INSIGHT A pilgrim with two backpacks
In the summer of 2017 I walked the Camino Primitivo on my own – my first vacation alone. It ended up being not only a trip into the world, but a journey into myself. A pilgrim’s trip with two backpacks – my mental baggage was in so many ways much heavier than my physical one
Now it’s just me and the camino. My backpack weighs 6 kilos, and it’s packed with stuff to combat: Blisters, Galician rain, snoring, wind and bedbugs. My mental backpack includes everything I am ready to let go off: What hurt, exhausted me, made me eat without tasting, stressed me and made me anxious.
Six months ago, when I walked Camino Inglés with my youngest daughter, my body weight had gone up 14 kgs. My feet didn’t hesitate letting me know that it was time to win back my healthy self, love my body and take good care of it. So now I am trekking along to celebrate the distance I have already come, and to continue working with finding inner peace, serenity, mindfulness, clarity and self-love. Right here right now during life’s wild rollercoaster ride with all its ups and downs.
I left home with a profound feeling of gratitude toward Torben. My husband who is always there for me, who loves me, accommodates me, supports me and allows me to take these inner journeys with an unconditional embrace when returning home after having walked 314 km. And with whom, I will hopefully share my next camino.
Meeting ones fear and walking along side of it
Day 1 Oviedo – San Juan de Vilapanada – 25 km
While Torben starts his day with his and my 6 children in total, I start my day with coffee at the cosy and small Hotel Oventense. It is no coincidence that my first cafe con leche on my journey is here: I have promised my Spanish friend, who has lived in Copenhagen for the past 18 years, to give her friend Ana, who runs this small cosy and very homely hotel in Oviedos old city, a warm hug from her. So here I am standing and hugging a total stranger, feeling love pass through me from one friend to another over hundreds of kilometers.
Quiet mornings on Camino Primitivo
Walking 25 kms alongside tinkling cows, birds singing, water rippling and my own exhausted heart beating, serenity washes over my ears. I have laughed, cried of joy and sighed with relief. I have worried about rain, thunder and drunken men and when I reached a newly opened dormitory in Grado, I felt a sigh of relief – until I met the two men hosting the dormitory drunk and way to lovey dovey for me. I walk another 5 kms that night – up hill. A shower storm like no other, with thunder and lightning, falls from the heavens and even the cows stand still making the 5 kms exceptionally long.
But now here I am, sitting in a mountain cottage set up as a dormitory. There has already been three power cuts, but we have all been able to take a warm shower in between. Beautiful how the camino always provides. The trials of the day have not been without humor, and there is always a way out. Everything is good. After the rain comes the sun and cervezas.
Our host Domingo runs around all night and his mere energy and behavior reminds me of (some) women’s need for control, especially at home: Socks and clothes are moved from where we had hung them, boots are set in line and everything is removed from the tables before we even realize it. Everything is organized on the common drying lines in less than 10 minutes and none of us had a change of holding on to our belongings.
Two German guys want to cook dinner but are too disconcerted about disobeying Domingo’s pertinent house rules. However, the rest of us agree to create a divergence in the other end of the room, and vupti – dinner is served without any comments. The day ends with Domingo carefully wrapping my Day 1 feet in a blanket and I feel at ease, while pondering the fine line between control and care.
Cultural clashes and my camino family
Day 2 San Juan de Vilapanada – Bodenaya 29 km
I am woken by the cat – the cat that Domingo chased out several times last night. Cunningly and familiarly it snuck though the window and has positioned itself at my feet, while the rooster crows Good Morning.
First problem of the day: my bra snaps! And it’s the only one I have with me. Luckily today’s trek toward Bodenaya passes through the town of Salas, a town with shops. A bit of a culture shock buying a bra in a Spanish lingerie shop, all the bras have a huge circumference and they turn my otherwise fine breasts into strutting pointy Madonna wannabes. So what?! It’s the camino … and it is now a bit more authentic and a bit more Spanish.
Albergue Bodenaya – I’m probably not the first pilgrim to fall in love with this place
The day’s walk ends at David’s magical hippie dormitory in a tiny part of Bodenaya. He tries very hard to tell us that here in Bodenaya, we are not guests, we are family and this camino family agrees to rise together and eat breakfast together – the unanimous decision falls on the ungodly hour of 6.55.
It turns out that today is a very special day. Two pilgrims that met and fell in love right here, two years ago, have returned to celebrate their anniversary. However, Monica does not know that her camino lover Victor is going to ask her hand in marriage that very night. The rest of us know, and the house is filled with love and a bobbling energy.
Paella is on the menu for dinner and I am taught the art of “Sidra” pouring.
A traditional bagpipe plays and the street is taken over by dancing pilgrims and villagers, while the sheep and cows herding home watch.
I am sitting next to Victor, who after 3 hours finally musters up the courage to ask Monica to marry him. Tears flow across the room and everyone is joined together in this magnificent moment of love.
We call it Camino Crush – Monica and Victor met on the camino and got engaged on the camino.
I hope they found a romantic loft to sleep in tonight … because the otherwise beautiful Spanish girls snore at unthinkable decibels to the likes of “frog choking slowly on cow dung”. I spend the next 3 hours meditating on the concepts of “irritation” and “anger”, and when I reach “openness” I let go and fall asleep.
Windows to the world
DAY 3 Bodenaya – Campiello 24 km
The smell of cafe con leche spreads through the room and Ave Maria streams across the dormitory – I rise to this. David has washed and dried all our clothes. I am ready for a new day.
They say that you walk the camino the way you live your life. The same patterns emerge along with the same challenges, but all in a new and disguised way. If this is true then the reason for this morning’s problems are pretty straightforward. I walk with my face stuck to my phone – saddened by the 10 messages I received but haven’t been able to open nor respond to. I have this irritating feeling of missing out.
2 kilometers down the road I realize that what I have really missed out on was the camino! I am off track, only because I wasn’t present and missed a turn – an old farmer driving a tractor eagerly shows me how to get back on track. Take that!
Shortly hereafter the mist rises and obscures my view – the mountains are gone and very symbolically all I can see is that which is right in front of me.
My inner journey continues, and the theme is windows. To look through something. See something new. New possibilities. I see overgrown windows, clean windows, open, closed, natural windows in the thicket. I try to see through them all. Yesterday I spoke to a Hungarian, who very thoroughly explained what a “Salmon” is on the camino. It is a pilgrim, who like salmon, swims upstream. She kept asking me if I understood what she said. It made me wonder.
But later that afternoon after 30 kms I reach a teeny tiny place called Borres. What I meet is a dirty rundown dormitory with 100 flies in the room, signs of bedbugs and unstable beds on all 3 stories AND the snoring girls from last night.
My heart stops, this all feels wrong, but still I unpack. My window theme comes to me – a window of opportunity to take control.
Shortly after I stand at the door – hesitant and tired. Suddenly thunder erupts after a sunny day and my ability to see through the window is tested. However, I stop and listen and then I walk… I walk backwards, upstream like a salmon, 4 kms back to the last safe haven, Campiello. Here I find a newly built dormitory, a warm bath and a nice talk with my French camino friend Kevin. I am very proud, like a “peacock” to have listened to myself, respected my feelings and acted accordingly. I hear the words of Margaret Thatcher (of all people) “if you don’t stand on principles, you don’t stand at all”. Amen for that!
Seven mountains for my father
DAY 4 Campiello – Berducedo 27 km
The pilgrims are stirring at 5.30 in the morning – very unusual. I have been so lucky to only have to share the large room in the dormitory with Jannik and Niklas, the German guys – who are brothers and who have made a great impression on me. They could’ve been my sons and their parents would be so proud had they seen what I see. Two brothers in deep conversation during their treks, meditating every afternoon in the dormitory, helping all the pilgrims they meet on their way and cooking together. They touch me deeply. An extra gift? They do not snore. But still it was not a quiet night because at around midnight our newly built dormitory couldn’t withstand the asturian rain anymore. The rain came through around the ceiling light and made a puddle in no time. It was so unexpected and absurd that we ended up having laughing fit in German while we moved our things.
After two hours of morning trekking I reach a crossroad: down toward the valley or up over the mountain. I choose the mountain – the very famous Hospitales route.
By the crossroad on Camino Primitivo – over the mountain or down through the valley?
It is exceptionally beautiful in the morning mist as the cows and horses run free. Still today will end up being the hardest day so far. My mood rises and falls along with the landscape – and I have a lot to say. On the way I see a graffiti heart with the inscription 25th of March in it. My father’s birthday.
I feel weighed down as if I am carrying two backpacks. My heart is heavy too and with tears running down my face I ascent one mountain after another. I would walk up 7 mountains or 7,000 for one more day with him.
Even after 13 years it is still difficult, heavy and not ok to have lost him. I was young and didn’t realize how much it would affect me and how deep this loss really was. I am older and wiser now. Everything I could’ve done with him, shared with him, asked about, not to mention all the hugs I could’ve gotten stand crystal clear in my mind.
Completely discouraged, I sit on a rock surrounded by the cows. Their calm gives me a feeling of security and somehow as if with no other choice, they cover my back the way my father would have.
It becomes clear when on the camino that everything we carry as baggage, we must carry ourselves. We must care for it; keep it in order. We can smile at each other, cheer each other on and support each other, but the backpack – we must carry alone. And I got my backpack over that mountain!
Safe down on the other side waits Kevin – smiling. He was fascinated by my stubbornness last night when I turned back and walked the 4 kms to find a good place to sleep. So despite the weather forecast, Kevin had walked up the mountain in the evening and slept in his tent… alone… on the mountain. While the thunder roared and the rain and hail fell on his tent, he kept calm playing his flute until it had all passed.
“To each their own” they say – to each their own baggage and to each their own victory during the camino.
My camino – my way
DAY 5 Berducedo – Castro 26 km
Life means making one choice after another.
One choice I take most days is the choice of having company. Usually my own. It is awesome company when I am a roll, heavy at other times. During my walks I usually meet between 10 and 20 pilgrims, and the choice stands between “walking together or continuing alone”. It is an eyeopener when meeting new people, how their energies are so clear yet so variant. And how different the same people are when they are in the valley of their journey or the top. When it comes to my camino family, I can quickly assess their psychological backpack. Today. Now. It changes from one moment to the other.
I am worried about today’s trek which includes 1100 meter downhill toward the Grandas de Salime lake through a large forest that unfortunately burnt down in April. However, from early morning to the afternoon I walk with a pilgrim who talks to me in Spanish about inner peace, yoga, meditation, self-development, “naturalezza” (meaning nature, I think) and “alma” (soul). I can’t get a word in, so I just listen. And looking back was the trek difficult? Njah… forest fires are a part of life. Beautiful in their own fatalist way and the forest will rise again. And it turns out that one can walk downhill keeping one’s head high. And I chose that.
Tomorrow: I choose to walk alone. My choice.
Walking the camino for my dying friend
DAY 6 Castro – Padrón 23 km
I wonder how many wars we could end, if everyone walked a camino? I am fascinated when I witness the friendships that the camino brings about despite language, age and culture. I am so thankful for speaking all the languages I do, and I often find myself amid dinner conversations acting translator. Last night I finally had the pleasure of meeting some Italians. A couple from Bolzano. They have three adult children, but lost their youngest in an MTB-accident. This morning on the trek I suddenly hear “Mariiiiiiiia!!!! Stai beeeene???” and there they were with the smiling faces.
Today is also special – we are halfway through our journey to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The border between Asturias and Galicia has been crossed. The two regions don’t agree on the camino route indicators – the famous scallop shell: In Asturias the scallop shell’s center is the cathedral and the rays symbolize the many ways toward it. In Galicia the scallop shell faces the opposite way and seems more like a hand, showing where you are and its fingers kindly guiding you toward the cathedral. This all reminds me, that we don’t see things the same way. And walking in other people’s shoes is worthwhile.
On this camino I am using a pilgrim friend’s walking sticks. He has cancer and cannot walk the camino right now. I am humble and thankful for using his sticks on the camino leading me to pause a moment and think of what he must be going through. There isn’t much I can do for him. But in Fonsagrada I head toward a shoe maker and give the sticks new “rubber cots”. They are happier now, taken care of and pampered. I hope my friend feels the same way.
I started the day, by decision, to walk alone. The camino gets is! I haven’t met any one throughout the day and I arrive early in the afternoon only to be met by a deserted farmhouse turned dormitory in the small town of Padrón. A completely retro – and one of the few dormitories that hasn’t been grasped by the long arm of renovation. The key is in the door and I walk quietly inside on its creaky floors and wait for the first words to be said be they Italian, German, English, Spanish or…
It is Italian. I believe there is a grander scheme in the universe determining who we meet on the camino. To me, everyone I meet brings me something: support, challenges (ex. the snoring), insight, perspective, as do the Italian couple that walk through the door. Since our son had cancer 5 years ago, I have alternately been fighting constant anxiety and lived in a kind of truce or accept. The Italian couple insist on life and have been through my greatest fear and worse nightmare: having to bury my own child. It touches me deeply watching them carry their grief together, watching them laugh on the road, collect mushrooms from the woods. My own anxiety seems lighter when I am with them and I have no words to describe the respect and awe I feel when they invite us all to dinner – pasta with mushroom sauce. I can only humbly hope that I am able to give something similar to the people I meet on my journey through life.
A horizon beyond the horizon
DAY 7 Padrón – Castroverde 33 km
Although I walk alone, I am not alone. When the morning mist settles between the cantabric mountains, it feels like I am walking on clouds. My father loved nature and its beauty and was like me a very visual person and esthetic person. It was horizon upon horizon upon horizon that fascinated him most. Life smiles sweetly here on Camino Primitivo, and I take the horizons in for the both of us as my heart beats wistfully.
After a morning trek through quiet forestry routes with the long rays of the sun comes mountain upon mountain upon mountain. Ana, from Portugal, and I have many things in common including a very poor sense of direction. Meeting Ana at the top of a mountain trail that ends abruptly doesn’t surprise me. We laugh as we make our way back to the right trail, carelessly shrugging off the extra hour this takes on Camino Primitivos toughest stage known as “Rompe piernas” (ruin your legs).
It was a beautiful view – life’s twists and turns are often totally worth it.
Home – and out of court
DAY 8 Castroverde – Lugo 22 km
It all started with Torben’s voice in my ears last night. The man I have spent my life with the past 5 years. Suddenly today I feel there are too many people around me, too much noise of too many people talking on the camino. I miss his voice, his deep voice that gives me a flutter in my stomach. It is probably right then and there that I feel homesick. Homesick is my longing toward “home”, our marriage and family.
It hits me like a rock that it is that home that matters. That home to which I must open my senses and work toward understanding the people closest to me. Although I here am responsive, present and open, at home I end up being too chatty, fluffy and judgmental. Here on the camino, I gladly drop everything, stop and bring forth my camera to try and get the best shot of a tiny flower’s beauty. I sure hope that when I come home I can practice that same presence and attention toward each and every flower in our blended family life of 6 children. I hope to listen to Torben just as I listen to the pilgrims here. It is most definitely the day-to-day life that really matters.
I start the day’s trek toward Lugo, of merely 22 kms, tired and upset, and very irritated by the sun baking down on only my left side. But I need to realize that a sunburnt left side is what this journey entails, when today’s direction is west toward the cathedral. Some things we can change, others we just can’t. I would rather put my energy in the things that I can.
Along the route I keep seeing examples of the camino signage conflict. One, or maybe many, irritated and stubborn human beings have consequently covered the signs with spray paint. I ponder on some people’s need to be right – so much so that they will spray paint everything that is not. I hope I can stop myself before turning into a spray painting human being.
My mood shifts. Because I think that missing means loving. Lugo is calling and I enjoy walking tired through the city walls in great contrast to the city’s always so elegant Spanish women. Dirty trekking shoes meet stilettos.
Boredom and bitterness on the camino
DAY 9 Lugo – As Seixas 35 km
The camino knows precisely what to present each of us with to ensure that we get through our individual themes. Boredom and restlessness are both states of mind and feelings that I find most difficult to tackle and they are often my ticket to make an escape – be it through food or through uncontemplated actions, because something just had to happen.
To my disgust the camino sends me off, shortly after Lugo, on an asphalt road that goes on and on. This is my absolute worst case scenario: Hours and hours to feel bored, making me intolerably restless. I can see the whole sky, all the rain it can give. My best yoga camino friend has (as it should be today) found a Spanish camino friend to walk with – leaving me to walk alone with my boredom and bitterness.
I reach the conclusion that the answer to it all lies within me. I am not supposed to lay the responsibility of my adventurous needs on other people. Not on my loved ones at home either.
I have to. I can. I want to.
Suddenly I have walked through the first half of the day – forestry routes and fields return, the sun returns and I find a bed in a picturesque architectural dormitory.
Immigrants on Camino Francés
DAY 10 As Seixas – Salceda 40 km
Today the Camino Primitivos’ quiet phase ends, and we join the highly pilgrim trafficked French route, Camino Francés. This brings melancholy with it. And a memory of a very specific day in my youth. I was standing in a classroom at school looking out the window, down at the school yard, and I thought to myself: “They are so sweet and happy all those children playing down there.” And then it hit me, I was no longer a child. A new chapter began. Today Primitivo ends, the French route begins… for us all. I do however look back with sorrow.
I have often received huge gifts on this camino when I looked back and saw where I had been. The most beautiful view and clearest thoughts. All is perfect the way it is. I would never change a single step I took, even if I could. For many days we have walked in each other’s footsteps as a small family. Helped each other with blisters. Money that didn’t come out of the ATM. Shoulder pains. Lending each other miracle creams for this and that (the Germans are best) and carried each other’s forgotten things to the next albergue. This was very comforting to me.
They say that every one has something that scares them to the bones. A basic anxiety. Mine is most certainly to be alone – the risk of not being loved. I have held the hand of this anxiety on this journey and especially today. Everything was planned and the camino family was to meet at a certain albergue and walk together for the last two days toward the cathedral. However, planning isn’t for us. We have spread out in four different directions, and I am alone at a luxury dormitory 27 kms from the cathedral. Which means that I have walked around 50 kms today including the extra detour looking for my lost camino family. That was NOT the plan…
All my assumed judgements of the French route I will have to reassess. I walk alone for the past 3 hours and sing at the top of my lungs. Passing closed bar after closed bar, until I reach the fourth and have my second meal of the day, while the cleaning lady cleans the bar. The sun warms my tired feet and as it seems… I can do it – I can be alone.
The every day camino
DAY 11 Salceda – Santiago 27 km
314 kms later: I am resting in the sun in the most peaceful place I know. The square in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Nowhere else have I witnessed as long hugs and so many smiles as I have here. It gives me goosebumps and brings tears to my eyes all at once. I got here yesterday with an unexpected companion – an Italian priest who changed course due to a conflict with “gli uomini della chiesa” – the clergy men. He changed paths and became a bus driver. He is the first person I meet on the camino, walking it of religious conviction. The best companion for joining the pilgrim’s mass.
As I write these words the couple I watched get engaged arrive – more hugs… more tears – all in a good way… it is as if I am sitting on the most gorgeous and softest blanket woven by the lives of people and stories from all over the world. I already know that I will return. I also know that my actual journey has just begun.
My every day camino.