What I learned on the Camino.....
Trip Start Nov 13, 2010
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What I learned on my Camino……..
The map book I have, written by John Brierly, described the Way of St .James this way: "There are many long distance footpaths but only the Camino has won the recognition of the United Nations and has been given World Heritage status on account of its historical and spiritual significance. The Camino's ability to transform and elevate human consciousness remains undiminished over the centuries. Countless millions have walked this path in search of deeper meaning to their lives…" He goes on in his introduction to explain that 'all of us travel two paths simultaneously – the outer path along which we haul our body and the inner pathway of the soul. The traditional way of the pilgrim is to travel alone, by foot, carrying all the material possessions we need for the journey ahead…….leave behind all that is superferflouous …..The Camino offers us an opportunity to slow down and allow some spaciousness into our lives.”
That I think is the draw for so many of us – the opportunity to go slow and to just be. Busy people, busy lives, busy minds do not allow for much time for reflection and, as it is often talked about, –' busyness' is not' aliveness'. We have lots of ‘stuff’ but ultimately many of us find that ‘stuff’ quite unsatisfying and seek something deeper, more fulfilling.
So………my Camino…….I have so much to say yet I am really reticent to say anything negative because I know so many of you have the Camino de Santiago, as I did, on your Bucket lists. It was really surprising how many people sent a note and were really interested in this experience. And what I learned on ‘my’ Camino was very individual: I do not want to take anything away from those of you who have done it and those of you who will do it. I will share with you my experience, knowing that every journey is unique.
First, the few days in Madrid were hectic. Running around trying to buy a pack and sleeping bag and raingear and more ‘stuff’ . As it turned out the big sporting goods superstore, Decathlon, and wow – what a superstore it is…..is located over 20 kms from downtown Madrid….1.5 hours on the subway…..4 transfers, each way….and a it took a couple of trips for various reasons……yikes, the build-up of stress in order to distress.!!!!!
So eventually I figured I was ready. Lots of hard decisions on what was in and what was out but eventually I got my ‘stuff’ down to about 15 lbs. The pack felt pretty good, the boots…..not so sure but I had my comfy Keens along just in case.
Decided not to start the journey in France as the first 30 or 40 kms were some of the most difficult through the Pyrenees (mountains) – up and down and I didn’t want to kill my feet at the beginning of the walk. So I figured I would save myself and start in Pamplona – the city famous for the running of the bulls. Pamplona is 3 hours north of Madrid by high speed train.
At the train station I started to notice other ‘pilgrims’. Lots of other pilgrims. Hmmmm. I had read how popular the Camino had become and many of the articles had urged people to consider some of the other routes – routes from Seville, or through Portugal, or alternative ways from France. Although I was not committed to the ‘Way of St. James’ for religious reasons, it seemed like it would make sense for my virgin camino to be on the popular route. It must be popular for a reason????
The first group I met on the train were from New Zealand. They were quite noticeable as they had matching straw hats with “Camino 2011” badges on the front. I had seen them in the train station but could not figure out how they were going to hike with all the exotic (large) luggage they had with them. On the train, in the bar car, they explained that they were ‘doing the Camino’ the ‘fancy’ way. They had eleven days and they were meeting others in Pamplona – they were not sure how big their group would be, and they were walking just the ‘interesting’ parts. They had bought a tour that picked them up and had done all the arrangements – they would not have to carry anything other than a little day pack, they would be dropped off for the pretty parts, walk a bit, get picked up and taken to one of the little hostels and eat well and drink well and, over 11 days would get to see the whole route without getting tired. Sounded good to me.
Then the next guys were middle aged Germans – decked out in every fancy trekking gear known to man. They were nervous of me and my German but bought me drinks so I liked them. Getting off the train it was apparent that there were a lot of pilgrims heading to the Camino. Some were picked up by private transport and some took the local city bus into the city centre like I did. All ages, all countries: lots of students. That is when the truly annoying part started. It seemed like the pack- wearing, hiking pole carrying older people were freaking out, bugging the very angry bus driver about where to get off to find the Cathedral. To walk the Camino you need a ‘Pilgrim Passport’. This provides you with proof that you are a pilgrim and this credential allows you to stay in the, mostly church supported, reasonably priced, ‘auberges or hostels’ along the route. In Pamplona the Cathedral provided credentials.
I was embarrassed to be associated with the obnoxious group – me also with my pack, but no poles, so I went to the back of the double bus and figured I would just ask a local. That worked.
I made my way to the hostel to drop off my pack before heading out for the afternoon to explore Pamplona and get credentialed. Pamplona was very cold but very beautiful. If there is a recession in Spain, I have yet to see any evidence of it anywhere. Pamplona seems to be a big University city – booming. They have managed to blend the old and the new seamlessly and the beautiful ancient part of the city with its winding streets is really worth a visit. And pilgrims, everywhere. For those of you who do not know much about the Camino, it doesn’t start on a certain day or month. People walk it every day of the year. So this day was not any different than the day before or the day after. There are just that many pilgrims I guessed. I had read that 96000 had completed the Camino last year .......yup 96,000 so that should have tipped me off but it was a 'holy year' so I hoped the numbers would not seem as daunting as they sounded.
Near the church I met a Dutch guy who told me he had been walking since March 1st. He left his house in Holland and started walking to Santiago. He said it had been great until a week prior or so when he joined the crowds who had come to join the official ‘Camino’ in St Jean, France – the other side of the Pyrenees. Since that time he had experienced severe overcrowding and the night before he had stayed in the official auberge in Pamplona. It had space for 100 pilgrims and nearly 130 had showed up. He had wanted to take a rest day and stay but had been kicked out at 8 am and was told he could not stay more than one night so he had gone to the other hostel and they refused him saying he could not have refuge in the same town/city for more than one night so he had to take a hotel room. We walked and talked and he told me that two of the routes had converged in Pamplona and another route from the south was also to join the Camino just after Pamplona. Hmmmmm. Even more on the way....He told me that space was at such a premium that most folks got up at 4:30 am to get walking so that they could get space at the auberges when they opened at noon. They kick you out at 8 am so they can clean and they reopen again at noon.
He kind of dampened my enthusiasm as my plan was to go slow……and 4:30???? Are you kidding me???? I would rather go to bed at 4:30 than get up at 4:30!
So together we got passports – his old one was full and mine was fresh and blank and ready to go. More sightseeing and back to my hostel. There I met an older American couple (my age) who were taking a rest day. Their feet were pretty chewed up from coming over the mountains and they too were pretty bummed out as they were completely unprepared for the accommodation they had endured in their first few days. The crowds were such, and they too reported of the 4:30 am starts, that they went too slow between hostels and were forced to stay in the overflows – and without toilet paper!!! Obviously they were new to travel as one always brings their own but still they said that their last hostel was dirty and so crowded it was really unpleasant. Then the lack of toilet paper... the one store in the little village was closed so they could not even buy any. They were not having much fun. They too had planned to take the whole thing slow and steady - they too had loads of time. He was a military doctor and she a psychiatric nurse and they had trained and planned for this Camino for a while. After their horrible hostel experience the night previous, they had looked into booking some of the private hostels along the way – an idea I was counting on – recommended by Amanda….but….lo and behold…..seems like the private tour groups or the ‘easy riders; had already reserved the places and this couple had only gotten the response 'fully booked' on the ones they had inquired about. So this couple had, already, after only three days, decided to use the 'bag transfer' service – a service whereby you do not have to carry your own pack. A van comes to your hostel, picks up your pack and drops it off at the next place, however many kilometers you decide, and it is there when you arrive. For only 8 -10 Euros a leg. They were bummed at how that was going to be adding up with the cost of food.
So morning breaks and yes, we were in a nice hostel. I seldom share a room, except with friends, but this was nice and after all I am now a pilgrim and have simplified my already bare bones existence. All OK until two of the four of us get up at freaking 4:30 am to go. They were youngsters and at least they tried to be quiet.
I get up around 8, have breakfast with the Yankees and pack up and head off. The Yankees had decided to stay in the nice hostel for another night and play tourists.
The Dutch guy the day before had shown me the 'Camino" signs to look for, showed me the way out of town and told me it was nearly impossible to get lost on the Camino, so many signs and so many people…….yeah right. I get lost every single day, every hour. I have directional issues. But I know what signs to look for……I head out of the city centre, over the river….pack feels OK, then starts to feel heavy, feet feel like the socks are rubbing…..I walk and walk and wonder where all those other pilgrims I saw in town yesterday are. I ask a lady if I am going the right way. She ensures me I am. I hit the edge of the city…..people in cars are looking at me like I am a retard…..I stop and ask a young guy…..nooooo……….not this side of the city……….the other side of the city………AYYYYY!!!! Back through the ancient walls, past the castle, the cathedral and yup, a couple of hours later I am back where I started………my 800 km Camino will end up being 1600 kms at this rate!
First 5 km sucked. My pack already weighs a ton and I have to change into my Keens and I am still in the city centre. When I do eventually find the route, I am flipping shocked. It looks like the Run for the Cure or any Cancer Walk. Are you kidding me? Every Tom, Dick and Harry are walking in one direction. Walking and biking…..loads of bikes. People blow by me with a “Buen Camino”. I wonder where they are going in such a hurry as I know my plan was to just go about 6 kms and stay at the first town because the next option would be another 7 or 8 kms after that and I didn’t want to overdo the first day…..and now I have already done an extra 5 km in the wrong direction…..AND….where the hell is all of their ‘stuff’? I bet you half were walking without packs. What kind of 'pilgrim' uses a van service?
So it goes. The walk is lovely, the scenery is pretty, I get through the University and out into the countryside, get to the next town and it is only 12:30. I find the auberge and a bunch of the people who blew past me are waiting for it to open. It opens and the woman running it has to hold them back as they try to make a run for the beds. She separates us into three rooms…English speaking, French and German. English speaking turns out to mean ‘not French or German’. I ended up in a room with about 25 or so - and only one old Dutch guy could speak a little English.
These stressed out people, who have rushed to get here, whip off all their clothes and start washing them……this is the daily drill as I could figure it: Get up really early, 4:30 am, so you can get to the hostels by noon. That is 7 hrs. walking – nearly everybody was trying for a 30 or 35 day Camino – 25 kms a day: 7 hrs. They had log books and elevation maps and plan after plan. A leisurely pace or seeing how you felt each day/hour seemed to not be possible: the prebooking of the private hostels and the prebooking of pack drop-offs relegated how far you had to go each day. So much for my idea of a series of long ambling walks in the countryside......so much for this being calm and serene.
So I sat back and watched. They had showers, then rushed to get space at the washing sinks to do their laundry, lots wearing only speedo type gaunch.....yuck.....then they competed for space on the clothes drying racks and then they went to bed for naps. I watched and because I felt left out, I washed my still clean clothes and then sat around and watched more people arrive. And more people and more people, all quite stressed, looking for beds. The place held 50 or so (at least that is what the guidebook said) but at least 100 people came that night. They just never stopped arriving right into the late evening. Some of the bikers stayed in a little barn and the rest seemed to be put into back rooms in the church hall. Huge dorms expansions are under construction at this hostel. Generally people seemed incredibly uptight. Most had huge blisters that the lady who ran the hostel cared for – she pierced and sucked out liquid and bandaged foot after foot. Because everybody’s feet were so sore, not many people wanted to do much sightseeing in the town, other than go to find food to eat, and to store for the next day, for a 5am breakfast and a 10 am lunch.....
In this particular town, as in most of the guidebooks I read, restaurants offered a ‘pilgrim’s meal’. In this town the meal was 11 Euros – that seemed to be the going rate……and that is bloody expensive – about $14 for one meal. Accommodation at this hostel was 8 Euros for a bunk in a room of 25 or in the barn…..to use the washing machine was 4 Euros - it actually was quite nice and considering that I was there from midday with nothing at all to do but wait to do it again the next day, the price was good…..so I watched and listened and I reflected……nearly everybody was in bed by 9 and then the snoring and the body noises started. Yikes………I usually go to bed around 12 or 1 am so I had a lot of time to lay there and listen to the noises. Yuck again.
At 4:30 am, still pitch dark, cell phone alarms started to go off and the frantic frenzy started. The chick in the bunk below me had packed and unpacked her pack incessantly at 8 pm and then again around midnight – annoying everybody with the crinkling of her bags of stuff. At 4:30 am , she and another Italian uptight crazy lady – they had met up the afternoon before and were immediately kindred spirits of the stressed out variety…..started talking loudly and packing and unpacking and repacking their bags. In my room of 20 or 25, all but 5 of us were gone by 5 am. In the German and French rooms I don’t think there was anybody left but one nutcase – I saw him on the bus heading back to Pamplona later that morning…..he had some obvious issues….one being,.he was a toilet paper hoarder.....maybe he had been at he same place the Yamkees had been??? Hmmmm...everytime I saw him he was unrolling the toilet paper and making his own little rolls. With 4 toilets, 4 showers and over 100 people, that could get dangerous.....I was on to him....
So I lay in bed and reflected on my Camino thus far…..my plan was to do it my way…..my Camino. Go slow, enjoy the journey, and not focus on the destination. Pretty much my regular life. The only difference was that I would be heading in one specific direction and I had hoped that fact in itself would allow for less planning. The reality was that this could not be so. Because of the vast numbers on the route, the fact that the private hostels seemed to have already been booked up by the tour groups or the super organized, I would have to be like all the others and make a route map – figure out how far I would have to go each day in order to ensure I had a place to sleep that would not be just a mattress in a hallway or doorway, hurry from place to place in order to sleep with a huge number of also stressed and tired people whose feet were too sore to do anything each afternoon….then sit all afternoon……sitting around waiting for my clothes to dry so I could put them on and repeat. Somehow in my 'pre Camino" mind the structure had seemed a little less forced.
So this is what I did. I reflected on what I knew to be true, what might be true and what could be different. I knew that the crowds were a reality and would only increase as the summer holidays began. What was I thinking???? The Spaniards and the Portuguese generally only do the last 100 kms to Santiago, and generally join the Camino in July and August – that is the only required distance to get a religious credential. So the crowds were only going to get bigger, the accommodation spaces were only going to get sparser and the competition fiercer and more stressed. I was only going to sit around in the afternoons and wonder why I wasn’t out seeing cool stuff in cities elsewhere, I was going to continue to be pissed about the gauging for food that seems to have become the norm along the Camino….captive, hungry audience with no other options. I wondered if Jenny Craig was my only other option to go from fat to fit in 50 days and then I really dug deep and had my aha moment most are searching for on the Camino.
I have been on my own Camino for years. I have had the luxury of time and space and the simple pilgrim’s life that so many obviously are yearning for. I have basically the same routine that these pilgrims have: I get up; I walk around for 9 or 10 hours seeing amazing things. I wash my own clothes, I hang them and love watching them dry, I source out some food and I meet amazing people from all over the world and then I get up and do it again the next day. I have what these stressed people are seeking. Solitude and space and quiet. I am so grateful for that and my wish for them and for everybody is to also have it – even for only 30 or 35 days. Even with snoring and farting and multilingual sleeptalking.
So I packed up and hiked back into town, at first a little unsure if I was throwing in the towel too soon. My gut was telling me I had made the right decision but my head was saying; maybe give it a week…..until, as I headed back towards Pamplona, I met the hordes coming my way. Rushing. The numbers are beyond anything I could have imagined. This route has become far too popular and again only half were carrying anything more than daypacks – that Camino tourism I think has changed the dynamics of the route.
I did decide to see the ‘Way of St James” so I took the bus back to Madrid – 5.5 hours. We wound through many of the towns along the Camino and it really is beautiful……especially from the bus.
So what now? Heading tomorrow across Europe to Istanbul, Turkey where I will meet my friend Janice. when one door closes......I got back to the City, was reaquainted with my laptop to find a note from her asking me where I was. She has been backpacking around Egypt and Jordon - by herself and was in Istanbul or her way to Iraq........No, I am not going to Iraq but I do hope to be able to talk her into Bulgaria, Romania, Czech Rep, Poland.....and so on. I have a few weeks open so the Camino Deb continues.