Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Packing for the Camino

Before embarking on my big walk in Spain I researched just about every possible aspect of the journey. Equipment, accommodation, food, first aid requirements, simcards, essential Spanish words and phrases - you name it, I read up about it. Now, almost five months after my arrival in Santiago, I can tell you that even though the basic requirements are the same for everyone, you will have to tailormake your packing list to your very own needs!
Let's face it - this guy and his owner obviously had very different packing requirements than I did!
I encountered this lucky pooch on the square in front of the cathedral in Santiago. I'll admit that I stopped for a rest  in a wheelbarrow en route as well but I wasn't lucky enough to have someone offer to push it for me!
So, back to the packing. My 35l backpack was definitely big enough. My problem was that I stuffed too many things in there! All the sites I visited suggested that one's pack should weigh about 10% of your body weight. For me that amounted to about 6kg. In reality, I arrived in Spain with a bag that weighed about 12kg.
What can I say? I'm a woman. I don't know how to pack. I'll admit it. If there's a twelve step plan for recovering over-packers, I probably need to sign up! The turning point for me came when my blistered feet simply could not deal with all that weight on my back anymore.
At some point I had to take stock. I packed everything out on my bed one evening and decided to take out what I really could live without. That's how it came about that I had a little green parcel waiting for me in my hotel room in Santiago when I arrived there on the 11th of July. A gift weighing almost 3kg, sent by myself, with love, to myself. And if I have to be really honest, I probably could have added more to the little box that I sealed with such a heavy heart in the tiny post office in Navarette!
I didn't need a second pair of sandals, nor did I need extra cream, suntan lotion or a make-up bag filled with little bits and pieces that I never touched at all! I certainly could do without extra notebooks, pens and my beloved little travel pillow! And even though the heart shaped stone that I picked up along the way was very dear to me, I had to take the chance that it would arrive safely in Santiago, as that extra weight was wearing me down!
So this is what my bag eventually looked like - weighing 9kg. Less than what I started with but I have vowed that the most my bag will ever weigh again is 7kg. If I can manage with less than that - even better!
It can't be stressed enough that your backpack should weigh as little as possible. You have to keep in mind that you are literally carrying it for 800km. You will be walking in a country that has pharmacies and grocery stores. Trust me  - any items that you might have forgotten at home WILL be available in one of the shops! And even if you can't find it, the general sense of caring that prevails on the Camino that you hear people talking about, really exists. I had people hand me creams, plasters, books, telephones (when mine wouldn't connect), food, water - you name it! Nothing ever had price tags on and these things were always offered with kindness and with no expectations of receiving anything in return.
The picture above illustrates how you can use any available space to store things in - an upside down croc makes a good spot to put something in that you would like to reach easily - no need to open zippers and spend valuable time searching for it in the backpack!
One of the best packing tips I can share with you if you are planning to walk for the first time is to pack everything in seperate sealable plastic bags. This way everything stays organised and dry, should your pack get wet. I was caught in unexpected downpours many a time and had to scramble to cover the backpack. The last thing you want to deal with is wet clothing.  In Galicia it was wet for days on end and getting just the normal washing to dry was a challenge. Remember that you won't have much of a relief backup wardrobe in that precious bag!
What you see above is the contents of my backpack spread out on my bed during one of my repacking sessions! Luckily these become less frequent as the days go by as you soon get to learn where everything is. Develop a system very quickly and STICK to it! That way you don't have to unpack the entire bag everytime you are looking for something.
I have to confess that in the beginning I suspected someone of helping himself to the contents of my pack. I was really angry and could not believe that someone walking the Camino could take something from a fellow pilgrim. I still hang my head in shame when I think of the day - probably about two weeks after the item went missing - when I discovered it again. Packed safely, by myself, in the little side pocket on the inside of my pack.
As these things happened to me I took time to digest and soon realised that I was being taught valuable lessons! Lessons about life, about trusting people, about not always casting first impressions in stone, about honesty, about humility - this list is probably longer than any packing list could be!
The little pack above was an example of a gift given to me on the Camino. By the time I got to Granon my feet were really hurting and carrying my heavy pack was definitely not helping. This lightweight daypack was inexpensive but folded up in a little square and the pilgrim who so generously gave it to me had two other packs. Having this light bag meant that I
could send my heavier pack to the next destination with a courier company and for at least one day I could walk with what I needed for that day only. This basically meant lunch, water, first aid goodies and a lightweight rain jacket. It made life on the road so much easier when my feet were really blistered - I made use of this company for four of the 35 days that I walked.
There are many courier companies en route and the one that I used, Jacotrans, did a great job. The cost was either 6 or 7euros per time, depending on the route.
As you will know by now from my previous posts, I did not do much cooking for myself. Those who preferred preparing their own meals however, often complained that they battled to find all the utensils that they needed in the albergues. My friend Eddie insists that these two pieces of gold that he is holding up in the picture below were essential and as he is one of the best cooks I know, I'll put that on my list if I ever choose to cook for myself in future whilst on the Camino.
As for the basic packing list for the camino - if you google those key words you will find pages full of suggestions on as many sites, so I won't list every single item here.
The following are things that I will never travel without again and they will be packed before anything else when I set of on my next Camino adventure in 2013.
- A s-shaped iron hook. This can be bought at one of the many stores stocking Camino goodies in St Jean or you'd probably find it at most hardware stores. This works great in the showers where there are no hooks - I used mine all the time. I always had a little (sealable) bag with my valuables, a toiletry bag and my towel with me when I went to shower so the s-hook came in handy, even if there was a hook, I could always use another!
- A pair of crocs. If you are unfortunate enough to get blisters, these are invaluable. I walked more than 30km in them one day, they were real lifesavers when I could not get my feet in my
walking shoes.
- Friars Balsem. Inexpensive and available at pharmacies - the BEST medicine for treating blisters. It stings like anything when you apply it but it dries up the blisters quicker than anything I know.
- A pen with ink that won't run if your notebook gets wet. This happened to me and some of my notes are somewhat smudged now.
- A lightweight headlamp with good quality, long lasting batteries. Essential for going to the bathroom in the dark and reading at night.
- Safety pins. Take a few different sizes, I found a whole host of uses for them and was able to hand them out as people needed it to repair things, secure bandages etc. 
- A needle and thread. To repair things but also to thread through blisters. ESSENTIAL!
- A lighter. To burn the needle in case you have to use it on blisters.
- A watch. It helps to have something to tell the time by, especially if you're walking long stretches in the countryside.
- A good water bottle - look for something that can keep fluids cold for as long as possible - when walking on the meseta where distances are long and shade scarce, such a bottle is worth gold.
- At least 6 pairs of socks. 3 Thinner inners and three outers. As wonderful as 1000 mile socks are, they take long to dry, so I won't take them again.
- A Spanish simcard. Try and get this before you start walking as it took me about a week before I actually found an open Vodafone shop. Shops open late and often close for lunch, so I had to wait until my walking schedule coincided with that of an open shop! Not all villages have Vodafone shops, so that made it a challenge. I had a Samsung Galaxy and as it was still under guarantee, I was told by the supplier that in order for the guarantee to remain valid, I was not allowed to put a simcard of any company other than Vodafone in the device. Also, make sure that your phone is able to connect to wifi as there are many cafes and bars offering free 'wee-fee' along the route - even in the smallest villages! I really appreciated that as it meant that I could connect with my family - for free! I highly suggest that you load Skype on your phone and link up with your friends or family who are following your journey at home. When I was finally able to get that sorted on my phone it was one of the highlights of my trip - not only speaking to them, but actually being able to see them as well was such a treat! A site such as www.voibuster.com allows you to make free calls from a pc - I spoke to my family in South Africa for ages at a little cafe one day - the owner very kindly made the offer and I gladly accepted!
- Small locks. I just always felt it was a safe and sensible option to lock my backpack when I had to leave it in an albergue, guest house or hotel.
- A lightweight sleeping bag is essential as far as I'm concerned. I loved being able to sleep in my own bag, whether they had blankets or not. In hotels or guest houses I would use the sheets etc. provided, but in albergues I preferred my own sleeping bag by far!
- A good quality, lightweight rain jacket with hood is a must have! I loved the one I bought at home and I know it will travel with me for many years. Make sure that it is windproof - that really helped me in a storm that we were caught in whilst crossing the Pyrenees. There is a difference between 'wind resistant' and 'windproof'!
These are some of the main things that come to mind right now, as I think of more items I will certainly mention them in future posts. 
In summary, looking at this next photograph, I have to wonder if I'm not meant to walk my next Camino with a donkey as companion. Not only will I be able to hitch a ride if my feet play up, I will be able to pack for all occassions...

Friday, November 30, 2012

Food on the Camino

I have to admit, I was really looking forward to meeting the leaner, fitter me that I thought would emerge after walking for 800 kilometers. Turned out I emerged fitter but probably not weighing that much less. In all honesty, I never bothered to climb on a scale either before or after the walk but just looking at the changes in my body, I certainly noticed a firming of sorts. As I needed the energy to keep walking, I decided that that meant I could eat whatever I wanted! 'Whatever-I-wanted' turned out to be a chocolate croissant almost every morning with my coffee, crepes Suzette and creme caramel as part of three course dinners, hot chocolate, sweets for the road...
I'm sure you get the picture! If you don't, allow me to treat you a visual tour of some of the delicacies that came my way during my 35 day trip!
Let's start off with the salads. I have to say, the recipes didn't change that much but I always enjoyed the typical asparagus, tuna, corn, tomato and lettuce combination that arrived on my table. I found it to be filling and once you're a week or two into the trip you notice the slightest variation - an added slice of apple or olive becomes a real treat! The old me would have moaned and groaned about this boring repetition, week after week, but somehow on the Camino I saw food as a blessing that sustained me and I only recall sending empty plates back to the kitchen!

This salad was a real treat, prepared for three of us by my Spanish friend Ivana at the albergue in Azofra. Chickpeas, boiled eggs and carrots with olive oil, loads of laughs and a glass of red wine - enjoyed under the trees next to a little pool in the courtyard - priceless!
Then come the mains! From vegetable soup to tripe, I was game to taste it all!

Yes, you guessed it - this is a plate of tripe and trotters. When I saw this on the menu in a little restaurant in Al Acebo, the quaintest mountain village on the route, I knew that that was going to be supper! My mother and grandmother have always prepared the best tripe dishes, so I am quite familiar, and yes, quite in love with this dish. This was prepared with different spices and takes a second place to my mom's recipe but nonetheless, it made me think of home and once again, my plate went back empty!

Paella - Camino style!

I really looked forward to having this dish as I'd heard so much about it before starting the walk. This is Pulpo, or octopus, and the place to have it, according to the guide books, is Pulperia Ezekiel in a town called Melide. The restaurant itself looks like a school dining room with long tables and benches - they seem to do mass production of this one dish, so not very personable. The food however, was good and the advantage is that by the time you get to this spot you know just about every other patron in the restaurant, so company is also bound to be good. I found them to be expensive and almost felt as if I was falling straight into a tourist trap but I'm glad I stopped to experiense the Pulpo, if nothing else! 

Good old trusted calamari rings and a nice bottle of wine was lunch with my husband in Finisterre!
This was dessert at the famous albergue in Villar de Mazarife, San Antonio de Padua. Pepe Giner, who runs this place, is not only a wonderful physiotherapist but a great cook as well!

No words needed with this image... I justified eating this by telling myself the distance I was going to walk the next day would balance out the calories!
I found the Tarta de Santiago irresistible! I'm still to experiment with it back home but this traditional tart has been associated with the Camino for a very long time. For the recipe and a little more information, click here.
The coffee...
I am not able to start my day without a cup of coffee. True to form then, this is how every day on the Camino began. Coffee in glasses, coffee in plastic containers, coffee in mugs, coffee in cups. One of the first things I learnt to ask for - café con leche. Sometimes it came out in Portuguese but they always understood me! Have I mentioned that I love the coffee in Spain? I can honestly say that I did not have one bad cup of coffee on this trip. Somehow a good cup of coffee and a croissant before you start walking in the morning helps you deal with whatever your challenges are, be it blistered feet, a bad night's rest because you were in the middle of a snoring contest - even a heavy backpack seemed to feel lighter after a good cuppa!

Then there were the snacks...

...never ending!
Just to make sure you know that I also added healthy things to my daily menu - here are some of the choices I had offered to me along the way. Sometimes it was just lying on the ground, sometimes it was displayed along the roadside and you could help yourself in exchange for a 'donativo' and sometimes it was offered to you by fellow pilgrims. Either way - I never lacked a choice of fresh fruit and vegetables along the route.

Finally - the beer shandy!
My absolute favourite drink to have when it's really hot and especially when I'm really tired, is an ice cold beer shandy. For those of you who are not familiar with this drink, it's beer mixed with either a fizzy lemonade or lemon juice. I soon learnt that in Spain I have to ask either for a Clara, or for a Cerveza con limonada. A true lifesaver when the sun sits high and your pack weighs heavy on your back!

A typical day on the Camino! Tending to aching feet whilst enjoying a shandy at a roadside cafe - no one would blink an eye in this part of the world! I often smile to myself when we're at a nice restaurant back home, enjoying a shandy outdoors and I wonder what people would say if I took my shoes off and brought out my Betadine and plasters! You've got to love life on the Camino!

A Magnum ice cream and a coke for the road, a shandy with lunch and a stamp in my Pilgrim's passport. Three of the daily chores taken care of at one stop!
So, as you can see, there is no reason to think that you won't be fed on the Camino! They've got that sorted. I guess if you're considering undertaking this adventure to lose weight, you'd better start working on that willpower right now!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Camino angels

From the very first moment that I decided to walk the Camino, I knew that this journey was going to be unlike anything that I had ever experienced before. Instinctively I knew that I was going to be taught many lessons, that I was going to have to walk with an open heart and that having a teachable spirit was going to be essential.
I had asked for God's blessings and I knew that John Brierley's wonderful guidebook was going to be a mere tool, the directions that I truly needed to guide me on the correct way would be provided in a very different form!
Right from the start, certain verses in the Bible jumped out at me. One of the very first verses that I was unmistakably drawn to was Hebrews 13:1-2:
 "Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it."
These words made such an impression on me that I put it on the blog as a permanent element.
Today, four months after I arrived in Santiago after having walked for 35 days, I found myself giving thanks for the numerous angels who walked with me, laughed with me, guided and protected me, cried with me, sheltered and fed me.
I give thanks to a faithful God who truly keeps His word!
So today I'd like to give specific thanks to the angels who...
...spoke to me in a language that I could understand
...offered a service that enabled me to continue walking - Jacotrans transports your pack to your next destination if you need to walk with a lighter day pack. They came to my rescue four of the thirty five days when I couldn't get my blistered feet in my shoes and had to walk wearing my crocs. Having a lighter day pack on my shoulders enabled me to carry on walking. I promise I didn't write the above but I certainly agree!!
...doctored my feet, unselfishly sharing their own medication and bandages...

...offered me safe places to sleep, sometimes without even expecting to be paid...
...offered me the use of their computers to contact my family, free of charge...
...blessed my life with their warmth and love, translating for me when my Spanish was not good enough and made me laugh until the tears ran down my face...
...took the time to make these little gifts to hand to weary pilgrims as they checked in to the quaintest little albergue...
...brought this precious medicine all the way from South Africa so that I could treat my blisters...
...offered to feed the hungry and expected nothing in return...
..saw me taking pictures of this cross in the sky and then offered to take a picture with me in it...
...decided to turn a tired old geyser into something that made me stop and smile...
..made me this wonderful salad on a day that I was hot, hungry and tired to the bone...
...planted these trees next to the road, therefore providing a shady spot in the middle of nowhere...
...stopped next to me and handed me this ice cold bottle of water through a car window on a day when a heatwave made it almost impossible to walk...
...decided to put this table up under a tree, again in the middle of nowhere, thus providing a place where pilgrims can have their meals...
...gave me ice to ease weary, aching muscles...
...who picked me this St John's Wort and made an infusion for me to drink to ease my hay fever induced migraine...
...provided cooked eggs so that breakfast could be packed for the road...
...sang and played their instruments on the way so that others could bask in what I can only describe as angelic sounds...
...left gifts, not expecting anything in return...
...made me smile when the hills became steep...
...provided little stones to put at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro for those who didn't bring their own...
...made sure my eye caught this little gift hidden on a sidewalk in the middle of a busy city...
...took the time to paint this special sign - I know that each pilgrim reading this feels as if it was written for him or her exclusively!
And finally - the biggest thank you to...
...the countless angels who undertook the enormous task of painting thousands of yellow arrows across Spain. These arrows became so much more than just the route markers that ultimately led me to Santiago. They served to reassure me in so many ways. As long as I saw them, I knew I was following the correct route. I had the assurance that I was where I was supposed to be and that all was well. They assured that I reached my destination and I knew that once I had passed the very last one, I had to look out for them in a different form.
I continue to be guided every day of my life and I know now that my yellow arrows are to be found in the pages of my Bible, in the words of wise people who cross my path, in the stones that are scattered on my beach and in the innocence of  little children. I am richer in so many ways after this experience but most of all, I am thankful beyond words.