Monthly Archives: July 2011

A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim on the Vía de la Plata: Part 2


If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, this will make more sense if you start there.

[Arrows]

After 16 kilometres of arrows pointing straight ahead, it was very exciting to turn. You can see the park entrance in the background.

12:43
The sign is for the park! I don’t see the entrance yet, but there is hope.

12:46
There are two yellow arrows pointing to the right! Just by the four kilometre mark. Very exciting.

12:55
I collapse under a tree in the park to eat lunch. There are a lot of trees. It’s pretty, but very cultivated-feeling for a nature reserve. This is probably a European thing.

It feels ridiculously good to get my boots off. Weirdly, I have had some energy since the chocolate but my feet are extremely unhappy.

Everything is beautiful. The birds, the trees, the wind rushing through. It was worth the pain and angst to be here now.

1:14
A cyclist comes by, stops, and says something I don’t understand in Spanish. We exchange buen Caminos and he takes off.

1:16
A chainsaw starts up nearby. Oh, well.

1:36
Onward!

I walk along thinking about how on a day like today you could eat all the chocolate you wanted and still lose weight. This segues into a thought about how Camino organizations could promote themselves: “Come for the life-changing experience; stay for the chocolate.”

1:45
I start to worry that if I think these sort of thoughts I’ll never have a life-changing experience. Not that I actually expect one, but I wouldn’t turn it down.

[El Berrocal]

El Berrocal provincial nature reserve.

1:53
I feel much better. My feet have miraculously stopped hurting, and the trees are providing intermittent bits of shade that make life bearable.

What’s 13 more kilometres, really?

2:01
I pass a guy (day hiker?) who wishes me buen camino. He is followed by a young guy wearing only swim trunks who is talking on his cell phone. The whole thing is a bit surreal.

2:42
I stop for a break. My feet are unhappy again. I’m very ready to be done.

3:14
My feet are better, but I have no energy. I have just tried walking with my eyes closed. The path is straight, so it was surprisingly effective—for a few seconds at a time, anyway.

3:22
I spoke too soon about the feet—the pain is back with a vengeance.

3:29
I just walked up a hill and I thought that was it, but it keeps on going. It’s really not fair to give me hope like that, only to snatch it away again.

[Berrocal]

Still in the nature reserve. The monolith in front is an example of the Vía de la Plata markers in the area.

3:31
I think about blog post where I’d written about being utterly exhausted. So this is how it feels, I think.

For some reason this seems seriously funny. I laugh and feel a surge of energy.

3:41
I apply more sunscreen. I can’t seem to move. My chocolate is very soft and I’m worried it’ll melt and get all over everything in my pack. I eat a piece very fast so it doesn’t melt all over my hands since my water is too precious to use for clean-up. I feel much better.

4:03
I’ve been keeping an eye out for a walking stick all day. Now there are huge piles of cut wood along the path. I stagger up a pile, and eventually find a stick that’s straight enough, but it has a crack running through it. I decide it’ll work temporarily.

But then I decide to climb one last stack, and emerge with a pretty, straight-ish piece of crack-less wood.

I feel rather odd from the heat, but yay stick!

I decide that I am not going to take any more breaks. I just need to get there as soon as possible. Did I mention it’s hot?

[More Berrocal]

More of the nature reserve.

4:12
Breeze! Lovely!

4:14
There are tiny tiny wisps of cloud in the sky, which is good in theory, but they show no sign of covering the sun.

But life is better with the stick and the breeze, even if I am on the verge of collapse.

4:19
I stop briefly because I’m worried about chocolate getting everywhere. Better to just eat it. But I am so hot I can’t even finish all my chocolate, so I leave the rest in an outer pocket of my pack.

4:27
There is no shade. Judging by the sun, I seem to be walking south, which seems counterproductive since Santiago is a long ways to the north. It is hot, hot, hot.

4:36
There’s an intersection, with a yellow X by the route that looks the most promising. In this case X does not mark the spot, so I look for further Camino signs. There’s a gate leading to a cow pasture, and a path going up a seriously steep hill. I think I see an arrow on a sign up the hill and start walking.

When I get to the sign, I realize that what I thought was an arrow in fact wasn’t. In a lucid moment, I remember walking through cow fields on the Chemin du Puy. So I backtrack. Sure enough, there’s an arrow indicating the closed gate and the cows.

Paranoia, I decide, can be a wonderful thing.

[Cows]

Right at the end, there were cows everywhere.

4:44
Cows, cows, and more cows.

I am hoping to soon reach the viewpoint that my guidebook tells me is 1.5 kilometres before Almedén de la Plata, where I’m headed for the night. I’m sure I should’ve reached it by now.

I have alarmingly little water, and stop intermittently in patches of shade to lean on my stick for brief moments before continuing.

On the plus side, while my feet and legs are a bit sore they’re not nearly as bad as I though they’d be at this point. Wherever this point is. But my head feels … weird. Not entirely in control.

Mostly, though, I’m just determined to get to Almadén. I’m sure absolutely everyone else is there already.

5:00
I rest in some shade. This seems smart despite the dire water situation because the heat is killing me. I have got to be close.

I think about medieval armies marching across this country in the heat and decide they were all insane.

There is a blister on both my thumbs from my stick (but I adore the stick).

5:06
I hear voices!

Ip and Anni, a Danish couple I’ve met before, appear. It turns out they’d gone all the way up that hill that I’d started to climb—the Himalayas, as Ip calls it. This is their first Camino, and it hadn’t occurred to them to walk through the cow pasture.

I am very very happy to see people. It’s good to have company, and if I collapse they can trickle water in my mouth and revive me.

5:09
Anni says the path running up the seriously steep slope ahead is on our route. I say it can’t be; surely our route will branch off and go around the horrible hill. After all, my guidebook says there are no serious climbs between Sevilla and Astorga.

[The hill]

Climbing the hill.

5:11
As it turns out, my guidebook is wrong. Our route doesn’t branch off. The steep path is covered in bits of rock, perfect for sliding out from under your feet. Brilliant.

At least I have my stick.

5:13
I climb the hill surprisingly quickly—I’m in better shape than I thought—but I’m not nearly as fast as Ip, who’s way ahead.

We stop at the lookout on the top. I show Ip my blister and he lends me a glove to cover it.

The descent is steep and rocky, but being able to see the town just ahead lends me strength.

6:02
The Danes take off for their room above a bar, and I’m left on my own, looking for the albergue. I ask a passing man for directions and he escorts me part of the way there.

6:07
I run into the same young German guy. He looks ridiculously rested and directs me the rest of the way to the albergue.

6:09
I meet up with two other German pilgrims. One got in at two this afternoon. He suggests I use the exercise equipment on the corner by the albergue if I need a bit more of a workout.

“I think I’ve had enough,” I say. I even manage to laugh.

The Evening
After I reach the big albergue and check in, I don’t let myself collapse. If I do, I’m reasonably certain I’ll never move again. Instead I go through the usual routine—shower, wash some clothes, buy some groceries, and go out to a bar with friends—a Frenchwoman, an Austrian, and the young German guy—for dinner.

“If pilgrims are happy, I am happy!” proclaims the bar owner, who brings us special tapas.

Back at the albergue a little later, I collapse into bed. As much as I can think at all, I think I am content.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:00 am
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A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim on the Vía de la Plata: Part 1


It’s hard to explain to people who’ve never done it what it’s like to walk 20 or 30 or so kilometres a day.

So one day, when walking from Castilblanco de los Arroyos and Almedén de la Plata on the Vía de la Plata, I took almost-constant notes. This post is based on those notes (though I have to admit I estimated a few of the times). I wanted to be able to provide a blow-by-blow description of a walking day.

I should point out that this was not a typical day on the Camino, insofar as there is such a thing. It was one of my two most difficult days on the Vía de la Plata. I’d only been walking for two days, so I was most definitely not in shape, and I had to walk 29 kilometres—a distance you would never absolutely have to walk on, say, the Camino Francés.

So, to any potential pilgrims out there, please don’t let this deter you!

[Castilblanco de los Arroyos]

Following the arrows through Castilblanco de los Arroyos.

6:30 a.m.-ish
I wake up because everyone else in the Castilblanco de los Arroyos albergue is awake and quietly making noise. I get up, get dressed, and eat fruit and yogurt I bought at a little grocery store the night before.

7:23
I talk with a middle-aged woman. I think she’s German. (It’s a relatively safe assumption. Almost everyone, at this stage, is German.) She and her husband have just discovered their bikes were stolen.

Me: But what are you going to do?
Her: I don’t know.
Me: I’m sorry.
Her: Buen camino!

7:27
I chat with a Norwegian man, one of a group of six from Norway. They’re skipping the 16-kilometre highway portion of today’s walk by taking a car to the nature reserve entrance. I think of the taxi driver who came to the albergue yesterday and said the highway was “peligroso“—dangerous.

I plan to walk the whole way anyway. Possibly I am crazy. But if so, I’m in good company.

7:31
I’m the last person out of the albergue, except for the stolen-bike maybe-Germans. I start walking.

7:33
I realize I took the wrong street and am walking seriously uphill. But I think I’m going in the right direction (never mind that I have no sense of direction), so I keep walking.

7:34
This can’t be wrong since there’s a shell and an arrow, but I’ve never been here before. But my water bottles are empty since they were too tall to fill in sink at the albergue, and I really need the fuente I thought I would pass on the way to the Vía de la Plata route.

This is not a promising start to a 30-kilometre day. I keep walking in the hopes that the fuente will show up.

7:38
I stop to tighten my laces and as I keep going think about the act of walking.

I am a plodder, I decide. Only that implies slow and steady, and I’m only slow. The best metaphor I can come up with is a drugged—or maybe dying—butterfly. I dart slowly (can one dart slowly?) from place to place and take far too many photos.

[Fuente]

It's not a very exciting fuente, but the water was good.

7:41
There’s the church! I think the fuente‘s just down the hill.

7:44
It is! I fill my three bottles.

7:53
I start plodding again. Everyone must be ahead of me and I am slow. The three litres of water I just added have made my pack ridiculously heavy.

It’s going to be a long day.

7:57
I start to drink water in a desperate attempt to lose weight.

8:08
It’s a beautiful walk through town. There are birds singing, and the flowers smell wonderful, and two people have already wished me buenos días.

I feel happy and wonderful and my pack isn’t so bad, really.

8:13
I officially leave Castilblanco and find myself walking on the narrow shoulder of an almost traffic-less highway. It’s quite rural, with roosters crowing, and this early in the day there’s still lots of shade.

8:16
I start climbing the first hill of the highway. It’s graded for cars—no problem.

8:24
A young German pilgrim passes while I’m standing around scribbling notes.

Him: Na!
Me: (Look confused.)
Him: It means hey. (Big smile, cheerful wave, keeps walking.)
Him: See you in the next village. (Quickly disappears into the distance.)

8:34
The sun is seriously up now, so there’s no more morning chill. Roosters continue to crow. The occasional dog barks.

I walk along thinking about what I’m doing. How does writing down my every move alter the journey?

Then I refine my walking metaphor and decide I walk more like a drunken butterfly. Which sounds almost like a Tai Chi pose.

8:45
I realize I forgot to apply sunscreen and do it.

9:07
It’s beautiful. I’m happy to be walking. And it’s not exactly peligroso—there is maybe a car every ten minutes, if that.

9:16
I convince myself that I’ve left vital things behind, and stop to make sure I have a) credential and b) toiletries. I do. I’m not sure what I’d do if I didn’t, but it’s good to know they’re there.

9:37
I walk past a sign: “Disputacion de Sevilla, 15km.” Fifteen kilometres to where? I wonder.

9:38
The hills aren’t so bad, but as soon as one ends, there’s another.

[Highway]

The highway at 9:41 a.m.

9:43
Sign: 14 kilometres. That means I can walk five kilometres per hour, including over the steepest hill yet. Very exciting.

9:52
I stop along the highway for a break. There’s a bit of garbage around, but it’s not too bad.

10:13
I don’t think I’ve seen arrow for while. Should I be worried?

10:15
Never mind. There’s one.

10:38
I stumble off the side of the highway onto gravel. I might’ve sprained ankle if it wasn’t for my boots.

10:51
The bottoms of my feet ache a bit, but they’re fine really. And the breeze is nice.

11:07
I adjust my pack straps so shoulders don’t hurt. My feet are sweaty and a bit sore, but okay.

11:13
My next landmark is the entrance to the nature reserve, 15 kilometres from where I started. I just want to get to that turnoff so I know I’m actually making progress. I know I must be—it only stands to reason—but it would be nice to have some confirmation.

11:18
What if the arrows just take me along highway—augh! That would mean no shade, and no beautiful nature. Just cows and cork trees and never-ending highway.

11:19
Surely I must be nearly at the turnoff.

I distract myself by thinking about the Romans who travelled the Vía de la Plata so long ago. Their milestones would’ve been rather like the kilometre signs I’m passing now. Only they’d have known what their stones were for. If I make it to kilometre one, I have no idea what I’ll find.

I keep myself busy taking photos, measuring how fast I walk between kilometre signs (three to five kilometres, depending on such variables as terrain and how many photos I take) and eating trail mix. The hills have started to get rather steeper.

11:31
I should stop for a break but there’s no shade. I walk on the gravel for a while. It’s not as hard on my now-sore feet, but it’s uneven and walking is slower.

11:35
I have reached kilometre eight. If I reach kilometre five and there’s still no turnoff, I may panic.

11:46
I start to sing Ultreia, a French pilgrim song, to keep up my spirits, but only make it through the first verse. I don’t remember the words, after that.

11:50
There’s a middle-aged guy in a van at the side of the road. I’m not seriously worried, but I do feel cautious. We are, after all, the only people in the area and there’s virtually no traffic.

He starts talking to me in Spanish. I speak fluently, but only because I’m expressing basic thoughts. He’s in the van to start with, but comes out as we talk.

Him: You’re off to Santiago?
Me: Yes.
Him: And where did you start?
Me: In Sevilla.
Him: And how long will it take you?
Me: It’ll be a little less than two months.
Him: Two months! And are you enjoying the countryside?
Me: Yes, it’s very beautiful.
Him: You should be careful in the sun. And you’re walking all the way? You’re not going by car at all?
Me: No, no car.
Him: Que te vayas bien. (“May you go well.” Touches my shoulder.)
Me: Gracias.

[Trees and cows]

Trees and cows: the main views from the highway.

And I set off again.

11:57
He passes me in his van and waves.

11:58
I realize I should’ve asked him about the nature reserve, which I’m starting to think is a figment of someone’s imagination—maybe a mass hallucination that for some reason I’m not allowed to share.

12:01 p.m.
I make some calculations in my head. I really might not have walked the 15 kilometres to the nature reserve yet—but surely it’s going to appear quite soon?

12:05
I adjust pack straps again. My shoulders are happier.

12:11
I drop my pack by the side of the road and visit some bushes. On the way back I can’t see my pack for a moment. For one crazy second I almost don’t care if it’s gone—it’s too hot to keep walking anyway.

12:13
I stop to get out chocolate and look at my guidebook. With the sun overhead now, there’s no real shade. It turns out it’s 16 kilometres to the nature reserve, one kilometre more than I’d thought. This makes me feel weirdly better about not having reached it yet.

Onwards!

12:18
I find a bit of shade and stop to eat chocolate. There’s a nice breeze. I fantasize about sleeping here until the heat’s gone away.

But I’d feel much better if I found the park first.

12:27
This is the highway that never ends…. Shouldn’t there at least be a park sign somewhere?

12:33
I’ve reached the five kilometre sign, which means I’ve walked ten kilometres in the last three hours, including rests. And photos. But still, it seems depressingly slow.

12:34
I can keep up my desperate trudging, on and off the tarmac, because I’m fuelled by chocolate. I am very glad to have three litres of water—I only had two yesterday.

12:35
The joints of my big toes hurt—an injury I’ve never experienced before.

12:36
I hate that group of Norwegians. I realize this is entirely irrational since walking here was, after all, my choice.

12:37
There’s a noisy construction crew by the side of the road. We exchange holas as I walk past.

12:41
There’s a sign ahead. Could it be the park?

* * *

You can keep reading in Part 2.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:00 am
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A Matter of Weight


[Pilgrim]

Pilgrim with pack in Santiago de Compostela.

When I first filled my backpack with books and hauled it around the neighbourhood, I figured it weighed at least 15 pounds, if not 20. I didn’t actually know, because I didn’t think I had any way of measuring.

I can be a little slow, but I eventually remembered I could calculate the weight of my pack by weighing myself with and without the pack, and doing a bit of subtraction.

It turned out the pack with the books weighed a mere nine pounds.

I didn’t believe it. Something must be off.

I tried again. The weight did go up this time—but only by 0.2 pounds.

A few weeks later, when I finally filled my pack with all my gear (and a few substitutes for things I didn’t have yet), it weighed 15.4 pounds, without water.

But here’s the weird part: it actually felt lighter than the 9.2 pounds of books.

I have developed several hypotheses to account for this odd phenomenon.

1. My scale is broken.

Of course, it would have to be broken in a strange sort of way, where it shows heavier things as lighter, and lighter as heavier.

On balance, this seems highly improbable.

2. A pound of books weighs more than a pound of anything else.

I figure it’s the densely-packed knowledge that does it.

Except, of course, that a pound is a measure of weight, so a pound of one thing can’t possibly weigh more than a pound of something else—as long as you’re using the same kind of pound, anyway. As it turns out, a pound of metal weighs less than a pound of most other things, but that’s only because metal is measured using a different kind of pound.

But as my scale wasn’t designed to weigh metals, I’m pretty sure it only deals in the one kind of pound, and the hypothesis is a dud.

3. Weight is relative.

As every pilgrim knows, a backpack that was feather-light in the mornings can feel like someone filled it with 100 pounds of lead (a mere 82.29 regular pounds’ worth, since lead is a metal) by the end of the day.

Or, as in the case of my books, the exact same amount of weight can feel heavier or lighter depending on how it’s distributed. I did make an effort, by stuffing a blanket in my pack, to keep the books closer to my back, but it would seem it’s still better to have items of varying weights than a bunch of heavy objects.

Absolute weight—the kind you measure on a scale—can’t be relative. That would be a contradiction in terms.

But when you’re carrying the weight on your back, the absolute is somewhat less important. Weight, like time, depends on how it’s experienced.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 3:59 pm
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Some Random Camino Tips


[Pilgrim laundry]

Pilgrim laundry in Aldea del Cano on the Vía de la Plata

There are lots of helpful things to know before you walk the Camino de Santiago or any other pilgrimage route.

This list is a collection of bits of information I learned while walking or before walking, and thought others might find helpful.

It is, of course, far from comprehensive.

Dripping Laundry

I always wring out my laundry in my tiny sports towel after washing it. This works even after the towel is sopping wet. It helps prevent dripping water all over albergue floors when the washing facilities are inside, and makes my clothes dry faster.

Wet Boots

If your boots are wet on the inside, take out the liners after you stop walking and stuff the boots with newspaper. The newspaper soaks up the water, so the boots are generally dry by morning—or at least more so than they would otherwise be.

Breaking in Sandals

On the Vía de la Plata, I wore sandals when I wasn’t walking with my pack, and for wading through the occasional stream. I spent a lot of time breaking in my boots, but it never occurred to me to wear my sandals before the trip. I ended up spending the first few weeks with horrible sores where the sandals chafed my feet.

Next time, I’ll work at breaking my sandals to my feet (or probably more importantly, my feet to my sandals) at home.

Navigating Through Cities

I’ve spent a lot of time lost in cities—both entering and (more often) leaving. I don’t know if the way marking is actually worse, or if I’m just worse at seeing it.

In any case, I finally developed a relatively easy method of getting out of a city. I just go to the nearest tourist information office, get a map, and if the Camino isn’t on the map (sometimes it is), I ask the tourist information people to show me where the route is.

Of course, this doesn’t work if you’re passing through a city between 2 and 5 p.m., when everything—including the nearest tourist information office—tends to be closed.

Internet

Spanish libraries usually have free Internet. The potential downside of this compared with, say, Internet cafés, is that libraries tend to have limited opening hours—they close for siestas, and in small towns they may not be open on weekends. Also sometimes there are a lot of people waiting, so you don’t always get a lot of time.

Of course, small towns don’t usually have Internet cafés, so except in cities, if there’s Internet at all, the library is probably your only option.

If there’s no library, sometimes the town hall has free Internet.

Scrounging

If you leave an albergue later than most others, there’s often a lot of food free for the taking, left behind by pack weight-conscious pilgrims. (Thanks to Steffen and Thomas for this one.)

And More?

If you have your own Camino tip, please leave it in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:02 am

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