For two years I dreamed of walking the Camino.
I researched thoroughly, I trained regularly, I started buying gear and clothing (during end of season “specials,”) I bought a backpack and began to load it up and weigh it, and I began to inhabit forums and read blogs, trying to anticipate what it would be like to walk the Camino.
My expectations were vastly different to the reality.
This post is intrinsically personal, because my background and previous methods of travel might be different to yours, but also my anxieties, fears, hopes and disappointments (very few!) are specific to me.
But I notate them here, both as a personal record, but also because some of you might find it useful.
The other thing I should add is that usually, I am a very organised and ordered person. I like to research and plan, and know what’s ahead, so I can fully prepare myself.
I decided on this walk to throw all that out the window. I will soon be doing a film on intuition, which I’m calling PGS, and I wanted to walk the Camino intuitively.
So, once on the pilgrimage, I would do no planning, there’d be no structure, no forward thinking. Just taking it moment to moment, and “feeling” my way.
Also, I set out determined that I would have no fear. That I would give myself up to whatever The Way threw at me. I would not walk with fear.
So here’s a list of my expectations, and the reality:
- I didn’t realise it would be so beautiful. I’d seen a lot of documentaries and YouTube videos, but it’s more beautiful than any of the footage I saw, and way more beautiful than the photos I posted. The landscapes and the scenery are stunning – and some of the small towns and villages, the old sections, are like picture postcards. I was not expecting it to be so beautiful. For me, the highlights were Samos, and the tracks in and out, and sections of the Meseta. But every day, I was knocked out by the beauty of the Camino.
- I didn’t realise it would be so hard. Now admittedly, I brought a lot of the hardship on myself, but the Camino is tough going at times. I was expecting a few stages to be arduous, like St. Jean to Roncesvalles, and climbing O Cebreiro, but perhaps just as demanding was the descent down from the Iron Cross into Acebo, and coming into Zubiri. Most days though had their demanding sections, and you dealt with it. But a walk in the park it ain’t.
- I expected to be more capable. After all my training and preparation, I thought I would handle the Camino just fine. I thought it would be tough going at times, but I believed that my training, and my core strength, (I’ve kept myself pretty fit through my life) would get me through it okay. Nope. I struggled most days. A week before leaving Australia, I developed a “niggle” in my knee, from an old injury. I purposefully had reduced the training the last two weeks, so this niggle wasn’t from pushing it. But after Roncesvalles, that niggle developed into full blown knee pain. My Camino became all about pain management. I wasn’t expecting that. And that was humbling.
- I didn’t expect so much kindness and generosity. I’d read that people were generally kind and generous on the Camino. Every day I witnessed it. Like the Spanish girls who offered for me to join their breakfast beside the highway. I was a perfect stranger to them. And the fellow who carried the backpack of an injured Italian lass up and down some gnarly mountain passes. And of course Balasz, who in Pamplona helped me deal with my knee injury. The spirit of the Camino infused most people. Not everyone, but most.
- Albergues. One of the things I was most unsure about before leaving for the Camino is how the albergues would work, and how I’d deal with it. I’m nearly 60 and I’m now used to hotels, private bathrooms, a certain level of comfort, and privacy. The first albergue I stayed in was at Roncesvalles, and it was great. Modern, well run, clean. From then on, albergues became an essential part of the Camino for me. There were no issues with immodesty, mixed genders sharing showers and toilets and everything – it all just worked. Most importantly, albergues were where I established some strong and lasting friendships.
- Infrastructure. I wasn’t expecting the Camino, the Frances Camino which I did, to be so well organised. The infrastructure is, by and large, fantastic. By that I mean towns and villages along the way are set up to handle most pilgrims’ needs. And the yellow arrows, which show you which way to go, are everywhere. (Even so I got lost a few times, but that was due to my inattention.) If the Camino is your first long distance walk, as it was for me, then you’ll find it will provide everything you might need.
- The Spanish. I knew the Spanish to be lovely people from when I was here two years ago, but I thought that many servicing the Camino would be less friendly and somewhat jaded, purely because each day they’re handling so many pilgrims coming through. Not so. Overall I found them once again to be delightful people. There were only a couple of occasions when this wasn’t so, like the hotelier who refused to serve pilgrims, but mostly they went out of their way to be helpful and friendly. Also, Spain is a very safe place. You have to be careful of theft, as you do anywhere, but it’s not a country where you have to worry about personal safety.
- Dogs. Dogs are everywhere along the Camino, and they are HUGE. Like Hound of the Baskervilles huge. Sometimes they’re the size of a small horse. And often they look terrifying. But I never had any problems with dogs. The owners are very careful to keep them locked up, or on leashes.
- Inexpensive. I wasn’t expecting the Camino to be as inexpensive as it was. Food and meals are cheap, drinks are cheap, (especially outside the big towns and cities) and depending on what level of albergue or hostal you choose to stay at, accommodation can be as little as €5 a night.
- Weight. I was hoping to lose weight. But I don’t think I did. I didn’t allow myself to go hungry. I figured if I was going to do this kind of mileage, then I wouldn’t put myself under any more pressure than necessary. I would have chocolate at times, and beer too when I was writing the blogs (That’s how come they’re so crazy.) And sometimes two pilgrim meals a day. (A post on this to come.) So, probably, 800 kms at 3000 calories a day, and no weight loss. Damn.
- Weather. I was expecting it to be colder, and rainier than it ended up being. The weather on the Camino is so unpredictable. It could have easily been the other way. As it was, I was blessed with fantastic weather. So a lot of my clothing became redundant, that’s why I forward posted it from Pamplona to Santiago.
- Speed. I was expecting to go faster. I thought I’d be doing at least 5 kms/hr. I ended up probably averaging 3kms/hr, or 4 kms/hr when I was really steaming and not taking photos. My injuries slowed me up, and my photography. Even so, I walked the Camino in 31 days with 3 rest days – principally because I walked long hours each day.
- Cuckoo birds and cow bells.I wasn’t expecting Cuckoo birds on the Camino. No way! But they were everywhere. And cow bells too. You’d have thought you were in Switzerland. Whenever I hears Cuckoo clock chime now, it will remind me of the Camino.
- Spirituality. I wasn’t expecting the Camino to be as much of a spiritual experience as it turned out to be. But the spirituality came in unforeseen ways – in the landscapes, in the light, in the people I was fortunate enough to meet, in the chance coincidences, and the momentary flashes – such as stepping on the star in the Burgos Cathedral. Even though you might not set out to have a spiritual experience, you might be surprised at what the Camino presents to you…