I have just returned from a stint on the wonderful Camino de Santiago. Everyone I mention it to says how they “have always wanted to do it”… “one day”. They have a wonderful romantic idea of strolling through the Spanish countryside, ‘finding themselves’ on the way to Santiago. Martin Sheen has a lot to answer for in this regard.
I guess it’s cheaper and less intimidating than India.
I am not in any way suggesting that this romantic notion isn’t entirely true. There are, however, a few little tips you may want to take on board before you find yourself smothering in a room full of stuffy snorers. Wondering how you’re going to walk 30k as the morning fast approaches. With no sleep. Not to mention that newly-formed blister on your baby toe.
When packing for the Camino, less is definitely less. If at all possible bring nothing. Ok, maybe nothing is a stretch, but that comfy top that you think you can’t live without… can be lived without. You will resent any extra weight – even if it does bring out the colour in your eyes.
The Spanish Inquisition
Possibly the best thing about the Camino is the people. You will meet people from all walks of life. Pun intended. One of the more interesting ones came in the form of a 6’6” Basque man. He drank beer for breakfast and had a voice that echoed up from his tremendous belly. I’m not quite sure how, or indeed if, he walked at all.
You do have to be prepared, however, for the inquisitive pilgrim. The one who wants to know “why you’re doing this” (said in my best Ozzie accent). You feel a certain amount of pressure when someone asks this, but the honest answer is that I was doing it because I could. This answer tends to both disappoint and surprise at the same time. I also discovered that when someone asks this question what they really mean is: “Ask me why I’m doing this.” And so it’s best to just ask. Let them divulge their motivator for a month of blisters and bedbugs.
At some point on the Camino you will have your endurance and pain barrier tested. It usually comes in the form of blisters but it can adopt many guises. Blisters, bruises, bumps, bites, strains, overly-inquisitive travelling partners – anything really.
I found that the easiest way to push on through this is to equate it with negative equity in Ireland. Its affects pretty much everybody, it hurts, but the fact that everybody is going through it makes it slightly easier to bear. In fact, other people are usually worse off. They appear to have invested a lot more.
The saying “walk a day in my shoes” really rings true here – I was wincing at my swollen feet and freshly pounded toes when a fellow pilgrim hobbled by minus the epidermis on his heel.
Some folk think of the Camino as a fast fix weight loss programme. Unless you are actually prepared to go on a diet while on Camino then this is just simply not the case. No amount of walking could possibly counteract the amount of bread and red wine I consumed on my Way.
The Pilgrim’s Menu, although not a treat for the culinary adventurous, is as substantial as you can get for a whopping €8. Starter, main and dessert. Oh and a bottle of wine.
If you are doing the Camino you will have to contend with sleeping conditions you haven’t encountered since you were stuck on an overnight boat from Koh Pha Ngan to mainland Thailand. The problem is that the boat journey was a once off – your Camino is a nightly affair. You’ll be amazed by the variety of snores there are out there and people’s ability to bag-rustle from 4am on is quite astounding. Once you climb onto your top bunk, assess the likelihood of bed bugs, start thinking about the mileage and terrain in store, the most you can hope for is an hour or two a night… even with the help of vino tinto.
The routine is at once both the best and worst thing about the Camino. You may find yourself driven slowly insane by night five, as yet again you wash, pack, prep. Once you start putting one foot in front of the other the following day, however, all of the previous evening’s frustrations fade away with the rising sun. Spiritual or personal reflection may not be the purpose of your Way, but it’s hard to avoid. There is something about walking long distances in stunning surroundings that prompts reflection. If this doesn’t happen then perhaps your mirror is broken.
So now, as I snuggle up in my cosy bed with my feet returned back to their regular size 6, you may wonder if I enjoyed it.
In a heartbeat I’d trade this cosy bed for the bandy bunk on Camino. Why? I can’t quite explain. Maybe it’s the views, the freedom, and the lack of gadget-based distractions. Or maybe it’s just getting to hang out with handsome Italians on sunny evenings, sipping on vino tinto.
Michelle McBride tweets at @MichelleBride and blogs at MissUnderstood Teacher.
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