About Me

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Author of Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town http://tinyurl.com/owdwvrp I write about travel and adventure from my home in California and from Africa. I've sailed a catamaran from California to Hawaii, trekked in the Himalayas, worked as a construction manager on a bridge project in Zambia, hiked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, (http://bootsbedouinsandabridge.blogspot.com/) and traveled in over 100 countries and all seven continents. Indie Book Award Winner for Best Memoir of 2012, New York Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, Travelers Tales Solas Award for Best Travel Writing Honorable Mention for My Gambian Husband. Indie Book Award Finalist - Best Travel Book 2013. BOTYA Honorable Mention 2013 - Travel Essay. Member of The Explorers Club since 2013 You can follow my current 2013-2014 expedition across Africa, this time in a 1973 Land Rover Series III 109 on http://teresaokane.blogspot.com/ and on facebook https://www.facebook.com/safarijema

Friday, April 30, 2010

A Typical Day on The Camino de Santiago

When we stay in a refugio or albergue (a pligrim hostel), we are obliged to follow Peregrino rules. Everyone has to clear out of the refugio by 8am. There is also an informal “no stirring before 6 am” rule, which many people ignore. Some early birds are chomping at the bit to be out the door by 5:30 each morning.

Occasionally, the refugio will offer breakfast of bread, jam, and coffee. Sometimes they will prepare a pilgrim meal at night.
In the teeny village of Juan de Ortega we stayed in the church annex and the community served us garlic soup, after mass. It’s better than it sounds, and I think it might have kept the fleas at bay that night.

Anyway, by 6:00a.m., there is a whole lot of rustling going on as people stuff their sleeping bags, pull on their hiking clothes, and arrange their backpacks. Taps are running and toilets are flushing. As I wake up I try not to notice that the Italian cyclist two bunks down wears briefs, not boxers. (Size 32, very colorful).
At 7a.m., those still asleep (an incredible feat!) are jolted into consciousness with a recording of Gregorian chants, traditional pilgrim songs, or in one case, Bob Marley. More rustling is joined by whispers in French, German, Spanish, Dutch…. Soon the room is vibrating with steady conversation; “How far are you going today?”, “Do you think it will rain again?”, “Can you believe how loud that guy snored?” People tend to their blisters and coat their feet with Vaseline before pulling on clean socks, and boots. The Spaniards swear by Vaseline as a way to prevent eruptions. Band-Aid wrappers and moleskin backing make up the majority of trash in an albergue.
Boots are usually neatly stacked on shelves near the front door for airing overnight.

It’s always a blessing to utilize all the facilities before one leaves the refugio in the morning because toilets are few and far between on the trail. For the first week urgencies struck me at the most inopportune moments and I had no choice but to fertilize some poor farmer’s wheat field, or olive grove, or vineyard. So if someone offers you this year’s red wine harvest from the Rioja region of Spain, you should give it a miss, because there is sure to be a little of Tris in every drop.

If the refugio hasn’t provided breakfast, or if we don’t have our own supply of bananas or yogurt, we start the trail on an empty stomach. Caf├ęs are few and far between and don’t open before 9:30 am anyway.
As the refugio empties, everyone wishes one another a Buen Camino, a good walk. We walk out of the refugio and look for a yellow arrow, usually painted on the road, or on a building, which indicates the way to go. (We usually arrive the previous evening so tired, nothing looks familiar. The next morning, we barely remember which direction we came from, so the arrows are a blessing.)
All day long, we follow yellow arrows. They appear on trees, benches, stop signs, buildings, overpasses, or on dedicated Camino steles. Sometimes someone has taken the time to fashion an arrow from stones collected along the road. We are always curious to meet the people who have the energy to do that.
Acceptable modes of travel on the Camino are by foot, by bicycle, by horse, or by donkey. Every day we look for signs of the one donkey on the trail. By the evidence (fresh, but not that fresh), the donkey is a day ahead of us.

With a 25-pound backpack (35 for Scott), we walk for 6 to 8 hours each day. It will take a long time at our slow 'stop to pet a dog, or cat, or calf' pace to walk the 706 kilometers to Santiago.
The landscape and scenery varies by the hour. One day it’s gentle rolling hills of nothing but wheat fields. The next, it’s vineyards followed by a steep climb. The day after, we walk on 17 kilometers of straight-as-an-arrow Roman road, The Via Trajana. Sometimes, we walk on a path next to a main road and those are our least favorite days.

By 10am, it’s time for a coffee break, or to check in with the friends we made the night before at the refugio. Everyone walks at his or her own pace. Many people prefer to walk alone, solitario.

If we are lucky, the town might have a shop or tienda where we can buy supplies for a picnic lunch. Everything closes in the middle of the day, so we have to time this carefully, or we can go the day without eating. This happened only once.

The daily walk is usually broken every 3, or 6, or 13 kilometers by another village with a church - always a church - and a bar. Bars serve coffee, croissants, beer, and sandwiches in a smoke filled environment. But it is the only place for a cup of coffee in the morning or a cold San Miguel for an afternoon pick-me-up.

In almost every town, an enormous stork nest or two tops the towers of Romanesque style churches. We can hear the storks clacking their beaks as they build their nests, long before we can see them. The storks and their nests, have become our favorite symbol of the Camino.
Throughout the day, we are serenaded by frogs that make sounds like the tribbles from Star Trek. It seems there is never a single moment without birdsong, and we love that part of walking the Camino.

Sometimes, the scenery is like walking through a photo that has been enhanced in Photoshop. The sky is too blue, the shoots of newly planted wheat too green, the clouds too blindingly white and fluffy. But the colors are real.

We walk a few more hours, before stopping to make a picnic lunch. For us, lunch is usually a baguette with tuna, or salmon, or Parma ham with cucumber or tomato, and an apple, or bananas. Sometimes a village dog will come to investigate what we are eating and ask us to share. We drink lots of water throughout the day. Refills are available from spouts in the villages’ main plazas.

By 3 in the afternoon, we are usually ready to stop for the day – our feet are killing us and I am ready to throw my pack into a ditch. But there isn't a church steeple in sight, so we must keep going. I pray that there is not a steep ascent, or any change in elevation at all, before we get there. It doesn’t matter if we walk 13 kilometers or 24. The last 4 kilometers are always murder.

Finally, we reach a village and follow the yellow arrows to an albergue or refugio (same thing). The villages often seem completely deserted. There are many For Sale signs. The recession has hit Spain hard.

Once inside the refugio, we present the Pilgrim Credentials that were issued to us on our first day in Pamplona. The hospitaliar puts a stamp inside our “passport”, and we pay the cost of accommodation, usually between 5-8 euros, or whatever you want to donate. Then, we are assigned 2 beds in a dormitory. If we are early (HA!), they might say, “Pick any bed.” Near a window, away from the ablutions is a good choice. Some people take naps, some shower, some write in journals, or read, or talk. ‘Wasn’t it pretty today?”, “Did you stop at the Templar church?"
Sometimes there is local entertainment. In one village, the hospitaliar suddenly exclaimed, “The cows are coming!” and we all went out to watch a nightly parade of cows walking through the main square with the locals. Scott was inspired. We tied red sashes (the rain covers for our packs) around our waists and "ran with the bulls". Only, they weren't bulls. They were matronly cows with milk-swollen udders.

At 7:30 or 8 pm, a “pilgrim meal” is served, usually at the one bar or restaurant in town, or sometimes at the albergue. We select from a first course of soup, or salad, or paella, a second course of stew, pork, fish, rabbit, or chicken, and a dessert. Every meal comes with water, bread, and a bottle or two of wine, all for between 8-10 euros. I love the pilgrim menu! We walk all day, have a hot shower, then someone cooks for us, and brings us all the wine we want. The only bad part is that we eat this big meal, and then it’s time to go to bed. Lights out is usually 10 pm. This is when the conversations with God begin in earnest. Dear God, can the mattress be long enough to stretch out in and un-lumpy enough for a good sleep? Dear God, I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow. The best I’ve overheard are "Lord, bless and heal my feet" or the ever popular, "God, let my sleep be peaceful".

Mine always is, Please, God, help me convince the Spaniard sleeping in the next bunk that fresh air is a good thing. This is how the conversation goes each night between me and the person in the next bunk. I try my best to communicate in Spanish, which by now you know is pretty bad, to say the least.
I open the window.
Spaniard says, “No! During the night the air will cross my face!”
“Yes!” I say. “The time in this temperature is very good!”
Spaniard looks at me with mixture of pity and confusion and says once more, “No!”
I plead with my eyes and say, “Until sleep time, it is well that the window is open for business!” Spaniard rolls over.
The symphony of snoring begins.

Scott and Tris
On the Way of St. James
Camino Francais, Spain


  1. Dear Tris and Scott,
    Thank you for sharing your trek. I LOVE reading your adventures with a good cup of tea. The pictures are wonderful. I admire your sense of adventure. It's truly rare and beautiful. Happy trails and we will hope to see you in a few months to hear the entire story!

  2. Abrir la ventana, por favor! I hope your feet are still (mostly) in one piece!

  3. The walking, hot shower, and someone cooking for you sounds WONDERFUL, oh and maybe the "very colorful briefs" I'm jealous!! Then you had to mention the lumpy beds, not so "fresh air" and the last 4 treacherous km....now I'm happy to be sitting here in my comfy office reading your delightful story. :-)
    We miss you...all of our love, Mary and Steve

  4. You are so funny. I love your stories. I was living next door to you for 5 years so I wonder if you know what type of underwear I wore. Don't answer that!!

    I wish I was there with you!