adventures in enamelling, stories, music and travel
When I headed out for my Camino a small amount of information was hard to find. You had to dig through countless anecdotes of other people’s experiences, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to go with expectations or preconceptions. Consequently, I went almost completely blind. That’s OK. If you want to do that you will be fine. (people were HORRIFIED that I didn’t have a guidebook!) I just thought I would put together the few things I would have liked to know before I went, and a few things that seemed very important as I walked.
TRAINING? Just do some walking. At least once, walk for more than 4 hours. That’s when things start to happen. Where the slight chaffing turns into a blister, or that little twinge becomes a bad cramp. Do this in the shoes you will wear, with your pack on. Strength is not necessarily useful, and endurance is something people don’t know they have until they have to walk 6 to 8 hours every day, day after day. Don’t imagine you know what this will be like because you don’t. I met a 75-year-old man who was walking 30-40K a day easily and a big strapping 50 yr old fireman who could not do more than 15K. (See “Listen to your Body”, below) If you want to know what a tough day feels like, get on a stair climber, and stay there for three hours. My policy was to take a break every hour, stretch, drink water and rest for a few minutes. Every 2-4 hours I would eat more (some carbs) stretch, drink water and rest from 20 min to an hour (lunch) I never had even a blister.
DRINK WATER I was lucky enough to take this seriously so I did not get any injuries but 50% of people who walk the Camino get tendinitis SIMPLY from not drinking enough water. Your muscles get dehydrated and pull away from the bone. It is very painful. For some, drinking water just wasn’t something they understood to be that important, and for others they were worried about having to pee too much. It’s quite true that there are not a lot of places to pee, and some very open stretches with no shelter. Get used to that. Sometimes you have to buy something to be able to use a toilet in a town. Get used to that, too. You can always use the toilet in a Municipal Albergue for free but they are not always around when you need them. It is better to expose your ass on the trail than have to go home in excruciating pain. Trust me on this. I met several people who had tendinitis and its NO FUN! In the interest of the environment do not drink bottled water. Imagine the impact of 150 people A DAY buying and discarding 4 half-litre water bottles. Spanish tap water is PERFECTLY GOOD. It is not a third world country.
DO NOT EXPECT TO FIND THINGS THAT YOU FIND AT HOME, ESPECIALLY FOOD. Learn to appreciate what is given to you instead of pining after what you can’t have. This is also a great life lesson. All of the coffee (or tea) you drink will be spectacularly good. You will have freshly squeezed orange juice from real oranges every morning. Revel in this and accept that you will also have a ton of bread (the bread will be very good bread!) with every meal. Learn to ask for butter and you will be happier (mantequilla) There will be many sandwiches on offer (more bread) but you can also ask for tortilla de papas (which is a potato omlette) The Spanish generally have this for supper, but if you ask you can often get a portion for breakfast or lunch. There will not be a lot of variety of food, but it will be plentiful, simple, fresh and good. Pizza and pasta is often on offer but be careful, these are not Spanish specialties. The pasta will often be frozen and the pizza will NOT be like you get at your favourite local pizzaria at home (though it may be good). Breakfast (desayunos) is coffee, OJ and toast, and will run about 2.50€ Coffee alone is generally 1.50€, juice 2€. Lunch is bocadillos (sandwiches) which run from 2.50€ to 7€ (the most
expensive being Iberico ham which comes from pigs fed only with acorns and is DELICIOUS) Coffee, beer, wine and bottled water are the same price (1.50€). For dinner (cena) most places have a Pilgrim’s Menu which would include a choice of appetizer (these are substantial and often include spaghetti or potato salad) a choice of main dish (generally meat and potatoes or stew) a bottle of wine (delicious local wine) usually per person, a choice of dessert and a coffee. This will run from 8€ to 12€. I ate this almost every night. In the beginning, I carried food to make sandwiches, but this was such a pain and I didn’t really save that much money so I stopped. Cafes were a great place to meet and chat with other pilgrims. Carry some cash (I got out 100€ at a time). Most small places don’t take cards and they are often the best places. There are bank machines only in substantial towns so be sure to get money when you can.
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY Most injuries (even small ones like blisters) come from pushing yourself too hard every day. Relax. It’s not a race. It’s a pilgrimage. Change your focus. Give yourself enough time. If you don’t have a month and a half start somewhere further down the way (like Leon, or Burgos) Some people come back three years in a row and do part of the trail each time. I would say a month and a half (6 wks) to go from St Jean Pied a Port to Santiago. More if you want to go to Finistera or start from an earlier point like Le Puy. If you finish early there is plenty to do in Santiago or Madrid to keep you busy for a few days. Plan to take a few days off for places like Burgos (cathedral and museums) Astorga (Roman ruins and Gaudi palace) Leon (where there is the most spectacular cathedral in the world) or just to rest in a place of extraordinary natural beauty (plenty of these!). But also be prepared to walk through some ugly suburbs and industrial areas. Sometimes the road is wide and paved and sometimes it goes down to a trail that is only wide enough for one person which is kind of astonishing when you think how long people have been walking this route…
PLACES TO STAY For the most part, every 3 to 5 km you will have another choice of a place to stay. This might be a municipal Albergue (or parochial alberges which are often free) which is the cheapest alternative (5-7€) with the largest number of beds and usually all facilities: washing machines, dryers, kitchens etc. You must have a Pilgrims Credential to stay in these. You cannot stay more than one night (unless you are injured) and you must leave at 8am SHARP. There will be private Albergues also which will have fewer beds, the same facilities but often also a bar or restaurant attached. These are around (10-12€) You can often stay more than one night, and they will generally let you sleep in. There will also be choices of semi-private rooms and rooms with a shared bathroom (15-20€) and private rooms with private bath (25-40€) I generally preferred to stay in the private Albergues because they felt more personal to me. Conversations with others happened easier because there were less people. They often offered delicious home cooked meals. I also had great experiences in larger Albergues, but quite often everyone would be hunched over their cell phones and not really up for conversation. I used all the different options at least once. They were all without exception spotlessly clean.
I chose not to plan ahead. I saw people spending an hour or more on their phones trying to plan the next stay before they left the one before. This is unecessary in the off season (when I went) and doesn’t allow for stopping on a whim. The times I stopped on a whim I had the most profound experiences.
BED BUGS Don’t be afraid of these little guys and don’t imagine you can escape them by staying in fancy hotels. Having bed bugs has nothing to do with cleanliness. Their bite, for most people, is no different than a mosquito bite (think of tent camping in Ontario, and how many bites you will come away with!) Bad reactions come from the 20% of the population that are allergic. Having said that it is important to realize that if you have been bitten by bed bugs (They characteristically bite in threes, but not always) you need to inform the place, and you need to take some precautions to make sure you don’t carry them with you to the next place. Wash all of your clothes and your sleeping bag in the hottest water available (in a washing machine) and dry them all for an hour in a hot dryer. Examine your backpack and other items (toiletries) to make sure one hasn’t snuck into the cracks. (Be thorough. This might take a couple of hours) Most people will encounter them once or twice, so be prepared.
WHAT TO PACK. The least amount possible (Really. the LEAST)
This is what I carried:
Silk and wool are the only materials that will keep you warm even when they are wet. Also silk dries quickly. DO NOT BRING COTTON you will live to regret it. I got my silks from “Wintersilks.com” and though I was not particularly happy with them -they developed pills with astonishing rapidity- but they were serviceable and not too expensive
I had one of the smallest bags that I saw, a fact of which I was very proud. It weighed around 10 pounds. Rule of thumb is no more than 20% of your body weight. Mine was almost half that. It was never a burden.
LEAVE YOUR DEVICES AT HOME – ESPECIALLY YOUR CAMERA For me there is nothing like travelling alone. Travelling with a cell phone is like bringing all your family and friends with you. You will turn to them instead of turning outwards to others in this once in a lifetime chance. Your friends will be there when you get home. Take this opportunity to “be” in a different way, to engage with others. If you MUST bring your phone, limit your use of it and turn it off when you are walking, talking with others in the evening. But really – don’t bring it. Your Camino will be so much more meaningful if you don’t.
Every inch of the Camino has been photographed at least a million times. There is no need to bring a camera. It has many ways of spoiling your experience. Instead of really ‘being’ there, you are stepping aside and looking through a lens. I saw WAY too many people notice something beautiful, take a picture and immediately walk away staring at their camera image. ITS RIGHT THERE! JUST LOOK AT IT! I didn’t even take a music listening device. I quite often sang as I walked along – it doesn’t matter if you are a singer. No-one will hear you but the birds. You can step out of time and have a much more interesting and intense experience if you leave your devices at home.
BE KIND TO YOURSELF AND OTHERS. Look for the positive. If you find yourself complaining – think of something to be grateful for to counteract it.
BE OPEN. LEAVE YOUR EXPECTATIONS AT HOME Most people go to the Camino with some kind of intention, but try not to get too fixated on that. The Camino will teach you what it wants to teach you. Many of my best moments happened when I did something on a whim, other than what I had planned to do. If you take an attitude of listening, you will hear it much easier. This does not mean that your intention isn’t important. Your intention will come to fruition in time. Have faith that it will grow quietly and blossom sometime after you get home, maybe when you are least expecting it. One woman said to me: “Think of intention as a seed you have planted. If you keep digging it up to look at it every day it won’t grow. You have to leave it in the ground, water and fertilize it. Be patient and have faith that it will develop.”
RESPECT I feel obligated to mention this, especially to fellow Ontarians who are familiar with the beautiful music Oliver Schroer made on his Camino. I knew and loved Oliver, but I have come to think differently about his project. The churches on the Camino are sacred spaces, where people still gather to worship. I think it is somewhat presumptuous to feel that you should be able to walk into them and make music at will. I am sure Oliver’s intentions were good, but he says himself that he did not often ask permission. “What harm can music do?” you may ask. Probably none, but the wardens and priests of these churches deserve to be asked. Courteously. And their wishes respected. They have disrespectful people tramping through their sacred places of worship EVERY DAY. Don’t be one of them. Whether you are a Catholic, a Christian or an atheist PLEASE respect these sacred spaces.