Perplexing pilgrim problems on the Camino de Santiago – part 1.

Hello friends!

People like problems don’t they? I mean, when you have a conversation with someone, sooner or later the discussion might veer off in the direction of glass-half-empty-land or even plunge into the abyss of  downright moaning. Well in my relatively recent and limited experience pilgrims are no different. Following on from my earlier post entitled “Funny pilgrim habits”,  I thought I would give you an illustration of some of the rather perplexing problems pilgrims face along el Camino de Santiago, that just might put John Bunyan‘s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ in the shade…but I guess that depends on your perspective right?

1) Accommodation anxiety

Life on the Camino is very simple. So simple, anyone can do it, even a blonde like me. Usually early in the morning, you get up and dressed, pack up your backpack and you go walking. And you walk. You walk and you walk  and you walk some more. You stop for breakfast and you walk until second breakfast and then you walk until you decide to stop for lunch, after which you might press on some more until you reach your destination for the day. Simple pimple.

However, at some point during the day, I have observed rising levels of anxiety in pilgrims, who worry about whether they will find somewhere to stay for the night, when they reach their destination. This anxiety can be catching, so that groups of pilgrims who zoom past, click-clacking away with their trekking poles, can seem like bubbles of nervous energy ready to explode. This anxiety can surface even early in the morning when some pilgrims might decide to get up at 4.00am, flashing their head torches indiscriminately in the faces of comatose pilgrims, whilst noisily rustling the plastic bags in their backpack as they are getting ready to leap out of the albergue door and onto the Camino trail once again. They just have to get up, get going and get there before anyone else so they can have the pick of the albergue dorms and beds (usually bagging bottom bunks) and begin the cycle all over again.

Now, don’t get me wrong I can understand this type of anxiety arising during the height of the summer season and even in a Holy Year (when the Day of St. James, 25th July, falls on a Sunday), when pilgrim numbers are highest and accommodation is in great demand. However, between September and November, the Camino Frances is less busy and pilgrims have no need to worry in finding somewhere to stay for the night. In fact I haven’t had any difficulty at all in finding a bed for the night, either at albergues, casa rurals, hostals, pensions, or even the occasional hotel. I think the manifestation of accommodation anxiety has more to do with the perceived lack of control pilgrims have over how their day pans out, particularly those who may have temporarily escaped their rigidly, structured, planned and coordinated lifestyles back home.

For me, a little part of the magic and mystery of walking el Camino de Santiago is going into the unknown and trusting that my needs will be met along the journey. I set my intention for the day, that I will have a good walk and will feel led to the right place to stay and then I go out trusting in my intuition and in the flow of the Way. It can actually be exciting not knowing where I will end up and I haven’t been disappointed!

2) Baring blisters

Imagine a beautiful, bright and sunny, summer’s day and you have invited a bunch of friends round for a barbecue. You gather together in the garden, pull up a few chairs, pour a few drinks and before you know it your mates have taken their shoes and socks off and begin waving their toes in your face. They gesticulate at all sorts of foot rot and flesh wounds, compare, contrast and commiserate and expect you to join in, even when you have your hands full of spare ribs in a smoky, BBQ sauce…but I digress …er slightly. You get the picture?

This bravely baring blisters behaviour is actually quite normal for pilgrims at rest stops, and strangely just before meal times. There’s something about being a pilgrim on the Camino that strips away many of the usual social norms and boundaries among strangers. You become part of an international family and the act of baring blisters or injuries becomes a bonding ritual! Bizarre as this may sound, it also offers up a wonderful opportunity to help someone out by sharing Compeeds, moleskin dressings or antiseptic or any other bits of essential Camino kit.

3) Losing lingerie

I have to say this next problem is really perplexing. I have become alarmed by the sheer numbers of peregrinos and peregrinas, who have proclaimed in a rather discrete manner (thank God) that they have lost their underwear! Yes, you read that correctly. Knickers and underpants have gone missing. How or why I really don’t know. You could be forgiven for jumping to the totally wrong conclusions by assuming the Camino could be like an 18 to 30 something holiday club or crazy Contiki tour, where losing lingerie is the natural fall-out of alcohol-steeped, extra-curricular activities. However, walking the Camino de Santiago, couldn’t be further removed from those realities.

So where on earth are the smalls? Is the Camino Frances a vortex like the Bermuda triangle, where underwear have simply slipped through the space-time continuum? Or is there a secret knicker thief stalking unsuspecting pilgrims ready to pinch dangling unmentionables from backpack washing lines or loitering with intent in albergue laundries? Who knows? It shall remain one of those little mysteries of the Way.

4) Niggly noses

A really annoying problem is the runny nose. I have experienced this myself, pretty much  every morning as soon as I set foot onto the trail. Sometimes, the niggling nose is merely a casualty of the Camino cold that was doing the rounds. At other times, when I have been feeling absolutely fine, my nose started to run for no apparent reason (and I couldn’t keep up with it ha!) and I have developed the need for an abundance of tissues.

Oddly, the dribbling stops after a couple of hour or so. I am not alone. Several pilgrims I have walked with have also encountered sensitive schnozzes. Perhaps it is caused by the cool and fresh morning air or a reflex reaction to the thought of walking 30 km!

5) Silence of the shoes

There are broadly two types of pilgrim. Those who wear hard and high hiking or trail boots and those who wear lower, softer shoes like trainers, running shoes or even sandals. Wearing the ‘wrong boots or shoes'(as Eric from Le Chemin vers L’Etoile in St. Jean Pied de Port would declare) can lead to all sorts of problems not least shin splints, blisters galore, sore insteps and heels and so on. Eventually discomfort leads to abandoned footwear. Orphaned boots dotted here and there along the Camino are a sorry sight. They appear unloved and bereft, emptied of their purpose and soul. Suspended inanimation and oh so quiet.

It appears as though some were cast aside because their soles had sprung loose from their uppers and talking shoes were born.  I am reminded of a wonderful poem about a talking shoe that precedes a song called ‘Zebra’ by the Big Geraniums, on their album Tall Tales and Short Stories. I have tried to track down the transcript but can’t find it at the moment. If you can find it please send it to me!

I am sure pilgrim shoes have much to say, step after step, mile after mile. In fact one pair of such shoes (from Cuba) shares its beautiful and poignant story on the wall of the sun terrace, on the first floor at Casa Jesus in Villar de Mazarife. Go on, I dare you to take a look if you don’t believe me! But alas, the chatter of talking shoes might have been too much for some pilgrims causing them to take drastic action and muzzle them with duct tape. Sigh. The silence of the shoes reverberates down the Way.

6) Tip toeing through time warps

Another common problem, which also appears to spread among pilgrims a bit like the hundredth monkey effect, is losing track of time, not only the minutes and hours of each day but days and weeks as they begin to bleed into one. Several times I have caught myself asking other pilgrims what day of the week it is and the date. I don’t think it had anything to do with the wine accompanying many a pilgrim meal in the evenings!

This collective ‘amnesia’ could be the result of re-setting one’s body clock to the daily rhythms of the Camino walking routine and the circadian rhythms found in nature, so that the name of days or exact dates lose their importance. But is this really a perplexing problem? It depends on your perspective and priorities. I found this fascinating and, while it can stress out pilgrims locked into a ‘pre-determined’ schedule, others can experience this as a liberation from the usual structures and measures of life back home. In fact, I’ll hazard a guess that the very nature of perpetual walking helps to focus one’s mind on the present moment in time, putting Eckhart Tolle‘s ‘The Power of Now’ into action.

7) Vexing the vegetarians

The last time I looked tuna was not a vegetable. Now you would think that a salad would be a pretty safe bet for a vegetarian or vegan walking the Camino. But oh no! Why is that many an albergue or restaurant offering pilgrim meals give vegetarians a mixed salad containing tuna? Cut it out!

It must be hard being veggie or vegan in Spain as there do not seem to be many alternatives to meat or fish on the menu. However, I have seen glimmers of hope particularly during the second half of the Camino Frances, when I began to notice more albergues offering vegetarian meals. But are they served with or without fish I wonder? Check them out and give the thumbs up to those places dishing up genuinely veggie or vegan meals and passed the word along the trail.

In due course I will be giving my own ‘Sarah’s scallop shell ratings’ to accommodation and eateries I have used along my Camino walk, so stay tuned for those…

Anyway, I think that is enough talk of pilgrim problems for one day. There will be more to come, sure as tuna is tuna.

For now I will leave you to veg out in front of your screen until the next time.

Peace, love and light,

Sarah xxx


4 thoughts on “Perplexing pilgrim problems on the Camino de Santiago – part 1.

  1. As usual, memories flood back. I have tried to tell many people to stay away from the hiking boots and just wear trainers or even sandals. Too proud, many refuse to blame the shoe and live with the blisters, muscle spasms, shin splints and foot cramping that goes along with it. So glad I used my head and wore my sneakers and sandals. Few blisters and no muscle problems…

    Liked by 1 person

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