“Is my little toe supposed to feel numb?”
I’m walking through the forests of Sigulda with Janis, my Latvian guide. I’m wearing newly purchased hiking boots with equally new insoles which the shrewd saleswoman in Cotswolds Outdoors insisted I needed.
I’m hyperaware of how my feet feel. At each step, with every shifting muscle and every twinge of a ligament, pangs of worry strike at me like sinking stones.
“Why do my feet feel sore after only four hours? Should I get out of breath this fast? Is that normal?”
It had all started so well…
When I first officially announced my plan to walk the Camino de Santiago route back in January (as publishing it here made it ‘official’ in my eyes) I was full of positivity. I’d decided to walk in September, and six months of practice time stretched gloriously out in front of me; all the time in the world to whip myself up into fighting, hiking shape.
I would do all the yoga! All the swimming! I would set out on day-long hikes around the beautiful yet as-yet-unvisited parts of England in preparation; hell, I could even write articles about them and collate all my Camino prep as a section on the site!
More fool me.
The pious attitude continued for a few months. While I walked a few hours each day on London pavements in newly purchased hiking boots, I imagined the Camino as a place wherein I’d come to terms with all my past transgressions and mistakes. Loftily, I saw a future Flora free of problems and worries, sauntering up to the finish line of Santiago’s cathedral surrounded by admiring onlookers and showing off her enviably toned calves.
But then September got closer and closer.
And I panicked.
What does a non-hiker do when she panics about hiking?
There’s a quality of mine which I often forget about until it’s staring me straight in the face: I am a serial procrastinator. With all the best intentions in the world, I’ll still manage to avoid the task at hand in favour of something else.
By the summer, I was studiously avoiding any form of walking practice. After months of walking everywhere when London’s weather was grey, rainy and generally downright miserable, I suddenly had “way too much freelance work to do,” and managed to produce a lot of writing while my legs grew weaker beneath my desk.
Although I did keep up with yoga, so there’s that.
I reckon the biggest reason for my dip in enthusiasm was simply that there was nobody to motivate me but myself. Of course my friends were supportive of me doing the walk, it wasn’t their responsibility to actually force me into training.
The other huge issue was actually scheduling Camino-worthy walks into my calendar – ridiculous as it sounds – because from May onwards, I found myself travelling to a different country every couple of weeks for a wedding in Croatia, an Instagram project in Venice, a festival in Latvia, and a trip to the Philippines where beaches and boats were a much more satisfying use of my time than moisture wicking shirts and leather boots.
Image: Backpacker Banter
It took spending a week in rural Latvia for me to unwillingly face up to the Camino once again. As soon as I laced up my boots and set out into the forest, I realised just how little preparation I’d done; spending long stretches of time on London cement just isn’t the same as scrambling up a scree along with mud, thistles, brambles and breathlessness.
After that trip, I returned to London in August with a plan to stay put for a month; to train, hard; to get my fitness up; and to walk literally everywhere.
Then something totally unprecedented happened.
I won National Geographic Traveller’s annual travel writing competition!
The email I received from the magazine’s deputy editor didn’t seem real at first – I’d even forgotten I entered the competition a few months before. I blinked; typed a reply with shaking fingers; and suddenly began jumping around the room when I realised exactly what had happened.
I then had to keep the information bottled up for two impossible weeks, until Friday 31st July. One of the best days of my professional life so far.
As I later stated to my dad in a disbelieving email, it was the “quadruple whammy of awesome” day. That morning I was interviewed on a London radio station; straight afterwards I was messaged by my best friend with a picture of my face in a double page feature for Psychologies magazine; and then at 2pm, the Nat Geo news went live on their website.
My phone began to buzz, picking up steam as friends and well wishers from all over the world began to congratulate me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. People I didn’t even know were reading my site offered up their happiness. “You deserve it!” was a common sentence, and I was unable to stop grinning from happiness.
And then I received a message from the travel editor of a US magazine. She had an assignment for a travel piece which she thought I’d be perfect for.
The next few hours were a blitz of back and forth emails as we discussed logistics, and a few days later everything was sorted. Unbelievably, in just a few days I’d be heading back to South America, my favourite continent, for a magazine assignment. The first real steps toward my travel writing career outside of being a blogger. I couldn’t have been happier.
But what about the Camino?
Quantifying my decision to run off abroad yet again – particularly when I’d made copious promises to myself about staying in London to prepare for my month of walking – was difficult. But the opportunity to further my writing career was way too important – and besides, hiking in the Peruvian heat was probably a much better way of practicing, right?
Well, you can imagine what happened to that idea. Even though I tried my utmost, the week on Peru’s southern coast was spent sandboarding across miles of sand dunes, flying a tiny plane over the Nazca Lines, learning the art of making fresh ceviche with the hotel’s head chef, and drinking my weight in Pisco Sours.
I also managed to celebrate reaching 5,000 Facebook fans in a typically limb-splayed fashion.
Looking at my Camino from a Spanish perspective
Although preparing for the Camino was sidelined yet again, this time it was different.
Being back in Peru gave me the chance to speak Spanish, and as I gratefully felt the words come flooding back after their year-long hiatus my linguistic confidence soared, which in turn buoyed me no end about the upcoming Camino.
On the flight to Lima, my Spanish started out as shy and submissive. I knew the language was lying dormant but the phrases felt unfamiliar, and there was a terror that eighteen months spent dedicating myself to learning Spanish were all for nothing.
Yet within a matter of hours in a Spanish speaking country I was chattering away, even running around the small beachside town of Paracas with a Peruvian woman and her teenage friend as we hunted down foreign tourists we could practice their English homework with.
By the time I left, I was as dramatic and confident in my Spanish alter-ego as I always remembered.
Thinking back to my language learning journey, I couldn’t help seeing similarities with anticipating the Camino. Despite really wanting to speak Spanish, I was still terrified at the outset that I’d fail somehow. The only solution was to jump in with both feet.
And amazingly enough, I didn’t sink. In fact, I came out almost fluent.
Why not do the same thing with walking across Spain?
Getting back on the Camino track
So last week, in the middle of making my lunch and drying my hair, I booked a one way flight from Santiago (the Camino’s end point) to London. By deciding that I’ll have finished the Camino by October 3rd, it forced me to begin properly planning the rest: how many days I wanted to walk for, where I was going to start from, how to actually get myself there.
I’ve eventually decided that I’ll start from Léon, instead of the usual St Jean Pied de Port. It cuts the distance from a fear-inducing 800km to something around 300km – meaning I can take my time and feel less pressurised to do all the walking all the time. I want to enjoy myself, dammit!
But whatever happens, it’s OK. This is my adventure to attempt however I see fit – and if that ends up meaning I only manage a measly 10km a day when the average is 23km, or get myself hopelessly lost en route (a likely scenario) or even bow out halfway through and limp my way to the nearest plaza for a few days of sipping wine and practicing Spanish with the locals, then THAT’S JUST FINE.
I mean I’d prefer that didn’t happen, but you get my thought process.
The only thing left to do now? Start walking.
With mere hours between me and those first Camino-bound steps, I won’t lie – I’m still bloody terrified. My heels are still overly dry and cracked; I’m still not sure how well my boots fit; I know I haven’t done enough walking. What if none of my gear is actually waterproof? What if I don’t notice an injury until it’s too late? And the worst one of all – what if I don’t successfully rise to the challenge and simply throw in the towel?!
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The only thing I can do is give it a shot.
So this is how it’s going down, folks.
Today, Thursday 10th September, I’ll be spending twenty seven hours journeying by bus from London to Leon, in northwest Spain. I don’t hold out much hope for the comfort of this ride; but I do think it’ll give me a chance to get myself more firmly into the mindset of what I’m about to do. A better chance than on a two hour flight, anyway.
By Saturday 12th September, I’m going to start walking – putting one blistered foot in front of the other, hopefully all the way to Santiago de Compostela.
Wish me luck. I think I’m going to need it.
If you do want to follow along with my journey over the next month, I’m planning to upload a photo each day to my Facebook page and/or my Instagram account, as well as various snippets of my Camino life on Snapchat (@ExplorerFlora). I’ve also adopted the delightful hashtag of #FloraWalks so check it out on social media to see what I’m up to.