Thursday, February 28, 2008


Let Go: Before I left to walk my last camino our Confraternity of St James had new sew on badges made. I loved our badge and attached it to the front of my hat so that everyone could see it. Many pilgrims commented on it and some were amazed when I said that it was from South Africa. Some Europeans are surprised to find 'Africans' (especially white ones!) walking el camino. When we got to Sarria we went into an outdoor shop to buy new socks. Marion considered buying an Altus raincoat but couldn't make up her mind. When I paid for my socks, the shop owner looked at my hat and, seeing the CSJ of SA badge, asked excitedly if he could have it. What? I instinctively backed away and said, "No, no! This is from my confraternity back home. I have carried this badge on my hat all the way from South Africa." He went to the doorway of the shop and pulled down on a cord hanging there to reveal a huge world map with badges and pins attached all over it.
"I haven't got a South African badge" he said. "I would very much like a South African badge. Perhaps I can give you one from our Amigos and you can give me your badge.?"
"No, I don't think so," I replied a little irritated by his persistence. This was MY badge and I didn't want to give it away.
We started to leave the shop and I suddenly thought, "What am I doing? Why am I so attached to this piece of embroidered cloth? Why can't I let go of it? I can buy a thousand more when I get back home if I want to. I went back to the young man and apologised. I asked him for asomething sharp so that I could unpick the stitching on the badge. He gave me a huge smile and found an Amigo badge to give to me.
We carried on up the hill where we had lunch. On the way down, Marion decided that she DID want an ALTUS raincoat so we went back to the outdoor shop. As soon as the young man saw us he pulled down the map to show us the CSJ of SA badge firmly stick somewhere between Durban and Cape Town.
It was such a little thing for me to give away and yet such a big thing for the young man to add another country’s badge to his map. Why do we get so attached to ‘things’? Sometimes we have to let go - even little things can become obsessions.
Divest yourself of psychological baggage: Once you have divested yourself of material baggage (see previous post) you have to learn not to carry any disappointments, concerns or trials of today with you into tomorrow. You always have to move on. You are walking for survival and don't have time to sweat over the little things. So what if your underwear or socks didn't dry overnight - pin them to your back pack, they will dry in the sun! If you left something behind, lost something, so what? You can still walk - you can replace it if you need to. Psychological baggage might be that you think you can't survive without your en suite bathroom, or clean cotton sheets, or a dinner table set with tablecloth and serviettes. Believe me - you can! You find that YOU are not your en-suite bathroom, or any of the other trappings of the society you live in. You came into this world with nothing and you can survive on very little. You can sleep in an old converted church with no electricity and allow the monks to wash your feet.
You find your way within as well as without: OK - so I stole that from a DVD called the Within the Way Without but I know now what the title means. Whether you are walking alone or with companions, you walk an inner spiritual journey as well as an outer physical journey. Starting the camino has been likened to a birth. Eventually you emerge - after a long, sometimes difficult journey - a new person. As you slough off all your preconceived ideas and expectations you open yourself to a new experience, a more simple truth and an honest journey. I wanted to share these thoughts and feelings with others but it isn't easy to convey them in an email or an online blog. I often felt t
hat I was walking with members of my family - I would think "Hey, Mom! Look at me now!" (My mother has been dead for 13 years but I still talk to her.) Or, I am sharing with my friends who I send emails to back home. I am even walking with historical figures and the many millions of pilgrims past. In a non-esoteric sense, they are watching over you, sharing your journey and urging you on. You don't ever have to feel alone. We are pilgrims in this journey through life.
Kindness of strangers: You are amazed at the kindness of complete strangers. Strangers who wish you 'buen camino' along the road.
Those who include a bowl of figs, nuts or biscuits at the table where you stamp your credential. Farmers who put out apples, cherries or rasberries on the side of the path for passing pilgrims. Those who volunteer to serve pilgrims in the many refuges along the way and especially those who prepare meals for the pilgrims - every night. The priests who say special pilgrims' mass in huge empty churches where only a few old women and a few pilgrims attend. Those who take time to dress your blisters, to tend to your pulled muscles or massage your feet. And, fellow pilgrims who meet you with a smile, offer a helping hand, share their food or plasters. And, the many hundreds of volunteers who mark the way with yellow arrows or pilgrim stickers, ensuring that you do not lose your way. There is an armada of people who work behind the scenes on any trail, be it in France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy and elsewhere.

The triumph of the human spirit: Along the way you see young pilgrims, old pilgrims, small skinny pilgrims and large overweight pilgrims. I saw a young man in a wheelchair in Arzua who had started in Pamplona. I met Lucy from Canada who cried every day for the first couple of weeks and felt that the camino was punishing her with rocky paths, bed bugs, rain and other obstacles. I told her that the camino absorbs everyone's hurts and troubles and that perhaps she was putting obstacles in the way herself - that perhaps she was the pilgrimage. When I saw her walking up the hill to the lighthouse at Finisterre a couple of weeks later, she was happy and excited and confident. Her spirit had triumphed and she had overcome. What a wonderful accomplishment for her! I saw people walking with bandages and plasters, some hobbling with painful feet - but determined to continue.
You learn to ignore pain: You carry on walking even though your feet are sore, the muscles in your legs are throbbing, your back is aching and you are so tired that you are almost out on your feet. I got the most dreadful blisters in the first two days of walking in the rain from Roncesvalles. The Compeed plaster had turned to muck and when I took off my socks, the plasters stuck to them, pulling the skin off my heels. I dressed them and bandaged them and walked in Crocs until I could buy a pair of sandals. I then walked the rest of the camino - about 650km - in sandals. The camino teaches you to carry on - to persevere - to not give up. I came home feeling convinced that if I could walk 650km, crossing 3 mountain ranges, 70 odd rivers on dirt, shale, river rocks and scree with raw, wonded heels, in a pair of sandals - I could do anything!
Learn to accept and not to criticize: This is something I am still learning. Perhaps it takes two or three camino experiences before it sinks in?

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness." Mark Twain
I noticed, reading through my notes of my first camino, that I wrote a lot of negative things about places, refuges, food, even about other pilgrims. I called some small pueblos "dumps" and described a few albergues as "septic": I wrote about "loud" pilgrims, and described the menu del peregrino as "prison food". I complained about the few times we didn't have hot water for our showers. What arrogance!
Who was I to criticise? I was a visitor in their country - they were my hosts; some of the 'dumps' are hundreds of years old with a wonderful history. The refuges were renovated barns or old church towers - lovingly restored and staffed by volunteers to provide shelter to ungrateful pilgrims like me - often donativo! And the food - many of the little places you stay in don't have shops - certainly no supermarkets - and all food stuff is brought in by vegetable vans, bread lorries or fish trucks. Locals buy what they can, cook the food for you and it usually costs less than 10 euro for a three course meal. Spain has chronic water shortages and even though local residents might have to go without, they suffer the over 100 000 pilgrims who all demand a hot shower at the end of the day! We must learn humility and gratitude.
All things bright and beautiful: You become attuned to all of nature around you - rising with the sun, massaging mother earth with your feet, hearing the wind in the wheat, a weasel scampering over a wall, bird calls - even a field mouse in the grass. Spring flowers never looked so spectacular or autumn flowers so beautiful. A sunrise gives you a lump in your throat and a beautiful sunset leaves you breathless. Some people avoid walking across the meseta but it is on those long, straight paths that you have time for contemplation and reflection. After a few days, you no longer think - you just ARE - you can just BE.

Time slows down: I read an article that claimed: " Time is only as fast or as slow as your brain perceives it to be, and now researchers are finding that it may be possible to gain some control over the pace of life. It appears that taking your focus off of time will make it seem to slow down." For me, this confirms what I wrote in an article for Odyssey Magazine. )
"When you rise in the dark, hit the road before dawn, follow the traverse of the sun from east to west, day after day, you lose all sense of time. You become a part of an animate landscape, in synch with the tempo of the earth. The rest of the world recedes until it plays no part in your life. You walk for hours oblivious of the distance you have covered. Days stretch into long, stimulting periods of time broken up by dawn, stopping for coffee, walking till mid-day, finding lunch, lazy afternoons, early to bed, long night sleeping. The average pilgrim takes between thirty and forty days to walk t el Camino from the Pyrenees to Santiago. One
could cover the distance in one day by car, but for you the world has slowed down to a pilgrim pace."
Imagine hiring a car in Pamplona and driving on the A-highway to Santiago. At 100km per hour it would take about 8 hours. So, you have 'done' the camino Frances in 8 hours. If I try to picture that, it is like a high speed, fast-forward film with everything blurred, and sounds a jumbled, chipmunk squeak. They say that speed, distance and time are related to each other because, speed is directly comparable to distance when time is constant. For the walking pilgrim, every day is a 'looooooonnng' day and a week is like a month in normal time and a month is forever.

To be continued .................

Sunday, February 24, 2008


There are many lessons to be learned on long distance walks, especially historic pilgrimage trails. Here are a few lessons that I have learned on my walks.
You need very little to be happy - and even less to survive!
On my first camino everyone told me - "Don't take too much stuff." I was determined to carry less than 8kg but, oh dear! you just have to have those nice trousers that have zip-off shorts: and a little black jacket for evening: and pajamas: and a sarong (after all, it doesn't weigh much): and a book to read: and ........ the list goes on. After three days of walking in the Pyrenees I thought my tibias were going to push out through the bottom of my feet! And, the shoulders and back! Ouch!! We took everything out of our backpacks, sorted them into essentials and definitely don't want to carry anymore piles and visited the first 'correos' we came to. I posted 3kg to myself in Santiago. I have bought a new backpack for each long walk I've done and think I will stick to this Pro-Lite, 30L that weighs 630gr and weighs 5.8kg fully packed and 6.8kg with a Litre of water.
Homelessness: You have no base, no space to call your own, and you learn what it is to be homeless. You don't mind sitting on a pavement, or on a park bench like a homeless tramp eating yesterday's bread and dried out cheese. Some times shop owners eye you with suspicion, as though you are a homeless Romany gypsy! I now smile at homeless people instead of avoiding make eye contact.
Hunger: You learn what it is to be hungry when there is nowhere to buy food and you have to go to bed and start the next day without having eaten. You are grateful for whatever nature provides - berries on the brambles, a fallen apple, ripe figs on the side of a road, an abandoned vineyard provides a welcome bounty! You talk about food and what you would really like to have at the end of the day. But, you are always grateful for the soup, chips, salad and flan that the menu del peregrino dishes up! Some of the most joyful moments were when I found a menu with vegetables on it!
Small Comforts: A bed with sheets is a luxury and being given a pillow is like winning the lottery! When you do book into a small hotel, you feel like a millionaire sleeping in a bed, with sheets, and a pillow! And little sachets of shampoo are gold nuggets!
Water: You have no kitchen to replenish your water so finding water 'fuentes' with potable water is such a blessing, especially on a hot day. Where there are no 'fuentes' a spring with fresh water is a bonus. And a river where you can paddle your feet is just bliss! You are grateful to the stranger who placed large stepping stones across a stream so that you don't get your feet wet. You are also grateful for the way marks and signs that show you the way. They become your best friends and you feel panicky if you don't see one for a while.
The roof over your head: You walk in the rain, in the sun, in the wind, sometimes in the snow or in hail. You are so grateful for a bed in a refuge. To be able to wash your clothes, have a shower, lie down on a bed. "Little things mean a lot" takes on a whole new meaning!
To be a stranger:You know what its like to be a stranger in a foreign land - sometimes viewed with suspicion, sometimes ignored, but many times treated with kindness and generosity.
Each day is a new beginning:
You learn to enjoy each new day - to put yesterday behind you - not even thinking of tomorrow. Some days you can't remember where you were the day before! Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is too far away to care about. Each day is new and exciting - walking through new landscapes, seeing different places, meeting new people.
Meeting angels on the way:
Many pilgrims say, "The best thing about walking the camino was the people I met and shared with".
"It is an exhilarating paradox. You make your discovery of self in the company of others. Through someone else’s belief that you exist, and have a right to exist in your own way, you begin to find your solid ground within. From that place of inner reality you are able to reach out - perhaps even to forget yourself temporarily - to make contact with others. Being with others allows you to go on learning who you are. Feeling safe about who you are, you can afford to appreciate others’ differences, as well as the ways in which you are alike." (Stephanie Dowrick - an ordained Interfaith Minister)

Saturday, February 09, 2008


If you only read ONE book about the camino (other than guide books and pilgrim's stories) please make it THE PILGRIMAGE ROAD TO SANTIAGO - The Complete Cultural Handbook by David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson. This is THE authoritive book on the history, folklore, saint's lives, arcihtecture, geology, fauna and flora of the camino Frances. Understanding what you see on the camino comes from what you KNOW - so let David and Linda enlighten you and enrich your experience. The camino isn't just a long distance hike - it a journey back in time, through history and folklore and your walk will be that much more rewarding if you know a little more about the places you will pass through than the average tourist.

Walk the camino as a pilgrim - not as Mr/Ms Jo Soap. Keep an open mind about where you sleep, what you eat, who you meet. Seek out the smaller, basic, atmospheric refuges. If you only want to stay in the 'nice, up-market' modern albergues, you might as well go to a hotel. Be open to what the camino can teach you. Don't be put off a place if your guide book says "Basic albergue, no electricity, running water or toilet". Sleeping on a matress on the floor inside a stone barn beats camping anytime. These refuges are usually small, intimate, friendly places with communal meals and pilgrim blessings. In his book on the camino, Prof. Conrad Rudolph (Chair of medieval art and art history, University of California) describes the albergues as the 'soul' of the camino. If you don't try them here, on the camino, where will you ever have an opportunity to try them? If you leave your 'EGO' behind and become 'as a child' you might just find a new, deeper, more attractive self!

(Nobody listens to this one!)
“I’m packing an extra pair of shorts – they weigh next to nothing: or a little black jacket for eating out at night – it hardly weighs a thing: or a sarong to wear when I come out of the shower – it’s as light as a feather."
Don’t be fooled – everything weighs something and when you add it all together, you find that you have another kilo or two in your backpack. Weigh everything and choose the lightest – not the most flattering! If you do take too much stuff, you can post it to yourself in Santiago where they will keep it for up to two months.
“I’m fairly fit and spend most days on my feet so I don’t need to do training for the walk.” Famous last words of a pilgrim who ended up with tendonitis after 5 days hiking and had to pack up and go home. (She also walked too fast and carried a very heavy backpack.) Wear in your boots: try out all your clothes: buy the most comfortable backpack and hike with it packed with at least 5kg. TRAVEL IN OLD CLOTHES
Wear old, throw-away clothes to travel in to Spain. You can donate them to a shelter or leave them in your hotel room.

To be safe, keep your backpack with you in the cabin. Luggage does go astray and you could be delayed for days if your backpack doesn’t arrive with you. Most airlines allow 10 - 15kg as cabin luggage. The dimensions are usually 25cm X 45cm X 56cm. These are so that the bag will fit in the overhead compartment.

We met an Australian pilgrim in Roncesvalles in August who had walked from St Jean Pied de Port. “A friend told me about this walk,” she said. “He is a good walker and he told me that he had walked from St Jean to Roncesvalles in 6 ½ hours. I made it in just over 6 hours and can’t wait to let him know!” ‘What can she possibly have seen along the way in 6 hours?’ I thought. I know that you have to constantly look at the path, checking where you put your feet. If you don’t stop every now and then to look at the view, you don’t see the beauty of the view back into France. You'll also be too tired to do any sightseeing, so take it slow!
Most of the camino paths consist of rocks, pebbles, gravel, mud – more mud - and (in Galicia) mud and cow shit! Some asphalt paths run parallel to the road but there is very little road walking. If you have joint problems – ankles, knees, hips etc – walk with a stick or two. There are some pretty steep hills and it’s not the going up that is a problem, its coming down!


Some people like ponchos, others prefer rain trousers and jackets. I highly recommend a hiker's raincoat made by ALTUS that covers you and the backpack - no need for a pack cover. It is lightweight, sealed seams, unzips down the front and has added Velcro, has air vents on the chest, has a rain hood with a peak and, best of all, it has a ‘hump’ at the back so that you can put it on over your backpack. You can buy them online for about €20 from

SHOES OR BOOTS? In 2007 I walked almost the whole Camino in hiking sandals. All-terrain running shoes are popular although some pilgrims swear by boots for ankle support, especially in winter – you don’t need heavy mountain boots. Take an extra pair of sandals or slip-ons to wear around the albergue.
Most refuges insist that you have a sleeping bag (so that you don’t sweat all over their mattress covers!) In summer you will get away with a liner – silk or fleece – but in winter and spring you will need a warmer bag. Buy the lightest one you can find – mine weighs 540gr but you can also get mummy bags that only weigh 350gr.

Take a little spiral immersion heater, plug for Spain, and a camping cup. Most of the refuges have electricity but they don't all have kitchens. We were the envy of other pilgrims when we boiled water for tea/coffee in the morning or made cup-of-soup for supper at night and we often had a queue waiting to use the heater.
Close to the bathroom is always the noisiest place to be with pilgrims opening the door and flushing toilets at all hours of the night.

8 Plastic pegs and a 2m nylon cord to use as a wash line. Useful when it rains and you can string it across the bars of the bunk beds to dry wet socks etc., also when the lines are full.
8 large safety pins to pin damp clothing onto the backpack so that it can dry during the day whilst walking. Nobody cares if your knickers flap on your backpack as you walk along

112 is the Europe-wide emergency number. It works even if you have no money in a pre-paid mobile phone or even if your supplier has no network. It works 24/7 365 days - and the operators speak many languages. The number for the Guardia Civil in Spain is 062.

Don’t take any notice of the little ‘Camino devil” who will sit on your shoulder and say:

“You don’t have to do this. It’s only a long, hard hike – not a search for the Holy Grail.

Who are you trying to impress?

You are - too old, too unfit, too tired, too cold – give it up.”

Ignore him dear pilgrim and when you reach Santiago give the saint a hug and thank him for watching over you.