Category Archives: travel

Ten Tips for Walking the Camino de Santiago

Note: today’s post is a bit different. It’s about travel, rather than language learning. For me, travel and language learning are intertwined. While each is enriching on its own, they’re exponentially richer and deeper when combined.

The Camino de Santiago – a network of walking trails snaking through Spain and the rest of Europe, all of them ending in Santiago de Compostela – will always hold a special place in my heart.

The Camino is what launched my passion for language learning in the first place – something that has enriched my life enormously.

It was also a truly unparalleled travel experience. I traveled with my Dad – the first time that we had ever undertaken such a long journey with just the two of us. We traveled slowly, by foot, walking nearly 800 kilometres from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Most night we stayed in albergues, simple and inexpensive accommodations with bunk beds reserved for peregrinos (pilgrims, or people walking the Camino).

The Camino is growing ever more popular with travellers interested in a unique cultural experience. If you’re considering this adventure – and I highly recommend that you do – I’d like to share a few tips for a successful Camino de Santiago.

caminodesantiagotips

Just follow the yellow arrows…

1. Learn some Spanish before you go.

Obviously I’m a bit biased here. After all, I’m a language blogger. Of course I’m going to suggest that you learn the language before you go.

But speaking some Spanish opens so many doors! Many of the albergue hospitaleros and cafe owners that I met spoke no English. Being able to speak Spanish meant that I could ask for help, share stories, and connect more deeply with the people that I met. Even the simplest greetings – thank you, you’re welcome, please, hello – can help you connect with locals.

Mi Vida Loca and Coffee Break Spanish are two engaging (and free!) introductory courses that can help you learn some of the standard tourist phrases. If you want to dive in a bit deeper and really learn Spanish, you can check out my Spanish from Scratch post for suggestions on how to get started.

2. Pack light.

There’s really no need for a massive 60 litre bag, especially if you’re walking the highly developed Camino Frances. There are towns and villages every 5 km, so it’s relatively easy to get what you need along the way.

I recommend a 30-40 litre bag with just the bare minimum: a change of clothes, shoes for the shower, a sleeping bag or light blanket, a simple first aid kid, rain gear. My bag – an ultralight 32 litre backpack – weighed about 7 kg fully loaded with snacks and water for the day. Your feet, back and legs will thank you for limiting the weight!

There are many water fountains along the way. We found that two 500 ml bottles each were plenty. We’d drink our fill in the morning at the albergue, fill up our bottles before leaving, and then fill up again any time we found a source of drinking water.

An extra advantage to packing light is that it’s easy to find what you’re looking for in your bag, and packing up in the morning goes much more quickly.

caminopacking

Everything that I carried with me. One dry sack contained a silk sleep sheet and a down blanket; one held a full set of clothes and some extra socks; and the third held gear for cold or wet weather. The semi-transparent packing cube held toiletries, notebook, pen, flashlight, first aid kit, phone charger, laundry kit and other small odds and ends. The black thing under the baseball cap is an ultralight messenger bag made from a repurposed parachute. In addition to what I was carrying on my back, I also wore boots, a full set of clothes, and a small neck pouch with my passport, cell phone, money and cards.

3. Take care of your feet. (And your knees. And your back.)

Even if you’re fit and strong, you can expect some aches and pains along the way. I’d say that 90% of the people I talked to struggled with minor physical problems at some point during the walk – even my Dad, and he’s annoyingly robust. There are four questions that you’ll hear over and over again on the camino:

Where are you from? Where did you start? Where are you heading today? How are your feet?

Make sure that you leave with well broken-in boots. Don’t buy new shoes for the camino!

Take care of blisters before they start. There are various approaches to blister care, but here’s what worked for me: a generous layer of vaseline in the morning, double socks (a thin coolmax liner and a merino wool hiking sock), stopping to air out my feet and change my liners two or three times per day, and slapping on a piece of compeed as soon as I felt even the hint of a hot spot.

While my feet didn’t cause me any problems, my knees did. I hurt my knees on a steep downhill on day one, and they ached badly for over a week. A few times I considered taking a bus and resting for a few days, but in the end I managed to walk through it. I bought a pair of knee braces on day three and a pair of hiking poles on day five. What a difference they made! If I could start over, I would have had the poles with me from day one.

Packing light is really important for your knees, feet and back. While a bag might seem light when you’re just walking around the neighbourhood, it will take its toll if you carry it for 20+ km day after day for weeks.

caminoknees

582 kilometres to go…and grateful for that brace and those walking sticks!

4. Develop a zen attitude towards communal living.

People will snore. They will also rustle bags at 5 in the morning, flash light in your eyes in the middle of the night, toss and turn in the bunk above you, and cut their toenails at the table. Let it go. Bring a good pair of earplugs (even better, bring a dozen – there will be people who’ll need them!), be conscious of the impact of your actions on others, and try to be zen about communal living.

The positives – shared meals, stories and laughter – will far outweigh the negatives!

caminoalbergue

Communal living at its finest!

5. Walk your own walk.

There’s no “right way” to walk the Camino. Start where you want and follow the route you want. Be kind to yourself and take a day off if you need one. If you don’t want to stay in the albergues  – then don’t. There’s nothing wrong with staying in a private room if it fits your budget. If you’re struggling or injured, then don’t fret about taking a bus or sending your pack ahead if you need to.

Walk your own walk.

And let others walk theirs.

caminodesantiago

Everyone has to walk their own walk.

6. Get fit before you go.

If I could change one thing about my camino, I would start a bit lighter. I worked very hard to get my pack under 7 kg – but it would have been even better to lose 7 kg of body weight.

You will get fit while walking, and the Camino Frances is certainly not reserved for elite athletes, but I think that some people exaggerate how easy it is. I personally found it challenging, and I’m a relatively fit person who walks regularly. To start again, I would definitely have done more long hikes at home before heading to Spain.

7. Don’t rush.

Stop and sit by the water. Take your shoes off. Have a cafe con leche. Talk to the people sharing your road. Share a snack with another pilgrim. Stop in bars and shops along the way. Make new friends.

I’ve heard about the dreaded “bed race” in the summer, where pilgrims start walking while it’s still dark because they’re afraid that they won’t get a bed in an albergue. We avoided this altogether by walking in March and April. We often left at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning, and only arrived at our destination at 5:00 in the evening, because we stopped so often along the way.

They say that the camino provides. Trust in your camino – and give yourself time to actually experience it.

8. Plan a bit…

We carried an excellent lightweight map book by Brierley. We also carried a detailed printout that we received at the Pilgrims’ Office in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and another one that we received from the albergue in Estella. The printouts had an up-to-date list of private and public albergues, as well as services available in each town (pharmacies, bank machines, grocery stores and bars/cafes/restaurants).

It’s important to know if you need to buy food before leaving the following day. It’s also important to know how long you’ll have to go in between bank machines and pharmacies, since you don’t want to run out of money or basic supplies.

We learned this the hard way when we ran out of food one evening and had to walk until lunch the next day on an empty stomach. We’re breakfast people, and the route was all uphill – it was a tough morning!

We liked to plan our route a few days in advance, walking with a general idea of which towns we wanted to stop in.

winefountaincamino

Don’t forget to plan a stop at the wine fountain! We met one young man who missed it by taking an alternate route – and decided to backtrack eight kilometres to find it.

9. …but try not to plan too much.

The unexpected can and will happen.

A few times, we stopped after only a few kilometres due to discomfort or general tiredness. One of those days, we stopped in a really cool albergue – right next door to a bar with the best  bocadillos (sandwiches) and drinks in 800 km! We felt like family, laughing and talking with the owners for the better part of the evening. It was one of our best memories from the entire Camino – and if we’d “stuck to the plan” and powered through the discomfort, we would have missed out.

Another day, we planned on walking only 20 km, but we felt good and pushed on to 28. We ended up in Grañon, one of the world’s truly special places. We slept on mats on the floor in the loft of an old church, shared a simple meal of salad and lentils with a dozen strangers-turned-friends, sat by the wood stove to sing along with a guitar, and exchanged stories and experiences in a half dozen languages.

It’s nice to have an idea of where you want to be and when you want to get there. But stay open to the unexpected. There’s magic where you least expect it.

10. Talk to strangers.

Be open to experiences, and be open to people. The best part of the Camino for me was the definitely the people that I met along the way. After several weeks of communal living, we didn’t hesitate to invite anyone to sit with us for a drink or a meal. Some people, especially the ones who’d just started their camino and were feeling tired and a bit bewildered, were a bit shy, but no one ever refused us – and we always parted as friends.

Call out “hola!” when walking into any store, restaurant, or business establishment. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, a “hola” and a genuine smile will show that you respect the people who are making your trip possible.

Silence can be a beautiful thing. I spent hours walking in silence, with only the sounds of my footsteps, the wind and the birds as a soundtrack. But the silence and the talk were two sides of the same experience. Each was more beautiful because of the other. So talk to farmers, shopkeepers, other walkers, road workers, policemen, the sky, birds, donkeys.

Especially donkeys.

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Well hello there!

Buen camino, my friends!

Home from the Camino de Santiago.

Well, we did it.

Over the course of 37 days, my Dad and I walked nearly 800 kilometres, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago in Spain.

camino de santiago

What I saw through most of the trip: my Dad’s back. He’s fast!

The Camino de Santiago was everything that I’d hoped that it would be: challenging, inspiring, exciting, adventurous, fun. We’ve been home for 19 days now. Almost three weeks. I figured that I’d have put up several blog posts by now to share my experiences.

But the truth is that I was still processing everything. And I came home really sick, and then I got called in to work early to take care of a mess there, and then I was kind of overwhelmed and decided to spend my evenings binge-watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix.  I still haven’t fully processed my trip, looked at my photos, or even unpacked.

Things are settling down now. I miss Spain, but I’m happy to be home with my family. Life is getting back to its regular busy, happy whirlwind.

Did I love Spain? 

Yes, yes, a million times yes! The food, the people, the scenery, the wine…Spain is in my blood now. And did I mention the wine?

Walking 25 km a day leads to a very interesting state of mind. Every day was essentially the same – get up, eat, walk, stop for coffee, walk, stop for lunch, walk, stop for a beer, walk, find a bed, wash socks in the sink, write in a journal, connect with other walkers in the albergue, eat, drink wine, talk, laugh, go to bed early and repeat – and yet every day was completely different.

Leon Cathedral

Cathedral in Leon

Was my Spanish good enough for my trip?

Yes, absolutely. 

I was able to chat with local bar owners and hospitaleros. The more I chatted, the more my confidence increased, until I no longer hesitated at all before jumping into conversations with strangers. In the beginning, I felt shy. By the end, I just wanted to talk and talk and talk to everyone! 

Even better, I was able to forge friendships with Spanish peregrinos. While walking the Camino de Santiago, strong friendships can take hold very quickly. I was pleased to find that I could talk about just about anything with my new friends, both simple and more complex. My listening comprehension improved to the point that I felt comfortable following along during rapid-fire conversations between 5+ Spaniards at a time (although of course there were times when I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Ha!). 

It took some time to get used to the way that Spaniards interrupt each other! Conversations are very loud and boisterous – even more so than they are in my loud and boisterous family. I took it as a compliment when my new friends interrupted and talked over me – I figured that it meant that they accepted me as “one of them”. Conversations were never boring.

tapas

Free tapas in Astorga – be still my heart!

My best language experience:

The albergue in Grañon – a beautiful, rustic hostel within a church, where you sleep on mats in the loft – is a magical place. Peregrinos gather to share food and stories over a communal meal, and then participate in a sharing circle to talk about their hopes for their camino. By beautiful coincidence, my French, English and Spanish meant that I was able to communicate with all of the 11 other pilgrims sharing the albergue with us.

The hospitalero asked me to translate the sharing circle between all three languages, which I gladly did. I retold French-speakers’ stories in Spanish and English; English-speakers’ in French and Spanish; and French- speakers’ in English and Spanish. Sharing people’s stories like that, seeing them smile at each other, knowing that I was helping people communicate across language barriers…it was a truly special moment for me.

I acted as a translator in some capacity almost every day, sometimes during large noisy multi-lingual communal meals, other times when someone needed help finding supplies in a pharmacy. I had to talk on the phone in Spanish a few times – now THAT was hard! But I managed!

camino de santiago markers

Just follow the arrows…

Did my Spanish improve?

Honestly? I’m not sure.

I really don’t think that it did, at least not technically speaking. The experience of the camino is such that you find yourself talking about the same things over and over again. After the steep adjustment of the first few weeks, I’d say that I coasted during the last month. 

But in other ways, I guess that I did improve! My confidence sky-rocketed, so that I jumped into loud group conversations without any hesitation. When asking for very simple things that I asked for over and over again (a bed in an albergue; directions to the next town; a beer at a bar), I was mistaken at times for a Spaniard. Of course, a few more sentences, and that fell to pieces! But still, I assume that my accent, speed and rhythm improved.

So what now? 

Good question.

I joined the Super Challenge on HTLAL, which means that I’ll read 5000 pages and watch 150 hours of television in Spanish before the end of 2015. I’m definitely shifting to using exclusively native materials. More about that in an upcoming post!

I’ve also started learning Tagalog at the rhythm of half an hour a day (more details on that soon!). I have to figure out how to balance my time so that I have enough mental energy to learn some basic Tagalog, continue improving my Spanish, and also read in English.

The next week or two will be about finding that balance – and, of course, getting back into blogging!

walking

Keep moving forward…

On Travel (and Languages)

When I was eighteen, I thought that I’d be a perpetual traveller.

I boarded a plane for the first time and went to Brazil on a month-long cultural exchange. I was young and idealistic, and the rainforest felt like home. I swore that I would return one day, to live in that lush green place.

christmasinmalawi

ice cream on Christmas day in Malawi

A few years later, I went on a long trip through Eastern and Southern Africa with a girlfriend. We decided that we would fly into Nairobi and slowly make our way down to Johannesburg, using local transportation. The travel agent, looking worried, told us that there was no local transportation in Africa.

“Don’t people live there?” I asked, confused.

She laughed as though I’d said something witty, and piled a dozen 20-page full-colour tour brochures into my arms.

Over six months in Eastern and Southern Africa, we rode in a luxury air-conditioned coach and on a rickety brakeless wonder where I shared a seat with a toothless old Mozambican woman and three chickens. We rode in cars, trucks, and vans, and perched in the back of a pick-up truck in Malawi. I hopped on a motorcycle in Tanzania, sarong tucked carefully around my knees. We cycled through palm forests and grass hut villages. We rode on motor boats, rowboats, fishing boats and ferry boats. We paddled a canoe past crocodiles and hippos in Zimbabwe. We walked. A lot.

victoriafalls

Victoria Falls, as seen from Zimbabwe

From Nairobi to Johannesburg is 2911 km as the crow flies. We got there using no less than 15 forms of public transportation. Take that, travel agent!

I picked up as many bits and pieces of kiSwahili and Chichewa and Zulu as I could, painstakingly copying each word into a notebook. Most of those words have slipped away, but even now, a decade and a half later, I find myself randomly throwing “pole pole” or “yebo!” into conversations.

When I came home from Africa, I met my now-husband. Within a year we moved 4000 km away, to BC’s beautiful Vancouver Island. We were full of plans to see the world. For the first few months, we lived in a near-empty apartment, with nothing but a futon to sleep on, lawn chairs to sit on and a giant world map on the wall.

We were only in Victoria for a few years when something unexpected happen.

No, not a baby.

puppy

A puppy.

Between saving our money for visits home, and not wanting to board our boy for more than 10 days at a time, I put my long-term travel dreams on hold for a decade.  The world would have to wait.

But yesterday, while sorting through photos on my old laptop, I realized that the world and I hadn’t really parted ways at all. Over ten years, three home-base cities and 100+ pounds of dog, we’ve managed to explore something pretty big:

our backyard.

We spent four beautiful years walking pristine beaches and hugging trees on British Columbia’s wild west coast.

tree hugger

Cathedral Grove, BC

longbeach

My sister contemplating life on Long Beach, BC

After living in Victoria for four years, we stopped in Toronto for a brief five-year layover before packing up again and moving even farther East, this time to rural Nova Scotia.

A short drive on a sunny day can bring us from rocky windswept shoreline to charming villages to lighthouses to endless deserted beaches to the lively city of Halifax.

mahonebay

Mahone Bay, NS

peggy's cove

Peggy’s Cove, NS

Last summer, we packed ourselves and our tent onto a 14-hour ferry to Newfoundland. For ten days, we watched whales and puffins from the shore, camped next to moose, walked viking ruins, ate cod and salt beef, made friends with fishermen and drank beer on George Street.

iceberg

Icebergs near St Anthony, NL

newfoundland fishing village

Quiet Newfoundland fishing village

I’ve travelled this beautiful country of mine from coast to coast, including a multi-day train trip that took us from Toronto to Vancouver.

train

Alberta as seen from the back of a train

I’ve had the opportunity to hike, cycle and paddle in some of the most beautiful parts of the world – all within easy distance from my front door. I’ve walked and wandered in nine of Canada’s ten provinces. Next summer we plan on exploring Prince Edward Island, which will make it ten for ten.

Who says you have to leave the country to travel?

But there’s one thing that’s been missing in all of my Canadian travels: immersion into another language and culture. In Toronto, we lived in a cultural melting pot. I taught French to children who spoke a dozen different languages at home. Walking around in our neighbourhood, we were much more likely to hear Russian, Korean or German than English.

But I never had to learn a language to communicate. I’m fluent in both of Canada’s official languages. English was the lingua franca in every city we’ve lived in, and French gave me my pick of jobs. Why bother learning another language, right?

I’ve spent the past 11 years teaching languages, but until eight months ago, I never bothered to seriously learn one myself.

There’s something wrong with that.

So what’s next?

For the first time in nearly 15 years, I have an overseas adventure to look forward to.

I will leave my menfolk (both human and canine) on March 15th to walk the Camino de Santiago with my father. We’ll leave from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France and – hopefully, hopefully – walk into Santiago, Spain 40 days later.

While mid-March might be the official start date of my Camino, the truth is that I took my first step on the day when I stopped weighing my socks for a minute and thought to myself:

Hey. I should learn Spanish first.

I think that decision will change my life forever.

Language, culture, people, communication, travel, stories – these are the things that I’m passionate about.

When I was eighteen, I thought that I’d be a perpetual traveller.

It turns out that I was right.