the untold story of the camino
Updated: Sep 23
There are guidebooks and blogs but they do not tell you everything. This is the blog which will spill the beans, a tell all, warts and blisters. This is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but bold exageration and artistic licence.
The Camino Francis is one of many old pilgrimage routes ending at Santiago de Compestela. From my starting point in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port it is about 800km. It is not really a great hiking challenge, too many of the paths are tarmac and run near to busy roads, there are too many people to make it quiet and reflective and the landscape can be anything from lovely to uninspiring. This is the second time in a year I am walking it and like a trainee first aider trying to find a pulse I am finding it difficult to put my finger on it. There is one American who wrote a blog called “10 reasons why the Camino sucks” and I sort of agree with him so why do it again? Well here are some of my reasons.
There is a young French Canadian girl who drank too much red wine in Burgos and brought a whole new meaning to redecorating as she “Burgosed” all over the stairs. There is a huge German chap who is carrying a rucksack the size, shape and weight of a washing machine. Yesterday he dropped it to the ground and squashed a little Canadian woman. He then carried his pack and her for 2km before he noticed the extra weight. This little Canadian woman is a feisty feminist and if you make the mistake of engaging her in a semi-political conversation, well all I can say is, you had better know your stuff or be a fast runner. We have two Danish women, one who is chasing men and turns every conversation to sex and the other one who doesn’t think I am funny so the less said about her the better. Oh and of course the Canadian man who is not funny, looks a bit like a homeless person and has so many leg, ankle and knee contraptions attached to him he is more machine than man. Along the way we have picked up a few and mislaid a few. One of my favourites is the Irish fella, bright green fleece and white hat. He sits down beside you and (expletives deleted) says “those … Germans, they get up at five o … clock and put their … head torches on and wake me up as they pack their … bags and make a right … racket, just so they can get to the next town and get the best … beds. Just like being back on the … beach where they put their … towels on the … sun beds”. This conversation will then be abruptly terminated as he gets up and stomps off, this bloke is pure class.
There are other great things to enjoy like personal hygiene in the ‘Albergues’ (hostels). The vagaries of Spanish plumbing makes taking a shower err … interesting. You arrive in the “duche” and stand in line with a mixture of semi naked men. Behind the door you can hear someone getting changed, this is funny. The cubicle is usually the size of a small cupboard and pilgrims, at the end of the day, are not flexible so the man can’t bend over to dry his legs without head butting the door. So, he tries to put his underwear on over wet legs, this is tricky and potentially dangerous because when he gets his underwear stuck on his wet feet he can’t hop and ends up falling into the shower, which then miraculously turns on scorching water. Eventually he emerges a broken man, with one leg in his underwear, bruised, bleeding and more wet than when he started. Now it’s my turn.
It is usually a fight to get a bottom bunk near the door. There are two main reason, one is simple, there are a few older men and women who, after a night of sampling the local beer and wine, need to go to the WC in the middle of the night. Falling out of the top bunk then stumbling over everyone’s rucksacks in the dark is NOT funny. The other reason is even less funny. Imagine 30 people in a room all breathing, snoring, letting off body odours from feet and armpits and bottoms. This warm air rises as a fug, hits the ceiling and then over the night descends until the people on the top bunk start breathing it in. It’s like breathing tear gas, people cough and choke and as their eyes water they wake up with a banging headache they miss vital sleep time, until they pass out. My advice to any future Camino pilgrim, get the bottom bunk, fight, kick, bite, bribe, anything, anything at all just get that bottom bed.
If you value personal modesty you might have to rethink things. In a room of fifty people it is a 100% certainty you will wake up in the morning to be faced with the full moon of the big Brazilian man or the dangly bits of the old Dutch fella. Let’s just be honest here, it’s just body parts, often old, ugly, fat and tired, so what? I mean it, seriously so what? The people who make the most fuss get noticed the more. Just whip off your sleeping kecks (underwear) and pull on your walking kecks. Done quickly no one notices and those who do don’t care, well apart from that creepy French guy, stay away from him.
Camino pilgrims develop a nervous twitch when someone in the smell (the collective noun for a group of pilgrims is a “smell”) shouts “bicycle”. Then pilgrims jump into hedges, ditches and over the side of bridges to avoid being run over by these mad ones, we live in fear of them. Never, ever shout “bicycle” as a joke, it’s not funny and walking pilgrims will hit you. Certain pilgrims develop what can only be described as an unnatural attachment to their rucksacks. They hug them and give them names. We have all developed a complex anxiety when we walk and we can’t see the big yellow painted arrows. The Canadian guy is going to develop an app to download where the pilgrim can just open it and see a yellow arrow, this will ease our anxiety disorder. Other pilgrims are so connected to the virtual world they walk into Spanish and ask for weefee (English pronounce it wyfy but the Spanish say wee fee). These guys (usually men) are so happy, they get the password order a “cafe con leche” and then sit at a table, ignoring all the pilgrims and then talk to their smart phones. They say things like “oh cummon connect why don’t you?” “it’s the right password why don’t you recognise it”, “please connect, please” that sort of thing. We leave the table as his coffee goes cold and he begins to cry and curse.
Do you like food, wine, good company and laughing? Well if you do then sitting in an utterly anonymous Spanish town in nondescript building with 20 people from all over the world is the place for you. The Canadian guy is dicing onions (badly). The German guys is texting and making funny comments. The Australian woman is chopping garlic and drinking all the beer and the Danish girl is hitting on the Spanish barman. The language is mostly English but arm waving, pointing and drinking seem to paper over the gaps in conversation.
In fact I would go so far as to say walking the Camino should be compulsory especially for those rich people in positions of power, like politicians. They should be forced to leave their security details behind, not have a retinue of staff preparing food or sorting out their beds. There would be no need for “world peace” conferences or the “UN” because they would sort out all their differences as they walk, simple really. They would discover the egotistical dictator who wants to rule the planet is just an ordinary man with issues. Okay so he is also the President of the USA but really he just wants to be loved. And the little Korean guy crying in the corner, he just wants someone to help him pierce his blisters. The Italian leader has annoyed everyone because he was sent out to get pasta for dinner but got waylaid, had two coffee’s and bedded the Spanish waitress but it’s okay because he didn’t pay her. The nice little old lady hasn’t quite come to terms with the fact she can’t get cucumber sandwiches with the crust cut off but apart from that she is coping well and finds the man from Iran quite charming and enjoys his conversation about how his people only want electricity from nuclear power stations.
As they walk 30km a day with 10 kilo back packs in 28 degree’s, wait for the shower, share food and enjoy a beer or red wine or can of limonade they will learn to chill out. They will eventually learn to help each other repair blisters and tend wounds, cook together, wash up and listen to each others stories. By 9.30pm they will be so tired they will stumble off to their own bed (except for the Italian chap, he will be climbing into the princess of somewhere’s bed but it’s okay so long as he doesn’t pay her). By 10pm they will be too tired to think about invading other people’s countries because they will, like the rest of us, wish the night were 15 hours long. Beside’s it would be such bad form to invade the country of that nice little man with the bad limp just because his country has a lot of oil. Of course everyone will be woken up at 5am as the sneaky German woman packs her bag and races out to get the best bed at the next hostel.