Camino Portugues Part V

Last time, I remember leaving you, lovely readers, at this rather ambiguous road crossing, at this battlefield of waymarks where I decided to follow the arrows pointing to the left, away from the grey streets leading into town and along a more scenic path.

Alternative Route between Tui and Redondela

The trail meandered peacefully next to a slow, glistening stream so clear I could see right to its bottom and I felt happy once more for having to do nothing but walk and admire the beauty of the land around me for days on end.

”Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost

Soon enough, I came across some long, furry faces, peering out from between the tree branches. I discovered that the woods were full of horses, caravans and tents. Initially confused, thinking that these people might be living like the olden day nomads or trying to create some neo-romantic dream life in the 21st century, it wasn’t until a little later that I stumbled upon the remains of a horse show in a village nearby, which also explained the amounts of drunks, hung-over and sleep deprived youngsters on the path in the morning…

Long furry faces: Hiding horses in the woods.

Entertained by my thoughts and the peculiar sights on the way (nature, random horse shows, arrow explosions, hiking groups!,…) I again grew tired of the company of too many people and with the Camino nearing its end, the hiker population seemed to have at least tripled and my response – used to doing 20-30 miles per day by then – was to simply walk faster and hold fewer conversations. Don’t get me wrong, I was still happy to see the odd familiar face here and there and spend a morning sharing thoughts and coffee, but constantly having to step around groups appearing to be lost or disorientated at best or actually indulging in small talk[1] more than proper talk was draining.

Symbols of luck: I carried this horseshoe with me until feeling silly enough about carrying useless weight on a long distance hike and leaving it behind.[2]
Usually, I was more focused when walking on my own, but sometimes a waymark would escape my attention and I would walk a couple of minutes in the wrong direction. I never got majorly lost but I recall a few moments of asking strangers for directions or help, and there was no exception to their hospitality. Everyone was downright lovely, except for their warnings. Despite the feminism and attempts at gender equality surrounding me in my everyday life, this spirit had not yet reached rural Portugal and Spain, or in fact, large portions of the Camino-. Plenty of women hike it on their own every year and there is little to no apparent danger. I had an elderly man invite me for breakfast, just because I looked hungry and he wanted to buy me a coffee and pastry. He didn’t leave me without mentioning how dangerous my undertaking of hiking the Camino solo as a young woman was. People gave me directions, asked if they should drive me a little further up the path to find my way back – none without warning or at least bewilderment at my apparent lack of fear. It wasn’t so much their concern that I would be on my own in case of an accident or injury – and if, phone signal was usually excellent and the Portuguese Camino often crosses through villages more than twice a day – but their conviction that things would happen to me because of my being a woman. As a child and young woman, I have hardly felt afraid of strangers, maybe because I grew up in a very rural part of Germany where danger seemed like something out of a movie, and maybe because I just wasn’t raised that way, but after living in London for almost three years, I can tell you that walking home alone from a late night shift at the pub is arguably more dangerous than being on the Camino.

Peaceful waters on a hardly dangerous path.

Oddly enough, there once was an incident with a flasher chasing after a few women, trying to get their attention and expose himself before running back into the bushes. While I didn’t have an encounter with him myself, people were animatedly discussing the events on the Camino and I spoke to a few ladies who had seen him. In the end, quite a few of us, males and females alike, kept wondering why male sexuality (even if utterly misexpressed) strikes us as so much more dangerous than its female counterpart. Why is it that, if a middle-aged woman stood in the woods in a bathrobe, occasionally flashing her privates at young hikers, most of us would probably laugh it off[3], whereas a male flasher on the Camino is reason for concern for ladies on the trail for days? I don’t believe that we are not capable of physically fighting back, as most hiking ladies (and adventurous girls in general) I know are often stronger and faster than their male peers and their chances to either fight or outrun a creep are pretty good. I keep wondering if our fears are increased by us being raised to never get physical, to never hit someone else or fight them, not even in self defence. I have even read feminist articles, explaining how males will more easily be perceived as predators because of the physical differences between the genders, such as average height and muscle mass but I believe that those, too, are more intimidating because most of us simply don’t know what we are capable of in a fight, because we never fought back, because we often feel like it simply isn’t our place to do so.

Comments and thoughts on this are more than welcome as I still haven’t resolved this conundrum. Nonetheless, I refuse to stop going on adventures out of fear and I refuse to feel threatened, be it on the Camino or any other adventure.

Scallop shells are the symbol of the Camino, their lines show many paths converging in the same place – you are never alone!

I put in another longer day, a little over 40km/25miles and stopped in Tivo, around 45km short of Santiago, with no intention of finishing the next day as I wanted to arrive either in the morning or early afternoon to explore the town and make the most of those last few miles. I simply didn’t feel ready to arrive yet although I was looking forward to visiting the circus school in Santiago de Compostela that friends had told me about.

Watching my every step, this cat found shelter from the Spanish sun next to a bright waymark.

The second to last day, I walked a little short of 20 miles, leaving me with less than 10 to the imaginary finish line. The shelter I stayed in was rather remote and little cornershops were far, so I put in some extra miles in the evening walking to a small shop selling bread and alcohol free beer and back to the shelter, enjoying what would likely be my last dinner illuminated by the sunset on the Camino for the time being.

Close to the finish line on the Camino Portugues, between Redondela and Teo.

The next morning, I wasn’t the only one to start early. Although starts between 6-7am were common, with pleasant weather, increasing numbers of hikers and less than 10 miles remaining to Santiago, I could feel the anticipation amongst the hikers like a high frequency buzz stirring the air around me. While I knew I was unprepared for the arrival, I indulged in the feeling just like everyone else, stopping around half way for the last morning coffee and having little chats with some hikers I hadn’t seen since day three as well as more recent acquaintances, including a lady who I hoped didn’t remember me, as the only time I had spotted her bright pink jacket was when I had been squatting behind a bush, tricked into a false sense of safety by the thick undergrowth and the remoteness of the area.[4]

Hospitality on trail is always a pleasant surprise. Someone had placed this vending machine in front of their house and stocked it with useful items such as toothpaste, plasters and deodorant!

I had been told not to expect too much, I had been told that some people are rather disappointed when arriving in Santiago, some are struck by the post-hike blues and some are just overwhelmed by emotions; some, legend says, are even happy. Personally, I got increasingly confused the closer I got to Santiago. While I expected the waymarks leading up to the cathedral to be more prominent than ever, I pretty much lost all sight of the yellow arrows upon entering the town, merely following signs to the cathedral, the end point of my journey. Somewhere along the last mile or half mile, I asked a passerby for directions to the cathedral and when I mentioned being on the Camino, she merely stated that she didn’t know where the trail ended but she politely directed me further to the cathedral.

Before losing all waymarks in Santiago…

Following the signs and directions to the cathedral, I arrived around 9 or 10am at an empty square, to my right a building clad in scaffolding and blue construction mesh; it appeared to be closed. I was pretty sure that it was the famous cathedral but I carried on walking, maybe looking for confirmation and maybe because that was pretty much what I had been doing for the last three weeks, until I got to a newer looking part of town. I figured that I was getting further away from the cathedral again and walked back to the big, shut church. There were only a handful of people around and I walked around the building, looking for something official, a sign maybe, or an open door. Out of confusion, I started laughing to myself, which, in hindsight, probably made me look slightly crazy, but a friendly Australian guy took it as a sign of happiness:

“Hey! You seem rather cheerful,” he said as he walked towards me, to which I replied that I was just a little confused, overwhelmed maybe and had no idea what to do or where to go now that I had arrived in Santiago. He introduced himself as Quinn and turned out to be very helpful:

“Well, you’re in luck, I’ve done this before. So you’ve got a few options: you can go into the cathedral down there. The doors on the sides are open. Or you could go to the pilgrim’s office, get your Compostela[5], that’s down there…,” he gestured towards the narrow road I had just walked up, “…or you can just have a look around, you know, chill out, since you’ve arrived and all.”

I thanked him and, feeling the need to do something after the rather short walk and to mark my arrival, went into the cathedral – or rather tried to. As I walked in with my pack, I was promptly approached by a security guard in hi-vis, urging me to leave the cathedral and explaining that the backpack I had carried for the last 400 miles, that had travelled through two countries with me and carried much of what sustained me on trail. Baffled, I asked where he wanted me to put it, and he explained that I should look for a hotel first.

Confused but in good spirits: my arrival in Santiago

So instead, I went to the pilgrim’s office, a place that, in atmosphere and architecture, more resembles a job centre than the end point of a spiritual journey. Queuing for over an hour, I nearly decided to get the last stamp in my pilgrim’s passport at a local café… but seeing that it was my first time arriving here, I ended up getting the official Compostela!

Queue at the Pilgrim’s office and finally, the Compostela and Pilgrim’s Passport/Credential filled with stamps!

And then it occurred to me that the whole thing, the whole idea of having an arbitrary finish line in life, made no sense at all, so why would it make sense to end a trail at one town rather than another? I never want to stop moving forward, be it on trails or in terms of personal growth. I never want to stop being a pilgrim, a student, a child, someone who has loads of learning and exploring to do. And even if I didn’t walk on to Finisterre this time, I did keep moving and stayed in Santiago for a few days to check out the local circus school Circonove where I was welcomed with open arms – needless to say I will be back!

Circonove in Santiago de Compostela – an incredible and welcoming training space. Check it out if you make it there!

Now that I have finally caught up with my adventures in May, I will skip the tales about the eventful circus summer and happy London times and move on to Slovakia and Turkey this autumn/winter season!

And after all, it was time for new shoes…

Stay tuned for more handstandsontheroad.




[1] On that note, I may have lied about being a rock climbing instructor and circus artist once, just because I really didn’t want to answer the follow-up questions again.

[2] A couple of hours, tops.

[3] When expressing this notion, only a few guys stated they would be terrified by the unfamiliarity and creepiness of the situation and that they would probably run, too.

[4] Turns out I’m a wee ninja (sincere apologies for not resisting the bad pun). She didn’t recall ever having seen me.

[5] A certificate of completion of the Camino or a section of it, either in Latin and with beautiful calligraphy on it for those whose journey was religiously or spiritually motivated, or as a plain certificate of distance travelled.

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