Day 31 – Astorga to Rabanal del Camino

It was very hard to start moving this morning. Inner life affects outer life. The atmosphere in that dorm was poison. None of us slept. The Brazilian zealot was banging around from about 5am. We got kicked out onto the wet streets of Astorga at 8 prompt as usual. The day was miserable – colder and wetter than ever. I had no intention of going anywhere for a while so I sat heavily in a chocolateria drinking coffee, mechanically eating some of the best truffles I’ve ever had,  struggling to get motivated.

It’s beautiful, Astorga, not least for the ubiquitous artisan chocolate. There’s an early Gaudi palace there and a gorgeous cathedral. It reeks of history. I didn’t give a fuck. I was just waiting until ten for the shop to open so I could buy some bloody damn gloves and a stupid bastard rainproof that actually protects from the rain grumble grumble grumble.

I couldn’t do it. I had to move or I was going to book an Airbnb, sack the day off completely and just lie complaining in my misery. “Better than getting a cold,” I was telling myself. So I just started walking, almost by habit.

Our minds are so powerful. My shoulder was hurting, I told myself. My feet were worse than usual. “Maybe I should stop and rest a day, or I’ll injure my back,” I said. Nope. One foot in front of the other. Through the rain. And before long it wasn’t so bad. Maybe it was even strangely beautiful. Yeah, actually it was beautiful. Oh look, deer! I’m lucky to be alive.

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Astorga peeled away and little towns followed after. There was nothing wrong with my shoulder after all. My rainproof, on the other hand… my rainproof is atrocious. It’s a “jack in a pack” that I bought for Glastonbury Festival fifteen years ago. After a few hours of walking the inside is wetter than the outside because it doesn’t breathe at all. I reversed it halfway through the day. I hate it. But I think I’m going to put up with it because it’s only about ten days to Santiago now and I’ve got better things to spend my money on, like food. Or, it seems, random stones. A woman I didn’t know thanked me on the trail for converting negative energy from the fascist last night. Almost immediately thereafter, some grifter was trying to sell gemstones to pilgrims and he had a fire agate for a tenner. It seemed the right thing at the time. I barely broke my stride. He must’ve thought all his Christmases has come at once.

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A friend of mine tipped me off about a good albergue in Rabanal, run by the confraternity of Saint James and staffed by British volunteers. I figured it was worth missioning to, as it’s at the base of the mountain and a good sleep will help launch me up and over into Galicia tomorrow. I arrived there completely soaking, having given up entirely on the rainproof and tied it around my waist just before a full downpour. Now I’m cocooned in my sleeping bag, under a blanket, and I could happily stay here all night. There’s a German woman in the bunk below me who doesn’t appear to be slavishly following any hateful ideologies. In twenty minutes time the hospitaliers are going to serve us all tea and biscuits. Being English is their USP – it’s the only English albergue on the Camino. They’re clearly going for it. I hope it’ll come in fine bone china with custard creams.

Sometimes you just have to get over yourself. That was today. Tomorrow I’m going over a mountain and I bet it won’t be half as hard as walking down a path was this morning.


The day ended with everyone having a singsong with guitars. It was like being at university in the early seventies, if your feet hurt and you’d lost the acid.

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Day 30 – Villar de Mazarife to Astorga

The guy in the bunk below me is from Brazil. When I arrive in the dorm he is in full flow with a French woman about how the Brazilian election result is a good thing. His argument revolves around nearby Venezuela being socialist and people starving on the streets. He starts to include me in this conversation as I take my clothes off. “What do you think of when you think of Brazil?” and he throws a gesture and look to me. I immediately reply “Poverty, overcrowding and crime,” but he’s not listening. “Beaches,” he says, “Big hotels and fucking beaches and food but it’s not like that…” I am not equipped to comment, knowing next to nothing about Brazilian politics or Brazil but he is passionate here, and he’s not a very listeny person right now. His argument is inherited but it’s vehement – the fury of the convert. At one point he plays us an audio clip of someone else talking. The speaker we listen to repeatedly uses the phrase “I tell you.” His argument is incoherent but angry and mostly aiming to convince us that fascists aren’t fascists, we are using the wrong language, we should stop calling each other names and warm up the vats and get dissolving. He points at his phone. “That is what I think,” he says proudly about these nonspecific utterances made by someone that isn’t him. The more he shows me and the more he talks the more I am concerned by the simplicity of his thinking. He’s an ant. He’ll do what he’s told by the queen. “There is overcrowding and crime,” he informs us. I cut off. “I’m sure these guys will help with the overcrowding,” I assure him mildly, and go and have a shower.

Normally I am careful not to roll over too violently when I’m sleeping on the top bunk, out of respect for the person below me. I’ll sleep freely tonight.

I’m in Astorga.

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I haven’t seen the town properly because I got here quite late and it gets dark earlier now. I’ll have a potter around tomorrow when it’s not Monday and things are open. Today was glorious but cold. The wind is relentless and icy. All the blood is tingling in my face. I had four layers under my windproof and was soaked when I took them off during that Brazilian harangue. I forget I’m on a Catholic pilgrimage sometimes. It was beautiful despite the wind. Big skies, maybe made more lovely by the fact they were defined by clouds.

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I’m bumping up against many of the same people again and again now, and it’s pleasantly familiar.

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Last night I ate with the odd guys. They were pleasant. I’m not in a pie. They’re odd towards me because I’m not doing it right in their eyes. They do this every year and it’s a social exercise for them. They do it to make friends. “Why have you taken so long to eat with us?” I don’t even know how to answer that. I just haven’t.

I get on with people even if I don’t see eye to eye with them on this route. I’m not here to make friends, even if Luisa was a breath of fresh air. I often reject unthoughtful behaviour, even if personally I think too much for my own good. Faith though – faith is an act of heroic thoughtlessness. I respect faith and people of faith for that reason – it’s hard, particularly in this environment.

The arguments against specificity in belief structure are eloquent, compelling, unbreakable and extremely boring. It’s why, in my pantheistic fervour, I practice a Buddhism that rejected idols and priesthoods and rebranded as a non-hierarchical lay-society. It fits me. It’s a rebel faith with a history that fits my priorities. And I can clean stones in the moon and dabble in shamanism without anyone telling me I’m a heretic. And you’re welcome to whatever faith structure you like when you’re around me. I’ll never tell you you’re wrong because nobody can because we are all right and wrong simultaneously.

My  concern with this stone cathedral faith is that it puts the answer outside of you. That’s all. I’ve met plenty of extremely thoughtful, intelligent and wide angle people with strong faith in this monolith. But there are also – by necessity – a lot of unthinking obedient ants. The guy in the pulpit talks to the guy in the sky. He tells you which ants are good and which are bad. None of them are us. Like the guy on the internet – “I tell you.” So off we chitter to do the bidding of the queen ant.

It’s the guy with the loudest voice, the guy with the best connections, the guy with the money or the position. It’s not you. Not in this faith. I’m to blame. I’m not worthy. Lord. Father. Senõr.

I’ve started to chant to the path now. Hoping I can resonate it a little bit kinder. I’ll try to web good energy to the guy below me tonight. It’s getting messy in the world. Even when I get the local London news someone has punched a woman on a train for speaking Spanish into her phone. If the assailant was here he’d be asking for chips, in English, in capital letters. It’s abject. But there’s nowhere to move to because the world is fucked. I remember the barman in Dubrovnik again, two weeks before the Brexit vote. “Ahh you’re English. Terrible international responsibility.”

Day 29 Camino – Léon to Villar de Mazarife

Despite intentions, I ate shitloads of meat in Léon. Meat and coleslaw.

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When I ordered an extra side of slaw he said “You already get slaw with your meat.” I said “Yes but I want to wash the cream off and pretend it’s fresh cabbage,” and burst out crying. The waiter immediately injected me with bull’s blood to cure my seditious tendencies towards vegetarianism. (Please refer to the legal catch-all that says this blog is fiction). 

I went to bed early and heavy. I’m tired now. Bad food, bad sleep. Germs. Last night in the ancient city of Léon everyone in the town gathered beneath my window to serenade me with drunken howling. What little sleep I managed came with anxious dreams. I have become convinced that my old nemesis the root canal is making overtures before going into full red hot hellfire and damnation mode again. Before I finally got it fixed by a specialist it would’ve killed me twice by blood poisoning if there were no antibiotics in the world, and I’ve been wondering when it was going to return. It’s on the list of the worst familiar things that might happen on this walk, right up there with norivirus which happened, so now I’m expecting it. I almost didn’t leave Léon this morning. “If it flares up like it feels it might then I’ll need to be in a city to get the antibiotics.” I thought. But then I figured that maybe it’s just me getting in the way of myself again.

So that’s my thought for today: “Yes but what if…”

Thank God I left Léon instead of waiting to see if the tooth started exploding. I had to. I’d have been an idiot not to walk because of a possibility. It’s Spain anyway so literally everything is closed until Tuesday. I’d just be dying on the steps of a shut clinic in Léon if it did flare up while people looked at me like I was mad for being sick on a Monday. “What you doing? It’s siesta?” But this is a pattern I observe in myself and others all the time. “Yes but what if…” It’s another insidious poison, like that dental abscess that probably burrowed pretty close to my brain all those years ago and will certainly make my skull into interesting viewing down the line. “It’ll only cost about £1000 if you go private”, said one well paid dentist in a dismissive tone. He couldn’t understand why I’d wait two years and have two courses of antibiotics waiting for an NHS dentist to do it. I tried to teach him the distance between the word “only” and my earning capacity at the time vs £1000. He couldn’t quite get it. As if 1k was something he accidentally tripped on every Friday. What if it were?

“I want to write a one man show about the things I’ve learnt and take it to Edinburgh.” “Yes but what if you run out of money?” “Best not write the show then.”

“I like that person. I’m going to ask them on a date.” “Yes but what if you can’t pick up the tab?” “Best not ask her on a date then.”

“I want to put a shower into my bathroom now I’ve actually got a bit of cash in the coffers.” “Yes but what if you need an emergency root canal and you’ve spent it all on a shower?” “Best not have the shower put in then.”

I’ve been paralysing action through something I frame as caution because I’ve been so used to below the scale low earning. It’s not caution though. It’s blockage.

I dislike people who display fear in their work in my profession. I like people who are willing to jump in with both feet and take an open risk. Therefore I need to live like I act. Even to live like I blog, now. I write this stuff every day. Sometimes it’s bland. But the constant inevitable process means that there are damonds. People jump me from time to time unexpectedly with messages about things that have landed for them. (Thanks – seriously.) Because different things land with different people. And creatives know how hard it is just to generate basic content. I make something every day no matter what. I was second guessing this for ages. But I’m calm now.

“Yes, but what if someone is upset or trolls me or fundamentally disagrees or tells me they almost sued me?”  “Fuck it. I’ll work that out if/when it happens.”


Today was like walking in France again. Nobody but me. I surprised some deer. I flanked a big herd of sheep for ages, close enough to touch. I baaed along with them until I saw the farmer with 2 dogs and a shotgun and didn’t want to be mistaken.

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The country was big, beautiful and empty, and nature was active and alert in this people free zone. Birds of prey stooped to my right. Light shot through clouds above me. Snow is coming. I am alone again, reluctant to pull back into my solitude, but knowing it’s the right choice. All I really want is a salad. But in the meantime, I’m learning things about myself.

I’m off to dinner soon with the creepy Danish guy. He is one of the most uncomfortable human beings I’ve met on this trip. So I’m going to break bread with him to see what he’s about because we’ve been flanking each other for days. His silent Russian friend snatched a stealthy photo of me when I was sitting alone  He hadn’t switched off the shutter noise thankfully so not a professional creep but the guys are seriously odd. I caught him snapping me and immediately sat with him. “Hi, we should get a photo together to send to our friends.” I said. He pretended not to understand. Because eeeeeek.

They might chop me up into a pie, these two  unusual men But I’m going to break bread with them.

Day 28 Camino – Marcillos to Léon

“Last day Meseta,” Han says to me. It’s the first sentence (of sorts) that anyone has uttered to me all morning. Until then we’ve all just been involved with our own shit. I repeat it verbatim to him with added exclamation mark. We high five. Han and I have roughly coincided on this journey since Azqueta. He walks slower than me but I keep stopping to do stuff like chanting or coffee or feet and he rarely stops. I usually pass him three times in the day. He’s 65, South Korean, speaks little English but is extremely happy to try. We mix bowing with handshakes when we see each other. His bow is beautiful and so unusual and meant. I try to echo it. If one of us gets to the Albergue before the other, we always review it when the other arrives, and move on if it doesn’t get the seal of approval. Last night before lights out (10) he unexpectedly translated for me when I smiled and waved at the young Korean couple from the night before and said, whilst smiling and nodding, knowing they speak no English: “You’re going to talk all night again aren’t you?” They looked shocked when he translated but there was method in it. We all slept well last night. And they were still walking hand in hand today. Poppets.

But there we are, Han and I. Sitting in the morning in the Albergue, waiting for a rain shower to stop. It’s 8am and it’s dark outside. I’d usually have left by now although I’ve slowed down a bit since Carrión.

They kick you out early, these Albergues. It’s worth mentioning for anyone considering this. After a fitful night of heat feet and gurgles a hand snakes in through the door at 7am prompt and snaps on the light. Horrible strip lights as often as not. We all shake off our hellish dreams and attempt to carve out an inch of personal space in which to put our pants on.

Nobody is quick in the morning because all of us are hurting. But none of us have very much stuff, so we totter around groaning and shoving things instinctively into the right compartments like characters in some “Zombie Packing” game that probably already exists FTP for Iphone with microtransactions.

This rain that Han and I are hoping will stop – it heralds the beginning of a fun new game in RL called “Winter”.

When I started trudging it was September. Those blissful beautiful Pyrenean days. It’ll be November before long and we are about to go up to 1,400 metres. God knows what the weather’s like in Galicia, but here in Castille it’s windy and there’s suddenly a chill. I’ve had very little use out of my thermals but I’m about to. Snow really is coming. I’m less happy mooching around in my stripy espadrilles in this weather. Luisa and I parted ways because she wanted to go shopping for a wooly jumper. I’ll see her again I reckon. There’s only one path. Plus we shared numbers despite my inner hermit barking with laughter. She’s good company. And we are all going to get colder very very soon.

Coming down into Leon this afternoon was a lovely experience, partly because it meant the end of the Meseta and partly because it’s an attractive town to walk into.

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I booked a cheap Airbnb so I’ve got a spare room pretty centrally located and run by a Catholic chap who is definitely straight and keeps a gorgeous flat with lots of beautiful pictures of topless Jesus, helping us remember how we love God. Despite having a lovely room in an interesting central location, the first thing I’ve done is to take all my clothes to the laundrette again. That’s the downside of packing light. Worth the effort though, despite the fact my shoulders are a bit better than they were a month ago. Once they’ve dried I’m going to try to do some cold-foot tourism and then oh God oh God, for a vegetable curry!! Fat chance.

I’ll take advantage of the fact I’m in a metropolis to find food that isn’t meat and meat with meat and if I can’t find that just something – anything – spicy with a vegetable on it. And no, ten year old Al, no. Potatoes are definitely not vegetables.

Day 27 Camino – Bercianos del Real Camino to Mansilla de las Mulas

“I don’t know, mate. I’m starting to lose my motivation,” one guy said to me. He’s been going as long as I have. “I don’t know why I’m doing it anymore.”

“I’d romanticised it,” said another person. “Everybody just talks about the good bits when they come back. I hadn’t expected this.”

Expectations.

I’ve been walking with Luisa again, talking about expectations. Expectations in life. Expectations in love. The way we build things up to be one thing and then they look like something else and we can’t handle it. While we are talking we stop and unsling packs. The movement is unthought and mechanical. She sits and her boots and socks come off. “Another one,” she says neutrally as she sterilises a needle and sews a thread through a new blister on her sole. She leaves the thread in and bandages it.

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If the thread is in, the blister can’t seal so it doesn’t hurt as much. Both of her soles are threaded now. “That’s much better,” she says now she has string sewn through a part of her body. She means it as well. And the packs are back on in a long practiced gesture, and we’re off. “I want to go on Camino?” “Why?” “I fancy getting so used to sticking needles in my own foot that I do it automatically.” Said nobody ever.

I wasn’t expecting much more than a long walk. I’ve read no literature on this and seen no films. I’ve spoken to a couple of people about it. The usual advice I get just covers packing. Outside of that “Do it or don’t do it.” To that I would add “Careful drinking the water on the Meseta.” I knew I’d have to talk to my shadow. I know I’m being chased by the devil.  Even the shit like that vomiting sickness – it was important for my journey. I need to be better at parenting myself. Considering I was feverish and spewious, I did a good job in that cold Filipino convent.

There’s time to think about loads on this walk, and to filter tons of my shit. 

I’ve found some company at the moment and it’s making sense to share this part of the journey with someone because we share some of the same internal shit. Plus it’s good to have a companion in the tail end of this plateau. We huddle together against it. This place fucks with your head, with distance and with time. We may go our separate ways again after Léon but after well over two weeks of self imposed solitary it’s good to bounce thoughts off someone who gets the way my mind works.

“I don’t like this town,” she says of Reliegos moments after I’ve had that instinct. “There’s something funny about it.” I agree. I later find out that it’s the most recent place in Spain to get hit by a meteor. ALIENS? Probably not. But yeah, our crazy instincts align, and she thinks and talks in terms of energy like I do. “That guy had a really dark energy,” she comments about a guy who I have also thought has a really dark energy. If she can make broad statements from intuition that align with my broad intuitions then I can bounce some of my crazy shit off her and see what colour she thinks it is. That’s fab. She’s fab.

People avoid the Meseta or rent a bike to ride to Léon but there’s a strange beauty in this death-like monotony, and it gives you time to think. The mountains we will climb soon are ominous looming silhouettes visible against the skyline. Beautiful and threatening.

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Snow is coming, we are told darkly. There are very few other people walking here on this table. One thing I know is that I relish the peace and the space. I can choose who I communicate with. I’ve seen very few other pilgrims.

We are still well over 200km from Santiago. Soon shiny people with immaculate boots will start. For now I’m happy to force my painful feet in tandem with a few other stubborn souls. To swallow a few literal flies and sick out swarms and swarms of metaphorical ones.

Day 26 Camino – Lédigos to Bercianos del Real Camino

Like the old lady that swallowed a fly, the meseta has upgraded from flies to spiders. The hay has recently been baled, and we are walking downwind of empty fields which once stood tall. Millions of spiders that used to live in the hay have lost their home. They’re ballooning, looking for pastures new. Humans are not the first creatures to learn to fly by artifice. The spiders had thousands of years on us. They make a little hang-glider of silk and blow until they hit something. They can get a long long way if they catch the right wind. They might hit a tree or a bush, or they might hit a wandering Al. Their webs are strong and persistent and sticky.

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The good news is that they’ve eaten a lot of the flies. So now I’m getting webs all over me as I walk instead. Spiders are trailing around my hat, dangling off the visor before my eyes somehow avoiding my hand as I attempt to detach them. They’re using me as a free ride or working out if I’m a good tree to live on forever.

If you have a phobia of insects, do this walk. There’s nothing like exposure to help with these irrational phobias. But it’s ridiculous when I start to think about it.

Here we are on this ancient route, this ancient rite. Here we are, millions of pilgrims over centuries, walking towards ourselves. These big skies, these high mountains, these long days walking on tired feet with sickening bodies. Here we all are and “The thing I’m most worried about is bed bugs”. “The flies keep getting in my mouth.” What is it about the tiny things? The King, sitting on his throne of gold, loved by all and yet somehow he just can’t scratch the itch in the small of his back… It’s the beginning of a story that ends with a scratched back and a destroyed Kingdom.

I’m on this Camino, I have the means and the time to do this trail, my body is capable, my mind is strengthening. All around me are fascinating people from all nations walking the same route. I’ve climbed every mountain, forded every stream, followed every river. And yet today I almost made myself sick from heat because I didn’t want to fill my water from a fuente. And why? Because I’m worried about something that is so small that it’s impossible to even fucking see it. A virus. That I’ve already had now anyway. Like maybe there’ll be another one? No. Bums!! I’m just looking for reasons to make myself uncomfortable.

This is what we do all the time. We forget the shape of our happiness because we’re looking at the smudge. When I received Gohonzon as a Nichiren Buddhist they coincidentally gave me a scroll that has a tiny smudge on it. When I chant to it my eyes are more frequently on the smudge than on any other part of the scroll. That’s me. My mind. My predilections. We get put up in a suite at the Ritz and go nuts because there’s no hairdryer. Someone gives us a free steak and we send it back because it’s overdone. Or we live in a beautiful place, get the chance to do beautiful work with beautiful people but feel incomplete because we’ve never auditioned for any of the regional theatres let alone a place like the RSC or the National. Bums! Oh why can’t I get an audition with so and so and x and y I say, knowing already that I’m going to do a beautiful show in a month with people I love. “I’ve got a smudge on my scroll.” When I get back to London I’m getting the damn thing changed at Taplow Court because if you don’t like something, change it or shut the fuck up.

I’ve walked with Luisa today. First time I walked with someone for about 20 days, but the meseta is stark. We’ve both been sick recently and we are neither of us as recovered as we are pretending. Company is good. We met last night and she mentioned she had wanted to get a tarot reading in Estella but it was closed. Perfect perfect opportunity to reduce the unnecessary item count to 0. Moments later there’s me triumphantly brandishing my cards and Luisa completely taking it in her stride. That sort of thing literally happens all the time on this route. Thousands of years of hopes and dreams and prayers and resonance to the universe. Even the meseta, this hard place, carries a magic. We both carry amulet stones which we washed in the full moon. Another hippy on the Camino! Who would’ve thought it? Nice to have some company.

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Day 25 Camino – Carrión de los Condes to Lédigos

I’m back on the meseta. All around me people I’ve met are getting sick. “It’s definitely not the fountains,” say lots of people on the forums. “It’s you filthy humans with your filthy ways. Spanish water is fine.” And yet it always seems to happen in this area at this time. I blame the clams. They’re trying to take over. But seriously, these fountains…

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I’ve seen people give their dogs drink from them. They joyfully lick all around the tap. “Get the water boy!” Then some pilgrim fills their flask. I doubt it’s dog slobber though. If it’s the fountains I suspect they’re loosely treated groundwater and not treated as effectively as the tapwater here. It could be a norivirus that just happens to always hit this area at this time, as first respondents on the forums will be quick and aggressive to attest. But personally, and call it superstition, don’t drink from the fountains on the meseta. Better safe than sorry, eh?

The meseta is a stark and extensive high altitude plateau that runs most of the way from Burgos to Leon. I’ll be walking this road a few more days yet. There is very little to either side. Just fields or scrub. The flies are persistent. I am not the only pilgrim to have found a way to cover my face entirely while walking. I look like I’m about to kill you, but it’s that or spit out a fly out every few seconds.

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As I sit here in my sarong, I have my hand over my wine glass because the fuckers are literally all over me. And I’m having to make myself okay with that because it’s that or sit inside on a lovely evening. They go with the territory.

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They call this “The mind section”. It’s hard, hot and not known to be beautiful. It’s a high altitude plateau swimming with flies and sickness. A lot of people skip it for that reason. They get a bus from Burgos to Leon, and who’s to blame them. I’m up for it though. I’ve got shit to do.

After a blissful day of rest yesterday I walked for the first time since France without compeed or bandages. After I stopped I did not end up flat out on a bottom bunk in the Albergue as many have. My body has got this now. Nick is nothing but a hard bit of skin. He is unchanged today. I know my limbs are functioning well. I’m fit. Physically I feel like I’ve come out of a cocoon. I feel so much more connected with my body and my breath than I did a month ago. So now I can smash out the miles on my own terms and look at the inside of my head as I go. There’s a lot going on in that head. Once that part of the cocoon is broken then some sort of mad wonderful butterfly can emerge and startle you all. But first it’s a few more days of flies and heat as I come to terms with all the conflicting voices and influences, and tease out what is really important to this bundle of flesh, while trying not to eat too many flies or catch another hideous vomiting nightmare disease of death. In a convent.

Whatever happens to me it can’t be as bad as what happened to the sister in the convent who helped me move rooms. The Filipino sisters of Santa Maria de Belén are a very devout, robust and practical order. They are the stick flavour of nun, not the carrot flavour. But she happened to be on the corridor while I was having a particularly glorious noisy bout, simultaneously, through both ends. I could reach the sink sitting down thank God. Once it was done I collapsed where I was, exhausted and unusually silent. The silence worried her. She came to check on me. The cubicle door was open. I fear she saw more than she bargained for. The poor thing is likely still flagellating herself. Once she’s done with the hair shirts she’ll at least have a good story.