Suddenly my feet had no traction and I was beginning to fall. My hiking pole bent nearly ninety degrees and I almost went down when a young man from Turkey grabbed my arm and saved me from landing in the mud. Such is the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
Whether it be the thousands of small acts of kindness or the synchronicities that line up, there is no doubt that there is a ‘flow’ about this place.
Climbing the Pyrennes, in the fog and the rain, wishing I had packed gloves, I thought that I had started to hallucinate when I thought that I could smell coffee. This was highly unlikely on an unpopulated trail almost 1500 metres above sea level.
I had just passed a flock of sheep that hurried over to the side of the trail. They appeared astonished and acutely interested in me as I walked by. I could see a truck with a makeshift enclosure up ahead. Could it be a coffee mirage? Was I experiencing the type of illusion common to people traveling across the desert? Would I lose my way in search of a phantom caffeine fix? I assumed that the vehicle was associated with the sheep in some way, but I was wrong. It was coffee.
Everyone that I have met along the way can tell at least one story about exactly what they needed coming into their possession just when they wanted it. A taxi appears just as the decision is made to call one; a stand selling hats opens right next to your table, right after you’ve lost your hat; or someone simply picks up your hiking poles for you. No small thing when you have a full pack on your back and muscles sore enough to discourage movement of any kind.
Dropping the timetable and deadlines has a way of allowing things to happen that becomes clear when all you can focus on is getting to the next rock large enough to sit on without too much effort.
And on we go down the Camino. Day six and counting…..
A kilometer, it turns out, is not a very good measure of a walk. It does not account for incline or decline, footing, stairs, wind, weather and unfortunately distance.
On the Camino, one of the first things that you realize is that all distances are “as the bird flies” and do not take into consideration how many bends there are in the path or even if the path bends back on itself.
The first time that it takes over an hour to walk less than a kilometer the uselessness of this measurement becomes apparent.
The truth about kilometers is second only in importance to having a place to sleep when you are finished for the day. In July, it turns out, this can be quite tricky. There are way more pilgrims than there are albergue beds.
This long winded explanation is really just my way of explaining why I have ended up without a ‘camma’ or bed in an albergue, not to be confused with a place to sleep, on a few nights already. Much to my dismay I ended up sleeping on a cement floored area designed for handball and futsal, considered the purest form of football, but I digress.
I slept with several men last night (and several women) in sleeping bags outside on a cement pad. Such is the Camino.
The Camino walk is characterized by a tightening of the legs and upper body in reaction to the pain generated from moving your legs and putting weight on your feet. This cramped gait is the way that you can identify someone in town that has been walking on the Camino.
Several towns have specialists that work for donations and spend several hours each evening treating the results of prolonged walking.
I am becoming somewhat of an expert on blister care myself. First, there are two types of feet. The ones that dry out from the heat which causes cracking and sores and irritated skin. I am from the other camp. My feet sweat so much I have trouble keeping my boots dry.
Dry feet should be covered in Vaseline. This is the opposite for sweaty feet which should be powdered and treated to dry socks at shockingly frequent intervals.
Once a blister has formed it should be drained. Yes, this does increase the chance for infection but until it is drained the pocket of liquid stuck under the skin will move around enlarging the size of the blister.
The draining can be accomplished with a syringe, a needle or a needle and thread. The thread is apparently left in place to allow the blister to keep draining.
Once drained, soaked with iodine and covered with an antibiotic cream on gauze it is then covered with a sticky bandage. This is supposed to allow the blisters to heal. I’ll let you know if that is true in a couple of days.
He opened the main doors to show me where the beds were in this particular albergue. The large open space had once been a garage, perhaps for farm equipment, and still sported two rectangular doors that could be rolled up and out of the way to let trucks in or out. Now, it was a huge open space with painted floors, multiple bunk beds, some plastic chairs and a couple of tables.
The albergues are as different as they could possibly be. Last night I stayed in an ancient home that had been built originally from rocks and cement and had been located beside a natural spring. There was no electricity and dinner was eaten by candlelight and the remains of the twilight before the sun set.
In a broad way the albergues can be
divided into three categories: municipal, private and religious. The religious ones are often found in ancient structures and might be run by nuns with strict curfew times and times before which you are not allowed to leave in the morning. Most of the municipal ones are large, newer and have extra amenities like individual outlets to charge your personal phones and cameras. The private ones are as individual as the people that run the places, varying from private museum-like spaces to elaborately decorated artsy places.
It is always a gamble. The descriptions in the guidebooks do not account for these types of qualities and focus on quantifiable things like the number of beds, availability of services and classification i.e. private.
So, tonight will be spent in a large garage with the possibility of forty other pilgrims all sharing the space. I hope that there are not many that snore…
A church bell is sounding off the time of day while a dog barks and a flurry of swallows chirp and dive in the plaza. Every small town has the same assortment of wild cats, often of a Siamese or calico descent. A rooster just crowed to remind me that this constant reminder of the rural nature of the towns is ever present. Most of the dogs move along free of a leash and often free of an owner.
The Camino takes travelers through town after town, open fields and cities. The towns are living evidence of how life was lived hundreds of years ago and the cities still reflect the architecture while adding modern touches. Often the view of a small town will bring a sense of relief that is quickly thwarted by the fact that they are usually an uphill climb away. The older cities are surrounded by walls that were used to protect the inhabitants. On the same note, they were placed up on a hill so that invaders could be seen coming from a distance. As you enter the Meseta this character slowly changes. The ground becomes flatter and the towns become more sprawling. The challenge of the steep climbs and fast descents gives way to the extreme heat. Temperatures in the 30s and 40sC make travel in the afternoon very difficult. One difficulty is replaced by another and on it goes…such is the Camino.
Pilgrims are dropping like flies. The stretch of the Camino that precedes Leon is a long straight path that runs beside the highway. The heat, sun and monotonous flatness is seen by some as meditative.
The cold reality (or hot!) is that a couple of people have been hospitalized for heat stroke, many more have suffered headaches and illness and some have chosen public transport.
There is little to see on this piece of the Camino that can take several days to cross on foot. No one said that it would be easy.
I am amazed at how many different aspects there are to the allure of the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain. Many religious figures and celebrities have travelled this route, across the top of Spain, and been buried along the way — the religious figures, not the celebrities. In addition to that, it was once considered a path to the end of the world. For Europeans, before the discovery of the new world, this trek took you to the Western most aspect of the continent, literally the end of the world as it was known at the time.
There is also the athletic perspective. As an outdoors adventure, this trail is designed so that you can “rough” it in the outdoors without having to carry tents and cooking equipment, unless you want to, and for that there is camping available.
The hike itself is almost 800 kilometers or 480 miles long. It goes through mountainous areas, open fields and cities. Great discussions are currently being held in various chat rooms about what distance can be covered each day, how demanding the trip is, how to prepare for this type of physical exertion and what to eat to enhance your performance.
Cultural visitors can visit rustic small towns and city centers all by travelling this path. The pilgrim is exposed to what it means to be truly Spanish, even if authentically it means that you cannot get service in the middle of the afternoon.
Spirituality beckons many a traveler and most of the people, other than the uber- athletes, do not know why they have a desire to walk this route other than the fact that they know that they want to do it. Initially affiliated with Christianity, the call of the Camino now goes out to people of various spiritual and religious perspectives.
A lesser-mentioned aspect of this journey is that the way is marked in the heavens themselves. This particular trek is directly under the Milky Way. If you were going to design a message or a marker that would not get lost through time, would not be subject to language and could be understood by anyone, isn’t that how you would mark it?
It has been brought to my attention that a walking stick is essential for this journey. This, of course, is another personal decision. I spoke to people about the most modern types of sticks. Some are fully collapsible, feather light, designed to absorb shocks and allow you to let go of the handle while the stick holds onto your hand.
I took the advice of a friend that said, “Go out into the woods and find one.” At this stage of the journey, I’m glad that I did. There is always the possibility that I will regret this later because I will see the benefit of all of the upgrades to the newer ones and recognize that I could’ve used some 21st century help on my walk.
But, the romantic in me liked the idea of going into the woods and finding a stick. The stick that I found was only the third branch that I touched. It seemed to be waiting there for me. In my mind’s eye I had envisioned a stick with a bend. The natural position that I would like to hold my hand in, while holding the stick and hiking, required a bend. The stick I picked up had that bend. It was also the right diameter, not excessive, but sturdy enough to hold my weight and the right length. I tested this out by forcing my entire weight down on the branch. It did not give at all.
Unfamiliar with the various species of trees, I had to ask for help. The help came in the form of an email from the TreeCanada website. This group advocates planting trees and provides resources to that end. The man that answered my email said that it was definitely a birch branch and probably a white birch. To be fair to him, the photo I sent him illustrated a branch that had been lying on the ground for at least part of the winter and much of the bark was damaged or missing.
Birch has significance in many cultures. Apparently, it is a symbol of new beginnings and of taking a positive step forward. It is both male and female in a single tree. It is associated with growth and adaptability and is considered a pioneer. From a practical perspective, it is virtually imperishable, strong, light and has a natural resonance that will amplify energy. This sounds more appealing to me personally than it will fold up and go into your suitcase, but I may find that that is more important than I realize at this point.
For whatever reason, and I have to admit I am part of the group that does not know why I want to do this, just that I do, increasing numbers of people are making this journey, that in an of itself makes it interesting.
Turn a corner in Sarria and the Camino is transformed. In order to receive the Compostela a pilgrim need only walk the last 100 km, or at the minimum, acquire two stamps a day along this final stretch.
Suddenly hundreds of walkers have joined the trail. The shells, arrows and crosses that symbolize the Camino are emblazoned on everything. This is a popular tourist attraction.
Brightly coloured running shoes, shining equipment and large groups are in abundance. This is in stark contrast to the worn hiking boots, weathered and dusty packs of the previous group of pilgrims.
Many people are not carrying packs or are carrying very small ones large enough for water, money and sunscreen. The main vehicle on the road is a taxi, often stating “libre” or free in the windshield.
The trail is now “running shoe friendly”. Steep slopes are paved and otherwise rocky paths have been enhanced with a fine slate grey gravel that effectively smooths them over.
Albergues are reserved days in advance, which is important so you can tell the delivery service where to take your bag and it makes it easier for the taxi drivers if you have a precise address.
Families, friends and organizations move en mass. Arriving at a coffee shop after one of these groups, you will find harried staff, line ups at the washrooms and a dearth of chairs not to mention a abscence of free tables.
This does not detract from the rolling beauty of this part of the trail. It meanders through an agricultural area and the air is scented with reminders of the various animals that are raised here.
The Camino has taken on a festive air. Gone are the contemplative walks alone along a trail. Gone are the silent moments alone. The tempo has changed. The “new” pilgrims certainly seem to be enjoying it.
At a truck stop, or rather an EnRoute, a name given to the stops on the 401 highway likely because it has similar meanings in both English and French, I was trying to log onto the “free” WiFi as I stood in line at Tim Horton’s.
There were three people in front of me and the line was moving fast. The two-stage login was driving my iPhone crazy. First you have to, actually, I don’t know what you are supposed to do first. That was part of my problem. The readout on my phone said that I had access to WiFi, but my email program said that I did not.
I know from past experience that you have to open a browser and “I agree” before you are connected, but it was not working smoothly. The next person had paid and left the front of the line and I had only one person before I had to order my coffee. My desire was simple. I wanted to download my emails before I got back into the van. I was travelling with other people and they were already waiting for my return, so I couldn’t just play with my phone forever.
Finally, I did the right combination of things. I “forgot” the WiFi connection and opened my browser. I took the time to copy the legalese before I agreed to the conditions so that I could read them later. “I agree” was pressed and then I was on-line. I ordered my coffee.
I had been ordering a large regular for over thirty years. This meant a 16-ounce coffee with one cream and one sugar. Now, a 16 ounce coffee was a medium, I often got it wrong and ended up with a coffee so large that it would not fit into my cup holder, but I digress.
Why do we have to agree to a disclaimer before we can access WiFi? I was curious to read the conditions once I got back into the van. The first interesting thing was that it was not even a Canadian policy. Funny thing when you are travelling in Canada and stopping at a site paid for, at least in part, by the taxpayers.
The other thing that struck me was that it was telling me that if I broke the law, it was not OK. Wasn’t that the case whether I agreed or not? This disclaimer was a full 813 words long, which takes the average person over three minutes to read, assuming that they understand it the first time, much longer than I had to wait in line for coffee. WiFi was not available in the washrooms, by the way.
This need to “agree” is not universal. While travelling in Spain I would often hear the happy sound of my iPhone receiving emails as I walked through small towns. When I stopped for coffee there would usually just be free WiFi already connected to my phone. Who is benefiting from this requirement to agree to the terms and conditions? This particular Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) only covered American laws and my guess is that these laws are already in place.
One of the provisions of the AUP read, “The following acts constitute violations of this AUP. Harm to minors. Using the Services to harm, or attempt to harm, minors in any way.” I suspect that this would be illegal even if you weren’t using this particular WiFi, buy hey; I’m not a lawyer.
So, emails downloaded, I took my coffee out to the van and we resumed our travel. It is possible that we have given too much control of our lives to lawyers and insurance companies, but more on that later.
One of the difficulties travelling in Spain, on the Camino, is interpreting the signs. There is always the ubiquitous yellow arrows and shells that assure you, you are on the right path, unless of course, you’re not and you don’t see any.
But the other signs are not always clear …
Graffiti aside, I think it means, “Be afraid, be very afraid”. It is a little unclear why though.
I’m thinking dancing cars, perhaps with boas.
This one was tougher. I’m guessing the cars either make popcorn or fart. Either way, it would be so extraordinary as to not need a sign.
This one is the same in any language. “Happy Hydrant”.
I personally found this very confusing.
And let’s face it, sometimes the language and cultural differences are so great that there is no way to know what a sign means. I have no way of interpreting this one: