Lessons from the Camino: Part One – Acceptance

While the lessons of the Camino aren’t exclusive to the pilgrims who walk along it, as these simple lessons can be learned anywhere and on any day in anyone’s life, they have come to me along this journey in such a concentrated form, condensed in time and space, it reminds me of the Minute Made orange juice we used to get from the freezer section at the grocery store when I was kid. These lessons have come so hard and fast that I am very grateful that I gave myself scheduled layovers or “writing days” to allow them to fully sink-in.

Acceptance has been a recurring lesson throughout my life but never has it been more apparent since experiencing the “pains” of child birth, basic training, or the car accident that left me hospitalized when I was 16. Of the three, the Camino is most similar to basic training in that, not only do you deal with the issues of your own acceptance, you witness the trials and tribulations of other pilgrims’ issues along the way as well. Some travelers are more skilled than others in how they “handle” stress, but either way, the Camino has demonstrated a continuum of possible reactions for every situation. One of the major pilgrim challenges that comes to mind has been starting off each day not knowing where exactly they are going to sleep each night.

When it comes to accommodations along the Camino, there is a plentitude of options. Now that I am two weeks into the trip, I have stayed in every type of housing possible (except camping… maybe next time). In the beginning of my trip, I relied on my Booking.com picks, mostly hostels and technically up-to-date albergues that gave me the piece of mind that I needed back home in Colorado, almost a security blanket of sorts. But eventually, when I was finally “on the ground,” I knew I was going to have to stop being a chicken and accept making do with finding accommodations “on the fly,” as not every town offers an affordable option through Booking and some villages you come across are hardly on the map.

My first unknown destination was Los Arcos. Arriving late, I found that most of the albergues were booked up and a couple I decided were a little sketchy to enter (though from later reports, I heard they were just fine) so I ended up spending my first night at a regular hotel. I had to accept that it was a little out of my budget, but the benefits included my own shower and a huge double bed without the rumblings of close-quarter roommates. Sounds like a dream, I know…but while the place had all the amenities, it lacked the character and inclusiveness that I had felt sharing bunks with other pilgrims, all “in the same boat” and with similar reason for being there as I. However, time alone can be lesson in acceptance too. (The lesson learned that day was a classic, “the early bird gets the worm.”)

I stayed in my first “donativo” Municipal albergue in the little city of Najera, only giving five euros for the night’s stay, thinking I could make up a little money for over-spending in Los Arcos. And yes, I feel a little guilty even admitting this, as the staff saved my hide when they let my buddy and I in after curfew as we got carried way, enjoying wine and a few stories, completely losing track of time as is doesn’t get dark until after 10pm here in Spain. We really were fortunate, as my buddy relayed a story about some folks he had met that found themselves in a similar predicament. They had received permission to be late so they could watch the entirety of a “very important” soccer game, but the guy who told them they could stay out forgot to inform his replacement. These folks ended up finding a car that was unlocked and slept in the parking lot. Talk about acceptance.

The Najera Municipal provided me a bed in one large room that could house up to 90 pilgrims and this was the first place I’ve encountered (but not the last) that didn’t supply a blanket. Not having a sleeping bag, sleeping sack, or blanket of my own, as I had chosen to accept this occasional inconvenience for a lighter pack to carry on my journey, I had planned on using my multipurpose sarong for such an event. As it was also acting as a towel, I simply accepted that I couldn’t take a shower until the morning so I could keep the sarong dry. I donned all my warmest layers, very grateful that I had packed such items for just this reason.

It all worked out, as the 70 plus people inhabiting the room that night raised the temperature substantially and I actually had to shed clothing in the middle of the night. Not showering turned out to be a good thing as well, as I was told by many a pilgrim that the hot water had run out and so I felt extremely fortunate (and a little full of myself) when I took my piping hot shower the next morning after the water heater had a chance to recover.

As it turns out, some of my most comfortable nights came at the cheapest albergues and donativos (donation only). One cozy little place called La Casa Roja, a donativo in the small village of Ages, offered an attic space with eight one level bunks. I hadn’t even planned on staying in that little town originally as I was supposed to stay at the Municipal in San Juan de Ortega. But there was only one accomodation in the entirety of San Juan (and nothing else) and I had accepted the advice of a few pilgrims to forgo my original plan and continue on another 3 kilometers to Ages for more options.

Even though I had to duck every time I got out of bed, it was one of the best nights I’ve had on the trip. I dined with Antonia, a Croatian woman, Silvka, a German woman, and Silvia, an Argentine woman and had a blast listening to all their stories and their motivations for being on the Camino. If it wasn’t for Antonia, who I had walked into town with and who seemed to know everyone in the little “red house” upon arrival, I probably would have paid twice as much at the other albergue up the street. It turned out that there were only three of us in the attic that night and they even supplied free blankets! I guess “going with the flow” is the true practice of acceptance.

With the constant chatter about bed bugs, some people might have been too scared to use the blankets but I accepted the blankets gratefully, having learned by then that bed bugs are really a roll of the dice no matter where you stay (as pilgrims can transport them), accepting that it could happen regardless of the place or how much you paid to be there.

However, my acceptance was tested that night when a neighbor up the street came home blaring the Gypsy Kings with full base. At first, I wanted to walk down the street and ask the person to turn it down, even visualizing a near death fight scene breaking out, me using my walking sticks to bludgeon the speakers to smitherines. But I realized that I was probably the only one awake in the “little red house” and that if I walked out to complain, I would probably wake up everyone else on my way down the creaky stairs (the opposite of my heroic fantasy). Instead, I “turned my frown upside down,” shut the window, put my earplugs back in, and found that simply accepting that the music was just going to be there, I was able to stop focusing on it and drop off to sleep. Whether it is loud music, loud roommates, or roosters waking me up at 4:30 in the morning, I’m learning that not getting a full night’s sleep is one thing I just have to accept on the his trip. (No wonder the Spanish take a siesta.)

A few other tests in acceptance have been the weather, the physical discomfort of walking 12-15 miles a day, sketchy wi-fi, and knowing that I’m probably going to gain weight on this trip from all the bread they serve in this country. (When in Rome…or Pamplona?). The weather has been a huge test in acceptance for many of us pilgrims that I’ve met thus far. This year has been an unseasonably wet spring here in Spain. But, as I know it will get warmer quickly, as the summer is nearly upon us, I’ve accepted the on and off again rainstorms, being grateful for the cooler weather to walk in and especially grateful having “gleaned” the navy blue poncho (with the maroon hair tie) someone forgot at the first cafe a few miles outside the city limits of Estella (I’m still looking to find the owner).

The discomfort that comes with walking 15 miles a day is another test. I mean, of course its going to be uncomfortable, that’s to be expected. But acceptance of the pain and discomfort is quieted when I remember that there are people walking along side me with much greater hardships than mine. There are people here twice my age, people with past injuries and ailments much greater than my own, and people with much heavier hearts. Accepting that my story is not unique or more special than anyone else’s has been a humbling experience and one that makes me feel grateful for the life I’ve had up to this point, teaching me to accept how lucky I truly am to be here at all.

Okay, well that’s all I have time for here in Burgos as it is time to accept that I can’t spend my whole day editing and not every blog entry can be perfect as I need to hit the trail, moving on to the next little town of Hornillos del Camino. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!

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