Expect nothing and gain everything

You asked for it and here it is but first one must ask the question – are you ready for this?  The Camino can change your life and (if you are so inclined) just reading about it can sew the seeds of an idea and desire that will encompass your entire being until such a time as it is fulfilled.  Don’t say you weren’t warned!

Now I’m not going to go all Shirley MacLaine on you all and say that the Camino is an intense spiritual experience for everyone and blah blah; lightning bolts, God, inspired visions, journey into the soul and now I am going to live my life in a commune and make flower wreaths (ok that’s going a bit far but you get the idea).  People walk the way for many different reasons and each person finds something different along it which (frustratingly enough) is often not what they expected.  It has broken people, rebuilt them, left them bawling by the side of the road, changed lives forever, brought people together or separated them forever, given them exactly what they needed but didn’t exactly want and often left them at the end feeling a little lost and unsure about exactly what just happened.  The Camino is different for everyone, when you walk it you walk it your way, it is your very own journey and no two people will find the exact same thing along it.  But one thing everyone comes away with is knowing themselves that little (or big) bit better – I mean really, how could you not gain a little insight after walking for over 100km, some even 1000km, even if all you gain is the knowledge that there really is no sure fire way to prevent blisters or that one type of socks is better than another or that bed bug bites drive you crazy – it might not be what you were looking for but it’s still knowledge and knowledge is a gift.

Here is my story about my Camino, nobody else’s.  I am not saying that anyone who walks will find what I found so don’t expect to, don’t expect anything because if you expect nothing you can always be pleasantly surprised 😉
I had no idea what to expect when I set off for Europe on the morning of 30th May 2011.  I knew I had to do something different, to break the patterns I had grown (or been forced) into.  I knew I would have many physical challenges to meet and conquer because that has been my life, in fact there was some doubt about whether I would make it on to the plane from Melbourne in the first place but I did.  I have posted enough previously about my time in Paris and Leon before I started walking so now I will cut right to day 1 of my Camino journal – enjoy

Day 1 – Sarria – Mercadoiro (16km)
Yo soy Peregrino!  Yes, I am officially a pilgrim.
This morning I woke up at ridiculous-o’clock (otherwise known as 4am) to catch the train from Leon to Sarria, supposedly leaving at 5am so could you be there for boarding at 4:45 please.  I was a little worried about missing it, that is very early but the next train doesn’t leave until 3pm or something like that so that would mean another day of cooling my heels before starting what I have come here to start.  I suppose if that were to happen, when I look back later on I will be grateful for the heel cooling but I really just wanted to start walking!

Spain is a lot like Fiji; there is very little order or logic and nothing seems to happen exactly when and how you expect it to.  The only difference is Fiji is more laid-back and Spain is loud, chaotic and hectic.  I suppose now you can guess what happens next – yes, the train was late.  And as the rule generally goes – what is late to start is usually late to finish – instead of arriving at Sarria at 8:45 it arrived at 9:30.  This was to be my first (of many) exercise in patience and letting go of control along the Camino.  The train was actually quite comfortable so i was able to get some sleep although I think there needs to be a law against men standing up to pee in the bathrooms of moving vehicles – enough said…

I started walking as soon as I got off the train, the Camino was easy enough to find – if I had missed the yellow arrows and street signs the unsought directions from a cheerful elderly Spanish man would have been enough!  Once I left the main road behind and caught my first real view of the way I paused a minute to soak up the atmosphere, text my mother to let her know I had arrived at my start point and turned on my mp3 player to ‘On my way’ by the Proclaimers.  I set off with excited anticipation – I had come so far already, just getting there was a great achievement for me and I was eager to experience the way for myself.  With a spring in my stem and the beat of the music tapping out in my hiking poles I strode along the path which, for the first 500m out of Sarria, is quite flat and pleasant and green
After this comes what I have come to think of as ‘the hill of death’ which was so ridiculous and horrible that I did not think I would be able to do this thing after all if the rest of it was all like this – a rather terrifying thought after only just starting walking.  Half way up the hill my heart rate was 187 – yeah, not so good and a rather irritating part of my medical condition (my blood pressure tends to go walkabout at irritating times so my heart races to compensate, not realising that this method is completely ineffectual and actually makes things worse).  It turns out that the tachycardia was going to be a problem after all.  I knew I would have challenges but that first hill made me realise that I would have to listen more to my body and let it be the guide instead of my stubbornness and determination to do this thing (Camino lesson 2).   I know I’ve said it a lot in the past but they were just words, now it is real, now my ability to complete the Camino depends on me and my body getting along and having faith in each other – something we’ve never been very good at.

I met an American guy and his daughter early on in the day – it’s a bit amusing when people 3 times your age are more concerned about your health and wellbeing than their own.  You look at them and think ‘wow, what an achievement at your age’ then realise they’re thinking ‘wow, what an achievement with your health, you might drop at any moment – that sure make me feel better about my high blood pressure and dodgy knees’.  Lesson 3 – stop making excuses, nobody is judging you – you’re on the Camino that is an achievement in itself, so what if the old people are faster than you, at least you’re here.  We seemed to be travelling at around the same speed and kept passing each other (usually for me at my 3 hourly tablet break) all day.  The way is beautiful and winds through the Galician countryside that was splendid with its mantle of wildflowers.  Every turn is different and brings you through farmland, small villages, moss and ivy covered trees, old stone fences that have been there so long they no longer have a purpose, fields strewn with wildflowers of every hue, small cafe’s and even a large eucalyptus tree.  I was very excited!  I had known that Galicia had eucalyptus but I had not expected to come across one so soon on the trail.  I could smell it first and wondered why I felt so happy then I realised, I was so far from home and here was a piece of home waiting for me.  Walking the way is so different to hiking in Australia – possibly due to the cows.  Pilgrims give way to cows on the way (mainly because they cows don’t exactly move where you want them too and are a bit too big to move yourself so it’s easier to just wait for them) and in Galicia there are a LOT of cows!

There were a lot of groups walking, one large school group and a group with a guide that had their bags on a bus – cheats!  My feet hurt, my knees hurt, I was tired, my heart raced and pounded every time I walked up any size hill but somehow I made it to Mercadoiro – not quite Portomarin which was my sort-of-intended stopping place meaning a 20km walk and in accordance with the ‘stages’ version of the Camino but it was enough for me.  Besides, the last 5km to Portomarin was downhill and rather steep, an idea that my knees were not overly happy about.  So I checked into the private Albergue which is lovely.  There are 8 bunk rooms each with between 8 and 10 beds (when I arrived at 3pm there was already someone asleep in one), pilgrim menu at 7pm and breakfast at 7:30 – hopefully breakfast consists of more than pastry.

Now while I am writing this I am having a rest at the bar, icing my various complaining bits and having my first cup of tea since leaving Paris which I plan to follow with some wine.  I am very glad I didn’t end up ditching my long-sleeved merino shirt and am slightly regretting not bringing my light-weight polar fleece as it is rather cold (nearly the same as in Australia right now and easily 10 degrees colder than Paris).  I think I need to source some better blister protection and treatment tomorrow as the dressing I have brought and placed on the blister on the ball of my foot just ends up scrunched up under my toes as I walk – time to investigate compeede I think!  And I think that aiming for around 15km per day will be enough for me to go on with, we shall see.

Dinner at the bar was fantastic, the wine wasn’t bad either!  They sat everyone at a huge table and the waiter read out the options for the pilgrim menu (3 courses, all rather large).  I had Paella then chorizo con huevo’s (spanish sausage with egg) and melon for dessert – it was wonderful!  The conversation was cheerful, friendly and very multicultural (with people representing Australia, England, Holland, Germany, France and Span) and the evening was just what I needed after a hard day of walking.  I chatted to an English retiree and a Dutch woman.  They had both started walking in France, she spoke several languages, he spoke one, this was his 6th Camino and her first.  He was hilarious!  what we would imagine a typical older English guy to be like.  He proudly announced to me that he had a convict shipped to Australia in his ancestry and was a little put out when I explained that a lot of Australians did and no that didn’t really make him like royalty (I actually felt a little bad about bursting his bubble!).  He couldn’t figure out how email worked to email his daughter and then produced a pipe and insisted he have some guinness like the German family at the next table and was rather put out that nobody had offered him any earlier.

So glad I didn’t ditch the Merino!

Today I began to learn 3 valuable lessons;

  1. You can’t control everything, particularly along the Camino – things will happen in their own time so there’s no point getting worked up about what you can’t change
  2. Listen to your body and respect it more, you kinda need it 🙂
  3.  Stop making excuses to everyone else because you feel less worthy/significant or pathetic – they’re not judging you so don’t judge yourself and just be proud of what you can/have achieved
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