Ruth and Andy, two of our staffers, walked the Camino de Santiago de Compestela, the legendary pilgrim's route through Spain - and loved it so much they kept going! Over 900km later, they're seasoned Camino travellers. Here are their tips for making it through with your mind and your heels intact.
Take earplugs. One night in an ancient convent with sixty middle-aged and tired out men lying on their backs in bunks within 20 metres of you will teach you this. Earplugs are also good for those times at the refugio when you just want to sit down in silence - for a pilgrimage the Camino can get mighty conversational. Warning: Earplugs may shield you from offending sounds but will not protect your nostrils from any penetrating body vapors.
Remember, it's not a race. This can be hard to remember, particularly towards the end of the walk when the refugios start to get crowded - most of them work on a 'first walker in gets the bed' policy. It's very easy to exhaust yourself trying to make sure of that bed at the end of the day: one way around this is to suck it up and carry a bedroll. Or cheat and grab a taxi.
Ask for advice. One of the most amazing things about the Camino is the people you will meet. Many of them are experienced walkers - in fact scratch anyone and they'll be an expert on something. This was how I found out about a fail-safe protection from blisters - from an old lady I shared a bunk room with on the second night. Wear women's stockings (knee-highs are fine) under your socks. Also, if lost, just adopt a bewildered look while looking at a map and scratching your head. This will instantly attract a horde of old ladies tugging at your arm and pointing you in the direction of yet another swarm of old ladies at the end of the street, waving at you and beckoning you forward along the route like the simple fool you are. It's like having your own personal Google maps, but wrinklier.
Talk, and listen. Conversations on the Camino can last for days. The walking, and the nothing-to-do-but-walk thing, makes for a gentle, rambling, stream-of-conciousness type conversation that's precious and unique. You'll never forget some of these talks. Also, talk to locals as much as possible. They can't speak much English, you can't speak much Spanish, but you generally find they don't mind and it's quite fun conversing with people using the language of charades.
Keep a journal. You'll see many people on the walk jotting down their thoughts in the long afternoons once you've reached the refugio, had your siesta and stretched out in the sun or in front of the fire. The Camino will put you in a place that can be hard to remember later when you rejoin the non-Camino world, so keep a record in any way you can!
Take some music. No matter how much you're thinking 'I'm doing this walk to experience the silence and listen to the world' etc etc, there are some times when your feet are killing you and the wind's in your face and you want to be somewhere, anywhere else, and it really helps to listen to some tunes.
Get a stick. You may not think right now that you could be friends with a stick, or name it, or want to spend time planning & whittling designs on it and tying things to it. The stick you choose will be your friend. Ours were called Frankenstick and Stickenstein. Love it and look after it, and lean on it, and use it to balance the weight of your pack and stop you falling over in the mud. There may be people with more, larger or more ornate sticks on the walk. Do not envy them - love the stick you're with. Do not be jealous of Europeans with professional walking poles either. Mocking them helps.
Pack Light. You may think you need seventeen pairs of Gators and three pairs of dress shoes just in case you happen upon a five-star restaurant in regional northern Spain but the cold hard reality is that you are well and truly shikkered at the end of most days and a constantly revolving wardrobe becomes quite low on the old priorities. Keep it basic: the last thing you need when you're walking 35 kms in the rain is a heavy pack filled with the entire series of Harry Potter because you thought you might want to catch up on your reading.
Carry a knife. One of those cool knives with a corkscrew and a electric toothbrush built in that ties your shoelaces for you. I was in constant knife envy on the walk as I had a titchy little pen knife which I think was in a showbag from a bank I joined. When everyone else is slicing and dicing hard cheeses and cured meats in a meadow for lunch with their Knifemaster 3000s and your food is trapped inside some tinned device and you can't get it out without stabbing yourself with your blunt excuse for a utensil, well, you can imagine the embarrassment.
Prepare for the unpreparable-for. You will cry and scream and shout and hate people, things and trees. You will rail against the world, yourself, your shoes and your pack (but never your stick). You'll be jealous, petty, hungry, thirsty, furious, ecstatic, joyful, silly, sick, stupid, inane and perfect. You'll be intensely involved with the intricate workings and changes in your own body and you'll be thrown up against a wide variety of people from all over the world. You'll essentially be given a crash course in what it means to be human. Enjoy the hell out of it.
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