Never trust a smiling pilgrim…

Talk to any camino addict and you will be spellbound by stories of breathtaking sunrises, effortless strolls across the Spanish countryside, and the dazzling taste of that first ice cold beer at the end of each walking day. What they are less likely to share are all the ‘interesting’ things that happen along the way that add colour and challenge to walking 790 km in one go.148.JPG

In 2013 I convinced The Brave Man* that walking the Camino Francés would be a wonderful holiday and marital experience. As we are not a couple known for, or good at, ‘fly and flop’ holidays, he readily agreed. What is that saying? “Act in haste, repent at leisure”?

Over the 31 days it took us to walk the Camino Francés, we had plenty of leisure time to consider the merits of this type of ‘holiday’. It started pretty much on day one as we clambered up the Pyrénées. Yes, we had trained and yes, we were pretty fit but those damn mountains just kept going up and ^%$#@ UP! We have mountains in Australia, but I had never experienced anything like this before. It was day one, I was jetlagged and carrying around 15 kgs on my back and it would have to be the hardest day’s work I have ever done in my life! That large, cold beer waiting for me on the Spanish side of the mountains was the only thing that kept me putting one foot in front of the other. As it was my idea to do this walk in the first place, I just had to keep plodding away, and I simply didn’t have the energy to throw a tantrum halfway up the mountain!

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We earned it!

The days got better from then on as we left the mountains behind, even though only temporarily, and we quickly established a simple routine. Rise early (mostly in the dark), walk a couple of hours, find coffee and a bakery, walk another couple of hours, snack by the side of the road, then find a bed and a beer. Next day, repeat.

The volume of pilgrims walking the same path really surprised us but, being morning people, our early starts meant that we mostly avoided the daily stampede for beds in the albergues. Arriving at our destination around 1pm meant that we had the afternoon to rest, relax, inspect and repair our numerous blisters, delicately remove blackened and lifting toe nails, do some washing, massage sore muscles and stroll around the sights of whichever village we were sleeping in. Not such a good sight or sound was The Brave Man’s* mobile phone tumbling around in a front loader washing machine. Oops! Perhaps it didn’t work anymore but at least it was clean.

Along the way, I was frequently disappointed by the amount of litter by the side of the path, and the graffiti and/or vandalism of the waymarks. Both local government and voluntary associations appear to have spent a lot of time and money erecting distance markers and other information signs. Why would a person want to write all over them or steal the damn things? How does this help the thousands of pilgrims who will follow in the same footsteps? And isn’t it really bad pilgrim karma?

227.JPGAnother challenge, in the same vein, was the almost total lack of public toilets. In 2013, nearly 152,000 people walked the Camino Francés – providing a whole new perspective on a completely different type of litter. I am not pointing the finger at anyone here, as I also made numerous dives into the bushes, but I can’t help thinking that this would be a fantastic business opportunity. A few strategically placed portable toilets, on a pay-per-use basis, would make someone a fortune!

Each day brought new faces and new conversations as we walked along. The thing I particularly enjoyed was that the conversation could last five minutes or five hours, depending on the personal connection. There was no compulsion to chat or slow your pace if you weren’t so inclined and that was a good thing. Not everyone I met was fascinating, not everyone I met was even likeable. It’s all part of the walk, and a good reflection of life in general I guess.

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Gym mat, anyone?

The albergue, or hostel-style, accommodation can prove to be one of the walk’s major challenges for some people, but it is very sociable and invokes the true spirit of the camino. One day The Brave Man* was feeling a bit fragile, so I sped up and walked ahead to secure beds for us both in the next small village, which is known for having very limited accommodation. I was pretty pleased with myself as I ducked and weaved and overtook more laid-back pilgrims, and eventually pounced on the two remaining beds in the loft of an ancient, cavernous church. Unfortunately, The Brave Man* was less than impressed with the architectural aspects on the building when he found out that the ‘beds’ were gym mats lined up edge-to-edge on the floor of said loft. As we sneaked off into the pre-dawn dark the next morning, he advised me in colourful and no uncertain terms that he was choosing our next effing holiday destination! Oops again.

189.JPGBut the sun always rises and each day brings new joys. Just when I thought my feet would not carry me another step, I walked through a field of sunflowers where some smarty pants had created smiley faces to motivate and delight. I just kept reminding myself that whatever our experience today, it could not be one thousandth as arduous as the journey taken by the pilgrims in the 10th and 11th centuries. Yes, every pilgrim gets hot, tired, wet, sore and hungry, but all that is fixable just over the next hill or around the next bend.

The weird thing is that no matter the size of the disaster or the exhaustion of each day, many pilgrims – and I am one of them – can’t help themselves from starting to plan the next pilgrimage even before they have finished the first. That is where the ‘addiction’ description fits in.

Maybe the strongest, common links between all pilgrims is a sense of misplaced optimism. We know if we keep putting one foot in front of the other that one day we will achieve our goal. Perhaps a need for a clear sense of achievement, or spiritual enlightenment for some, enables us to push through the tough times until we stand in front of that imposing cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Then it all seems so worthwhile.

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A stone in the square in front of the Cathedral. The story is that if you put your foot on it, you are guaranteed to return one day.

The Camino Francés is not perfect, but neither is life. Like life, it is totally up to you to find something special in each day.

 

September 2013

 

The Basics Box

What: The Camino Francés follows one of the ancient pilgrim trails that pay homage to the Apostle St James. It is approx. 790km in length.

Where: This camino starts in St Jean Pied de Port (southern France), crosses the Pyrénées mountains and ends at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-western Spain.

When: We walked in Autumn but you could walk anytime except deep Winter when snow regularly cuts the path and it becomes too dangerous. It took us 31 walking days plus two rest days.

Why: We like active holidays and this trip came highly recommended as a way to meet a vast range of interesting people, get a deep insight into a country, eat good food and travel relatively inexpensively.

How: We flew into Paris and then travelled by train south to Bayonne – connecting to St Jean Pied de Port via an excellent shuttle company called Express Bourricot.

Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and thousands of other people. 500 walkers started out every day from Saint Jean Pied de Port.

Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Frances, purchase it from Book Depository

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!

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Talking the Camino

My passion for long distance walking began at a groovy little café in Potts Point. Not the most likely venue to launch into adventure sports I agree, but let’s just say the seed was sown. Over caffeine, a friend described his upcoming Camino Frances and his hope that it would help him sort through some stuff that was going on in his life at the time. I have no more ‘stuff’ than the next person but his trip caught my imagination and firmly burrowed into my subconscious.234

It is weird how sometimes things that are on your radar – even ever so remotely – then start to crop up wherever you turn. Even before my friend’s return from Spain I was spotting books, newspaper articles and hearing stories of this ‘new’ thing called the Camino Frances. My friend’s triumphant and happy return confirmed that this trip was a ‘must’ for me. The thing that he raved about most was meeting so many amazing people throughout the 790km from St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to the final destination of Santiago de Compostela in the north-western corner of Spain.

Hence, it was a matter of talking the camino rather than walking the camino when we finally set out from St Jean Pied de Port on 3 September 2013. I had thought it would be a good plan to start walking in Autumn after the European Summer vacation had ended and school returned. Surely there would not be the crowds I had read about?? Wrong! We were told that there were 500 people leaving St Jean Pied de Port every day and 1000 people arriving in Santiago de Compostela every day. Hardly a stroll in solitude.051

Like everyone else, we set off on Day One bright-eyed and with a spring in our step, ready to cross the Pyrenees. It has to be the most physically demanding thing I have ever done. The Brave Man* soon left me in his dust and I battled on ever-upwards, chatting and commiserating with whoever I passed or passed me. At one stage an Irishman came alongside. He gave me a sideways glance and muttered in a thick Irish brogue, “I thought this was supposed to be spiritual. Where’s the feckin’ spirituality in this?” He stomped off ahead of me and I would have laughed if I had had the energy!

The first day of many things is often the hardest and we soon found our individual walking rhythms and a rich mix of interesting (or not) people to chat to as we walked. Imagine a sea of humanity – a slight exaggeration, I know – all walking towards a common goal. Different life stories, different baggage, different socio-economic backgrounds, but the shared joy, exhaustion and sore feet from walking is a great leveller and a perfect conversation starter.

“Hello, I’m Melanie from Australia – where are you heading today?” We all became known by first name and geography only. “Have you seen Lue and David from Vancouver? Or Ross from Sydney?” No other descriptor was needed to identify new best friends and where they were on the on the route known as the Camino Frances or simply, ‘the Way.’

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The beauty of these conversations was that they could last all day or 15 minutes. If my stride matched another’s and we both felt inclined, we might walk for hours together talking about whatever took our fancy. Many times conversations cut to the heart of the matter as there was no need for pigeon-holing or social one-up-manship. When I finally caught up with The Brave Man*, I would introduce my walking companion and he would introduce me to the ex-Emergency-Room- Trauma-Surgeon-now-Anglican-Minister from a small, rural parish in England or another equally interesting individual.

There are not enough blog words to cover the many insightful conversations I enjoyed and perhaps their impact would be lost in translation. Conversations would continue well into the evening as we shared communal dinners, or until we gave in to sleep. One memorable dinner at an albergue included ourselves, an ER nurse from Sweden, a computer programmer from the Netherlands and Ulrich. Ulrich was a 74 year old German, raised in Barcelona and a resident of Brazil for the past 26 years. He spoke four languages and a warmer, more genuine man would be hard to find. As the wine flowed, Ulrich shared his story. It was the 12-month anniversary of his wife’s death and the 10-year anniversary of their walking the Camino Frances together. As he walked this time, he read his journal from the first trip and savoured their special memories. Goose bump material.

As is the wont of the Camino, our paths crossed a few times over the next few weeks until we got to Santiago de Compostela. I said to The Brave Man*, “I feel a bit sad that we didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to Ulrich”. The next day we stepped off a tour bus, walked around the corner and straight into him. It was meant to be. We both expressed how pleased we were that we had met and Ulrich gave me a small, carved crucifix. I am not a religious person, but I carry it with me everywhere.

Not every conversation was at such a personal level but the openness and friendliness of everyone made each connection special. Glyn and Paul from Wales were like two lads on an over-50’s Contiki tour doing some walking, more drinking and having the time of their lives. Whenever we saw Paul, he had lost something, and he was almost entirely clad in hand-me-downs by the time we parted company.

We had a long and detailed conversation with a Spanish man comparing the cost of living in Spain vs Australia. We couldn’t speak Spanish and he couldn’t speak English but with much arm waving, pointing at ads for white goods in junk mail brochures and laughter, we managed to make ourselves understood (I think) and became firm friends for the rest of the camino.469

Even today, three years on, we are in contact with people we met. I continue to marvel at how we simple folk can get on and be friends even when communication is a barrier. Why can’t our leaders around the world do the same?

Sept/Oct 2013

Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Frances, purchase it from Book Depository

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!