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Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Walking the Camino - Interview for Costa Women

I was recently asked to contribute to an interview on Costa Women, a social and business networking community for women living in Spain ( as one of four women walking El Camino de Santiago.  The ladies taking part had many different experiences and it shows how each person's Camino is very much their own.  To read about their experiences, go to

Ali Meehan who runs Costa Women kindly suggested that I should include the whole interview that I gave her, on the blog as she felt it was interesting.  Of course, only parts could be used on the four person interview, so I thought I would include it here as it perhaps provides some different angles to the blog posts I have written over the last year and also ties them all together as well as providing an introduction to the next stage of my own journey.  I hope you enjoy it:

Why Spain? (your story of how and why you arrived here):

The move to Spain came primarily because we wanted to be closer to our families but things had also drawn to a logical conclusion in RSA (Republic of South Africa) where we were living.  The time was right for a return to Europe and as we have always had a love of Spain (and I have always wanted to learn the language) it seemed a logical choice.   This, and the fact that the weather we were used to in the Cape is similar to that of the Mediterranean, the south of the Spain seemed the obvious choice for relocation.

How did you choose where you live in Spain?
Initially we house sat in the village of Chella, Valencia because we could have up to two years rent free living while we decided which area suited us best.  I think Alhama really chose us as my husband, who works with solar hot water, made a connection with someone who worked with the same systems he had sold in RSA.
When my husband came to explore houses near the coast but with more rolling hills, few pines and a higher altitude (all conducive to the dog work I do) I lined up 9 different houses for him to look at.  None of them were really quite what we wanted, but two days before he was due to return to Chella, he heard of the farm where we now live.  It was perfect and ticked pretty much every box on our list!  We moved within 4 weeks of finding it.  

Before Spain you were (living, working, doing etc.)

My husband and I initially ran a guest lodge in South Africa which included running workshops in things like Qi Gong, horsemanship, writing and so on.  I brought in teachers and trainers from around the world.  The lodge was on the edge of the Kruger National Park, but as the horse business grew, work took us to the South and nearer to Cape Town. Things snowballed with the horse work and I studied in Australia each year along with the odd trip to Germany to work or watch trainers.  I developed Silversand Horsemanship (the method I taught) throughout RSA and was the only trainer of the system on the African continent.  I travelled to teach across RSA and also into Namibia.  I worked to train students to a level where I hoped some would go on to teach (and some have) or to run their own businesses and workshops.  

Physically it is very demanding as I often had to handle difficult horses that had problems created by people and young horses.  I knew that it was becoming increasingly difficult to do the work due to injury (not from the way I now worked but because the physical demands aggravated old injuries from “conventional” training methods.  As many had asked me how I trained my dogs, I started to learn more about them with the view of getting more involved with canine work.  The similarities to horsemanship, especially when most of what we teach in regards to canine and equine behaviour is about “who we need to be” as humans meant that the transition was easy.  I started to increase the dog work while reducing the horse work and handed over my students/business to one of my star pupils who is still teaching and supporting those who wish to learn this way with horses in RSA. 

Walking the Camino – when did you first here about the Way of St. James?
I don’t know exactly how I became aware of the Camino.  It had always been somewhere in my awareness but just as Alhama seemed to choose us, the Camino seemed to choose me too.  We were already due to come to Spain and often went to our little local art cinema in Franschhoek which had 30 seats (all ostrich leather) with cushions, tables, double “lovers” chairs at the back and served a glass of local red or white wine as you went in.  We wanted attend the movies here one last time before leaving RSA and I had read the local leaflet mentioning a movie about a father walking in the footsteps of his son who had died in the Pyrenees.  

Maybe my subconscious had put two and two together but as we sat in the moments before the movie started to play I said that now we were going to live in Spain, maybe I could walk El Camino de Santiago.  I can’t say I even know where that thought came from, but as the film started and the plot was revealed, it seemed that something within had already decided that this is what I was to do.  The movie of course was “The Way” with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.  Although a work of fiction, it depicts well some of the many reasons that pilgrims choose to undertake walking El Camino.  At a farewell surprise dinner some friends had organised for me a few days later two of the members of the group started talking about the Camino and how they planned one day to walk it... the “intent” had been set.

What route did you walk and over what period of time? 
I am still walking my Camino as I chose the Levante route.  This is 1205km (the most famous route the Frances is approximately 791 km or 490 miles) and although I researched this route on my arrival in Spain, those investigations revealed to me that there are many, many caminos to Santiago and that one of those, the Levante route, made its way at first south and then across the “diagonal” of Spain, from Valencia.  Pilgrims would originally start from their home, so as Valencia was only an hour north by train from where I was living and as my husband had returned to work in RSA I decided that I would, each week, take the train out (each time to a different starting point, usually the one I previously reached) and then walk back to a different station before taking the train back home.  

As I walked daily with the dogs I was fit enough to start walking but I had not done so with a backpack.  If I was going to do the whole route, I needed to practice, so I started with a few light things and increased the weight and the distances I walked each week.  For company, I always took one of my Rhodesian Ridgebacks, alternating them each walk.  I decided, having started it this way, I would have to complete my walk “with dogs”.  Many Spanish people walk the Camino in stages during holiday periods, so it was not cheating to do it this way.  Besides, taking around 10 weeks or more to walk the whole route in one go was not going to be possible.  Once my husband was home he would drive me out to a different start point and meet me at the end - initially we did this with day trips, then two, three and four day trips.  When I next go (in October this year) I will walk for two weeks.  

My current distance is 488 km and I am just north of Toldeo.  I hope to add another 280 or so km to the journey in October and plan to do the final part over 4 weeks next year.  The Levante route covers some very hot, dry areas of Spain so it is wise to only walk around March to May or my favourite time, October to December.  However, as some parts cross mountains, journeys can be cut short if snow falls occur.  I also have to bear in mind that I am walking with dogs that can’t regulate their temperatures as we humans do so I have to carry additional water reserves and walk when it is best for them.  There is one stretch on the Levante where there is no fountain or place of refreshment for almost 38km.

Biggest challenge to the walk (either before, during or after)
At first I considered walking the Via de La Plata, before I found that the Levante almost passed by my own front door!  The research said that it at worst it was “not possible” and at best “not wise” to walk with dogs. I am not one for “not possible” and I wanted to prove that someone, with the right training, preparation and right dogs, could walk the Camino with them.  The Frances route is a little less problematic as there are so many different places to stay, there are many villages where one can top up with water and generally people are more used to seeing dogs on the route.  However, the Levante would require some logistical planning and as I wanted to share the walk with the dogs and see what this experience brought to me and wanted to keep their welfare in mind, I had to organise my walk carefully and include a back up vehicle for the dogs.  This would carry additional water for emergencies, their food, a place for them to sleep when I could not get pet friendly accommodation and be an emergency vehicle should they need to get access to a vet.  

I planned the whole route from start to finish with where to stay over night, where to swap dogs half way each day (and yet at a place the back up vehicle could get to) which stops would in be pet friendly places and what I needed to take additionally for the dogs - eg first aid, additional food break as they were using a lot more energy than on a standard dog walk, jackets for the -7C morning starts and so on.  I’m sure there will be bigger challenges to come as I’m not quite half way along my route yet, but other than the forward planning, the biggest challenge is the responsibility.  

When walking for oneself, if things go wrong, when you get lost, you take the consequences and deal with it for yourself.  If you were with a fellow human, you might have a grumble or a laugh and you could choose to cut a day short and camp out or find a different hostel, or you put up with the extra kilometres, but when you are with a dog, they rely on you and you are responsible for their water, their welfare and any extra distance they have to walk.  My dogs are fit and active, but there were times when it got hot and water was running short and we took a wrong turn or when driving and torrential rain had the dogs cold and miserable if I was not going fast enough - Rhodesian Ridgebacks do not like rain!  This would cause me great stress, especially if I could not find a good place for the support vehicle to get to should I need it.  

If I created my own suffering, that was my business, if a fellow human had been with me, what we decided to do would have been our choice but the dogs had no say, they just trusted me to do the right thing for them.  So for me, mentally having that responsibility is the biggest challenge and making sure I stay exceptionally aware of the route and if in doubt that I double check sooner rather than later.  If I was walking alone, I might not check on GPS so regularly, but with the dogs, I need to be sure that I can get them out of trouble as soon as possible if we meet it so I have to be doubly aware of my surroundings and get my bearings right.  So far, on only one occasion have I needed to get the dogs picked up at an unscheduled stop and that was on a particularly wet and windy day leaving La Font de la Figuera.  I continued alone and bedraggled and it was on this occasion I realised how much company the dogs gave me and how they actually stay joyful and in the moment no matter what.  They bring joy in the darkest moments and I keep going because of them - more so I believe than if I was with a fellow human.

An experience from the walk which you can share
The Levante route is a much more solitary route than some of the other caminos and certainly more so than the Frances.  So far in 488km there has been one other pilgrim and he was seen ahead of me by my husband, I myself have met no others!  However, I do meet wonderful characters along the way and it affords me the chance to inflict my Spanish upon them!  They are always so helpful, friendly, interested in what I am doing and love to see that I am doing it with a dog.  Usually they tell me that a dog is good company or that as a woman alone, a big dog is a good protector.  Some are astonished that I should do it alone and “where is your husband?” and they are often genuinely comforted by the fact that he will be somewhere along the route.  Often they give directions, even when you don’t need them and happen to be standing next to one of the waymarkers, but I am always grateful and thank them as though it was the best advice I have received.  They genuinely want to please.  There are many experiences that I could talk of and many of course include the wonders of a sunrise, searching for arrows or shell markers by torchlight, freezing in the dark and early morning at -7C on the plains of La Mancha or lying with my aching feet up in the air, performing physio stretches right in the middle of the pathway praying for the day to end but with a dog nose cheerfully stuck into my eye so that I could not feel down for long.  But the story I want to share is probably one of the more amusing ones of my journey so far.   

Having wandered up and down a road several times near the castle of Montesa between Canals and Moixent, I finally got myself back on track and after a few kilometres could see the new road construction and high speed railway mentioned in the guidebook to our right.  Michael had sent a message to say that he had struggled to find a way across and had taken our poor, low to the ground Voyager, on a bit of off road-ing through the orange orchards to get to our dog swap point!  As I neared our rendezvous I met an old Spanish gentleman and as usual, I waved enthusiastically and said good morning.  Instead of waving us on and exchanging pleasantries as expected, he called me over and Kaishi ran to greet him.  He asked us where we were going and roared with laughter when I said Santiago - as this, he explained, is rather a long way from Vallada, the town we were approaching!  He asked me (as I was going such a long way!) if I would like a lift in his car but when I thanked him and explained that I must walk to Santiago on the Pilgrimage route, he laughed again.  This time, he grabbed my arm and again indicated his car and asked me again if really, was I sure I didn't want a lift?!  He was shorter than me and although fit, he looked fairly frail - surely he could not abduct me?!  All those childhood lectures about rides with strangers came flooding back and when he had gripped my arm he seemed stronger than he looked!  But surely, I could take on this old gentleman if I had to - and besides, I had a dog!  

Advice for anyone thinking of walking the Camino
Do your research and choose the route for you.  Each offers it’s own unique experience.  If you are someone who likes to be alone or who wants a more solitary experience, choose a lesser known route, if you would like to meet other pilgrims, choose one of the northern routes.  The Frances is getting very busy and some of the Amigo’s groups (friends of the Camino) are trying to encourage pilgrims to explore other routes.  If you want to walk with someone - make sure that you are able to go at a similar pace or that if you need to separate, that one or other of you won’t get offended!  The Camino brings up all sorts of emotions and thoughts and it can put a strain on friendships and relationships.  Of course, it can bring people closer together.  If you are someone who likes to talk a lot, don’t walk with someone who wants to walk in silence!  Wear the right shoes and make sure they are already comfortable to your feet.  

Get fit and not just without a rucksack - carry weight and start with 6-9km (or less) and work up to 15, 20 or more.  I average 18 - 25km and try to stick to around 20 so that the dogs do 10km each but there are times when you need to walk further.  Personally I would recommend walking in stages in order to appreciate the experience if you can’t take the amount of time that you feel you need to do it because it is not a race.  For me, it is important to appreciate the journey - which is more important than the destination.  There is so much history and beauty along the way, for me, walking 25 to 35km per day just to complete the Camino is madness and I see no point.  

Also, although it is nice to make friends, I have read reports and watched various YouTube clips from those who wish they had not spent time socialising quite so much as they missed out on something special at times.  Try to decide on the kind of Camino experience you would like before you go but also be very prepared to make adjustments along the way.  Having a fixed idea or having a rigid timetable can cause stress and unravel the psyche very quickly.  Plan ahead, set achievable goals for your health and fitness level and book accommodation in advance where possible.  There are many types of accommodation and if you can afford to do it, you don’t have to stay in an albergue if you don’t cope with snoring and hate to wear earplugs.  Likewise, if you have a bad back - you don’t have to do it the hard way, but you can choose to have these experiences as and when you want to.  

Don’t feel that you have to carry a huge backpack!  There are no prizes for this and many of the sites I researched said that the number of blisters is directly related to the weight of your pack!  it is perfectly possible for those who are older or less fit to do the Camino - you can take it slower, do it in stages, do shorter stretches or sign up for a service where someone takes your luggage ahead for you.  You don’t have to go for religious reasons - in Santiago you can receive three types of Compostela or certificate - for religious or spiritual motives or for those who are not walking for either of these reasons, a “certificado” to attest that they have completed the way.  Only the last 100km have to be completed by foot or horseback in order to obtain a compostela or 200km by bicycle.  It is important to travel with a Pilgrim’s Passport (credencial) and have it stamped along the way and it entitles the bearer access to accommodations along the route.  This credencial should be applied for in advance, even though some state that it can be collected at your starting point - I have found this not to be true.  Also, there is information that pilgrims must write their intent and collect it in person - but in fact, if you apply through the Amigos and are resident in Spain with an NIE, they will issue you with a passport and send it to you by post.  

The Amigos are most helpful and I recommend contacting the group that supports the Camino or your choice.  I also suggest buying a good guidebook from them - but be aware, these can not be updated each year and it is important to remain aware on route or it can be easy to miss the way on those Caminos that are less frequently walked.  I have found, on the whole, that the markers are extraordinarily well placed even on the Levante route.  There are times, in the towns in particular, where it is easy to get lost or miss the route and where there are road works, or new highways, although the Amigos do their best to keep the way well marked, having a GPS is a lifesaver!  For those walking the longer routes - ask for “two” credencials as the standard issue one does not have place for enough stamps (sellos) for the whole journey.  If you can not find someone to stamp your passport eg you are not staying in an albergue or usual accommodation, local bars, the guardia, policia and ayuntamiento are always more than happy to do it for you to prove that you have passed by.

The Camino is known as a life changing experience – has the experience changed yours and if so in what way? 
I think I am still discovering this.  For me the change and my journey along the Camino actually started in South Africa when I gave up everything that I knew as a way of life with horses.  I had to rehome all my loved horses and walking the Camino has been a way of coming to terms with this “loss”.  As they say, every journey starts with one step and the Camino was the end of one part of the journey through my life and the start of another.  As one walks it, it really does become a metaphor for one’s own life.  The rhythms of the day reflect this in different ways.  It is a way of challenging oneself, reflecting on many aspects of one’s life, of making a new beginning and cleansing old emotions.  

When I started I also wanted to dedicate the walk to something and I had been thinking increasingly about the pointless genocides through history.  Just before I made my first walk, I saw a documentary on this, so I contacted the Zen centre I used to attend in South Africa and asked them if they would create a special Mala for me to carry along the Levante route and for each person to include a prayer with the beads they threaded.  This Mala I am carrying to Santiago and dedicating each step to those how have died as victims of genocide and in the hope that these things will never happen again.  Those who wish to support this mentally, emotionally and spiritually can follow on the blog the days that I walk and I invite them to walk that day themselves in dedication to this whether it is for an hour, 5 minutes or a day.

Would you walk the Camino again?
Yes, undoubtedly.  I already plan to do another route, maybe the Via de la Plata in a different way but still with dogs in order to raise funds for a local dog rescue charity and in order to raise awareness over dog health and nutrition.  I hope to encourage others to join me on sections and to raise sponsorship for their section and to join in whatever way they can.  It is addictive and I can see myself always aiming for the next Camino!

Something about the Camino which changed your conceptions of what to expect.  
I’m not sure if this answer specifically answers this question, but for me there came a realisation about how much “stuff” we drag around with us - mental, emotional and physical baggage.  For me, it has made me want to be rid of some of the material things that I cart around and I keep looking at how it might be possible to have a more simple life yet still fulfil my responsibilities.

Your table of 8, who would you choose to have a meal with during the Camino with you and why?  (Historical figures, media, politicians, family, friends, fictional characters etc.)

Although he has been in the news a lot recently, I have been following the history of Richard 111 for years and was for a long time a member of the Richard 111 society, studying the history of that period.  He would have to be an honoured guest at my table!
Buck Brannaman, probably the best horsemanship trainer alive today, with his dry humour and gentle nature has been one of the greatest inspirations of my journey into animal behaviour and initially my work with horses. 

Andy Hamilton from Radio 4’s News Quiz would be a must as he never fails to make me laugh and his witty comments on current events fit with my own views of them.

The singer Pink would have to be at the table – strong, powerful, dynamic, highly individual and with something relevant to say. 

Cesar Millan better known as “The Dog Whisperer” as he has a passion for the plight of dogs including those in Spain, has a great following here and promotes his philosophies of “rescue, rehabilitate and rehome” and the power of walking with dogs - both with which I heartily agree.

JK Rowling would be there as friends said that one great way to learn a foreign language is to read a translation of the Harry Potter books.  I have JK Rowling to thank for my improving Spanish!

Rick Stein has such passion for good local ingredients and this combined with his own love of travel fits with some of my own great interests. 

Last but not least – if all these people were coming, my husband Michael would have to be there because without him this Camino would not have been possible.

Next thing on your bucket list!
The next Camino!

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