Friday, July 12, 2013

Rearview Mirror Thoughts on the Camino

So now that the Camino is in the rearview mirror, we thought it worthy of a post to discuss a lot of the major issues/disagreements/elements that are discussed on most camino blogs and forums.  By no means are our experiences or opinions cemented or "correct", but now that we've actually done the camino, we thought it a good time to at least throw our two pennies into the discussion.  I'm sure at times it probably sounds preachie. It isn't meant to.  It is hard to write one's opinions for a whole post without sounding know-it-all.  There are a thousand ways to do the Camino.  None are "correct."  But the most important thing one can do before the Camino is research, looking at other Camino blogs to see what worked for others, what didn't, and what the opinions are of those that have done it-----if only so you can begin to develop your own opinions.  So here comes ours:
Nearing the Galician border. It's a long trek, but a worthy one.
Did we like it?  Why? Let me begin by saying that the Camino was one of the greatest experiences of our lives. We appreciated almost every aspect of it, physical, emotional, time together as a family, time away, a chance to get to see (and interact) with parts of Spain we'd otherwise never get to see or interact with.  It really was tremendous.  We said before we began that people that do this tend to be uber religious or uber hippie-backpacker, and that while we respected both we weren't really either.  Having finished, we can honestly say that while the camino isn't for everybody, it defies categorization. If it looks appealing to you, I think you'll be glad you did it.  If it doesn't look appealing, however, then don't expect to have some transcendent moment as you enter Santiago that makes it all worth while. And that is the other thing, everyone talks about this being a life changing, transcendent experience. For us, it wasn't.  Perhaps that is because, for many, the lessons they learn about letting go of technology and embracing culture, were, for us, less lessons learned and more lessons reinforced.  Being the people who abhor the Book of the Face and stayed at a local hotel and took local transportation (instead of a tourist resort) in Jamaica, we already had those opinions/lessons. This trip simply reinforced (and expanded) what we already thought.  For that, we are eternally grateful.  And we had much to learn (and hopefully we did) from our Camino.  But we never had that "transcendent" moment people wax on about on blogs.  But like I just said, that is ok, we weren't really looking for that.  Coming into Santiago, hearing the bagpipes, and making it to the square to meet people we'd walked with for a month........was one of the most exciting feelings of accomplishments of our lives.  Walking to the point in Fisterra was among the most introspective.  The camino did, in fact, provide.  It just wasn't a lightbulb going "snap."

Would we do it again? While we had an amazing time, we still don't get the Camino obsession some people have, such as the people who do this 5, 6, 7 times, and are active on forums year round year after year.  That isn't a knock on them, more power to them.  I am glad they find satisfaction in doing such. I hope they keep doing it.  But I do have to at least wonder if there isn't something to be said about the difference about learning lessons from the camino and employing them into one's every day life (as best they can), as well as employing them in other types of travel, versus those who feel they can only live the camino on the camino.  We may want to do the Norte someday a long way down the line because we love Euskal Herria. And if Kepa grows up and doesn't hate us for having drug him on this as a baby, and if he twisted our arms to do the Frances with him as an adult or adolescent, we'd consider having our arms twisted. But on the whole, we don't want to live a life of Camino de Santiago.  Travel is one of our great passions and it comes at great financial sacrifice.  We usually can afford a major trip every other year, and even that comes at the price of delaying much needed home repair, small trips, going out to eat, etc.  Heck Brittany hasn't had coffee in a coffee shop in almost 3 years. With that in mind, there are too many other places, locations, cultures, and things that we want to dive head first into rather than repeating the same events.  In fact, I think that is a lesson of the Camino.  For those who feel the camino was a transcendent experience for them (something I can't quite say), then shouldn't part of that transcendence be to take those lessons of embracing the unknown, embracing the difference, diving headfirst into other cultures......and apply those lessons to the rest of the world? Or even the rest of Spain?  As someone who wrote (and someone who is married to someone who wrote) a dissertation about destination-less travel, we just feel that Santiago isn't the destination.  Neither is Fisterra.  And you don't have to be walking across the north of Spain to achieve the lessons you so loved about your camino. Just our thoughts.
Somewhere between Montjardin and Los Arcos.  Purty, ain't it?
Investing in the Culture (subtitled, You Are in Spain Damnit!)
O.K., I know we are biased.  One of us is a peninsular Spanish professor, we all absolutely adore both Spain and France, and all of us consider the Basque Country the spot we'd be happy to spend every single day of the rest of our lives if jobs, family, nationality etc permitted it.  Biased we are.  But I think we can say, without bias, that the single biggest problem we had with the camino was how un-invensted so many people are in relation to the culture that surrounds them. You don't have to love Spanish culture--to insist upon that would be to follow our own bias.  But when you walk the Camino you are in Spain.  Speak spanish as best you can.  If you can't, it isn't that hard to learn the words for the major types of foods you want to order.  If you ever go to a country and don't know how to say "hello", "goodbye", "thankyou", and "please".......well, don't do it again.  You also should be able to count as high as the number of your party.  I (Todd) am about as bad as languages as anyone we know,  but I can do the aforementioned, because it is important.  But, really, this isn't about language.  It is about the culture.  I am shocked by how many peregrinos didn't want to eat local food (pasta night after night?  Really?!?).  Who didn't even know Santo Domingo's cathedral housed chickens, or that Astorga was the center of European chocolate trade for a century.  People who never tried to interact with locals.  Many people didn't even know what the word "Basque" meant (much less that the people around them weren't speaking Spanish), or that Galicia might be slightly Celtic.  I'm not saying it is bad if you, sitting at home, don't know (or care) about these things.  There are many things about many parts of the world I don't know about.  And some I care more passionately about than others.  But if you are devoting a month or more of your life to walking across Spain........... know something about it.  Don't be the woman sitting in Donostia ordering Californian wine and asking "What is Basque?".  Don't be the man on the plane to Jamaica asking "what language do they speak in Jamaica anyway?".  If resort travel is your cup of tea, fine. There isn't anything wrong with that and it isn't our place to be judgmental anyway. But then don't go on the Camino.  You aren't walking through Disney world.  These are real people, a real culture, a real food culture (one of the best in the world), real history, real artifacts.  Come back hating Spain if you wan't.  That is ok.  But come back having experienced Spain.  Far, far, far too many peregrinos do the camino in order to immerse themselves in their imagination of "camino" culture.  That is fine, in theory, but too often they imagine a shallow, depthless, postmodern imagination of camino culture.  Camino culture, by definition, involves many layers and depths, all influenced by the many peoples and cultures that make up, and have made up, the Iberian peninsular.  Learn about it.  More importantly, interact with it.  If you prefer pasta to chorizo, great.  Doesn't mean you shouldn't be eating chorizo while you are in Spain.  And while we're risking sounding too harsh, let us add that it would be nice if more people could be a bit more respectful of those who do this for religious purposes.  Those weren't really part of our reasons for going (much at all), but if you can't be respectful of those who are......if you don't at least have the ability to respect the dedication and tradition of those who do....then why camino?  There are many hikes one can do that aren't built on that tradition. I felt really bad watching religious pilgrims be made to feel self aware for being religious.  And lets face it, regardless of your religious beliefs, touching St James at the end of a 500 mile walk and seeing the incense burner swing can be one of the most spiritual moments of your life.
The city fences in Samos. Everything about the Camino is unique. Most of it is special.
Albuergues and Food
We liked the albuergues.  We really did.  It gave us a chance to meet many people we otherwise wouldn't, and to help foster a camino family.  That may have been helped by the fact that (because we had a baby) we got to interact more with the proprietors, and also by the fact that (again, because we had a baby), we had a private room more often than not.  But I also think that people's 120% dedication to albuergues is occasionally short sighted. Many pensions and hostels can be just (or almost) as cheap, and you aren't losing a camino experience by choosing to not be kept awake by snoring every single night. When we got to Palais de Reis, they had mistakenly reserved us only beds in a massive dormitory (difficult with a baby), so, instead, they got us a room at a pension across the street. The price? The exact same it would have been for three adults at the albuergue. I agree that if you are staying at a fancy hotel every night you aren't exactly living the camino experience.  But I'd equally say that the camino experience isn't defined by how much snoring you listened to.  There hasn't been an "authentic" pilgrim since the middle ages (if there was one then), so don't obsess about chasing a shallow, postmodern image. And as for the food at Albuergues, some of it is AMAZING.  The albuergue in Calzado de los Hermanillos offered rabbit and quail (are you kidding?).  The one in Uterga was better quality than most restaurants.  And the food is always cheap, and that is mucho important.  But a lot of the albuergue food is bad....bland.....and the lowest common denominator of Spanish cooking.  Even dishes that can be good elsewhere, are not best defined by most albuergue food. And the tapas at the bars along the route (after you leave Euskadi anyway).  Let us just say that the now overly commercialized camino culture has largely taken Spanish culture out of the food you encounter.  So go find it.  It can be found just as cheaply.  It is well worth doing.

And I wouldn't be opposed to the idea of reserving beds a day or two in advance.  Don't do the entire thing (spontaneity is important), but the days of not planning the Camino at all are over.  It is a sad, sad loss.  But this is much more popular and much more commercialized now.  If you want the "old" camino (by that I mean the way you imagined it from 1970-2005) then go walk the Norte.  I wish the Frances weren't so crowded or commercial, but it is.
Descending into Galicia.  One of the last moments where you still might be partially alone.
The less you carry the better, but carry lots of socks. We found the light weight, quick dry gear to be worth the money. We walked in an unseasonably cold May and June, and we are still glad we didn't take our jackets. You work up heat as you walk.  Walking poles (of some kind) are a must, but you don't necessarily need fancy ones (unless you have knee problems).  Get the right pack that fits you the best. It is invaluable.

Foot Care
There are a thousand opinions on foot care, and ours are in the minority.  But we also didn't have a single blister the entire way, so I'd at least take our strategy into consideration.  We all had pedicures before we left, we think you want to go soft not hard......and you want to get rid of callouses that create hotspots. We also found the right boots that fit us well and wore them for close to a 100 miles before we started, breaking them in well.  They weren't the heavy, high top hiking boots.....but they fit, and were comfortable.  And they were well broken in.  We all had good socks and lots of them.  Never wear socks more than one day at a time, and if your feet get wet change socks.  Period.  Brittany is a big fan of rubbing her feet down with Aquaphor each morning. (or Vaseline if you can't fine Aquafore) (Edit: Brittany thinks Aquaphor is like Windex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I've gotten to the point where I think it will cure anything).  Mary Ann is a big fan of putting a compede over any hot spots.  Find what works for you.  We all think that if you do get a blister, popping it and sewing it back up (as recommended on many blogs) is a downright stupid idea.  But to each their own.
The modern symbol of a peregrino. Or a commercialized logo. Depends on perspective.
General Health
The biggest dirty secret of the Camino is getting sick.  You are tired and rundown while sleeping in dorms and using communal showers.  Think about it.  We managed to avoid getting sick (until after the Camino, in Donostia anyway), but that was helped by having a private room.  Be prepared.  It is a reality for most on the Camino.  And weight loss?  Don't count on it.  Todd lost close to 10 pounds, but Mary Ann and Brittany each gained weight (2 lbs and 9 lbs respectively).  Yes your metabolism rises, but so do your hunger levels.  And albergue food isn't exactly low calorie.

Walk every day, but realize that walking won't get you trained.  The problem isn't walking 15 miles (even with a pack).  It is walking 15 miles (up and down hill, on uneven roads) and then getting back up and doing it again tomorrow.  And the next day.  No one has time to walk 15 miles a day day in and day out to train, and if you were doing that you might as well be on the Camino.  But walk as much and as far as you can, and make sure you walk at least one 16 mile day with full pack before you go.  The Camino is a humbling experience.  Yes people do it well into their 70s.  Yes it is doable and not killer.  But that doesn't mean it is easy.  Many, many peregrinos show up thinking it'll be easy because they are runners, or in good shape, or walk every day.  It's going to be tough.  Get over it.  We, carrying a baby, left a woman who runs marathons in the dust.  And many 70 year olds left us in the dust.  Being in good shape helps (a lot) but this is different from any other activity you've ever done. Not necessarily more difficult, but different.

Camino Family
This is a category that really surprised us.  One of our biggest fears ahead of time was a Camino Family, because so many people online seem so obsessed with it.  We really feared the latchers on who are basically using the Camino as a way of making the friends they don't have back home.  And those people certainly exist.  But it really, really, really is awesome how you meet so many people from so many age ranges and so many nationalities, and you see the same people every day in a different location.  All going through the same thing, all having similar joys and difficulties.  The ones we like best were the ones that would seek you out every day, walk with you a while, and then move on.  Others met people they walked with the whole way, and that worked great for them too.  In all cases the best ones are the ones that start skeptical, not desperately seeking out a Camino family, but then finding it.  And when you have it, it makes your day so much more enjoyable, bright, and fulfilling.  Among many others, here's looking at you Joan from Andorra, the two British couples (David and Kim and Reg and Felicity), The Double A's & Troy, Terri from Canada, the girl from Normandy, our Welsh buddies walking for charity, the Basque couples who loved Kepa, the group that we lovingly and jokingly referred to as the "beggars misfits and thieves," the french nuns, the Asturians, the Irish youth, Mr. Valadoloid, and our Japanese friend Yamada.  Oh and the Italian dude with the cart.  We, literally, couldn't have caminod without you. That is the truth.  And while we are on this, most people on the camino are over 50/60 or under 25.  We were an odd exception that fell between that gap, and that led us to have many, many friends on both sides of the age divide.  I wish more people in the older group reached out more to the younger group.  You are on camino together and you have a lot in common.  If the camino can transcend nationality, it should be even easier to transcend age.
B. and K. with Yamada in a fancy tapas bar in Santiago
Walk at your pace.  Finding a walking partner that wants to go the same distance is more important than finding the walking partner that is your best friend.  Some days, 30 km isn't so bad and worth it.  But do that every day, and you lose the camino IMO.  Better to do less of the camino at a pace you'll enjoy than to rush through the entire thing.  You'd be better off to not do the entire length of the camino (what is that anyway?) than to do it all at a crazy-fast pace.

Everyone has an opinion about each of the "options".  I can say that going over Montjardin, it proved to be easier and prettier than we expected......and upon talking to others who went the low road, I think the high road may have actually proven an easier route.  Not common, but in this case I truly think it true. After Sahagun, we really liked the Roman road.  If you are going to be bland, meseta, monochrome, at least be in the middle of nowhere, not walking next to a highway.  We might only feel this way because we got good shade from clouds that day however.  The Samos route before Sarria was one of our favorite stretches of the entire camino, and even if it was 6 km longer it allowed us to see the monestary, allowed us to avoid the super steep hill on the main route, and allowed us a quiet day of peace with just a few friends..........something about to be totally lost when you hit Sarria and the hordes of tourists arrive.
Taking the high road over Montjardin.  We convinced the nuns to take the low route and then found out that we think the high route is easier (and prettier). We feel guilty.
Weather/Time of Year
I really think that May/June or September/October is the way to go.  With the late spring, May/June proved to be not so perfect, but we actually wonder if the meseta would have been too hot otherwise.  Which makes Brittany think that September/October is the way to go.....although Todd fears there would be less flowers then and the meseta more brown.  Either way, I'd heavily recomend against July/August.....besides the crowds, I literally can not imagine the meseta in that kind of weather. Don't get me wrong, I went to military college, I'm sure I could do it (sans baby).....but why would I want to?

Where to start/stop?  What about the Meseta?
Where to start is a very personal thing, and there is no right answer.  Don't listen to people who get into arguments about whether Saint Jean or Roncesvalles is the "real" starting point.  The Spanish do Roncesvalles because why would they go to France to walk to Spain?  Many Europeans start in St Jean because it is the traditional gathering point before crossing the Pyranees.  But, traditionally, those Europeans would have started from their homes (wherever that may be), and many still do.  Many others start in Le Puy (France) or Pamplona (Spain).  Start where it feels right for you.  The only plug I will give for St Jean is this.  Those first three days (St Jean to Pamplona) are supposed to be among the most, if not the most, beautiful of the entire way.  Even those who talked for weeks about the misery of the cold and snow when we all left St Jean around May 19, still said that the first day out of St Jean was their favorite day.  And if you start after that, you lose that, and for what? The meseta?  We actually liked the meseta far better than we expected (though the mild temps may have helped).  And there is something to be said about the mental efforts of making it across it.  And if you bus across it (as many do) you will lose the people you've been walking with.  But, for me, if I was going to "not" do a part of it, it would be the meseta, not the beautiful Basque hills.......because even if you aren't Basque obsessed (like us), at least the landscape and food changes day to day. That isn't true in the heart of Castilla y Leon.  But there really isn't a right answer, and the best answer would be to have the time to start where you want and not have to skip. Alas, that (time) is a luxury many don't have.

As for where to stop.  I'll be honest.  If we ever did this again we will stop in Sarria.  The massive crowds and race to the end (as well for a bed) took all of the fun out of the Camino.  It is hard advice to give someone to stop there the first time, because you want that cathedral experience.  But logically speaking, I'd recommend stopping in Sarria.  Or else busing from Sarria to Santiago then walking to Fisstarre.  But if you do that you won't get the Compostella, and it is easy advice to give once we've already walked all the way to Santiago and gotten our compostella.  So we understand full well why most wouldn't follow this advice.
About two days before Sarria.  The days from Laguna de Castilla to Triacastella and then from Triacastella to Sarria (by way of Samos) were two of our favorite days the entire way.
Again, a personal decision and no right answer.  We had planned to walk it, then got to Santiago and decided not to (though we did bus to Cee and then walk from there to Fisterra). The one thing we will say, is that the arguments against it are not as strong as those who make them claim. Everyone claims it is a modern invention to keep people walking and to make more money.  Sure it is.  So is the entire Camino Frances. It was all reinvented in the 1960s to make money.  So that is a weak argument.  As we see it, there are four categories of people who make pilgrimage 1) christians who believe James really was found in Santiago 2) christians who scoff at the idea James was found there, but think it a worthy tribute anyway 3) non-christians who do it because of the tradition and culture of the camino & 4) non-christians who do it for reasons not tied to the tradition......essentially, to walk.  If you are #4, then why not walk till you can't walk any further, isn't that kind of what you are doing?  If you are #3, then why not follow what most middle ages pilgrims did, by walking to the end.  I mean who, in the middle ages, would stop 3-4 days from an ocean they had never seen? In fact, the entire tradition of the scallop shell comes from pilgrim's bringing back evidence they had made it to the end (the coast).  If you are #2, then you must realize that the primary reason the catholic church claimed James in Santiago was as an excuse to drive out the moors, and the secondary reason was that it represented, allegorically, the end of the known world.  Based on that thinking, why not keep walking to the literal end of that traditional known world?  That leaves only category #1 where it actually makes sense to see Santiago as the stopping point.  That isn't to say that you need to walk to Fisterra (we didn't).  In fact Santiago felt right for us.  And that is all that matters.  My point in this diatribe is just to say that Fisterra shouldn't dismissed as quickly as many peregrinos dismiss it.

People who start in Sarria
I'm not part of (large) group that hates, complains, and constantly whines about the people that start in Sarria.  Everyone should do what their time, health, and finances allow.  And there is nothing wrong with starting in Sarria.  But what did annoy me was that the people who start in Sarria act like they are doing the same thing.  They aren't.  Starting from Sarria is a really awesome walk, that allows you to see and interact with a lot of great cultural tradition.  But it isn't a camino.  There is no "real" starting point for a Camino, and I don't want to get into an argument about imaginary lines.  But a Camino, to me, does mean walking further than you usually might on a hiking vacation, totally losing yourself and your mind in the Camino culture, and removing yourself from the world around you.  It takes most pilgrims a week to even start to lose themselves.  5 days may be a worthy feat, and I'm not saying it isn't worth doing.  But it isn't a camino (to me), regardless of whether or not they will in fact give you a compestella for having walked 100 km.  All of that said, as annoying as the hordes of people, crowds at bars, lack of isolation, was..........and it was intense enough that if I ever did the camino again I would stop in isn't fair to blame and be mean to those who start there (and I saw too much of that).  The entire camino has gotten more crowded.  We are all a part of that.  Don't blame the person who wants to do something (walk from Sarria) that most wouldn't even think of taking on.
The 100 km marker, just out of Sarria
I think doing it on a bicycle could actually be more difficult than on foot, so I'm not one of the peregrinos who thinks they are getting off easy.  Try riding a bike straight up a mountain.  As someone who used to tandem to work every day, I can attest that is pretty darn hard.  That said, I do bemoan just how many people do it by bicycle.....particularly Spaniards.  They are missing out on their own culture.  It isn't that it is easier (it isn't).  It is that you move too fast, you whiz by the culture you don't partake in it.  And it is all over before you really lost yourself in the camino.  And you too often have to take the roads, usually missing the best stretches of the camino.  I'm not against doing it on bike.  But it, to me, just isn't a camino.  Going by horse (which many make fun of) may seem even easier, but it isn't about that for me.  They actually go slow and take in the experience.  They don't whiz past it.

Because we had a base in the history, architecture, and such, we decided against the weight of a light guide with maps, the ubiquitous Brierley guides. I think I speak for all of our group when I say that if we ever meet said John Brierley, B is going to punch him in the face. First, there are a ton of times when he uses the words "slightly undulating" to describe enormous hills. He also is SUPER cheesy in his description of certain things cultural and historical, and the maps are not that accurate (the roads out of Sahagun particularly come to mind). Some of his stages are a little odd, and the fact that SO many people have the guide means that the towns he says to stop at get very crowded. Toward the end, we were stopping at some of the towns just before he suggests and finding less people and better accommodation. We had a Rother guide in Spanish that was OK, but in the end, for a Spanish guide, the Anaya touring guide was the best (excellent maps) and G-mom bought an Everest Guide (by José María Anguita Jaen) that we have been reading to follow along. This guide came with neat day by day cards that sit in a plastic sheet that can hang on your bag so you aren't constantly digging the book out. I think a Kindle or Ipod/Phone with books may be the ticket: we just didn't think of it. Really, though, I can't recommend the Anaya guide enough. Our friend Joan had it, and I liked the stages better, the maps (especially the elevation ones) were excellent, and it had good historical info but wasn't too heavy.
Our trip across the meseta was greener than depicted in the guidebooks. Every camino is different.

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