To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, my Camino was not a victory march. It was a scorched and very broken hallelujah over six days covering approximately 112km of often steep, hilly terrain. The extent of my denial as to what this entailed could be discerned from a cursory glance at my suitcase. Neatly folded were five identical pairs of white linen shorts and a selection of black and white t-shirts. I was planning to tackle the hot, dusty trek dressed for a Sunday BBQ. My feet were no better. Instead of proper boots, or even decent trainers, I had persuaded myself that nothing more than a pair of cheap, spongy walking shoes was required. Besides, the salesperson assured me they were called “Go Walk” for a reason. Of course he must have been thinking of walking around the mall on smooth tiled floors rather than clawing through dirt tracks. Oh, and the shoes were nice and snug so I didn’t bother packing socks. There might have also been a bit of inverted snobbery in my lack of preparation. I did not want to be one of these people laden with fancy gear. Instead I took an extreme view that I could show up, physically unprepared and laden with bits of old stuff from around the house and be fine. Not a single peregrino (pilgrim) I encountered was as ill-equipt.
From the moment we arrived in Sarria, the starting point of our walk, I wanted to abandon the pilgrimage. The idea of the Camino was all dandy but the reality shocked my core. And the hordes. It was a traffic jam with at least eighty percent of the walkers Spanish. We began with a steep climb that carried on for several kilometres. Guidebooks described this segment as “challenging”. Yeah right. Why engage in these euphemistic deceits? What about gruelling, shin-breaking, everything-hurting? But of course each person’s Camino is unique. I was dying but others were scampering up like mountain goats. It was on this first steep uphill that I remembered my kind friend Corrie had posted a facebook message encouraging me to use The Husband's walking poles stored in his backpack. Out they came and never left me for the rest of the walk.
The two friends we were with whizzed past us on that first incline and finished several hours earlier. And that became the daily pattern. Of course they were not the only ones to pass us. Groups of young people strolling as if they were on the way to a friend’s place round the corner passed us. A delicate Japanese woman with a backpack matching her bodyweight sailed past us. Old men passed us. A lady carrying her baby on her shoulders passed us. I managed to keep pace with a lovely, middle aged Italian called Gabrielle but only because she had a dodgy knee.
That first day we started around 8:30am and with few breaks it took me until 3:30pm to complete the 23km to Portomarin our first stop. Those last three hours of walking were not nice as the blistering sun slowed me down to a crawl. And, as if arriving in Portomarin was not enough, there was yet another steep hill between me and my bed for the night. Half way up that last bastard incline I collapsed at the side of the road and cried like a baby. The Husband had no sympathy. Everyone had come on this trip because of me so I was damn well going to do it.
‘I would tell you to pull your socks up,’ he said. ‘Except of course you have no socks, crazy woman.’
Somehow I managed to hobble up the remainder of the hill to the room and immediately lowered myself into an ice cold bath followed by slatherings of peppermint oil on my aching feet. Then it was straight to bed without any supper. This became my daily, post-walk ritual. Somewhere in my drowsy state I heard The Husband ask if I wanted to join him and our friends for dinner. Too tired to even eat I muttered something about being exhausted beyond belief and inquired if he felt the same.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘I have reached my limit but not exceeded it.’
My last memory is of drifting back to sleep plotting murder. Near midnight he returned bearing a container of spaghetti and tomato sauce which made me postpone any “accident” I had planned for him.
The second day, mindful of the heat, we started an hour earlier and were met by an even steeper incline that continued for a couple hours of walking. When I looked up I could not imagine ever reaching the summit and, when I did reach what I thought was the summit, there was always yet another summit up ahead. I would have bawled my eyes out again but to what end? We were in the middle of the hilly, Galician countryside. The only way to the next town was to walk. So I walked and walked all the while guzzling water like a camel and sweating like a piggy.
Another eight hour walking day was followed, as before, by collapse into an ice bath, anointment of feet with peppermint oil and deep sleep. All my body demanded was regular topping up with water, a handful of almonds, perhaps a few cherries and high doses of ibuprophen. God bless Pfizer.
When walking the Camino I managed to put one foot in front the next fairly evenly but if I stopped for even a few minutes all my muscles seized up. Once the daily trek was over I could only manage what my pal Elena calls the Chikungunya walk – a hobble belonging to someone several decades older. Indeed the mere memory of the Camino can cause a little wobble in my gait even now.
There is a palpable sense of community on the Camino. When passing one another, no matter how exhausted or preoccupied, it is customary to greet fellow peregrinos with ‘Buen Camino’. This simple greeting is used to express everything from a polite “good morning” to a kindly “I feel your pain, sister” or moral boosting, “just one more kilometre, you can do it”. Entering most hamlets is also heralded by greetings from the animals. There was a fair amount of cock-a-doodling from the roosters and more than once we had to give way to herds of enormous Galician Blond cows sauntering to and from pastures dotted with yellow, purple and pink wildflowers.
The people that you meet on the Camino you often see several times. Other times the encounters were for a few fleeting minutes. Tiffany from Wisconsin, who was abroad for the first time, (and this is a woman in her fifties) quickly imparted a top tip about using the walking poles more effectively. She then scampered ahead never to be seen again. With every incline thereafter I silently called her name in gratitude. Phil from Arizona spent the last couple hours of one long day walking with us and shooting the breeze. His cheerful chatter made the kilometres melt away. Another day we met a man who was taking seventy young people aged 16-19 on the Camino. Now there’s a candidate for saint hood.
A super fit Australian couple we met early on became perplexed and a little put out when we appeared to be getting ahead of them. When this happened two days in a row they confronted us. How could two snails be ahead of these lean, keen gazelles? We owned up to pre-dawn starts in an effort to avoid walking in the heat and dust beyond 2pm. They marched off so much happier with this knowledge. Maybe I had been their pacer gone awry. If I could pass them then things were really bad.
Everyone had a method of getting through the long hours and days of walking. A group passed us keeping time with a continuous chorus of 1-2-3. A nun recited prayers as she walked. I tried to stay close that I too could benefit from her hypnotic chanting. And the walking gradually became more manageable. My mom emailed a top tip cautioning against looking at the inclines. Keep your head down and concentrate on each step she urged. The only time I forgot that rule and did glance up at the incline a loud ‘oh fuck!’ escaped my lips and startled fellow peregrinos.
Katie Andrews has a special place in my Camino. Your lycra-clad walkers hurtle through the Camino without fear or doubt. They know they will easily finish, and, judging by the pace, some were using this as a warm up event for the ultra endurance of the Marathon des sables. Now Katie is seriously overweight, bowed by the weight of a huge backpack. Like me, she was always hot. Her solution was to walk only in the mornings before the sun became overpowering. She was also tackling the full length of the French route, over 780km, which she did with slow, quiet determination. Whatever her reason for walking the Camino I have no doubt she reached Santiago and would not be surprised if she then continued on to Finisterre – known as the end of the earth.
The thing with pace is you go faster to reach somewhere quickly. But what if, in spite of the pain, heat and dust you don’t want this moment to end? Yes it was painful and yes I was extremely tired but the weird thing was that gradually my mind had completely relaxed. It was empty of thought, focused simply and entirely on the act of walking. Even when the pain increased the mind remained clear. All those failed attempts at mindfulness, of being in the moment, and suddenly I was practicing it daily while my aching limbs protested at having to carry me long distances.
In spite of the pain I had a heightened awareness of my surroundings. Galician countryside is full of horreos (grain stores) and cruceiros (stone crosses) that can be quite elaborate affairs. And I came to delight in the shade of the old oak forests with the added magic of wind rustling through the leaves in surround sound stereo. Over the forth and fifth days we walked inhaling the overpowering scent of the Eucalyptus trees. It was like spending the days inside a comforting tub of Vicks Vapour Rub. Who knew that the way to complete mental relaxation involved trampling through Galicia with blistered feet.
On day four I decided to cut my toenails shorter to relieve some of the pressure they were taking on downhill trails. What I had not anticipated was the steady gush of clear liquid followed by watery blood that flowed from under the nail bed. At this our companion J. insisted I borrow some of her little green socks. I reluctantly accepted. They were a godsend and saved both toenails from falling off. Hmmm. Now the socks made sense.
To qualify for the compostella issued by the Cathedral in Santiago, establishments along the route must stamp your pilgrim’s passport at least twice daily. Each tiny bar, church and B&B provided their own, unique stamp. The nicest one, sealed in vermillion wax, was from a former paralympian with a stall selling t-shirts. The most welcome stamp was in the middle of the forest next to an unmanned fruit stall. Tucked at the side of the stall was a small sign asking 1 euro, if affordable, for each box of fruit taken. The cold watermelon and cherries from that stall were the best ever and of course we could add the stamp left out to our passports.
The Husband could easily have walked at a much faster pace but to his credit he lagged behind with me every day. I like walking in silence but he really wanted to talk. His first attempt at conversation involved the book he was reading on British slave ownership. Researchers had poured over the archives of those who received compensation when slavery was abolished. The results showed that many who had airbrushed or played down their family history to exclude a minor detail like owning slaves were now fully exposed. This is fascinating and important stuff but when all I can think of is putting one foot in front the other his erudite conversation soon became a monologue. He gave up. The next day, as partial compensation for my inability to hold a sensible conversation, I suggested we could sing. No one was around and we began with Amazing Grace. We had only belted out the first verse when he cut me off to explain the history of that song written by a slave trader turned holy man. He is incapable of rubbish chitchat, that one.
C., our other companion, is a lawyer of some distinction but secretly longs to leave his mark as a calypsonian. Indeed he has performed and won at his firm’s annual carnival competition. Whenever we were together he would regale us with past compositions. They weren’t bad either. Of course a Camino with a closet calypsonian would be incomplete without a special calypso being created for the road. To the tune of Calypsonian Rose’s “Ah Going Down San Fernando” he was often heard belting out:
We walking the Camino
We going Santiago
With Ingrid an Avi, we going sweet
We wish Buen Camino, to pilgrims in de street
Come leh we go
Not many people on the Camino can boast their own theme song. Coupled with their kindness and humour I think we were lucky to have C. and J. as our companions.
Although we did not walk with them you can’t get lost. Well not much anyway. As The Husband and I rose earlier and earlier to begin our daily walk we were often in pitch darkness, reliant on a weak moon or a fellow pilgrim’s faint torch. Once, in the middle of a dark forest, we had to wait for someone with light to come along and literally show the way. By daylight it is simply a matter of following the frequently posted yellow arrows or the concrete markers counting down the distance to Santiago de Compostella. Often we had the path to ourselves. This was especially true on days four and five when we walked through shaded glades for most of the day. Without the sweltering heat I barely noticed covering the 17km allotted of walking meditation.
By this stage I was also able to sit with the others for dinner. Usually we had our evening meal in some rustic B&B we had booked in advance. Apart from one place that felt like a cell most were charming places with excellent food and service. Casa Brandariz in Arzua came with its own chapel and Carmen, a talented cook. At O Muino de Pena in Rua O’pino the salad and vegetables were picked from the garden mere hours before dinner. The manager also personally laundered the two black shorts I had originally packed as extras that had become my grubby, daily garb.
Inevitably, by heaving one aching foot in front the other the day came when we reached Santiago de Compostella. I expected to immediately see the cathedral that marked the official end of the walk and to move towards it on a red carpet to the sound of majestic bagpipes. Instead the route meandered forever through the suburbs of Santiago de Compostella with few yellow arrows showing the way. Even within the centre it was not straightforward finding the cathedral. When we did it was at exactly the same time as the lovely Gwere family we had seen several times on our journey. We hugged them and touched the cathedral walls with grateful hands. And in that moment my mind was flooded with the words of St Francis of Assisi. Life is about giving love rather than seeking to be loved. We are here to console rather than to be consoled; to understand rather than be understood. The Camino, my very broken hallelujah, was showing the way. Today is another chance to make things right.
I am working through my bucket list – that compilation of desire and ego. It was a less wise me that made the list. It has everything from the pretentious to the downright foolish. But a list is a list and unless checked off can haunt a person with OCD. The itch was becoming unbearable. Playing mas in Trinidad was the last thing I ticked off and that was a few years back. Halfway through Carnival Tuesday I remember thinking I should convert the bucket list into the f*#k-it list. What was a middle-aged, over weight, entirely too sober person doing trying to chip down the road when all around me were simulated sex scenes worthy of the best the porn industry offers? And don’t ask how I know that.
Still the list haunted me. One particularly treasured and distant desire was to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. It was a safe addition to the list. When would I, mother of demanding teenage boys, ever get away for long enough to go to the bathroom alone much more have time for days or even weeks of walking? Then suddenly life changed. Instead of wanting to get away from the boys, the boys wanted to get away from us. They declared they were off to Spain in July to attend Spanish language classes and would be gone for three weeks. I tried the “who do you think is going to pay for that” line. They knew the hollowness of that threat. Grandma and grandpa are wrapped around their pinkie fingers and of course would cough up. I tried the “you’ll miss me.” Nada. I tried “you’ll miss daddy.” Smirk. “You’ll miss the dogs.” At least this extracted a brief hesitation swiftly followed by a chorus of “Vamos!”. Undaunted I appealed to self-preservation. You might be attacked, mugged by vile strangers. My tall, athletic sons laughed in my face. Avila, the small, walled city they are heading to, is home to the police academy and crime is low.
Then it occurred to me. If they can go to Spain then so can I. And I’m taking The Husband. We can leave home too. Tomorrow, on my 49th birthday, I will arrive in Sarria where my Camino begins the walk into my 50th year.
I have been so caught up in the symbolism and sense of destiny of the Camino that I forgot one incy-wincy detail. You can slice it and dice it and add cherries on top but it is still a long walk. Of course each Camino is personal. My chosen Camino is just over 100km - the distance necessary to legitimately claim the “compostela”. If you are Catholic this gives absolution. Atheists can still get a compostela but its sort of third party confirmation of walking the walk after all the big talk.
Most, knowing a long walk of up to 20km each day lies ahead, might consider, perhaps walking a little bit before. Build up stamina. This week I was hiding in a corner cutting my finger nails to the quick when The Husband found me.
‘Why are you cutting your nails so short?’
‘For the Camino.’ I said trying to root out a rough edge. ‘I won’t have time to keep them manicured.’
He stepped back, arms folded.
‘So let me get this straight. Your sole preparation for the Camino has been cutting your nails?’
Since then, out of shame and fear, I have done three walks of between 70 – 115 minutes. The walks have been ok but the bone tiredness and deep aches in re-awakened muscles that followed each of these outings has been a reality check. How am I to cover 20km a day after day after day? But it is too late to back out now. Walking shoes and bits of gear have been bought and packed. Even worse I will have witnesses to my demise as a couple of equally deranged friends are joining us.
I’ll write about it along the way – if I can lift my hands each night to tap on the keys. Now for one last check if I have packed enough blister plasters and ibuprofen.