Foreword: I decided sometime during the Camino that I was going to start writing my blog in the first person. I originally started this as something different. I suppose at the time I did not feel as though I truly owned this travel persona that I was inhabiting. But as of now, I have fully embraced the traveler and from now on, my blog (and my journal) are all written with I…
Now onto business. I have been putting off this entry, but it is time I publish something about my experience on the Camino. My reluctance stems mostly from the fact that this trip left me completely ragged and weary. As much as I wanted Spain to be fun and exciting, it was mostly frustrating and challenging. As much as I want to say that I was having the time of my life, I mostly remember laying on death’s doorstep.
But through the difficulties came some very important realizations, naturally. The Camino has a reputation for doing true work on a person, whether they are aware of it or not. So here is the story…
For those of you who don’t know, the Camino de Santiago (or Way of Saint James) is the recreation of a historical pilgrimage from Jerusalem to the site where the remains of the apostle James are thought to be buried, Santiago, Spain. The route we took is the most famous, beginning in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, and goes 720 kilometers through the northern part of Spain.
Our motivation for this was strictly practical. Maria and I love hiking, we love camping, and we would like to get more into thru-hiking in the future. This seemed like an excellent way to get our feet wet. It was also in Spain, where I have never been and a region where Maria had never been. We already had all of the gear, and all of the time. Done.
We expected to: camp most nights, spend around 5 euro per day on food, finish the hike in around 30 days.
Reality: We camped exactly 6 nights, we were over budget almost the entire time, and it took us 38 days.
I will describe my walk as they pertain to the following categories:
1. THE WEATHER
We arrived in Saint Jean, not knowing what to expect really. There was snow on the ground and we camped in a random farmer’s field the first night, somewhere near the beginning of the trail and got an early start the next morning.
What we realized quite quickly, is that after walking 26 kilometers, we are very, very tired. The first two days of the walk are big days and all uphill. This means they are above the snow line. Of course, we did not anticipate there being record snows in the Pyrenees this winter, but that is exactly what we got.
We showed up to a town that looked like this:
If you don’t know how I feel about snow and cold, go read “Thoughts on Traveling in Winter” and the post just before this one. To recap: cold and snow and rain fill me with homicidal rage. Especially after having seen only those things for the past 4 months with no respite whatsoever.
The very beginning of the Camino had me confronting harsh conditions and I had to be outside in them all day. The best part is that the cold and rain did not let up for THREE WEEKS.
It’s one thing to hike in some rain, and know that it’s no big deal because you can dry yourself and your stuff off the next day when it’s sunny. This was rainy day after rainy day. Cold after cold, wind after wind. It even hailed on us in APRIL. And I was going out of my fucking mind. The worst part was that being inside offered no relief. Every place we stayed was a 900 year old monastery made of stone with no heating. I had to practically go to sleep in all of my clothes. This is how I spent the better part of the first month:
Of course, we couldn’t camp in these conditions. Sometimes we did, but only when it was above freezing at night. I was not happy and I am ashamed to admit (but I will) that I cried. I cried a lot. In fact, there were at least two times where I found myself shaking with sobs. But the last time it happened was definitely one of my lowest points. It occurred almost two full weeks after we left Burgos, on April 14th. We were hiking to Cruz del Ferro that day (arguably the most significant point on the Camino). Suddenly, the temperature dropped and I was back in my dark place, wearing all of my clothing, and just waiting for it to be over. Then the heavens opened up and unleashed hell.
I remember standing on top of a mountain shouting “FUCK YOU, SPAIN!” as loud as I possibly could, knowing no one could hear me over the rain. I was talking out loud to myself like a crazy person. Finally, I snapped and began walking in every puddle I could find to get as wet and as cold as possible, because fuck you, Spain. I nearly injured myself doing this and even at the time I knew I was having a mental breakdown.
I rolled into the next town to find a beer waiting for me. I just sank into the chair and cried. Then I stopped, and never cried about it again. The point was, that happened to me. I don’t think that is a normal Camino experience for anyone. And it was hard.
2. GETTING SICK
Getting sick is not fun. It is especially not fun when you are in a foreign country and you are on the move to a new place every day and must leave your hostel by 8am.
I met other pilgrims who have gotten ill on the Camino. It happens, there are a lot of pilgrims and close quarters. Also, in some regions the water is not exactly treated as well as in others. Things go around. But I do not know of any other pilgrim who got sick TWICE.
Just do me a favor for a moment and imagine being here in a room full of people (the above photo). Then having to climb out of bed every 20 minutes to puke your guts out for SEVEN STRAIGHT HOURS.
I can say proudly that Maria and I both became ill hours and days apart respectively, with stomach-flu-food-poisoning-esque illnesses, and we did not take a day off from walking.
…except for when Maria was ill in Samos. But still that average is pretty good.
The point is, I thought the weather was agonizing. Then I was confronted with cold and rain AND vomiting over freeway guard rails with my backpack on for 15 kilometers. I can now say with confidence, that agony is walking the Camino with the stomach flu. Or walking it when your girlfriend has the stomach flu.
3. THE BUDGET
Our budget suffered. We could not camp as much as we wanted to for a few reasons. The weather was one aspect, but it wasn’t everything. The company is a huge draw to the albergues but I’ll get to that later.
The issue is that we were confronted with this system of lodging that we had to participate in, but we could not afford. Our budget is only 7 euros a day (each). An albergue is anywhere from 5-10 euro per night, but it’s usually 5-8. That leaves between 4 and -2 euros for both Maria and I to eat, daily.
When you are as conscious of freeloading and taking advantage of strangers as we are, it is very difficult to work out this lifestyle. We ate very cheap food. Bread and nutella, rice, pasta with oil, eggs, and various seasonings. Not to mention endless tea cookies. Occasionally we sampled some local delicacy off the plates of our friends, but usually it was poor man’s meals.
Maria ended up using her magical stretching powers on other pilgrims, and received donations from some of them. We called this the Generous Pilgrim Fund, or simply “the bag.”
Basically, any money we found or received on our trip went into a bag. From there, we were able to draw supplements to allow us to stay in albergues and feed ourselves. It was the only way we could feel in exchange with people around us and the system as a whole. But it was a shock to our system. It took some time to get into a rhythm but in the end it was completely worth it because…
4. THE COMPANY
Here is the overwhelmingly good part of the Camino. We made friends. Lots of them. Good ones. And that is probably worth all of the aforementioned bullshit. We met people on our second day on the trail, and then somehow stuck with them.
I walked with people for entire days and you can really get to know someone if you talk to them for 5 hours. Maria and I got particularly close with a Canadian couple called Fred and Jen (or Fredifer). We also met Niny, a 60 year old Dutch woman who spoke 6 languages fluently. We also met Gretchen, who was as close to an angel in the flesh that I think a person can be.
The amazing thing was seeing these relationships develop over time. You leave people and then run into them a little later. For us, we could not shake our Canadians. Every time we left them, we ran into them again. Of course, they were trying pretty hard to make sure we found them again as well.
But the point is that with friends like that, why would we want to spend 5 hours a day in a tent by ourselves? Of course we are going to change our plans and make sure we can have dinners with these guys, and walk with them.
We got so close with these two in particular, that we actually met up with them in Porto 4 days after we finished the Camino. We gave them some of our winter clothes to take back to Quebec with them so we can pick it up from them when we visit. That kind of thing.
Others were shorter lived companions, but still just as close. Niny invited us to stay with her in Amsterdam when we come through later this year. Even though she is going to Italy for 3 weeks, we are more than welcome to the keys to her house and we can stay as long as we need to.
Paul from California offered us a place in Bend, Oregon any time we’re in town. We knew a Swedish woman for 2 days, and by the end of the second day, she was giving us her contact info and telling us she’d have an apartment and a fully stocked fridge waiting for us in Stockholm.
THE END OF THE ROAD
The Camino was difficult in many ways. It was physically challenging and even more mentally challenging. It forced me to confront a lot of things about myself that I want to change. Such as my inability to cope with adverse weather conditions. It also helped me realize when my breaking points occur and how I behave when I am feeling weak.
I did not originally begin this walk with any sort of intention or spiritual goal. What I found was the intention made itself clear along the way. I needed to make it through rough times just to know that I could. I needed to increase my mental toughness.
In the end, laying there in the middle of the square after it was all over, I remember the feeling that I had gained something. What, I’m still not exactly sure, but the story needed to be told anyway.