A Toast to Tosantos

I left the small village of Grañón at 6am, and spent most of the morning walking alone. The camino trail passed through acres of sunflowers and the landscape opened out into expansive farmland for crops. It was mid-September and most of the grain was harvested already, leaving behind fields of short, golden stubble. For miles around, it was all I could see. The sheen of the straw reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin, and I thought of turning straw into gold.

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I hoped to stop in the small village of Tosantos and find my bed there for the night, but before I ever arrived in the village I knew that something was up. A mile or so outside of “town” I could hear the sound of loud music coming from somewhere. It wasn’t live: it sounded more like a stereo.

Often, I passed pilgrims on the trail who listened to music while they walked, with earphones discreetly in their ears. Occasionally, I passed pilgrims who listened to music out loud on a stereo or through the speaker of their phone. They didn’t wear earphones discreetly in their ears, but preferred to broadcast the music to the whole world. Sometimes, it was an intrusion I couldn’t avoid. My friends like to think I spent days walking in quiet solitude, like a hermit on some isolated pilgrimage island. The truth was often very different!

Tosantos is a small place. I mean, really small.

Wikipedia tells me that in the 2004 census, the village had just 60 people. Brierley’s book tells me it has a population of 80 people. Either way, I expected to find a sleepy village, with someone washing their car in the noontime sun with the stereo on full blast.

Instead, I found crowds of people gathered in the central square, which was filled with a bouncing castle and gazebos, and decorated with bunting. The disco music came from metre-high speakers, which were hooked up to flashing disco lights. The adults drank cold beers and poured wine from cardboard cases. The children played Nintendo Wii video games in the shade and ate lollipops, before running around and bouncing on the cowboy-themed bouncing castle. All around me, the village was full of celebratory chaos.

I sat on a shaded park bench and took stock of the scene.

I didn’t know where the hostel was, but I could kiss goodbye to my thoughts of rest. There was no way of sleeping through that din, and it looked like it had hours left to go. Question was: did I want to stop walking for the day and spend my night there?

While I sat in the shade and took a break, a crowd of teenagers appeared from further down the village and made their way out on to the trail I’d just come from. They all looked like they were about 15 years old, and dressed in vest tops and jeans. No wick-away outdoor gear for them – they were way too cool for that! They wore canvas shoes and carried light daypacks on their shoulders. They exuded the giddy charm of highschool crushes – I could see the flirtations and politics even from a distance, and wondered what they were doing there.

At a guess, I’d say they were on an exchange programme or a school tour of some sort, based on the ID badges they wore around their necks. All I could see was the crowd – at least a hundred of them – surging on to the path, in animated laughter and chatter. They were going to walk the camino, it seemed. Just when I needed to get away from the crowds, I found myself right in the middle of them – and more noisy than ever!

After hours of walking in the quiet countryside, I felt like I was in the middle of a circus.

The music was deafening.

It assaulted my senses and I felt bombarded by the unexpected chaos of it all.

What on earth was going on?!

It transpired that the village was celebrating a fiesta.

Ah yes, Spain is great for its fiestas!

When I walked Camino Francés, I happened to pass through towns and villages in the middle of celebrating their patron saint’s feast day. On one level, it’s a great opportunity to witness “real life” in action, and a fine time to join in the festivities. If it’s your first time to Spain, then it’s a great way to join in the party atmosphere and soak up the good life.

The logistics for pilgrims can be tricky, though, as most hostels and B&Bs close their doors during fiesta. This is one of the reasons I got stuck with nowhere to sleep in Zubiri. Fiestas were a great excuse to party, if only you could find somewhere to sleep. And for pilgrims who walk for hours every day in the blistering sun, finding somewhere to sleep is a top priority. So, it might not be possible to stop off in a village when it’s celebrating fiesta, however much you want to.

Wikipedia tells me that:

“800 years ago a woman, known as La Hermita, lived in a cave in the cliffs above Tosantos and ministered to the passing Pilgrims. A chapel has been built into that cave and once a year, on Fiesta day, the inhabitants of Tosantos hold a procession through the town, up the winding path to the cave and give thanks to God, Santa Maria and La Hermita for blessing the town.”

As it happened, the day I arrived into Tosantos was the very day they chose to celebrate La Hermita and hold their fiesta.

I sat for a half an hour in the shade and reflected on my situation. I had wanted to stay there, but I was in no state to handle such crowds, such noise, and such a party. Some other time, when I had more rest and a private room, I thought it could be fun to stay there and join the celebrations. That day, though, I preferred to walk on.

I only hoped that the next village on the trail would have the space to host me. I decided to take my chances.

Camino de Santiago Continues: Grañón to Villambistia

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After a night sleeping on the floor, I left Grañón’s donation-based hostel and made my way into the early morning light.

Did I have breakfast before I left?

I honestly can’t recall, but I have a feeling that the hostel offered coffee, baguette, and jam, and that we gladly availed of the sustenance. Most of the hostels I stayed in didn’t offer breakfast of any kind, and I had to walk to the next town or village to get my morning coffee. Walking camino, you never quite know where the next coffee will present itself. You could plan to eat in a certain village miles up the road, only to find their café closed when you get there. Sundays, in particular, are a quiet day for business in Spain. You get into a pattern of gladly availing of whatever food and drink is available, when available – however modest it may be.

That morning, I passed through acres of sunflowers that gently rose their heads to the rising sun.

I walked for a while with Barb and Dave, who had also spent the previous night in Grañón. Pity that my photos came out blurry…perhaps I needed more coffee to feel fully awake, but they were all smiles, as usual! We initially met when I stayed in Orisson, back on our fist day of walking. The next morning, they saved my socks from blowing away on the side of the Pyrenees, and had since treated me to breakfasts and lunches along the way. Over the course of the 800km, our paths crossed over and back, and they generously watched out for me at every turn. IMG_0899

When I look back on my photos now, I notice that they’re there in the very first ones I took in St. Jean Pied de Port – before I even started walking. I don’t want to spoil the ending but Barb and Dave were there on my last day, too. And they were there countless days in between, with unending support and friendship. IMG_0900

My walk from Grañón happened on a morning of brilliant sunshine and cloud-free skies. I walked most of it alone, enjoying the quiet time for idle reflection.

By then, I’d walked some 250km of my intended 800km, and I felt the effects of it.

The initial adrenalin had worn off, along with the strength and rest I had brought from home. I slept well every night on Camino but I felt quietly exhausted. Even though I was walking for almost 2 weeks by then, my body was still adjusting to walking for hours every day, in 30-something degree heat, with all my belongings on my back. (Although I have to admit, how often do we say in life, “I was walking for almost 2 weeks by then”….no wonder I was tired!)

My body wasn’t getting the recovery time that it needed.

Some days were shorter than others, which definitely helped. And yes, ever since I swapped my hiking sandals for hiking shoes, my feet hurt a lot less. That freed up a lot of energy, right there.

I was able to cover more ground every day and I was glad. I also learned how to stagger my walking so I was out of step with the people following Brierley’s book. He directs people to start at Point A and finish at Point B every day, and many pilgrims followed his suggestions to the letter. It’s an efficient plan if you want to walk 800km in 33 days. But the surging crowd created a race for beds, and I found it stressful to get wrapped up in the frenzy. Instead of following his directions, I stopped at intermediary towns and villages. In doing so, I gladly avoided the shortage of beds I’d experienced in Zubiri and Los Arcos. If I did nothing else in my first 2 weeks of walking, that small shift made a huge difference to my emotional experience.

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Church of Santa María in Belorado (with storks nesting at the top)

But still, the trail and the hostels felt busy and noisy. When I combined the crowds with my physical fatigue, my nerves began to fray.

I assumed that:

the trails felt busy,

the hostels felt crowded,

and

the bathrooms felt noisy,

because I’m an introvert.

I like people but I need lots of quiet space away from people, too. Otherwise, my batteries deplete rather quickly.

Despite my best efforts to spend my walking hours alone, I felt overwhelmed and overstretched.

Every day, I met both new and familiar faces in cafés, dinner spots, hostels, at water fountains, and out on the trail. Sometimes we’d exchange just a few words of hello. Other times, we’d walk together and chat for hours.

People were kind and receptive, and I was glad of the blossoming friendships. But despite the fact that I made connections and friends easily, I felt rather anonymous and alone. I didn’t know any of these people well enough, or long enough, to express my full experience. None of them could replace the connection I felt with Generous Husband, or my close friends from home. I’d chosen to walk camino alone. When I felt emotional and overstretched, I didn’t know who to confide in.

I didn’t want to whinge.

Rightly or wrongly, I felt I had to put on a certain amount of “brave face” and keep going.

At the same time, I badly needed some downtime to rest and regroup. I needed to recharge.

But every night I stayed in communal dorms, where we queued for the showers, competed for sunny space on the clothes line, and listened to each other snoring. Everywhere I went, there was chatter and noise. It started before 6am and didn’t stop until after 10pm each day. Some days I felt able to handle it but other days I felt a bit too sensitive and tired, and wondered if it was all in my head.

That is, until I heard that 2 weeks earlier, the authorities had recorded the highest ever number of pilgrims passing through Roncesvalles.

That was around the same time I passed through the town, after the steep descent from the Pyrenees.

The highest number ever recorded…..wow.

The trail and the hostels felt busy then and you’ll remember, I found myself stuck for somewhere to sleep.

Even though I changed my own behaviour in the meantime, the trail still felt busy and crowded to me. I

assumed it was because I was slower than others.

I assumed the lack of training had caught up with me.

I assumed that I lacked competitive spirit, even though I never expected competition on a pilgrimage route.

But the statistics confirmed what I also knew: The Camino was exceptionally busy for that time of year.

I was relieved to know I hadn’t imagined the crowds or their impact. I was relieved to know that it wasn’t all in my head or indicative of an over-sensitive heart.

That day, I felt a bit over-wrought and I hoped to stop in the small village of Tosantos in the late morning or early afternoon. Brierley’s guide-book listed a donation-based parish hostel with mattresses on the floor for 30 people and I liked the idea of a quiet, low-key evening. I hoped for an afternoon nap and a night of restorative sleep.

But it wasn’t to be: it seemed life had other plans for me.

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 – €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 €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 María, and gave thanks for arriving in Viana safe and sound. My timing there was fortuitous – just when my sandals were really starting to give me grief, I’d 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’d 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, €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 – 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 🙂

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’d 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’s foot skin, so I couldn’t complain!

This was one of the few albergues to offer breakfast, so for €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’re 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’t really help my case, but I’d 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 – unlike boots and shoes. So I probably didn’t need to ruminate on the socks quite so much – I’ll 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’t going to ease up. I’d 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’s 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 €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 €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 café. The menu consisted largely of Spanish omelette, bocadillo jámon (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 jámon, 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 –  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 pensión 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 café 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 🙂

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 habitación. 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 habitación 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

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’t feel a need for self-flagellation but I wasn’t 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’t we missing out on some greater, metaphysical learning experience if we took the “easy option” instead of walking on foot? I wasn’t sure.

For thousands of years, people walked the Camino without access to the comforts we know today –no 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 “do the Camino”. (I deeply object to that very phrase, but I’ll 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’t 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’t have taxis and minibuses, but they also didn’t have daily hot showers or café con leches. I didn’t hear anyone complaining about these comforts. I also didn’t hear anyone propose that these modern conveniences were interfering with the ethos of Camino. It’s funny, that!

It’s easy to judge the person who’s 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 – that she shouldn’t have had a bag, and be denied a change of clothing and toiletries? Or would we propose she shouldn’t 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 “wrong” or “less than” 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’t know what “true Camino” is but I’m pretty sure that’s not it.

So, for all my idealism about levelling the playing field, I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about the people around me, the lives they lived, the struggles they’d 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’t 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’d 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’s 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’t know any of this at the time, given I arrived there by taxi and hadn’t been reading my guidebook very closely. This wasn’t because of negligence or disinterest in the Spanish countryside, but because I hadn’t 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’t stop at all, but keep going to Hemmingway’s old haunt instead. In my short time there, I didn’t 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’t 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’t ask us for payment upfront.

In fact, she didn’t 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’t 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 “doing the Camino” and “being on pilgrimage”. Their support wasn’t dependent on money. They thought of it as a vocation and were glad to be of service to our journey. If we couldn’t afford to pay, we’d 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’re 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’t 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’m 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’d thought my days would be full of quiet reflection. The photos didn’t show the crowded cafés, the queues for bathrooms and showers, or the harried-looking restaurant staff, trying to feed the ongoing crowds of hungry pilgrims.

They also didn’t 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’s 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….

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’re on Camino you don’t 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’d 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’s true that many people make their living through the Camino Francés, in providing food, accommodation, or transport to the (hundreds of) thousands of people who pass through every year. That’s 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’t 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’t ask for money, they didn’t 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’d 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’t know how to explain that without using the word “spirit”, 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 – they called themselves “The Champagne Camino” 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’t 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 – 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 “first-come, first-serve” 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’t 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’t want to walk the Camino in a state of constant fear. Equally, I didn’t 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 – completely – to their expertise. I wasn’t asking for luxury accomodation and I knew I wouldn’t 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’t even want to try.

When it came to sleeping arrangements, I surrendered the whole thing to God/Divine/Guardian Angels/Universe and thought, “This one is waaay beyond me; this one is up to you”. I consciously decided, “I am not going to worry about beds.” I didn’t have the energy for it, I didn’t have enough Spanish for it, and I couldn’t control it anyway, so I purposefully decided that I wouldn’t 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’t care where I slept that night. The woman running the albergue made some phone calls – 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’d 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.

“Do you want to join us?” they asked.

“Where are you going?”

“To another hostel, they’ve organised somewhere for us to stay”.

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

I’d 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’t want to “cheat” 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’t have the strength to walk another step: I still wanted a purist Camino experience. Yep, this is why Handsome Husband calls me “willful”!

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’d 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’t 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’s 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’d 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.

 

 

A Day of Ups and Downs

The hostel at Roncesvalles was the largest one I stayed in while walking Camino. It housed close to 200 pilgrims. People had talked about the enormity of the hostel in advance, with rumours that it was impersonal. True, it was big and bustling, but also clean, well equipped, and efficient. The large space was divided into cubicles and each one contained only 4 beds. They weren’t soundproof (so I could hear the snoring of dozens of people further down in the room) but they provided privacy. I didn’t have to look at nearly 200 other people when I sat on my bed. That helped things considerably.

My 3 “roommates” were friendly but spoke no English so our conversation was limited to smiling. They were awake before me the next morning and again I woke to bright headtorches. Only then did I realise that these strategic pilgrims had slept in their hiking clothes the night before. I can’t imagine sleeping with t-shirt, shorts, and socks all underneath the sleeping bag in a warm hostel but these guys had done just that. It meant that they were ready very quickly the next morning but I felt unsettled.

They might have chosen to sleep in their clothes so they wouldn’t disturb me.

They might have chosen it for reasons of privacy.

They didn’t have English and I didn’t have Spanish, so I’ll never know what their reasons were.

It did seem, however, that they’d slept in their clothes so they’d save time. They packed their sleeping bags and were gone before 6am, and had surely saved a few minutes by being pre-dressed. It unsettled me to think that the race for beds had turned into one big race for everything, and that people might shave off the minutes wherever they could. I hadn’t joined the Olympics but still, I began to feel I was in a competitive race of some sort.

The staff roused us from our beds by playing Gregorian chants across the stereo and switching on all the lights, so I was out the door around 6:30am. I didn’t avail of the vending machines with coffee and snacks before I left – that would mean being out of bed some 15 minutes earlier, and bed time is too precious. So, this was the first day to start walking without food in my belly. An early-opening supermarket allowed me to stock up on fruit, and the nearest coffee stop was only 3km away. The café solo was a bitter jolt to my system and I sampled my first (and most delicious) empanada.

Mental note to self: don’t order café solo again but do eat empanadas.

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Early morning and getting a tan on the back of my legs

Like the days before it, this day was a swelter. I remember sitting on the side of the trail at one point in the early afternoon, dying to take a nap in the ditch. Really, I was looking at the grassy edge as though it was a king-size bed in a four-star hotel, and imagined all sorts of lovely sleep. Sleeping on the side of a dirt gravel trail is not a classy look, and I realised that if I stopped then I’d never arrive at my destination. Instead, I sat for a while in the shade, trying to plan my energy for the afternoon. After the steep descent from the Pyrenees, my body was both painful and slow, and I was concerned about my lack of progress.

John Brierley’s guidebook breaks down the 800km walk into stages, with each day (or stage) averaging around 25km. Some days are longer, others are shorter, but if you keep to Brierley’s plan every day, you’ll reach Santiago in just over a month. His plan for this particular day was to walk 27.4km but I decided to go 22.2km to Zubiri instead, in the hope that I’d find it easier to get a bed there. Plus, my calf muscles were really sore, and those extra 5km were beyond me.

Sometime around 3pm I was still shuffling along with my very sore calf muscles, my very heavy backpack, and my very tired body. The trail had quietened down considerably but I felt embarrassed to be still walking so many hours after leaving Roncesvalles. I started with a small group of Canadians that morning but they had a quicker pace and had gone on ahead hours earlier. No doubt, they were sitting in a town square somewhere, enjoying a beer, and taking it easy. It sounded good.

Behind me I heard chatter and laughter as a group of pilgrims approached. I felt too tired to turn around and instead, kept putting one foot in front of the other, focusing on my eventual destination. I didn’t expect to meet anyone I knew (and I knew 20 people or so at that stage in the trip), and I didn’t have the energy to strike up conversation with new faces. But as happens so often on Camino, the four women approaching were not new – I actually knew them. We met initially in Orisson, and the next evening they invited me to join them for a bottle of wine (or two) as we sat in the evening sunshine in Roncesvalles. They were buoyant, beaming, generous women with warm laughter and hearts. I was happy to see them and at the same time, felt deeply ashamed.

Ashamed? Isn’t that a strong word?

Yes, and yes.

Let me explain.

I left Roncesvalles hours before them, but I was walking so slowly they caught up to me. How embarrassing. They were still joyous and energetic but I was feeling over-stretched and tearful. I felt like a failure standing beside them because I was slow and I wasn’t feeling very gracious about it. Earlier in the day, I shared with someone that I was very tired. The guy was twice my age, walked twice my speed, and seemed very surprised to hear that I was struggling. In that split second, I felt judged and ashamed, and the feeling lingered with me for the day. So, by the time the 4 lovely ladies came along, I had already spent a few hours ruminating on my inadequate performance. I felt exposed somehow, as though they were seeing me at a low point. I didn’t want anyone to see me at a low point.

I don’t know if they saw any of this when we met on the trail but if they did, they handled me with great sensitivity. They exclaimed with excitement when they saw me and again, they took me under their wing. Since we were all heading to Zubiri, we would walk together. And so, for the rest of the day’s walking, they kept me distracted with their laughter and chatter. Of course, my calf muscles still ached but their warm company meant that I kept walking in the right direction. Their timing was sweet and it totally transformed my day.

Now, here’s a small Segway: Anyone who knows me knows that I am rather independent, maybe even fiercely so. I like being capable and self-sufficient. I consider it a strength to be independent. I have little patience for getting sick. Apparently, I’m stubborn and I don’t always accept help. Lovely Husband calls me “willful”. I think he’s being very kind in his choice of words.

I knew all of this going on Camino and knew that it would come up – after all, how do you walk 800km in a different country and not ask for, or accept, help at some stage? I’d already experienced spontaneous (and delightful) kindness in my previous 3 days, and I was very grateful for the Camino magic. But this particular day I was feeling sore and rather sorry for myself, and I was not so enthusiastic about having anyone witness me in that state. On the last stretch into Zubiri, when my body ached so badly I thought I couldn’t go on, something beautiful happened out of the blue:

One of the ladies spontaneously asked if she could carry my backpack.

Umm…what?

“Can I carry your backpack?”

I thought she was taking pity on me, or that maybe she was getting impatient with my slow progress and wanted to speed things up a bit. That thought is more of a reflection on me than on her, because there was nothing to suggest that she was impatient with my pace. I struggled to understand her request. Internally I thought: This backpack is heavy and it’s been hurting my shoulders all day, so it’s not fair to put that burden on anyone else. Anyway, she’s only saying it to be nice because I’m a mess.

So I said, “Ah no thanks, you’re okay.”

It’s an Irish thing – someone offers you a cup of tea and you decline it at least once, out of politeness and not wanting to be an inconvenience.

Someone offered to carry my bag and I said no. And the bag felt twice as heavy as it had felt a minute earlier.

She went on to explain that they were having their bags transported by van from town to town. On top of that, they were walking for only a week so she didn’t have as much stuff to carry. Her small daypack probably weighed 1-2kg compared to my bigger 8-9kg. She was thinking of returning to Spain to walk the full Camino with a bag on her back at a later stage. So, she wanted a test run. She wanted to carry my pack to see what it felt like. Her request had nothing to do with getting impatient or taking pity on me. Instead, it was an experiment, motivated by her own needs and request for information, and I would be helping her if I let her carry my bag.

Ahhhhh…..that changes everything.

She asked me again and this time, my self-sufficient, willful self was happy to hand over the weighty beast. Secretly I was thrilled and could hardly believe my luck. Before we knew it, we’d swapped bags and I was securing the light little daypack across my shoulders. There was no comparison between the two, and hers was feather light. I felt my eyes well up with tears out of sheer relief and gratitude. Without me asking, and without her knowing it, she had spared me from reaching a breaking point and totally transformed my day – again.

I don’t consider myself a religious person but I’m going to say that it felt like a “Hand-of-God-comes-down-from-above-and-directly-changes-the-course-of-events” kind of moment. There I was, shuffling along all day, alone, sore, tired, and feeling too ashamed of myself to make eye contact or conversation with anyone. There was no option of hitch-hiking but still, there might have been some other way to approach the day only I didn’t know what it was. Unexpectedly, these newfound friends came along with warm hearts and moral support. Just when I was at a breaking point (and I do mean I was moments away from crying like a baby) they offered unconditional and practical assistance. I would never have thought to ask anyone to carry my bag: that’s an enormous request but it was exactly what I needed. Having that weight lifted from my shoulders gave me enough energy to make the final stretch to Zubiri. I ached, I was exhausted, I was covered in sweat and dust, but I was also humbled in a most extraordinary way. Those 4 ladies, collectively, and individually, saved my sorry ass and gave me hope.

We arrived in Zubiri and went in different directions – they in search of their pre-booked accommodation and I to the nearest hostel. I was relieved to arrive at last and looked forward to meeting with them later in the evening for dinner and a drink. I knew I arrived hours later than most but I was still hopeful of a bed, or a mat on the floor, or a mat on the ground in the back yard. I didn’t really care where I slept, I just needed a shower and a snooze. So imagine my heartbreak when I learned that there were no free beds in that hostel, or in any of the hostels in town. After walking for nearly 9 hours, I learned that every bed in town had been taken hours beforehand. The next town on the trail was having a fiesta and all of its hostels were closed, so people had stopped off in Zubiri instead. Every hostel bed and B&B were fully booked. They’d even put mats on the floor of the local gymnasium and all of those were taken too. There was, quite literally, nowhere to sleep.

I thought back to the bridge I’d crossed only minutes earlier.

Beneath it, there was a river and I thought: I can wash myself there.

Beside it, there were grassy banks and I thought: I can sleep there.

I was that tired.

It was close to 5pm and I was close to tears. My new friends were nowhere in sight and I didn’t have a plan.

There was no room at the inn.