I write this to you from the village of Morgade, which according to my guidebook is “rural Galacia at her best; wet and green with the sweet smell and squelch of liquid cow dung underfoot.”
Yesterday while walking I told Kevin that I had no idea that the smell of cow shit would be such an identifying part of our camino, but it is. One of the many surprises of this trip. As a city slicker it can be gagging at times, but the unadulterated beauty makes up for it.
We are staying in the most beautiful Casa Rural which overlooks miles and miles of lush green farmland and rolling hills. It’s a small place in the middle of seemingly nowhere, run by the same family for decades. As of now we are the only guests in the entire place. It’s amazing.
Life has been good this past week. I told Kevin the other day that I think I needed to accept that we might not meet any more cool people, and instead just focus on having a great time with him and him alone, for the universe to send us some new friends. It sounds cheesy but I think it’s true.
Shortly after posting my last blog, Kevin and I met Ken and Carmel, a great Australian couple staying at the same Casa Rural as us. They too were “bad pilgrims,” having also taken a bus from Burgos to Leon. We bonded over multiple bottles of wine and we’ve been hanging out with them ever since. They are about 25 years older than us and absolutely hilarious. Every time we walk through shit (as in actual cow shit), Carmel says its our penance for skipping ahead. I don’t necessarily agree but it cracks me up nonetheless.
We’ve met some other really wonderful people as well, and true to form, almost all of our new friends are 60+. These are the people that only stay in private rooms, walk slowly, don’t think taking a bus or taxi is “cheating” and enjoy good food and wine.
We have met a some great younger people too, like Casonorre, a young Italian kid that started walking from Leon. He is the only person I have met thus far that walks at my speed and is under the age of 70, but I think that’s mostly due to the fact that his backpack is almost larger than he is and his feet are covered in blisters. He is 21 and adorable and looks like he should be dating Taylor Swift.
And then there’s Martin from LA, who recently graduated from college and plans to join the monastery. Because of his young age, the church told him he has to spend three years doing something in the secular world first. If after that time he still feels that is his calling, he can join the brotherhood. He is a good looking kid, super friendly and outgoing. He drinks and smokes. He is not the type of person that I would ever think would be heading down a path to priesthood. But then again, religion is not my forte, and the people of the Camino are full of surprises.
Two days ago we entered Galacia, and the landscape is so different from the other regions that we’ve walked through. It is lush and green, full of farmland and forests. It is reminiscent of Ireland in a way. It is not at all what I expected Northern Spain to look like.
Outside of one thing, everything has been really great!
Just writing this makes me cringe, but…
I have been a victim of the bed bugs.
I’m 99% certain that I picked them up at the religious hippie dump we stayed in at El Acebo. That night we heard rumors that someone had found bedbugs, but at that point it was late at night and we’d already put all of our stuff down and paid. There wasn’t much we could do other than hope it wasn’t true.
Since that experience we’ve been staying in private rooms only, but apparently bed bug bites can take a few days to appear. Sure enough, a couple of days later I found random bites on my arms, back and FOREHEAD! I freaked out, but everyone told me that my bites looked like mosquito bites and not like bed bug bites, and that I was just being paranoid.
I tried to chill out but I couldn’t… I was having dreams that there were bedbugs laying eggs in my hair and ears. I couldn’t sleep. My anxiety was sky-high. I was borderline hysterical.
Last night Kevin helped me go through everything in both of our backpacks. We took out every. single. item. and examined it thoroughly. It took almost two hours. We thought we were in the clear, but then I examined my backpack rain cover, and as luck would have it, there was one blood sucker hanging out in the very bottom.
I think it goes without saying that I freaked the eff out.
Our German friend who had had bedbugs ten days ago (and now only stays in private rooms because of it) confirmed that it was indeed a bedbug, and told us what to do. I was not only freaked out but also embarrassed… “Now we are going to be known as the bedbug people!” I said our friend Mary, horrified at the thought. She assured me that wasn’t the case.
We found the hospitaleros (what you call the owners of the casa rural/pension/albergue/inn, etc.) and told them what was going on, and thankfully they could not have been nicer about it. They gave us bedbug spray and let us use the washer and drier (they wanted our bedbugs dead just as much as we did). We stayed up until almost 2 am, washing every single item of clothing we own at 60 degrees Celsius (140 F) and then sanitizing everything else with chemical spray and vinegar.
In normal life, I am an insanely anti-chemical person. I wear natural deodorant. I make my own face serums. I don’t put anything on my body that contains parabens. I buy all organic and vegan skin and cleaning products. Yet there I was, standing outside and spraying the shit of my backpack with the most toxic chemicals available, yelling “die mother f**kers die!”
My Spanish friend Corry spoke not a word of English but understood what was going on and cheered me on, chanting “Muere! Muere!”
We put our bags in trash bags and let them bask in the chemicals all night long, hopefully doing chemical warfare on anything inside. This morning we took them out, and I feel confident that we have sufficiently killed any and all traces of bedbugs. I can barely stand the smell of my chemically sprayed backpack… I hope all the bugs out there are even more turned off.
In other news, I feel like I have finally found the elusive “Camino zone!” I wouldn’t say it’s gotten any easier, but I’m no longer in agonizing pain with each step I take. Most people say it takes about a week to adjust. It took me over two, but I think it has finally shifted! I don’t want to jinx myself, but I can now walk a good 12 miles before pain starts to set in, and I no longer end my days limping. Two days ago we walked 18 miles (not necessarily by choice), and I was only completely miserable for the last four. Progress!
I might not be where others are at this stage, but for me, that is a big deal!
If all goes as planned, we will reach Santiago in just a few more days, arriving on November 1st, which is ahead of our of originally scheduled date of the 3rd. In some ways it feels like we just started, in others it feels like we have been walking forever. I keep waiting for some big breakthrough to happen, some moment of “this is what I’m supposed to do with my life” transcendence, but I’m not sure if that’s in store for me.
Regardless, I have felt much more at peace with life these days. More content. More secure. And that feeling alone makes all of this worth it.
I have a slew of notes that I’ve written over the past few days, but trying to compile them all into one legible post is proving very difficult. But I’ll try my best!
Oh, what a strange few days it has been!
This whole skipping ahead thing seems to have transported us into a different universe. The vibe is just totally different than it was before. People are so intense! So determined! So focused! It’s like every single day is a personal competition to see how much they can endure, how far they can go. To put their physical and mental limits to the test.
Kevin and I did not embark on this journey for that reason at all, so people look at us like we are aliens. Enjoyment and fun seem to be foreign concepts.
Before we skipped ahead, we met a lot of people that were out here for similar reasons as us… adventure, culture, love of travel. A chance to meet new people and explore places we’ve never been. To travel in a way we never had before, by foot, which would force us to slow down, and hopefully in the process become more balanced, more centered, and grow as a couple.
And also, to have fun!
The people we’ve met since we lskipped to Leon seem to have entirely different reasons for doing the Camino. No one we’ve recently met is doing it for fun. People seem to be having a much harder time of it out here. The energy is different. Almost everyone we have come across seems to be dealing with some serious shit, working out some really deep emotional issues.
People seem to be a lot more judgmental and a lot less friendly than those we were meeting in the beginning.
And also, a lot them are kind of weird!
I don’t want to be rude, but man, there have been some plain out weirdos!
When we first jumped ahead, we lost all the friends we had made, so we were feeling pretty disconnected from other pilgrims. We made a vow to spend the next week in albergues only, hoping that by doing so we would meet more people, get back in the groove, etc.
And it worked! We met a lot of new people, and we felt like we were part of it again. Some of the albergues have been wonderful… in Rabanal we stayed at the most beautiful 12th century church that had been converted to an albergue. It was incredible.
But not all of them have been so great.
Two nights ago we ended up at this random little albergue that was run by a crazy religious Spanish guy. The whole evening seemed like a bad episode of Portlandia. It was donation based, which we hadn’t realized at first. To us, that meant pay what you could, so we paid the usual albergue cost. To others, that meant free. So the crowd it drew was interesting, to say the least.
It felt like we had stepped into some weird religious hippy commune. The communal dinner, which is often our favorite part of the night, turned into this praying cry fest. There was a lot of weird praying, singing, and crying going on, and it was just too much for us to handle. A very smelly Canadian man was playing the ukulele, weird Argentine women were moaning and playing guitars. The whole thing was just fu*king weird. It was so weird we even took a video. We couldn’t have gotten out of there fast enough.
When we got to Ponferrada, a cool city most famous for the Templar Castle, we decided to break our “albergues only for a week” rule, and we checked into a small hotel right by the castle. And it was wonderful.
We had one of our many “why are we doing this” conversations, and got refocused on our reasons for the trip. I had started to lose sense of why I was here, letting other peoples’ judgement get me down. There are so many people out here with such a superiority complex, and it had started to bum me out.
For example, yesterday we were talking to an older Australian woman we had met a few days ago. We hadn’t said anything about taking the bus, but somehow the topic of skipping ahead came up. “You can’t say you’ve done the camino if you didn’t start in St. Jean, or if you’ve taken any taxis or buses,” she said to us, not realizing that we had done both of those things. “It doesn’t really count that way.”
“Well, you know there’s no official starting point,” I replied. “You can start from places all over Europe, like Paris, Germany, Portugal… and as long as you walk the last 100 kilometers, the confraternity of St. James considers it a completed camino.”
She went on to say that it wasn’t the same, and that starting anywhere other than St. John didn’t really count. It was cheating!
As soon as I told her that we had not only started in Pamplona, but also skipped ahead, I could see that she felt bad. She was trying to backtrack what she just said, but her feelings were clear. Our camino wasn’t as “real” as hers.
She is just one of the many people we have met that believe if you haven’t walked every single inch, consecutively, (none of this week here and there business that the Europeans do!) you can’t say you’ve “done the Camino.”
And I had been letting people like that get me down.
Kevin and I haven’t walked every single inch, but we’ve walked well over 200 miles since October 5th. For someone like me, that is a big accomplishment! Today we walked over 13 miles in pouring rain, and my feet got so soaked I had to cover my socks in plastic bags.
That to me counts as “doing the Camino.”
Camino lesson number 10001: Stop caring what people think.
(As I type this, the song “I did it my way” by Frank Sinatra is playing in the background of the bar we are at. Kevin just looked at me and said “this could be our camino theme song.”)
So, I’m trying to stay focused on our reasons for doing this, and to be a bit more forgiving with myself. To care leas about what people think and stop letting their judgement get me down. Just because other people are walking 20+ miles a day doesn’t make my 13 any less significant. And walking that far every single day is tough! I’m not exactly a person that is known for her athletic ability…
Today we walked over 13 miles, entirely in pouring rain. We left late, sang songs, and drank wine along the way. When we got to the huge mountain that people were trying to conquer (which would have been another 5 miles), we simply stopped, found a Casa Rural to check into (which happens to be a converted butter factory!), and then went to the local bar for some wine and food. The mountain will still be there tomorrow.
We did it our way, and we had a blast.
Well, friends, we seem to have time traveled a bit. I write this to you from Villavantes, which isn’t where we thought we would be at this stage.
After a lot of discussion, Kevin and I decided to skip the meseta section of the camino. Kevin thought one more rest day would help him a lot, and I have to admit it helped me as well. Since we were already “behind schedule,” we decided to take a bus to Leon, where we resumed our pilgrimage to Santiago from this morning.
There are a lot of reasons why we decided to do this, bit mostly, it came down to time. When we planned out our trip, we did so by basing our schedule on the popular Brierly guidebooks, which lay out suggested day-by-day stages. Many people follow this book almost religiously, not veering off course at all, and freaking out when they get “off schedule.” Sticking to these stages, it should have taken us 28 walking days at an average of 15 miles a day, with the allowance of 2 rest days. This plan would have gotten us to Santiago on our planned date of November 3rd.
Well, what no one realizes until they start walking (but that everyone on the camino talks about) is that the guidebooks LIE! What is only supposed to be 13 miles is ALWAYS closer to 15, which means that for us to actually complete the whole thing in the time frame we had originally planned, continuing on we would need to be averaging closer to 20 miles a day, every single day, and not allowing ourselves any additional short days or rest days.
And that is just not possible for us. Anything more than 16 miles a day is too much for us, and some days we are maxed out at even less.
We had stopped following the book after our first two days, instead stopping where we wanted to stop and walking for as long as we felt like walking. We have loved doing it this way, and it has made this experience so much more enjoyable.
So for us to do it the way we want to do it, which is walk at our own pace, sometimes have short days, spend an extra day in cool cities, and just go with the flow, we would have needed closer to six weeks. We obviously didn’t know this until we started walking. If we had, we would have planned a bit differently.
We debated skipping our Morocco trip to give us more time, but we already have our tickets booked and paid for, and ultimately we don’t want to do that, as we’ve both been looking forward to Morocco immensely. So, after much discussion, we decided to skip the meseta section of the Camino.
The meseta is rumored to be the most “boring” part. It is miles upon miles of flat unshaded desert-like land, with the path often running parallel to the highway. A lot of people skip this part, and we’ve already met quite a few who decided to skip it as well. This will save us about six days, which should give us plenty of time to walk from Leon to Santiago at our own pace.
I struggled with this decision quite a bit, as there is a part of me that feels like a huge failure for having to skip ahead. I’m disappointed in myself that I’m not physically capable of walking as far as I thought I could each day. And also, as much as I don’t want to admit it, my ego is afraid of being labeled a “camino cheater” by others.
Our friend Auvi from Israel decided to skip ahead too. I asked him if he felt guilty. His response was exactly what I needed to hear: “Why would I feel guilty? I’ve been walking farther than I should trying to keep up with people, and that got me injured! So instead of being miserable, I’m going to skip the part that is ugly, boring, and dangerous. I don’t feel guilty. I feel happy!”
One of our main goals for doing this was to slow down, and not be tied to some arbitrary schedule. We want to make it to Santiago, and for us to do so by November 3rd we would either need to kill ourselves walking, likely getting injured, or skip a part. So skipping it is.
And to give some background/perspective, there is no “official” starting point. It’s all arbitrary. In recent years, St. Jean has become the most popular place to start, but you can really start from anywhere. We’ve met people that have been walking for months already, and others only a few days. Even skipping ahead, we are not even halfway done… we still have more than two weeks of walking days ahead of us.
The hardest part about this decision was having to say goodbye to Evert. He’s become somewhat of a father figure to us, this presence that is always watching out for us. I’ve grown strangely attached to him. When we told him that we were skipping ahead to Leon, he said he thought that was absolutely the best decision for us, but that he would miss us dearly. I was surprised to find that I was trying hard not to cry.
We will miss him too.
We started walking from Leon this morning, which felt strange after three days off. It’s the only day we will truly experience the meseta, and true to its reputation, it wasn’t the most attractive of walks. But soon we will enter into Galacia, a part of the Camino that is said to be the most beautiful but also the most rainy.
In a way it feels like we are starting anew. It’s a bit strange, this skipping ahead. We keep looking for familiar faces, but everyone is a stranger to us. For now, anyway. I’m confident that new people and new adventures await us.
And if we’re lucky, Evert won’t be the last wonderful friendship we maKe.
This was what today’s walk looked like ALL. DAY. LONG. Longest 17 miles of my life.
First of all, a huge THANK YOU to those if you that left me such wonderful comments or emails in my last post. They helped me in ways I can’t begin to articulate, and I appreciate them so much. I haven’t had time to respond personally, but please know that each comment or note I received has meant so much to me. Thank you again.
In other news, what a difference a day makes!
We woke up yesterday morning to a rainy and windy day. Since we had stayed at a pension with a private room, we were able to take our time, which was quite a change from the hustle and bustle of most mornings. In the albergues, the morning is a time of chaos – everyone seems to move at lightening speed, trying to pack up their things and start walking as soon as possible.
We walked to the only bar open for breakfast, which was already filled with pilgrims getting ready to take off. We sat with our friends Daniel, a 5-star hotel chef from Scotland whom we had met a few days ago, and Hilary, a quintessential hippie from Colorado, whom we had just met the day before. I was a bit embarrassed to tell them that we were not walking, but instead taking the bus straight to Burgos. I shouldn’t have been.
As soon as we told them, we could see the wheels turning in their heads… the walk for the day was supposed to be incredibly hilly, and they started debating whether it was worth doing it in such rainy wet weather. We gave them the bus details and left them to discuss, saying that if they weren’t on the bus we would see them again in Burgos. Lo and behold, when we got to the bus stop they were there, along with another couple that we had met the night before.
There is this underlying judgement on the camino about taking a bus or taxi and skipping ahead, as of it’s “cheating,” though so far this seems to be a predominantly American/Canadian/Australian attitude. Most of the Europeans we have met have no guilt about skipping ahead, telling you that it’s your camino and that you need to do what is right for you. It is mostly those of us from across the pond that seem to place all the judgement, which is something I’ve been struggling with, feeling as though I need to justify myself to complete strangers.
We talked about this on the bus, and Hilary said that she felt a little guilty because despite having a ton of knee pain, she felt like her body was telling her to suck it up and push through it. I told her that at first I thought my body was telling me the same thing, but I realized that it was really my ego speaking. My body is telling me to take a rest – my ego, on the other hand, is telling me to keep up with everyone else so that people don’t judge me as a camino cheater.
As soon as I said that, Hilary’s eyes lit up, and she said “oh my god, you are so right! It’s not my body talking to me but my ego!” She gave me a high-five and thanked me for helping her to come to this realization.
I told her I’ve been battling my ego a lot on this trip!
When we arrived in Burgos it was only 10:30. The four of us were almost giddy at the speed in which we had just traveled. “Almost 40 kilometers in less than an hour! It’s like time travel!” we declared.
We walked to a bar by the cathedral and indulged in multiple glasses of wine, amazing bocadillos, and even better conversation. It was early, but it felt right. Daniel was wearing a necklace with a guardian angel charm on it, and Hilary said a few days ago she found a similar angel charm on the ground, along with a pin of two flags, and that she took them with her because she felt like she should.
I gasped. “Is the a angel colored on one side?” I asked. She said yes. I couldn’t believe it! I had brought with me a guardian angel charm given to me by my mom, and on our second night on the camino the head of the Norwegian chamber of commerce had given me and Kevin each a pin of the Norwegian and Spanish flags intertwined, telling us that when our camino got tough, we could look at those pins and know that the Norwegians were behind us and wishing us well.
The pin and angel charm were both in a small pocket on my backpack, but a couple of days ago I had realized that they were missing. They must have fallen out somewhere along the way, and I was sad.
But Hilary, a person I had met less than 24 hours prior, had found them and kept them! We felt like this was a true camino sign that we were doing the right thing… that taking the bus was a good decision for all of us.
Eventually we said our goodbyes and went to check in to our respective shelters for the evening… us to our incredibly luxurious hotel that we splurged on in honor of our anniversary, and them to the municipal albergue.
After staying mostly in albergues and pensions, the luxury was almost too much to handle. A huge tub! Big fluffy towels! A queen size bed! A hair dryer! Oh, the splendor!
And all of this for €85 a night, which is about $115. I’m pretty sure that couldn’t even get you a motel 6 in San Francisco.
We spent most of the day lounging in our fancy hotel, giving our bodies the much needed breaks they so rightly deserved. We didn’t know it until we got here, but Burgos was recently declared the Gastronomical capital of Spain, a fact that delights us to no end. It’s an incredibly cosmopolitan city, which we love, though we feel a bit out of place in our pilgrim clothes. As our present to each other we went to a beautiful 100-year-old restaurant and feasted on foie gras and suckling lamb, and we wondered how we would ever be able to top this anniversary.
Kevin is still having a lot of calf and tendon pain (of which he has self-diagnosed himself with a level 1 calf strain) so we have decided to stay in Burgos another day and reevaluate how we feel tomorrow morning. We are going to do some sightseeing but mostly take it easy. It’s only been two days of no walking, but it already feels so strange to be so stationary. What an alternate universe we are living in!
I’m not sure what our plan will be if he (or I) needs more rest tomorrow, but we will figure it out. We are taking it one day at a time.
And now, a few pictures from the last few days…
We’ve now been walking ten full days. Our bodies are definitely getting stronger but I wouldn’t say it’s getting any easier. The evenings are always wonderful no matter how hard the day was, but it seems as if every great walking day we have is almost always followed by a not so great one. Yesterday was amazing, we walked more than 16 miles and we felt like we could have gone on forever! But today… today was rough.
It was my first really shitty walking day. I was upset with Kevin (Mevin had made his first and hopefully only appearance), I had a bad wine hangover, I ate a terrible breakfast of processed food, and I just felt like crap all day. As soon as we started walking my right arch started killing me, I was basically limping, so I started walking weird which then gave me a blister on my left foot, and no matter what I did I was in pain. I wanted to stop walking and sit on the ground and cry. So I did.
It was the first time I had a “WTF am I doing here” moment, which, from what I’ve been told, everyone that walks the way will experience at some point. And I suppose that’s the nature of this kind of journey. It wouldn’t be a pilgrimage if every day was easy.
When we got to Villafranca de Montes de Oca (about 9 miles) we decided to call it a day and not go on any further. The thought of sleeping in another albergue bunk bed room with 20 other people was just to much for me to handle, so we got a private room at the first pension we came across. It started raining within minutes of us checking in, and I couldn’t have been happier that we decided to stop when we did.
Though we have walked some short days, we haven’t taken a rest day once since we started ten days ago. Kevin’s been having some bad tendon pain, and combined with the cluster of foot problems I had today, we have decided it is time to give our bodies some rest.
We had planned to walk into Burgos tomorrow. It’s our second wedding anniversary (!!!) and we have a nice hotel booked. But because of the issues described above, instead of walking we are just going to take a bus. It will be the first time we’ve skipped a part, but we are fine with that. Our bodies need a break, and we would rather spend our anniversary in a cool city like Burgos than in a village with a population of less than 200.
Our best friend is still our surly old Dutch man, Evert, but we’ve been meeting a lot of great people, including quite a few from California. Abbey is around my age and is from San Francisco. We clicked instantly and started talking about our favorite SF spots, laughing about how weird it was to be talking about things like San Francisco sushi while sitting in a small bar in a village in Spain. It really is such a small world.
We also talked about how we have both found that often the people that claim to be the most spiritual and open-minded are exactly the opposite, as we have both met people like this on the camino. A few days ago Kevin and I were looking up places to eat in Santo Domingo de La Calzada, and a young girl overheard me say that there was a Michelin star restaurant we might want to check out. She interrupted us and asked, “why are people like you doing the camino?” I asked her what she meant, and she went on: “Well it sounds like you guys really like fancy restaurants and pâté and stuff, so I don’t get why you would want to do something like this.”
As if it’s that black and white.
We explained that while we do like those things, we also like community and adventure and culture and meeting new people, and that the camino is a way for us to experience all of those things together.
She didn’t understand. It was clear that she thought that by us occasionally staying at hotels and eating at nice restaurants, our camino wasn’t as valuable as hers. That doing those things somehow lessened the experience.
But to each their own. She is young and abroad for the very first time. She might feel differently when she’s in her 30s.
(or maybe she wont, as she later mocked me for having lip gloss and mascara.)
But now we are at one of the local bars, clean and warm, and slowly the difficulties of earlier are starting to melt away. Our friend Jose Antonio, an old man from Barcelona, just blew us a kiss and wished us goodnight. And even with rough days like today, even after sitting in the mud and crying, I’m still so thankful to be here and doing this. It’s a privilege we have worked hard for, and no matter how bad I might feel, I always remember that at the end of the day.
Tomorrow we will take the bus into Burgos. And we will dine at fancy restaurants and stay at a nice hotel and celebrate our first two years of marriage.
And to me, taking the time to do that is just as much an important and valuable part of our pilgrimage as any walking day could possibly be.