Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Doin' It (With a Baby)

Our camino was, without a doubt, a unique one compared to most who walk it.  While that is true, in one way shape or form, of most everyone who makes pilgrimage, our version of a unique camino was one we wore on our shoulder.....or more literally, our backs.
Kepa gets some playtime in a field about midway through the camino.  Lots of hand sanitizer after this :)
That isn't to say we are the first people to do this with a baby.  At all.  As we mentioned already, a 4 month old went last winter and a family of 3 (plus 3 donkeys) was doing two caminos back to back this summer. We met a 2 year old and a 9 year old (both doing the camino by bicycle) and we met a family with three kids (ranging 16 months to 6) who walked the camino, but started in Sarria.  There are blogs (in English) of people who have done this with several babies in the past, and an entire section of the Spanish guidebook is dedicated to doing the Camino with children.  A family apparently intends to do this with a 1 and 3 year old (in buggies) next summer.  We were/are hardly trendsetters.
Kepa eats a cracker on the Roman road to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos
That said, while all of that is true, doing the camino with a baby is certainly not a common thing.  Doing the entire camino with a baby is even less common.  And because the nature of the camino means that you run into the same few hundred people multiple times (the people who started anywhere from, say, 2 days ahead of you through 2 days behind you), rather than meeting everyone who is currently on the camino, that means that taking a baby is all the more unique.  And it seems even the more unique to those you meet because most of them have never considered that you could do it with a baby....or, that if you could, that you would.
One of the few times Todd carried him on his back, in the evening around Pontferada
People's reactions to us began skeptical and ambivalent, and we felt the judgement. However, fairly quickly, it turned positive. People's primary concerns seemed to stem from their own worries that the baby would be sleeping near/with them (keeping them awake) and a worry for the baby's safety.  It led to question after question after question.  Upon hearing that we had actually thought (and planned) for most of their concerns, we universally received support and encouragement.  Kepa became a celebrity (averaging 10-20 photographs a day).  Everyone knew who we were.  We often arrived in towns to waiting groups to applaud us as we arrived (and on a couple of occasions greet us with a pre-poured beer).  People became very invested in seeing "the famous camino baby Kepa" finish.  We were, quite frankly, shocked by how much attention the baby garnered.  At times it was flattering, and at other times slightly horrifying.  But it was non-stop.  And we were also shocked by just how invested people were in this.  It came to go well beyond simple fascination and "that's cool" for most people.  Some people got really invested.  One Irish man wept openly in Fromista because he thought what we were doing was so "moving" and "important."  A Spaniard who was walking his 6th camino declared this "the Camino of Kepa" and proceeded to introduce us to everyone he met.  A group of two Basque couples became so invested in Kepa that they are now trying to get us to Skype.  A Japanese man collected over 70 photos of Kepa and cried upon leaving him in Camino (the man cried, not the baby). Kepa was given more gifts than we can count (more on that below).  Time and again, Spaniards called us "valiant" or "heroic".  Others told us how "special" this was.  To be honest, none of this seems to fit.  We don't think we accomplished some great feat by taking him.  As is usual for us, we had a crazy idea that we followed through on.  It brought us closer as a family.  It was fun.  It was culturally eye opening.  And carrying a baby certainly made it more difficult.  But, while we feel a great feeling of accomplishment for having completed the Camino de Santiago in general, we don't feel that our journey was somehow more "important" or a bigger achievement simply because we had a 14 month old in tow.  It just wasn't (for us).  But we are glad that we could engender those kinds of emotions in others.  If our actions could (shockingly to us) engender those kinds of happiness and emotions in others, then that is awesome.

But the most scary question we got over and over was people excitingly asking "I just realized you can do the camino with a baby!".  And that led us to think we needed a post about our experiences traveling with a baby, that deals with what worked, what didn't, and our advice on how to do it with a baby.  Because, more than anything, our answer to the above question would be this.......Yes, you can do a certain type of the camino with some babies.  And that isn't the same thing.

A few things worked to make this work, and they all were essential.  That isn't to say that you have to have the same advantages to make this work, but you had better have at least an answer for each of them, or else we wouldn't recommend doing a large chunk (or more) of the camino with a small child.

1) Really this should be labeled thing number 1, 2, and 3. The biggest, most important, non-negotiable advantage we had was Kepa.  He is a happy, amiable, adaptable child who almost never cries, is happy walking 6-8 hours a day in a pack, and, upon meeting a stranger, thinks flirting is a good idea no matter how tired or hungry he is. We did not have a single negative experience with an albuerge or peregrino in relation to the baby........had Kepa not been Kepa, this would have been far from true.  Meanwhile, you can't get fulfillment in doing something like this unless your child seems happy.  Kepa was, and that made it great.  But if he was unhappy it wouldn't have worked.  More importantly, it wouldn't have been fair to him.

2) We had a great pack/carrier for him (Deuter Kid Comfort 2) and we got him used to walking in it for months and months before we the degree that he was excited to see it.  The couple with the two kids who plan to do this next year plan to do so with buggies/strollers (as did the family we met who started in Sarria).  Straight up, I wouldn't recommend it.  I think it is a no-go.  It would pose a relatively major problem every single day of the camino, and there would be certain days you just straight up couldn't do it.  And even if you could, staying on the road and avoiding the path, you would usually be missing the best parts of the camino.  I just don't think you can do a large chunk of this camino with a buggie.  And before you ask, yes we are familiar with athletic buggies.  In fact we own one (try walking every day on the uneven streets of New Orleans without one).  They are great things.  And it is only because I know how awesome they are that I'm even as positive about not doing it with a buggie as I am.  If I thought you'd try even a single day with a regular buggie I'd laugh out loud.  We are more open about an athletic buggie, but we still just don't think it would work. However, if that is something you want to do, we recommend researching 1) people who have done it and 2) people who have done the Camino with carts and paths the bikes take. Just a personal note: pulling a cart is FAR easier than pushing one.

3) Having an extra adult.  This is not a 110% must, several couples have done it before with one adult carrying the baby and the other the clothes/pack/etc.  But I can't imagine having done it that way.  Kepa plus pack ended up weighing near 30 pounds.  And then, at that point, you have two people (Kepa and the person carrying him) who can't carry their own stuff.  That left us with 2 people carrying for 4.  Tough, but doable.  Try 1 person carrying for 3.  And yes baby clothes weigh less, but add in diapers, food, a toy or two, gifts (you'll get plenty), formula or bottles, etc etc.  If you are still breastfeeding, that would help, but that isn't going to make or break the deal.  Having G-Mom along was a huge, huge deal.  And not just for carrying.  One of the toughest things about doing this with a baby was not just carrying him.  Imagine getting into the town at 4 PM when every other peregrino does some laundry and collapses into a nap.  Maybe has a beer.  Now imagine arriving with a wide awake, just woken up from a nap, happy and roaring to go 14 month old.  Picture it.  That is your reality.

4) Brittany being fluent in Spanish and French and knowing some Basque, and G Mom and I being at least basically conversant in Spanish.  You don't need to speak the language to do the Camino (although it helps), but I can't imagine doing this with a baby if you didn't.  The baby brings in so many specific questions and issues that need explained and discussed.  And you can't make advanced reservations (see #5) very effectively in English.  You just can't.

5) A willingness to make reservations.  Yes, we know the best way to do the camino is to walk until it feels right, without plans, etc.  It is.  It really is.  But you can't do that with a baby.  We never booked more than 2-3 days in advance (allowing us to stay flexible....see #6), but we really felt we needed to know we had a bed.  And in the new bed race that the overly commercialized camino has become, people were getting turned away from albuerges left and right.  Add in that you walk slower with a baby (more weight, more stops, etc), meaning that you get into town later than everyone else, and you'd have serious, serious trouble getting a bed.  We wanted to be able to reserve a private room in a private albuerge (only a couple of euros more than a dorm bed in a municiple albuerge), but even if you think your child can handle a dorm room, and even if you aren't worried he might bother others (or, more likely with our child, be bothered by others' snoring) still need to book ahead.  Which means no municiple albuerges, and it means knowing how far you are walking each day 1-3 days in advance.  Not ideal, but with a baby really hard not to do.  And to be honest, you should consider this even if you aren't walking with a baby.  The Camino Frances has gotten that crowded and that commercial.  If you have romanticized notions of caminos past and no plans, then do the Norte or the Portuguese.  But with a baby, the reservations are particularly a necessity.

6) A willingness to stay flexible.  Twice Kepa took a cab (once we all went with him, the other day just G-Mom...B and I walked).  Both times we would have walked through the weather ourselves.  Both times we had to be willing to be flexible because of the baby.  We were determined to take no electronics....then we spent 180 euros on an out of date iPod touch in Pamplona so that we could use Skype to call ahead and make reservations.  Whether or not the iPod Touch is essential for your camino with baby, the willingness to be flexible and go against our deep seated wishes and plans was invaluable.

7) A baby who sleeps through the night at least 98% of the time and eats everything.  We had both.  It would be difficult if we didn't. Even with this, Kepa still had a bad dream and woke up once at 3 am (oddly enough the night before walking into Santiago--his nightmare was that it was going to end!!!)

8) Research, research, research.  Most peregrinos could stand to do more research before they camino.....but with a baby it is essential.  We bought him top of the line rain gear (so he wouldn't get wet). We bought ourselves super light weight clothing (weight matters all the more when you plan to carry double).  We knew how albuerges worked.  We knew the major towns we wanted to stop at.  We knew how all of the little details worked.  With a baby, this was invaluable.  If you want to know a lot of how we did this with a baby, see our pre-Camino post titled "Wait, you're taking the baby?"

9) A willingness to be gracious about fame, even when it can be annoying.  You are, literally, choosing to make yourself the Paris Hilton of the camino.  Like it or not, you just are.  You are going to be asked a thousand questions (where did you start? does he sleep through the night? how old is he? is he happy? how do you pack his nappies?) over. and over. and over. and over.  You are going to be given tons of gifts.  And then you are going to be asked those questions again (at the end, other peregrinos were asked these questions when people were too sheepish to ask us).  You are going to be given or offered tons of gifts, some of which you may not really want your baby to have and all of which you will have to carry with you.  You are going to be asked to pose for photos many times a day.  And it is going to happen when you are tired, exhausted, climbing a hill.  It is going to happen when baby is napping, or starting to fuss a tad.  And you are going to have to be reasonably ok with all of this, gracious, and smiling.  And never mind the reasons of being gracious because you are in another culture, a guest, etc.  Yes we believe all of that: Tony Bourdain taught us well.  But that ain't nothing compared to the big "because."  You need to accept these gifts, answer these questions, and smile for pictures because these are the same people you are going to be relying on to make your camino a success.  No camino can succeed without help, but that is 120% true with a baby.  Imagine showing up at an albuerge with a baby surrounded by surly peregrinos?  We never had even a HINT of a problem at an albuergue....but that is largely because all of the other peregrinos loved us, would vouch for us, and were genuinely excited to see us.  It also didn't hurt that Kepa is/was a ham and will flirt the second he sees a camera.  You don't have to be a fan of being the Paris Hilton of the camino (we certainly don't like being famous), but you at least have to have a personality that is capable of coping with the fame and attention.

10) Spain is baby friendly.  Lots of parks.  Diapers are cheap.  Milk bottles (though heavy) are a euro a piece for a liter, and don't have to be refrigerated until opened (can you believe that?). Baby food and formula was also cheap (but flavored so we didn't give him that exclusively lest he get used to Maria cookie flavored milk). Yogurt also doesn't have to be refrigerated (but this is only available in the baby section). Also, the best thing ever: Dinosaur cookies. These are fortified cookies that taste awesome. I actually recommend them even if you aren't a kid on the camino: the extra B vitamins are good and it's a tasty snack (we got a few peregrinos addicted: here's looking at you, Double As).
Bri and Kepa enjoy a swing overlooking Hontanas.  Spain has parks everywhere, even the smallest burg.....and most of them have the baby swings (the baskets meant for babies).  The best parks were in Navarra and La Rioja.  Galicia came next.  Castilla y Leon dead last, because baby swings were much more rare there.  But parks galore.
If you have all of those 10 things going for you, or a good answer for why you don't, then you can begin to consider taking a baby.  If it is right for you, then we are a big fan.  It was one of the best decisions of our lives.  Some reasons it is great to take a baby:

1) While we weren't always enamored with the fame, we did like how it caused us to meet and get to know more people than we imagined.  We didn't really think we'd be into the whole "camino family" thing, and we still aren't in terms of the peregrinos that use the camino as a chance to try to make the friends they don't have back home (whole other rant).......but we did surprise ourselves by how much we enjoyed the idea of meeting, getting to know, and seeing the same people day in and day out in different locations.  We'll talk more about this in a future post about rearview thoughts on the camino, but what is relevant here is that we met a lot more people because of the baby.  People's initial reactions ranged from skeptical to excited, but everyone was curious.  And that is a great conversation starter.

2) We got to better appreciate the local culture.  One of the biggest negatives of the Camino (IMO) is the disconnect from the culture peregrinos walk through.  They talk to an international consortium, but rarely a Spaniard (and even more rarely a non peregrino Spaniard).  They eat mostly crappy versions of Spanish food at albuerges (though occasionally the food is great at an albuerge) and they don't even know about the culture through which they walk.  Now, granted, we were always going to have a better situation with this by virtue of having traveled to Spain beforehand, B being a spanish professor and knowing the culture, our research, and being foodies.......but more than any of those advantagous was Kepa.  We got to meet, talk to, and interact with locals more than any other peregrinos did.  In fact, we often spent more time getting to know the locals than we did peregrinos.  The Spanish adore babies (Richard Wright got it right), and Kepa is a major door opener.

3) Far and away the biggest advantage was time together as a family.  Everyone talks about the advantages of the Camino being a slower pace of life, getting away from technology, forgetting the real world, embracing your experience, etc etc etc.  Now imagine doing that with your baby.  Kepa came 2 months early amidst a major kitchen renovation followed by a lot of drama at our jobs.  The first year flew by.  We loved him and loved spending time with him, but it flew.  The Camino changed that.  24/7 with the baby and nothing to do but spend time with him while seeing him discover great and new things.  Priceless.

4) Kepa's personality.  While I don't believe the numerous peregrinos who were convinced he would remember this, and while I don't necessarily believe the numerous peregrinos who claim he achieved some kind of divine blessing by having done this (although I will say him reaching out and touching St James unprompted was purty darn spooky)........We do firmly believe this will have a lasting impact on him.  He may not remember what he saw and did, but this trip expanded and cemented his personality traits of being happy and adaptable, of liking interactions with strangers, of eating a massively wide array of foods.  This trip didn't create those traits (and couldn't in any baby) but it sure as heck expanded and and cemented them.
G-Mom and kepa meet a Galician horse
And, in honor of Sofia Coppola's film The Bling Ring, lets talk about the bling.  Be prepared to be a major celebrity.  As people that abhor celebrity culture, this was a bit surprising to us.  I mean I guess on some level we knew it would happen to a degree (if what we were doing wasn't somewhat unique, why keep a blog?) but we just never remotely imagined how big it would be.  Kepa was, quite literally, the most famous baby in northern Spain for a month.  People whom we had not yet met came up to us knowing his name, age, and that we were professors from New Orleans.  Multiple people whom we met when Kepa was with another one of us, proceeded to go apesh-- crazy when they found out, yelling "OMG you're the baby people, everyone is talking about you!."  Multiple friends openly cried when we made it to Santiago.  Kepa is on at least 50 facebook pages, probably more, including the pages of people we never even met.  He was given gifts like you wouldn't believe.  In fact, lets list them:

1) At least 20 chupa chups (Spanish suckers).  We think more.
2) 3 different times he was given an entire bag manzinetas (a name we invented), kind of like a baby puff.
3) A walking cane in O'Cereibro
4) A Scallop shell from Finessstarre
5) A pilgrim's cross necklace that was found on the ground by another peregrino (he felt it was divine intervention)
6) A stuffed dog which we named Estella (after the city)
7) A stuffed polar bear that played Christmas music
8) A fancy white-chocolate sucker
9) twice he was given free bowls of ice cream
10) On one occasion he was greeted by the cafe owner with two beers (we assume they were for us?)
11) Milk for his bottle (whenever we tried to buy some from a bar, they always insisted we take it for free).
12) A miniature lobster pot with lid (to quote the shop owner in broken English, "babies like to go bang bang")

And most of these gifts came from Spaniards, mostly shopowners.  One guy at a shop turned away other customers so that he could spend more time with Kepa.  He made it on several facebook pages for stores and hotels and bars (advertising that he had been there).  It really was (and is) insane.
Kepa checks out his new walking stick in O'Cereibro
A few examples of where you can find Kepa's celebrity on the interwebs.....

The blog of two welshmen we saw from Laguna de la Castilla onwards, one of whom kept a blog because he was walking for charity.

The blog of a man from Houston who we saw the first week of the Camino before we got out ahead of him (and, apparently, before his wife had to abandon the camino).

The Facebook page of the store in O'Cereibro where the owner gave him his walking stick.

And the Kepa fascination crossed boundries, from Spaniards to peregrinos, from young to old.  Spanish men are just as into the baby as women (a big cultural difference from the US).  A 15 year old Spanish boy was the most inquisitive at all early in the camino.  Some of the peregrinos who began the most skeptical, ended the most enamored.  Joan, our Andorran friend, treats him like a grandson to this day.  I honestly believe that, had we succeeded in getting Kepa baptised in Santiago, we would have had fifty or so peregrinos turn out for the ceremony.....and that is with no good way to advertise it.
Kepa getting denied his compestella.  You have to be old enough to answer a question or two and write your name to get one.  But they did add his name to Brittany's
Speaking of which, we came really close to the baptism.  Brittany's Spanish led us to be directed to the most amicable of priests, who was very open to doing it.  We had been told that other pilgrims had attempted and failed, but we came really close.  And the one who succeeded was a Spanish lady, so I think language is a big help.  So is the paperwork.  All the paperwork you need is -->  A letter from your parish priest giving permission to be baptized elsewhere (this can be faxed) and the baby's birth certificate.

For all of the talk on camino forums of people not being happy to see a baby, we did not have a single negative comment or experience, with the exception of the Dutch Evangelicals who run the albuergue near Montjardin, and their problem was less with the baby and more that we planned to sleep in the same bed as the baby......which they deemed too unsafe to let us do, while continuing to repeat "it is your camino".  Well, it obviously isn't our camino if you are saying we can't do it-----which is fine, but don't try to act like you aren't saying no when you are.  But that is ok, not being able to stay there caused us to take the high road over Montjardin, which was easier and more enjoyable anyway. But, literally, other than that we did not have a single adverse reaction to our face, nor a visible indication that any were going on behind our backs.  Peregrinos and albuergue owners alike were exceedingly helpful, kind, gracious, and happy.  Some (not many) had baby beds and/or high chairs.  Ask.  You'd be surprised.  It probably helped that we had the 10 things going for us listed above, and it definitely helped that we booked ahead (allowing them to choose where best to put us, often in the attic room, or the lone room downstairs, etc).  But people were helpful and excited, not negative and doubting.  Universally. If you are one of the many people who helped us along the way, and you somehow find this blog, thank you, thank you, thank you. Gracias and Eskerrik asko, while we're at it. We couldn't have done this without the help of so many.

If you are planning to do this, we found the following albuerge's particularly helpful with a baby --->
 ~Albuergue Camino del Perdon in Uterga.  This woman actually called ahead and upgraded our albuergas the next three days based on what she knew and how it would be for a baby.
 ~Pension Parque del Edro, a private pension (but reasonably priced) with a beautiful baby set up
~Albuergue Via Trajana in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, on the roman road option after Sahagun
~Albuergue la Escuela in Laguna de la Castilla (this was our favorite albuergue experience of the whole trip, baby or not btw.  And you are just short of O'Cereibro, meaning you'll catch it early in the morning sans tourists instead of spending the night in Galician Disney).
Kepa hangs out with his new friend Oscar in Laguna de la Castilla.  Oscar gets to meet peregrinos every night, but not usually his own age.

To end, we thought we'd also share some of the items we loved, didn't use, wish we'd had on this trip.

1. We lost the sling in St. Jean--turns out, we didn't miss it. We carried Kepa and set the pack down at dinner. If you want to do luggage transport, you could send along a small umbrella stroller for the evenings. We didn't use the transport service because it took away our flexibility (we had to follow our luggage). 

2. I would have LOVED a fabric high chair thing that attaches to chairs (see here). High chairs were not common in Spain, and I would have gladly taken the extra weight.

3. We bought baby bug spray and never used it.

4. We brought a sippy cup and never used it. He wanted the bottle, and the camino is not the time to try new things. We needed at least two large bottles, and the Spanish company Suavinex makes these little tabs that dissolve in water and sanitize anything in it. This item would be great for sanitizing hydration bladder valves. You can buy bottles and these tabs at any pharmacy.

5. The tie on strings for toys were indispensable. Best thing ever. Todd only had to walk back to get something (his stuffed dog) once.  I can't imagine without this item......

6. We did not bring an infant travel bed. But, if you have a baby that needs continuity and is smaller, this travel bed would be great.  We didn't think it was worth the weight (at all).  But if your child really needs the continuity of the same bed every night, or if you are even more scared of the idea of co-sleeping than we were (which is saying a lot), then this is a good option.

7. The splat mat. This is one that would be great for non-baby Camino use. It weighs nothing, is a good size, and is great for picnicking, putting food on outdoor tables, etc. 

8. All of Kepa's REI clothes were great. They washed well and dried very quickly. 

9. A light weight muslin blanket. We used this to shield him from the sun when napping, a light blanket at night, etc. 


  1. So glad to read your very informative post. My father has done the camino several times n the past decade, and it became a bucket list item of mine to do a mult-generation camino. We are tentatively planning to walk in mid June for 2-3 weeks - my 70-year-old father, myself, teacher husband, and nearly 2 year old daughter. My goals are for a memorable adventure, something to tell Francine about as she grows, something interesting to bond her to my side of the family.

  2. TheiPad cut my comment short. Point being, I appreciate your perspective and look forward to reading more of your blog, beyond this introductory post that has piqued my interest. Thanks again for sharing.

  3. Nice to see Spain without all the beaches for once!