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Apologies for the delay in posting this – I fell violently ill last week and ended up needing medical assistance mid-flight for the first time ever – and hopefully the last time! I will share the full story in my October round-up, but for now I am happy to report that I am finally recovering, from both sickness and a surgery.
I spent the last thirty days in Spain, but even though I’ve only been in one country, I don’t remember the last time I had such an intense month of travel: 30 days, 29 different beds, and I’ve walked through four out of Spain’s 17 regions. I walked nearly 800 kilometers! Typing out this number makes me think: Wow, did I really walk that?
What I’ve been up to
I have to be honest: Announcing that I was walking the 800 kilometer/500 mile long Camino de Santiago this month was a bit risky… what if I failed? What if I gave up after a few days? What if my feet failed me?
But then on the other hand, by announcing it and making it public, it made me more accountable. I had to make it through 30+ days of walking, even if that meant crawling into Santiago on all fours.
So did I made it to Santiago de Compostela? Not yet, but as I type this I am getting very close. It usually takes between 32 and 35 days to walk from Saint Jean Pied De Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago, which is less than 100 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean, i.e. basically across the entire width of Spain.
I am struggling to put this journey into words, but I am going to try. And I am going to write in more detail about the hike as soon as I’ve finished it, so these are just some initial thoughts.
The Camino wasn’t supposed to be some sort of ‘walking holiday’ for me. I wanted to challenge myself, to push my boundaries, and to get out of my comfort zone.. Have I done this? Absolutely. Even more than expected.
I’d never hiked for more than five days in a row before, and definitely not 25-30 kilometers per day… for five consecutive weeks!
Secondly, I absolutely pushed my limits. I hit them several times, my body ready to give up, to collapse. My feet announcing: No step further. My feet trying to boycott the journey and get me to stop by mysteriously developing not one, but two corns (both of which have to be cut out). My back rebelling against the insane weight of my backpack by sending shooting pains down my spine. My mind trying to convince me it’d be okay to take the bus.
“But that’d be cheating!”, the little angel on my right shoulder would exclaim. “Nooooo, it’s okay” the little devil on my left shoulder would say in a honeyed voice, “You’re still on the Camino, and so many people are doing it!”
In the end, I resisted all the temptations of buses, taxis, horses, private shuttle services and even the backpack transporting services that takes your backpack to the next place for you, making it much easier to walk for seven to eight hours. But if I was going to walk The Way, I’d do it the traditional way: carrying my own stuff, and not using any modes of transportation other than my own two feet. Almost like how it was done in the Middle Ages.Except that I had a proper trekking backpack, fancy hiking boots (and a pair of sandals to switch into), Milka chocolate bars readily available, and a bunch of podcasts on my iPhone to get me through the hard parts (which they did.. no matter how steep the ascent, you can’t help laughing when you hear Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt man-giggle).
I wanted to use the time on the Camino to reflect on these past few years, which have been such a whirlwind of travel, relationships, broken hearts, feeling unrooted and uncertainty – until I won the Greencard. Because my life in New York is so busy, I never get to just sit down and look back at things that have happened to me, most of them I have just brushed off, even though deep inside I knew they bothered me.
I was curious to see where my mind would take me during these long hours of walking, who and what I would be thinking about, and how I’d feel about certain people and events when looking at them from a distance.
Gratitude is what I’ve been feeling the most – gratitude for the life I’m living, gratitude for being able to take an entire month to do this, which I know most of my friends in corporate careers aren’t able to do, and gratitude for the people that have come into my life over the past few years – including on this hike, as explained below:
What went right
Choosing the right long-distance hike
When I told friends, family and some acquaintances that I was going to walk the Camino de Santiago, some of them tried to convince me to take a different route instead. “The Camino has become too popular and is super crowded now” they’d say. “Walk the Camino del Norte along the coast instead – it’s much prettier.”
There are several routes to Santiago, including one that starts in Portugal which also sounds lovely, and I was definitely intrigued by the coastal walk. In the end, however, I decided to start with the most common one – The Camino Frances – which is the route most pilgrims choose. If I enjoyed it, I could still walk one of the other routes at a later time.
In hindsight, I am glad I chose the Camino Frances. Yes, it’s incredibly busy. Sometimes even crowded, with a steady line of pilgrims making their way through the Spanish countryside. More than once, all hostels in our destination for the day were completely booked. More than once I found myself stranded without a bed (but ended up being saved and not having to sleep on the floor like I saw other pilgrims do!).
But nonetheless, I had an amazing time. The walk itself is, oftentimes, breathtakingly beautiful, as you can see from my photos. I crossed mountains, walked through forests, through countless little hamlets and some of Spain’s prettiest towns. I traversed the seemingly endless flatlands of Spain’s Meseta (Central Plateau).
Meeting the right people
I knew I was going to meet interesting and like-minded people along the Camino – the fact alone that they were setting off on the same insane 800-kilometer walk meant we had something in common. You have to be a certain kind of person to decide to do a trek like this, including having willpower and mental strength, being independent, open-minded, ready to push yourself, and a little bit crazy.
Some of my friends who knew I was going to walk the Camino thought I was insane for doing it by myself, but I never even considered not doing it by myself. Like I said, this wasn’t supposed to be some sort of walking holiday, but more of an introspective journey, and I wanted to make sure to have time to spend with myself and my own thoughts.
And also, I never expected to stay alone for long, because it is inevitable to meet other people. Being alone makes this even easier, since you are not in that ‘couple bubble’ you often find yourself in when traveling with someone.
I met more wonderful people along the way than I could’ve hoped for, heard enough interesting life stories to fill a book, got so many different perspectives and discussed subjects like friendship, religion, family, relationships, and determining life events and dark moments in our lives with strangers who quickly turned into friends.
This goes especially for Kate, who I happened to share a two-bed dorm with on our very first day, and who I ended up walking most of the way with. Now we are already talking about other long-distances hikes we can do together – already planning our reunion. Who knew that the girl who walked into my room on the last day of August would become my Camino BFF?
I am blister-free!
My biggest fear for the Camino was having to give up because of blisters. I’ve read several blogs and accounts of people who had to stop walking, calling it quits after a week or ten days, and so I nervously awaited the ten day mark.
When I was still blister-free on day ten, and then still on day 14, I was ecstatic! My careful preparation had paid off: I had bought sock liners for the hike, which were supposed to prevent blisters, as well as a pair of hiking sandals to change into should I develop blisters and not be able to get back into my hiking boots.
The end of the month rolled around and I am still blister-free, which I am very grateful and happy about, but that doesn’t mean I am not suffering from other hiking-related pains: My back aches from my heavy pack and the two corns on my right foot make it nearly impossible to walk in my boots at this point, and I might lose the toe nail on my right foot.
But I am still walking, and I hope that I can continue to walk until I reach Santiago – then I will definitely be able to file ‘completing the Camino Frances’ under ‘What Went Right’ for next month’s Life Lately.
What went wrong
Oh, the pain.
As I’ve mentioned above, this walk is not supposed to be a ‘Walk in the Park’, so I didn’t expect it to be very comfortable. What I didn’t expect, however, was to be in pain pretty much the entire time. If it wasn’t from my corns, which were sending shooting pains down my toes, it was my back, that was sending shooting pains down my spine. And then, depending on the day, throw in some ankle pain, shin splints, aching knees or aching hips. There was always something that was hurting!
Towards the end, my back pain became so severe that I considered sending my backpack ahead, like many pilgrims do, but when I started considering it, I just didn’t end up passing a town big enough to have a store that sold decent daypacks (I’d still have to carry my own water, a change of shoes, rain gear, my camera, some snacks, etc).
But while my pain was often excruciating, I am still incredibly grateful that I didn’t have a single blister the entire way and that I was never forced to take the bus or take a rest day because I wasn’t able to walk. I was surprised to see how many people actually did NOT finish the Camino because their bodies didn’t allow it, which is why I feel like I can’t complain all that much about the physical strains.
Of course this month can’t go by without me losing something – as usual. On the Camino I was shocked though that I lost two very important things right at the beginning: my headphones on the second day (after losing a pair of headphones last month, I luckily had the foresight to pack an extra pair!), and my reusable water bottle on the third day. Oh well! The good news is that I think these two losses made me more careful about my belongings and I always checked thoroughly before leaving a place after that – and didn’t lose anything else all month.
Struggling as a vegetarian
Spain was the first country I ever moved to, but I did not remember it being so hard for vegetarians! I often struggled finding healthy, nutritious food, something that I wasn’t expecting. Even many of the meat eaters were complaining that the food was mediocre, and most of the time I just didn’t feel I had as much energy as I needed for these long days of walking.
It made me realize how spoiled I am in New York, with my daily green smoothies (I only came across spinach twice this entire month!), quinoa (barely to be found along the Camino), wholegrain bread and all the veggies that make up my diet.
In Spain, there’s no wholegrain bread to be found outside the big cities. When I pick up a sandwich in Germany, it’s layered with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggs and cheese (on wholegrain bread). In Spain, when I ordered a cheese sandwich, it was always served on white bread, and it didn’t even have tomatoes on it, let alone some lettuce – often not even some sort of butter or mayonnaise or any other kind of sandwich spread, making it a very dry and very boring eating experience.The sweet breakfasts (croissants, white toast with jam, or cake) also didn’t fuel me as the Skyr with granola and banana breakfasts I am used to, which are loaded with protein, fiber and potassium. I was hungry barely two hours after eating a cake breakfast – where’s the protein?
The vegetarian options on the pilgrim’s menu, which is offered for dinner in many of the albergues (pilgrims hostels), were disappointing too. Often I got French fries with a couple of fried eggs, not even with a side of salad. Or pasta with ‘red sauce’ – I can’t even call it tomato sauce because it tasted more like ketchup.
For vegans, the Camino is even harder, and I met one vegan who went vegetarian for the duration of the walk because he wasn’t able to find enough fueling vegan food.
I am sure that big cities like Madrid and Barcelona have a thriving vegan and vegetarian scene, but the small villages you stop in during the Camino often don’t even have a grocery store. Whenever we hit a big city like Leon or Burgos, we went to the supermarket and gorged on broccoli, hummus, avocado and wholegrain bread. It makes such a difference to start your day with avocados and whole grains!
I felt like most of the month I was just stuffing myself with empty calories, way too much sugar, and barely any memorable meals, which I’ve found frustrating.
The list of challenges this month was long (and I guess the food struggles above could count as a challenge, too), but let’s look back at the challenges I predicted for September:
I am pretty sure that I am the only person on the Camino who didn’t lose any weight ☹ Especially during the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how much weight they’ve lost during the walk. I, on the other hand, feel bloated, haven’t done any abs workouts since leaving my sister’s house for Berlin over a month ago, and my tummy seems humongous to me.
My diet here has been so much unhealthier than my usual diet, as I explained above. I never eat white bread, for example, which I’ve eaten every single day here (what’s wrong with offering whole-grain bread Spain?!), and while I do love cake, even I got tired of it at some point, especially when we walked through a part of Spain where the only things available for breakfast were empanadas with meat or tuna – or cake. Adding to the croissants and cake I’ve consumed, the chocolate we bought to give us some energy during short breaks, and the wine that was freely flowing every night, and you can see how I, despite walking every single day, didn’t lose a single pound.
While I did write every day on the Camino, I didn’t end up doing as much writing for myself as I thought I would. I wrote a lot for freelance clients, but I often struggled putting everything I experienced in a day into words, and I still have a hard time verbalizing the extraordinary experience that is the Camino. Maybe it’ll be easier to do that when I am looking back at it from a distance, after the hike ends.
My third challenge for the month, finding a good work-hike-balance, was actually the easiest challenge! I had talked to some people who also work online who had walked the Camino previously, and not everyone recommended that I bring my laptop to work during the walk. But after returning to 1,000 emails in my inbox after ten days offline in Cuba earlier this year, there was no way I could take a month off of work.
Luckily, it turned out that it wasn’t much of a challenge to find a good work-hike-balance. There were only a few days throughout the entire month when I was too exhausted to do any work, and I often surprised myself how much work I was able to get done while walking through Spain, even after a day of hiking. More than anything, it turned out to be a question of discipline – to sit down in front of my laptop instead of joining my fellow hikers for a post-hike glass of wine, or two.. or three.
And not only did I manage to fit in a lot of work time – I also had time to read a book and plenty of longreads I’d saved in my Pocket app, I made friends and socialized, and I stayed in touch with family and friends. I consciously opted against buying a local SIM card for my phone so that I wouldn’t be connected at all times, since the Camino was also supposed to be a time to allow me to disconnect and not check my work emails or social media during every little break I took.
I am glad I opted against it, since that left me with plenty of offline time in hostels where the Wi-Fi only reached public areas, forcing me to read my book instead of just scrolling through my Instagram and Facebook feeds.
The world beyond the Camino
Despite being on the Camino, I never lost touch with the ‘outside world’. There were so many things going on this month – terrible things happening. First, hurricane Irma hit, then Maria destroyed Puerto Rico, and one of my favorite cities in the world, Mexico City, got hit hard by an earthquake. The way the Spanish government handled the referendum was shocking to watch, and of course widely broadcast throughout Spain as we walked from province to province.
I am not going into all the other political happenings around the globe that upset me – no matter how much I want to spend time focusing on myself, I am never able to shut out the world I live in. It was heartbreaking to see the images of people getting beaten up by the police, and of cities and entire regions being destroyed by forces of nature.
I will donate money as soon as I finish the Camino, and if you want to do the same, here are some good resources:
The New York Times put together a list of organizations to donate to if you want to help the earthquake victims in Mexico City, as well as a great guide of things to consider before you donate money:
Vox put together a list of organizations that help both earthquake and hurricane victims
Time Magazine published a list of organizations to donate to help Puerto Rico.
Shout-Outs & Mentions
I got a couple of awesome shout-outs this month – the Hostelworld blog included me in their list of Instagram accounts worth following (you can check out a bunch of my Camino pictures and stories on my Instagram here), and Feedspot.com included me in two of their Best 100 Blogs lists, on #16 and #20:
What’s next for me
Most importantly, I want to finish the Camino, of course! A few more days of walking through Spain until I reach Santiago de Compostela. From there, I’ll return to Germany to see my family again – my nieces and nephew in particular – because who knows when I’ll see them again!
Since I’ve still got some time left before returning to the U.S. (from where I’ll leave on my next grand travel adventure in November!), I decided to add another country to my three months in Europe – I’ll be returning to one of my favorite places, but to be honest, I have two options, and I am a still undecided which one I’ll go for. #nomadproblems!