Claiming our Camino (and, Momma said there’d be days like this)

There are 2 or 3 Camino guidebooks that just about everyone uses to determine what path to take, how far to walk, and where to spend the night.  It appears the most popular book is by John Brierley.  But, regardless of the author, most are organized by days and have the same stopping points each day.  

Picture large groups of pilgrims hurrying toward a specific village in order to be sure they get a bed.  Mind you, there are beds aplenty if the pilgrims weren’t all walking lock-step, in accordance with “the book”. But, early on, we were all hooked on the books.  And, here’s what happens to the “cook-book piligrims”:

* If possible, they walk the distance prescribed regardless of fitness level or pain.

* They get injured.  One of the recommended treatment for most injuries is rest, but that’s not in the book, so they bandage, compress, medicate, and continue until they can’t.

* Use a van-service to send their packs ahead – easier to walk the distance with less weight.

* Start walking very early, in the dark, to beat the other pilgrims (& to get a bottom bunk)

*Catch a bus (fondly referred to as the ambulance) part way, then walk.

* Walk quickly with very few stops along the way – none of that “smelling the flowers” business.

 Although it takes awhile to rip oneself from the security of “The Way According to Brierley,” now that we have gone half-way, we (& many others we have met) are developing confidence to construct our own plans each day.

So, yesterday was the day!  We took a good long rest in Leon, and proceeded by bus to a town 2 cook-book-days away and from there walked to a Brierley mid-point.  We were immediately rewarded with a small albergue, only 1/3rd filled – plenty of opportunity to wash clothes, hang them out, shower with hot water, dress privately – all the creature comforts we have been missing.

Then today, I miscalculated.  We only walked about 12 miles, which isn’t bad, but the last 5 were very steep (stopped at 1,330 meters), on a rocky path, and boiling hot.  I arrived to a very crowded albergue (36 bunk beds per room) feeling sick and grumpy.  Oh well,  I’ll remember to check elevation next time and tomorrow is another day.  Here’s hoping the majority of the 72 people in the room tonight do not snore.   

Sweet feet, happy toes, and other bodily comforts

Many people on the Camino mention the charm of having no concerns but that of putting one foot in front of the other.  No concerns, that is, as long as both feet and the rest of one’s trekmobile are in good shape.  

My right foot had been a concern for me for  at least six months prior to this trip.  I had developed a mild case of metatarsalgia/Morton’s neuroma.  Then I bought a pair of the highest rated hiking boots and went for a break-in walk on the Katy trail.  Two miles out, my foot was acting up and by the time I returned to my car, it was exquisitely painful, and I could barely walk.  Three podiatrist visits, three reflexology visits, and two orthotics later, the condition was back to mild and I could walk normally with the orthotic and the wonder shoe – Altra (I returned the fancy hiking boots).  I was hoping I was ready for the Camino.  

Ten days in, I still have mild foot pain & clicking between toes 3 & 4.  But, compared to what we have seen on the trail, I have happy toes and sweet feet. 

Injuries & other medical concerns are common on the Camino and many pilgrims are obsessed with preventing and treating those concerns so they can continue their journey.  We know one man who returned home after 7 days due to swollen feet and numerous people who have taken breaks to heal various hiking-related maladies.  Complaints about necks, shoulders, backs, hips, knees, and ankles abound, along with the occasional colds & bedbug bites.  But, it’s the feet that get most air time (literally & figuratively).  

We regularly pass pilgrims sitting on rocks beside the road or at cafes, changing their socks, massaging their feet, and treating their blisters.  Case in point:  I met a woman, Molly, in the bathroom last night and was taken aback by her feet.  Apparently, prior to starting the Camino she had had her toenails painted blue with the yellow shell symbol painted on the blue.  Last night she had only 2 of those blue toenails left, three of her toenails were gone altogether, and one toe was a mess of bloody scabs. One of her travel buddies had a picture of her beautiful toes at day one, a second picture of mangled, bloody, and bandaged toes at day 7, and then a picture of the toes I saw.  Molly had lost two days in her Camino progress and seen a doctor for antibiotics when her toes had become infected, but today is on her way again wearing open-toed Teva’s with socks (which appear to be the go-to shoes for toe causualties).

So yes, my right foot hurts by the end of the day, but, in comparison to many others, I have happy toes and sweet feet. So far neither Donna or I have blisters, we have not used compeed (a blister preventative that seemingly ever pilgrim carries), and I have only used Ibuprofen (aka Camino candy) sporadically.  It is reassuring that funky toes, feet, ankles, knees, etc. do not appear to be particularly age or fitness-related.  One can look ahead on the trail at any given time and see multiple knee braces.  A beautiful 20-something member of an ultra-fit couple we met in Orisson (this story later) got laid up for 2 days with a swollen knee.  These things can and do happen to anyone – and some say to everyone, eventually.

Donna fell yesterday.  She tripped on a loose rock and down she went.  She bruised her wrist and bloodied her knee but otherwise sustained no damage.  But, she was shocked initially and couldn’t move (held down by packs/poles).  I was walking ahead of her at the time and by the time I got to her,  a small crowd had gathered: a delightful couple from England (who we later learned are walking their 7th Camino), a man from Denmark who was one of our first roomies on the Camino, and a woman from Sweden we had met the night before.  After expressing much care & concern, the crowd moved on.  Donna and I proceeded slowly to the next village and stopped at the cafe.  There, several people asked how Donna was doing (news travels fast) and a young Englishman got out his first aid kit and helped get Donna’s knee bandaged.  

Word to the wise: if you’re feeling neglected and would like some tender care, I know a walk for you.  You won’t even have to fake it because you will probably get hurt naturally.  Everyone does.  And there will be love and care, and on good days, happy toes.

Ode to Breakfast

I (Connie) love breakfast – almost any kind of breakfast, but I am particularly fond of coffee (1/2 pot), eggs, berries, mushrooms, cheese, and fruit (my bliss foods).  Which is not to discount fresh sourdough or whole grain breads with butter, bacon, sausage, pancakes, French toast, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, pannekoek, crepes, some cereals, Greek yogurt, fried potatoes, and rice pudding (also acceptable foods on my bliss list).

On the Camino, pilgrims typically start moving around 6am – eat “breakfast” at 6:30-7:00, and have at least 10 kilometers under their feet before 10am.  Many Albergues serve a “pilgrim’s breakfast.”  The core breakfast is a cup of coffee, 2 slices of toasted white (like Wonder-bread white) bread, and something to put on the bread (typically Katherine & jam). Well, I have a hard time acknowledging this as breakfast.  We joke they should advertise “bed and 2 pieces of white bread” rather than “bed and breakfast.”

We have been experimenting with how to get our breakfast desires met.  One way is to find a small cafe open by 6:30.  They will typically serve coffee, fresh orange juice, and an egg/cheese/potato pie they call a tortilla (many blissful ingredients) or even better, a toasted egg/cheese sandwich on a sliced baguette (move-over Mickey-Dees).  Alas those cafes are not always available, so we look at the guidebook maps for small villages 2-3 hours into the day’s journey where we can breakfast later.

Today we are staying in Najera at a Pension rather than an Albergue.  This Pension is between an Albergue and a hotel.  There are no bunk beds here – only twin beds.  There are 4 rooms with 2 twin beds each and one big room with 6 twin beds.  There are two shared bathrooms and a shared kitchen.

Last night we had a great “pilgrim’s dinner” at a nearby cafe.

Prior to arriving at Najera, we had been walking through miles of olive, almond, and grape fields, occasionally interspersed with beautiful gardens with red peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes.  It appears that restaurants & stores here mainly prepare what is being grown right here – this season (as they should!).  But, my spoiled American has kicked in and I have been Jonesing for broccoli.  So, we found fruit & veggie market and bought the only heads of broccoli & cauliflower (1 head each) along with onion, garlic, mushrooms, zucchini, sweet pepper, and a carrot.  And, we found soy sauce and rice.  Looking forward to a meal which we will probably prepare to be ready to share with the first group of tired pilgrims who should start trudging in about 3pm today.

Symbolism, Platitudes, and Virtues

“Why are you walking the Camino,” is the subject of many conversations along The Way.  And, the question and attempts to answer the question are symbolized in various ways.  Rocks and shells are the most common symbols but there are also many statues of Saint James.  According to one of the guides to the Camino, traditionally rocks were left along the path to mark the way and at Cruz de Ferro.  Pilgrims rub their fears, hurts, & sorrows into a stone and place it there.  What actually seems to happen is that pilgrims leave rocks everywhere; sometimes artfully, sometimes with messages written on the rock.  The shell was originally used as evidence one had completed the Camino.  Now many pilgrims attach a shell to their backpack to distinguish them as pilgrims from the git-go (not really necessary – pilgrims are easy to spot – they tend to hobble and use their backpacks as clotheslines). 

Last night we stayed at an Albergue who upped the ante on symbolism.  The owner’s walls were adorned with Camino paraphernalia. The owner had been a pilgrim in the past and loved it so much she moved from Brazil to Spain to start an Albergue.  When we arrived we were given a “virtue.”  Mine was “Abundancia,” and Donna’s was “Amor con Humor.”  Now we are women of virtue and don’t quite know how to act.  There were platitudes covering all the walls and flat surfaces: some just one word like “Amor” or “Sol” and some longer like, “The journey is the answer ,” and “Tourists demand; pilgrims are grateful.”  Somehow, that one seemed a tad self-protective & controlling.  There were 11 pilgrims and only 1 bathroom at the Albergue.  As we were trying to pack-up, eat, & leave this morning, I was wishing I could bargain: “I’ll give you 6 platitudes and 2 virtues for a second toilet.”  

Whatever one’s personal reason for walking the Camino, collectively there is a sense of positive, open, peaceful and curious regard for human kind.  It is an international experience.  We have found that Australians, Canadians, Koreans, Spaniards, and Americans are well-represented here;  we have also met people from France, Denmark, Kenya, Germany, Japan, Brazil, Argentina,  Hungary, India, Ireland, England, and many other places.  And we are just at 100 miles.  Only 400 or so to go.  Good night to you all.

SHOULD old people be walking?

Probably not!  Just stop thinking about it right now – it’s a ridiculous idea.  Only joking, but frankly, the first day of the most commonly traveled section of the Camino is a bitch.  There are basically two ways to do it: Saint Jean Pied de Port to Orisson, France or Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncevalles, Spain.  The first way is easiest by 5 1/2 miles and a lot of elevation.  So, of course, we chose the first way, and regardless, it was very difficult.  

Saint Jean Pied de Port is a lovely place to start.  It is full of quaint cafes & restaurants & well-rested, enthusiastic pilgrims. The Way (aka the Camino) starts right outside of town and goes straight up.  We left town at 7:30 and arrived at Orisson at 10:30 – only 3 hours and 5 miles – but arrived a tired, wet mess (not due to rain).  It seems as if, for large sections of the trail, we had to stop every few yards.  There were spectacular views along the way – a good thing as we spent lots of time standing, hoping to get some oxygen as we gasped for breath.

Day two was longer (10 1/2 miles) and higher but easier and the views continued to be as breathtaking as the climb. There were lots of sheep, cows, and horses and some shepherds with their herding dogs but no fences.  The sounds were of bells, wind, and water.  

And so it goes.  Old people on the road.  All muscles sore but alive and in awe.

The Non-English Channel

It is said (by important people) that one year olds can understand about 50 words & speak about 3, on average.  Smart aleck two year olds can understand 200-300 words but refuse to speak more than “no” (actually 50-75 words).  

Well, I (Connie) am about a 2-year old in German & French, and perhaps a 1-year old in Spanish & Portugese.  Donna, on the other hand, is functionally bilingual.  She is at the intermediate level in Spanish and she knows a smiggen of French.

Unfortunately, our brains don’t seem to maintain language-specific channels when we attempt to communicate in French.  This made for some weird conversations in Paris.

Bakery person: Bonjour. Que desirez-vous?

Connie: Eine bagette mit biere,  please.

Bakery person: (noticing we were two together) Deux baguettes?

Donna: Non, not deux (she points to herself, then to a croissant), uno.

Then there was a waiter.
  Waiter: Bonjour. Que vous desirez?

Donna: (in Spanish) I’d like a coffee and some water please.

Waiter: (in French). I’m not Spanish.

Donna:  (in English) I don’t speak French.

Waiter: (in English). I don’t either.

I really like France.  I love the vibrancy & diversity of Paris and the way people seem to live their lives on the streets.  I also love the beauty of the countryside and the strength of and apparent pride in the national motto of Liberty, Equality, & Fraternity (although I get a twinge of sadness for Marie Antoinette when I see it). Yes, we did visit Versailles!

But, on with our journey.  Yesterday we left Paris to begin our big adventure.  We immediately caught the wrong train.  Right track- right time – but wrong train.  It’s a special skill.  And because we were on the wrong train, we couldn’t access WiFi in order to see where the heck we were going. Silly of us to worry about getting lost on the Camino.  Lesson learned?  Ask questions.  We don’t like to bother people & to have to deal with the insanity of the non-English channel but we would also like to get where we are going.  Oh, and there are doors!  But, you may not see them for a while because internet is spotty and persnickety.