So for the first time in years I managed to take a holiday. Not just a few days or week or two around christmas but a regular couple of weeks in July. I can’t remember when I did that last.
Now it’s not as if I couldn’t take a normal holiday. Heck, my boss even told me during my evaluations more than once that he was worried I didn’t take enough ‘down time’ for myself. So this year, after quite a hectic period I decided it was time.
The problem is that if I don’t plan something to do during my holiday I tend to end up behind my laptop again. So to prevent myself from taking time off, only to use it on work again, I followed the advice of a colleague, and on a spur of a moment, decided to go to Spain to walk part of the Santiago de Compostella route or Way of St James. A pilgrims route that people have been walking since the middle ages. Not that I’m Catholic but as I needed to really wind down and de-stress, I figured it would be a great lesson in ‘letting go’. And it was.
First step in learning to let go was that I didn’t plan. I just bought a ticket to Bilbao and a a small guide book, packed a backpack with some essentials and got on the plane. Now normally ‘essentials’ would incorporate my Blackberry, my laptop and my iPad. But as I was going to hike up to 25km a day carrying everything in my backpack and wanted ‘to let go’ I left the iPad and laptop behind. Ok, best would have been to leave the BB as well but that just was one step to far for this trip.
And so I started.
The Santiago de Compostella route or Camino (as it is usually named) isn’t just one route. You can start on routes all over Europe. Most (not all) confer at the Spanish border and continues as the Route de Frances running from St Jean Pied de Port (French side of the Pyrenees) to Santiago (North-East of Spain). About 800km of hiking. Untrained as I was I was not going to manage to walk all of that in just two weeks (the validity of my ticket). So I decided to start in Burgos and see where I’d end up before having to return to Bilbao for my flight.
Now this route is walked by hundreds of thousands of people a year and traditionally these people need to sleep somewhere so everywhere along the route there are so called ‘Albergues’. Cheap hostels where the ‘pellegrinos’ (pilgrims) can rest for the night. They open around noon, offer a bed (in a mixed dormitory with up to 80 other people in bunk beds crammed together), a shower (usually cold), and sometimes a kitchen where you can cook some dinner. Check-out time is usually between 05:00 and 08:30 the next day, costs is between €4-€8 a night and you learn to sleep with people snoring around you. Dinner is either what you cook yourself or a simple pilgrims menu in the local bar. Very basic, very primitive but in fact everything you need.
Now I know for most people getting up before dawn, walking between 20-25km a day in the blazing heat of Spain in July, sleeping in dormitories, sharing bathing facilities, eating microwaved macaroni and having to hand wash your socks daily as you only carry two pair anyway isn’t exactly the ideal holiday but for me it was. Right from the start all stress just evaporated. All I needed to do was put one foot in front of the other to get to that next town, that next bed and meeting lots of people along the way. Because that’s another fact of the Camino, you’re never alone for long and the beauty of a shared experience is that it creates in instant bond. You all suffer muscle aches and blisters, you share food and water and you talk.
I had conversations on everything from global politics, the American gun policy, gay marriage, religion and the best type of ice creams (that last conversation was during a really hot and barren stretch of Spanish Meseta). One moment you’re talking to a guy from South Africa or a girl from the US, the next you’re practicing your German on a couple from Austria.
I loved it. For me it felt like a warm bath. Even the sleeping in dormitories had a strangely relaxing effect on me. It forced me to live by the day and be relaxed and open to people and the situations you get into. Something I wish I could practice in my work more often.
It felt really strange when after 9 days and approximately 200km of walking I had to stop my Camino and return back because of public transport facilities.
I still had a few days before my return flight and spent those as a regular ‘tourist’, but not being on the Camino really felt strange. The drive of getting up early to start walking in the silence of the morning dawn, the heartfelt ‘Buen Camino!’ wishes from locals and fellow pellegrinos and the camaraderie that you shared….
This was definitely a holiday to remember, and who knows, maybe in the future I’ll make time to do more of this. But I’m not going to fall back in my old pattern and start planning it all.
‘Letting go’ was the adagio, so who knows what happens next year, all that matters is that this experience was great!!
For more pictures of the trip check out my Picasaweb album