥檚 funny, that!

It鈥檚 easy to judge the person who鈥檚 having their bag carried on a bus but for all we know, that person could have cancer in their upper spine and be physically incapable of shouldering the weight. I met a woman who was in that very situation. So what would we propose 鈥 that she shouldn鈥檛 have had a bag, and be denied a change of clothing and toiletries? Or would we propose she shouldn鈥檛 be on Camino at all, but instead sit at home and let cancer eat her insides until she died? I knew nothing of her life but thought she was entirely generous to walk 800km when she was so unwell. That was a Camino within a Camino. There was nothing about her choice to have her bag carried that was 鈥渨rong鈥 or 鈥渓ess than鈥 my choice: it was just different and it was appropriate for her circumstances.

Judging her would have made it impossible for us to become friends. Judging her would have kept us apart, feeling defensive and self-righteous about our respective lives and experiences. Judging her would have created a very anti-Christian sentiment while we both walked the same route towards the same destination.

I don鈥檛 know what 鈥渢rue Camino鈥 is but I鈥檓 pretty sure that鈥檚 not it.

So, for all my idealism about levelling the playing field, I had to admit that I didn鈥檛 know anything about the people around me, the lives they lived, the struggles they鈥檇 known, or the reasons they were walking. Personally, I was glad of the hot showers and the hot coffees along the way, and I was equally glad of the taxi that had saved me in Zubiri the previous evening. Had it interfered with the ethos of Camino? Not really, because it had brought me to a place of kindness and support that I wouldn鈥檛 have known otherwise. It had also enabled me to feel vulnerable, humble, and deeply grateful. I imagine those feelings are part of the Camino spirit.

So, I made a conscious decision that morning: Accept the help I鈥檇 been offered and use it to keep going forward, not back.

The walk to Pamplona was only 8-10km and I did it slowly, with definite plans for when I arrived. I would use the city鈥檚 services to my benefit, and I would take some space to take better care of myself. I wanted to find a post office so I could post home some of the things in my backpack that were weighing me down. I wanted a private room so I could sleep in peace. I wanted a private bathroom so I could take my time without feeling the impatience of 50 people outside the door, waiting for their turn. The city offered me all of these possibilities and I was delighted to have access to it so soon. I arrived into town at the unprecedented hour of 11am and followed street signs to the central tourist office, where the staff kindly helped me find a cheap, single room in a B&B.

The previous day had been tough but this one was going to be better: I decided to Make it So.

From Zubiri to Zabaldika

Zabaldika is one of 26 small villages, stretched out along the Esteribar Valley. Apparently, it consists of only 13 homes, 40 neighbours, and a community of Sacred Heart nuns. I didn鈥檛 know any of this at the time, given I arrived there by taxi and hadn鈥檛 been reading my guidebook very closely. This wasn鈥檛 because of negligence or disinterest in the Spanish countryside, but because I hadn鈥檛 caught up with myself yet. My Camino and my arrival in Zabaldika came about rather quickly, and reading up on tourist information was low on my list of priorities.

The village is about 10km from Pamplona so I imagine many pilgrims don鈥檛 stop at all, but keep going to Hemmingway鈥檚 old haunt instead. In my short time there, I didn鈥檛 see a coffee shop or bar, and unless a person wanted to stop off at the 13th century church, they might not have given the place a second thought. Rightly or wrongly, the availability of food, drinks, and a place to sit determine the daily schedule for pilgrims, and the absence of these things probably mean that Zabaldika is rather quiet.

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The Church at Zabaldika

I remember stepping inside the front door of the albergue, to the cool, clean, interior. We had arrived unexpectedly, covered in dust and weariness from the day, yet the woman greeting us at the door welcomed us warmly and sincerely, with a wide smile and open arms. Literally. She seemed glad to have us, despite our state.

Within minutes, we realised we had arrived somewhere special. A living room space with armchairs and couches, books and magazines, was a sweet reminder of the everyday comforts we had all left behind at home. The nuns could have easily converted that space into a downstairs dorm to pack in more pilgrims and bring in more money. The fact that they hadn鈥檛 done this was telling, and I welcomed the conscious decision to create a space that was both communal and restful.

It was a bit of breathing space from the racing and competition.

The second thing to surprise us was that our host didn鈥檛 ask us for payment upfront.

In fact, she didn鈥檛 ask for payment at all.

There was a bed for each of us and we would share a communal dinner later that evening. If we wanted, we could join a session of prayers and singing afterwards in the church. They hadn鈥檛 put a price on anything but welcomed donations, and she pointed to the donation box placed discretely in the corner. I already felt humble gratitude for the bed, but their unconditional generosity marked the distinction between 鈥渄oing the Camino鈥 and 鈥渂eing on pilgrimage鈥. Their support wasn鈥檛 dependent on money. They thought of it as a vocation and were glad to be of service to our journey. If we couldn鈥檛 afford to pay, we鈥檇 still be given the same warm welcome, the same food and shelter, the same kindness. Their insight and mindfulness created a shift of energy in the group, and there was an immediate lightness to our mood.

You mean you鈥檙e not trying to rip us off because we happen to come from another country and have money in our pockets?

You mean to tell us that pilgrimage has nothing to do with profit?

You mean to tell us that our presence here is measured not just in terms of the Euro we spend?

How wonderful!

While the rest of the hostel scrambled for showers and a space at the sink to wash their clothes, I lay down on my bed for an hour to rest. I was enormously grateful to get a bed in the corner and with it, some small opportunity to turn my back on the roomful of strangers. I didn鈥檛 mean to be anti-social but in the previous three days and nights, I met dozens and dozens of new people and I was worn out from all the talk. I鈥檓 simply not used to talking from 6am until 9pm every day.

On top of that, I felt over-stretched from the noise that accompanied life on Camino. All the photos I had seen were of vast stretches of countryside, with big, open skies, and a gravel trail reaching to the far horizon. The pictures implied a life harmony with nature, and I鈥檇 thought my days would be full of quiet reflection. The photos didn鈥檛 show the crowded caf茅s, the queues for bathrooms and showers, or the harried-looking restaurant staff, trying to feed the ongoing crowds of hungry pilgrims.

They also didn鈥檛 show the rustling of plastic bags, and the zipping and unzipping of backpacks every morning for an hour, and every evening for another hour. That鈥檚 two hours of every day, listening to the noise of people:

packing their bag,

zipping up the bag,

unzipping the bag,

unpacking their bag, and

rooting for something in their bag that may/may not actually be there

Only to pack it up and zip it up all over again.

Added to that, there was the noise of:

doors opening and closing,

phones ringing,

alarms sounding,

things falling on the floor,

chatter about blisters and bedding鈥.

You get the idea.

Getting to bed early or sleeping in late were impossible. Lying there, I realised just how over-stimulating the whole thing had been. That evening, I cried because of everything. I was just like a small child, over-stimulated and up way past my bedtime. But there was no way I was getting any sleep, so I resigned myself to going downstairs to wash out my clothes and eventually get some food.

Walking down the stairs was torture on my calf muscles. Those damn Pyrenees had me ruined! My hamstrings felt like badly rusted wire, ready to snap. The last thing I wanted to do was hand wash my clothes in an outdoor sink, but I did it anyway and cried my eyes out from beginning to end. I might be a bit embarrassed to admit it all now, but at the time, it was an escape valve. They say that when you鈥檙e on Camino you don鈥檛 always get what you want, but you do get what you need. I definitely needed some way to decompress and in the absence of a bottle of wine, crying my eyes out did the trick.

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Over dinner, the head nun joined us for courgette soup and chicken stew, and explained a little about their ethos and missionary work around the world. Their local community was elderly and small in number. In previous years, the declining numbers attending church had led to diminished funds for them, so they鈥檇 opened an albergue as a new source of revenue. If I were very cynical, I might have decided she was on a moneymaking agenda, but I think that would have been an unduly harsh judgement, and a very one-sided one too.

It鈥檚 true that many people make their living through the Camino Franc茅s, in providing food, accommodation, or transport to the (hundreds of) thousands of people who pass through every year. That鈥檚 the practical reality, and every Euro that pilgrims spend, contributes to the economy in some way. At the same time, the Camino is a pilgrimage route, pre-dating even the Christian tradition. People walk it for a variety of reasons, some of which are religious or spiritual in nature.

At the dinner table that evening, we were a mixture of nationalities and backgrounds, and no doubt, we were a mixture in terms of our religious or spiritual zeal, too. When I arrived, I felt over-stretched and somewhat cynical about the whole enterprise. I was running low on reserves, and I felt heavy-hearted after the effort of the Pyrenees. That wasn鈥檛 a religious experience: it was a physical reality and I had a very emotional response. My spirit was flagging.

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Put Your Prayers on a Post-It Note

I cried my eyes out while washing my clothes and again, when the group sang hymns in the church. I cried the next morning when we had a misunderstanding about breakfast. In fact, I could barely keep the tears inside. I doubted whether I had the stamina to proceed. I felt rather bleak.

The nuns at Zabaldika welcomed me with warmth and tenderness. They didn鈥檛 ask for money, they didn鈥檛 push an agenda or schedule on me, and when I broke down in tears, they offered hugs and reassurance.

They willed me to be well.

They willed for me to have a Buen Camino.

And they meant it.

They gave me a bed, a homemade meal, a community of people to eat with, and somewhere to wash. More than that, they showed me that the Camino I was searching for, did exist.

I felt like my heart had cracked open and some gooey liquid had unexpectedly leaked all over the kitchen floor. They鈥檇 helped me mop it all up, put it back in its rightful place, and reinforce my heart with an extra layer of sealant and love.

They gave me hope for the next phase of the journey. I don鈥檛 know how to explain that without using the word 鈥渟pirit鈥, because what they gave me was spiritual sustenance. And I took on the next leg of the walking with a little more lightness in my heart and understanding of my needs. They helped me find a way to go on.

The funny thing about my Zabaldika experience is this:

Days later, I happily bumped into the four lovely ladies again 鈥 they called themselves 鈥淭he Champagne Camino鈥 in honour of all the wine they were drinking along the way. When they found their private accommodation in Zubiri, they’d discovered that one of their rooms had an extra bed. They went back out on to the streets to find me, and offer me the spare bed. I could have stayed with them and shared an evening of dinner and vino. How wonderful! But I had been told that the town of Zubiri was completely full (ahem!) and had taken a taxi to Zabaldika. The rest is history, but I learned two things:

  • When someone tells you that the town is completely full, they might not have all their facts straight.
  • In the words of Mick Jagger: You can鈥檛 always get what you want but you might just find you get what you need.

I would have gladly shared the evening with the ladies but had I done that, would I have found the non-commercial, vocational Camino I was looking for? Probably not. So they may never know the true extent of their influence, but those nuns changed everything for me. I felt it then, and I feel it now: I got what I needed. Exactly and entirely.

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Other albergues with the same spirit/sentiment as Zabaldika – sorry it’s a bit blurry

Surrendering to the Unexpected

A word or two about beds:

Before walking the Camino, I read a few online forums and discovered people were concerned about the shortage of beds along the way. Many of the hostels (albergues) run on a first-come, first-serve basis and cannot be booked in advance. Traditionally, this is how things worked on Camino: millions of pilgrims made the journey across Spain relying on the kindness of the locals, availing of food and shelter where, and when, they could. I can imagine the warm beds and hot dinners were inconsistent, so going on pilgrimage was a leap of faith 鈥 not just spiritually, but physically too. Relying on the locals, and trusting that there would be food and shelter was a real practice in letting go, trusting humankind, and trusting God.

The state-run and church-run hostels continue to operate on a 鈥渇irst-come, first-serve鈥 basis to this day. During the winter months, the supply outweighs the demand. During the summer months, the opposite is true. I planned to walk in autumn and didn鈥檛 know what to expect, but it seemed that lots of others felt the very same. The forums were full of anxiety and fear, and much discussion about the limited number of beds.

Many people were afraid of becoming stranded and needed reassurance.

Others took control of their fate by booking private accommodation in advance.

Personally, I didn鈥檛 want to walk the Camino in a state of constant fear. Equally, I didn鈥檛 want to control my experience or put myself under pressure to keep to a set distance each day. I figured that three things were true:

  1. After several hundred years of hosting millions of pilgrims, the locals would have far better knowledge about sleeping facilities than I ever would. Even if all the hostels in a town burned down, I knew the locals would know where to find a spare couch, a living room floor, or a barn that might be free. I decided to defer 鈥 completely 鈥 to their expertise. I wasn鈥檛 asking for luxury accomodation and I knew I wouldn鈥檛 be left to go hungry or without a safe place to sleep.
  2. Walking alone meant I only ever needed to find space for one person and I can fit on an armchair if I have to. I figured my chances of getting something were pretty good.
  3. All going well, I expected to walk for 6 weeks and realised that I could control only certain aspects of my journey. I could control how much sunblock to put on my face, or how closely I tended my feet: these things were within my remit, but the availability of beds was not. There was no way I could organise and pre-book a new bed every night for 6 weeks so I didn鈥檛 even want to try.

When it came to sleeping arrangements, I surrendered the whole thing to God/Divine/Guardian Angels/Universe and thought, 鈥淭his one is waaay beyond me; this one is up to you鈥. I consciously decided, 鈥淚 am not going to worry about beds.鈥 I didn鈥檛 have the energy for it, I didn鈥檛 have enough Spanish for it, and I couldn鈥檛 control it anyway, so I purposefully decided that I wouldn鈥檛 give it any headspace. Ring fencing my mind in this way was a liberation. Somehow, it would all be fine.

Still, I felt absolutely gutted to learn that there were no free beds, couches, or floor spaces in Zubiri. I was so disheartened I could have wept. I was so physically exhausted I could have slept on the street.

Honestly, I was too disheartened to worry about my state. I needed to wash, to eat, and to find somewhere to sleep, but I really didn鈥檛 care where I slept that night. The woman running the albergue made some phone calls 鈥 to taxi companies, to other nearby albergues, and private accomodation, trying to find space for the growing number of stranded pilgrims. For nearly an hour, we sat on the dusty footpath, waiting for more people to arrive so we鈥檇 have a critical mass and hopefully, some influence. It was a wearisome experience. Suddenly, a taxi van appeared and three women jumped to their feet.

鈥淒o you want to join us?鈥 they asked.

鈥淲here are you going?鈥

鈥淭o another hostel, they鈥檝e organised somewhere for us to stay鈥.

If you can believe it, I actually hesitated in responding.

I鈥檇 just been offered transportation and a bed, without having to organise either of them myself, and I felt reluctant about accepting. Why? My aspiration (and intention) was to walk all 800km on my own feet, carrying my bag all the way. I didn鈥檛 want to 鈥渃heat鈥 on the experience in any way, and taking a taxi to another albergue felt like a cheat. Never mind that I was physically spent, that there were no beds in Zubiri, and that I didn鈥檛 have the strength to walk another step: I still wanted a purist Camino experience. Yep, this is why Handsome Husband calls me 鈥渨illful鈥!

I hesitated just long enough to realize this:

When I started, I knew there was a risk of being without a bed at some point and I鈥檇 already decided that if such a thing happened, I would defer to the locals for a solution. They were offering it, right there, right then, and I was genuinely in need of their help. If I didn鈥檛 allow myself to accept their help, I would surely have a terrible Camino. (Plus, Ego was happy that I was without a bed because of the local fiesta, and not because of my lack of training or my snail鈥檚 pace.)

So, quick as a flash, I came to my senses and jumped into the taxi.

Hurrah!

Silently, I felt relief to know that I鈥檇 get a shower, some food, and a bed, instead of sleeping on the riverbank that night. As the taxi bumped along the road, I chatted with my fellow pilgrims, relieved to have their company while we made our way to the next albergue. After a day of struggle, it was a sweet relief to be carried some of the distance, even though I wondered about getting a taxi back the next morning to pick up where I left off. I was surrendering and planning at the same time! Still, when the taxi pulled up outside a parochial albergue minutes later, I felt a flood of gratitude. The locals had provided the help that I needed and I had arrived at my bed for the night.

Where was I?

Somewhere called Zabaldika.