The Ultimate Sporting Moment

Sport has always made me cry. Be it James Hird’s goal against West Coast when he hugs the supporter in the crowd, or the winning shot in a tennis tournament when the player falls to the ground in joy, or witnessing efforts of sheer determination and strength – a marathon runner battling through great pain to continue metre by metre. Don’t even start me on the waterworks that occur when a sportsperson stops to help their opponent, John Landy style.

A sporting montage (especially with dramatic or inspired music) therefore reduces me to a blubbering mess. When the Olympics come around and every ad break is preceded by an amazing montage, or the One Day Cricket Season with those slow motion highlights – my eyes are welling up every 5 minutes.

Watching pilgrims arrive at the Cathedral Square is Santiago de Compostela is the ultimate sporting tear jerker. So, I know that completing a religious pilgrimage is not exactly a sport, but it is the final moment of a great feat – the Camino can be the most challenging thing in a person’s life – testing one’s endurance and strength, both physically and mentally.

I cried last time when I arrived at the Cathedral in 2007.

This time I did not.

At least not until I watched some other pilgrims enter the square. One large group came in clapping and cheering, some of them hobbling along, and then after this group (not on the video, I’m sorry!), one lady, being supported by two friends on either side of her, came in, crying.

And then I started.

(I even cried watching the movie about the Camino. The Way, 2010 – good movie).

Pilgrims you meet on the Camino don’t necessarily tell you their reason for walking. Some may not have a reason for walking. But there are many, many stories behind pilgrims’ journeys, and just hearing one or two gives you an idea about the motivation driving some people along The Way. Some walk in memory of people they’ve lost, some walk to get away from their ‘normal’ lives, some walk because they want to test themselves, some knowing that they are injured or sick, and will perhaps have to stop before the end.

So watching the final moments of the Camino, even those of someone you have never, and will never meet, is an emotional thing to see. Even walking the path between the Cathedral and our hotel while in the city, pilgrims would pass us, mere minutes away from the end of their immense journey. Even this I could not watch without some dust getting caught in my eye. (One day, an amazing Opera pair were singing under the archway at the entrance to the Square, turning the scene of entering pilgrims into a brilliant, tear-jerking, real-life montage.)

And who knows, when I walked into the square, with my beaming face and excited steps, and grabbed Troy for a hug and a kiss of congratulations, maybe, someone, somewhere in the square – another pilgrim, or a tourist on a guided tour – might have been watching, and reached for a tissue.

P.S.  I nearly even started crying when I was editing this post, thinking about the crying.

Day 6: Deba to Markina

The Slovakian Flute as a Staff man is walking with us today. Before last night, we had not seen him since before San Sebastian, and he arrived at the Pilgrim Hostel in Deba, and seemed excited to see us. He told us then that he had continued walking with the German group – which contained Chain Smoking Drunk Pilgrim – but he had to leave them because they were drinking all day, and were slowing him down. “I couldn’t believe them!” he said with great exasperation, “we did not start walking until 10, and then at lunch they drank two bottles of wine, and then in the afternoon, they were still drinking, and we got lost and couldn’t find the arrows, and I just had to leave them because I thought, I will never get to Santiago!”

(The Drunkermans – as I am now calling them, arrived last night at about 9pm – Chain Smoking Drunk Man gave everyone a wave, lit up a smoke and babbled away drunkenly about the day they had had. It should also be noted that Germans on the Camino have quite a bad rep – and these sorts of pilgrims seem to be the cause. We often get mistaken for Alamein? and we quickly say, “No, no, we’re from Australia.”)

So today the Slovakian walks with us – we quickly realise that he is not the best arrow finder (we are lucky to have two sets of eyes), and we help lead him out of the city, and so continue on together. Our walking is always fast when we have someone to chat with, and find him an interesting acquaintance – well-travelled and well-read – he is a good change from us whinging to each other about blisters and pain.

We obtain a good Spanish guide book from the Gay Couple with the Dogs – they have left it on the path leaning against a rock – and I also find a great walking stick. (You need a good stick on the Camino, for all sorts of things.) When we pass the Korean girl and another pilgrim who have stopped for a rest, the Slovakian plays a short tune to pep them up and we continue up the gradually ascending path.

We glimpse B1 and B2 walking behind us – the Snoring Belgians – but keep up our pace as we know they are slower than us. However, later, I fall back to walk with B1 who is really struggling with his feet today. He approaches behind me as I am using my stick to try to impossibly pull some good looking berries within reaching distance, and easily grabs them for me. “I picked some for you – ” he says to Troy 50m up, who is waiting for me, “ – but I ate them all!” He says he was walking behind me, always keeping me in eyesight so he wouldn’t be left behind. B2 is well ahead of him.

Today is a hard day – because there is nothing for around 20km – so you have to make the distance, or have nowhere to sleep. All the pilgrims know this, and have left before sun up, and even though we pass or fall behind each other all through the day, we keep in mind who is behind and who is ahead, and at the albergue that evening, have a mental note of who is there, and who is yet to arrive. It is beautiful – arriving at the albergue and having a group of people, who don’t know your name, smile and applaud purely because you are there, safe and well.

The Slovakian Flute Player leaves us behind as I struggle up the hills, but we see him later on that evening, and he worries that we were upset that he left us. It’s just the way of the Way – always passing each other, but never forgetting, or stopping worrying about how everyone is travelling.

Day 5: Deba and Death

The crowd roars as the dog is let into the arena. A man runs near it, goading it to fight. The crowd claps and screams, calling for a good battle between the well-known man and the beast. The man captures the dog’s attention, while another runs at it, spearing it with two lances he holds in his hands, increasing its madness. The dog and the man skirt around each other, and the animal is taunted, tortured, and aggravated some more. It is confused and angry, and in pain, so it lashes out. The spearing and ‘dancing’ continues, until the fighter finally kills the animal with a final sword thrust through the neck. The bleeding dog lies in a heap, and the crowd is happy – it was a good fight. The carcass is dragged out of the arena across the sand, and thrown into the back of a waiting truck. The next fight is about to start, and to the delight of the fans, the next dog, and fighter, are let in.

Of course, the above did not happen. But if you substitute the word dog for bull, then yes, it did. Does that change anything? Is it still shocking?

There are only three things that frustrate me about Spain. 1) Every newborn girl has her ears pierced – I’m sorry, but to me, that’s child abuse. 2) Siesta time – yes, siestas are great, but sometimes I like to shop after lunch and eat dinner at 6. And 3) Bull-fighting.

Bull-fighting’s popularity in Spain is mostly diminishing with every generation. In some areas though, the older generation especially, and those greatly attached to it, are fighting fervently to keep it alive. It is not considered a ‘sport’ here, it is considered an ‘art’, as there is no competition between opponents (I beg to differ otherwise on the part of the bull).

Many Spanish regions, and most former Spanish colonies, have outlawed the ‘art’, but when we arrived into Deba today, into fiesta, there was a bull fight occurring, much to the delight of the entire town. Every man, woman and child wore a fiesta scarf tied around their neck, and hundreds were packed into a make-shift arena. Those outside did their best to view from windows or rooves, and children squinted through holes in the arena fencing for a glimpse.

When we went into a local bar for a drink – we realised that the fight was being relayed directly onto the big screen inside the bar. We watched, intrigued, until the first lances were stabbed into the bull’s neck, and feeling genuinely sick, we left.

I was so disgusted, and frightened, that children were watching this killing as part of a celebration. On the way back to the albergue, I peeked through the hole in the fence and could see the bull’s legs running rampantly around, and the colourful costume of the fighter. We stepped over the pool of blood in the alley way, and around the truck that already contained the body of one bull sacrificed for this town’s art display.

A list of beautiful people

Spanish man, this morning, 7:30am –

He stopped to say hi, babbled fast in a mixture of Spanish and English, something about a Jeep? He knew we were pilgrims, and asked where we were from. AUSTRALIA??!!! He nearly dropped his shopping bag. Then, he pulled two lollies out of his pocket and put them next to our coffees. He patted me on the cheek, and went to do the same to Troy, but instead shook his hand, and went on his way.

Spanish woman, in car (passenger), yesterday, about midday –

This woman saw us, and made a thumbs up sign to us – shaking it in a COME ON!!! sort of gesture. It lifted our spirits.

Spanish man, near a church, about 5km from our destination for the day, about 2pm –

We had absolutely had it, and stopped for a short break before the last spurt to get to where we had to go. A funny old man came for a chat. “Oh – it’s so hot, isn’t it? It’s so bad for you!”

Yes, yes we said, it’s so hot, but so beautiful!

“Yes, but it’s so HOT – I can take you in a bus. A bus!” (He makes a ‘bus driving’ action.)

No, no, we say – it’s the Camino!

He understands, and says goodbye.


This morning, thunderstorm –

A couple out on their balcony welcomed the drenched pilgrims walking past to stand under their house’s shelter. “What a beautiful day!” I yell up to them. They laugh at me, and beckon us to sit and relax. We took off our tops and wrung them out, put  the saturated things back on, and carried on in the rain.

Today – hotel lady –

Arriving in a town with no pilgrim hostel, and after walking to a hotel that was already fully booked, the lady there rang another 2 hotels, found us a room, and drove us to our place. Lovely! “You’re so kind!” we say, “No, no, you’ve been walking all day!” she says. How kind.

Stories from the Camino – Part 1

We were of the few pilgrims that day who put our faith in the Yellow Arrows, and went the ‘true way’, as opposed to a shorter, new coastal route. As we trekked inland, up and down hills, around and through people’s farms, through dense bushland and then onto the highway, we were beginning to regret that choice. But, faithful that something would make that decision worth it, we pushed on happily.

And what did we find on that remote and unpopular route? Homegrown cider. All natural, and at $2 for a litre bottle, a bargain! Another pilgrim was leaving the farm house as we were discussing purchasing the drink. The skinny Spanish man reassured us it was worth it, and that he had had many a bottle with the producer during his stay on the local’s farm.

We chucked our money in the honesty box, popped a bottle with the opener that was connected to the bucket for the empty bottles, poured the golden liquid into our water bottle, and off we went. We chugged that cider as we walked, and later on passed the same pilgrim contentedly sitting beneath some trees enjoying a late lunch. We wished him to enjoy his meal, and he wished us a buen camino.

The same skinny Spanish man we found to be staying at our hostel in Deba that night, and he told us that he had been travelling for some time, staying on working farms, in religious communities, and now walking the Way. His English was good, and sing song like, and like many ESL speakers, he carefully chose his words so that sometimes his sentences seemed like prose. He gave off an aura of someone who had been wandering around the world his whole life, never static, never tied down, and always waiting for life to choose for him the way that he would go – not the other way around.

One of the other pilgrims with us, Lovely Austrian Girl mentioned her home town, and of course he had a story about there. “I met a woman from there once,” he said, “At the Vienna airport, while I was waiting for my plane. I had spent many days there waiting, and I met this woman – she was very beautiful – but she was waiting for her daughter to come off the plane. I met her, just before I had to leave, and I didn’t know whether to leave, or to stay with her… And I think she was a very important woman… when I met her, she asked me if I knew who she was, and I said no. Her daughter was my age! And there I was, talking to her mother, who told me more and more about herself as we talked… she told me that her daughter was coming back from Saudi Arabia because her husband had died, and he had been killed by the Secret Service – not the CIA, maybe another Secret Service –he was someone high up in the Saudi Arabia Royal Family. And so this woman, she was looking around the airport, and she believed the Secret Service was watching her… You know, she spoke true words – from her heart, and I was very happy then with her.”

He stopped to draw on his cigarette, and the three of us sat, quite enthralled by his story.

“I had to make a decision, in maybe two minutes, whether to stay or leave… She liked me, and – you know – I liked her, and had a proposition for me, to stay with her, but I had to decide so quickly, it was the final call for my plane!”

He looks reminiscent, but not regretful. “I didn’t stay with her. But you know, I believe that when you think there is nothing for you to do, something appears. An opportunity, a chance. I was going home, and I did not know where I would go next, so I thought, maybe this is my new turn of my life, and I do believe in God and things happening for a special reason. But I thought I better go home on my plane. But when my imagination takes me away, I think of what would have happened. Maybe I would move to Saudi Arabia, with a beautiful life, I would never need anything… But I do not know.”

“So who was she?” The Austrian girl asked.

“She was a congresswoman. Very powerful and wealthy woman.”

We are all smiling, taken away by this man’s story. I ask him what he will do after the Camino, which seems to be like asking him the meaning of life (although he would probably know that). He is taken aback – “After the Camino? I don’t know that. I will get out of the Basque country, and when I cross the border, I will decide. I do not know.”

We hear from all the pilgrims that took the new coastal route today, that the way was difficult and tiring. They commend us on choosing the ‘true way’, and we delight in the fact that we spared ourselves a rough hike. If we had not followed that route, we would not have found the cider, and not have met this fascinating man, and perhaps not have heard his remarkable stories.

Day 4: The Yellow Arrowed Road

“Follow the arrows, who knows where they will go… arrows go up! Arrows go down. Arrows take you to an octopus! (da na da na da da) they take you to your hat….” – Play School song, in my head – a lot – on this walk.

This morning we lost the Arrows. And thus, momentarily lost our Way. The entire Camino is marked out with yellow painted arrows, some big, some small, some are curved or angled, some on poles for signs, some on fences, some on trees, houses, roads – they could be anywhere. But they are always there, somewhere. We are literally following the Yellow Arrows across the Iberian Peninsula. Is that weird?

The Yellow Arrows are reassuring. They comfort us, take us on the right road, turn into an A for an albergue and a bed, and into Yellow Crosses when we think about turning down the wrong way. Importantly, they have rarely been sabotaged in the decade or so that they have existed along the various Camino routes that can be walked. Sometimes you wonder: how did they get here? Did someone walk the whole Camino with a yellow spray can? Why did they choose yellow? Did they consider a reflective material? Did the residents mind? How often does someone check the accuracies of the Arrows? Are there inaccuracies?

This morning though, we left a little early, (being motivated to get our big day underway) and in the dark, we lost them. We found them eventually (after walking half a kilometre up a hill and then back-tracking to the last one we saw) but made the joint decision that we will never set off before sunrise if the track might be dark or overgrown.

Sometimes it is like a scavenger hunt, and especially in the cities, turns into a “who can find the Arrow first” game. You walk a little slower, looking from street sign, to store wall, to the path and to the light posts, your heart beating a little faster as you suddenly feel a tad lost and disconcerted, where’s the next Arrow… where have they gone? Have they stopped…?!

But then, “There it is!” you or your walking buddy says, and you walk with more certainty, reassured that the journey continues. All you have to do, is follow the Yellow Arrowed Road, and you will get to where you want to go.

Day 3: Basquing in National Fervour

Why can’t Australia have fun like they do in Spain? The festive atmosphere has taken a hold of this country and filled it with love and fun that is a contagion that quickly infects travellers, and certainly makes me envious. I loved San Sebastian when I first visited here when I was 21, and it seems I still do. The people party from whenever they feel like their first wine or beer, they stay up until they fall down, and they spend their siesta time between their split shifts basking and swimming at the beach. To be here now though, in August, has been a blessing, to let us truly see the character of San Sebastian at its best.

The festive season has brought the best of the best street performers to the beautiful coastal city, and throughout our day of roaming the streets, we witness incredible dancing, stunts, musicians, artists and even a man who is at least 50 showing amazing Pele-esqe soccer skills that enrapture anyone walking past. (I watch three fathers each with their daughters in prams completely mesmerized by him, like three schoolboys watching a sporting idol.)

The festivities are set off with a National Holiday, and everything is about National pride and love, and the music, literature, sport and traditions that make this country unique and wonderful.

What I must clarify, of course, is that we are not in Spain at all. We are in the Basque country, the fiercely patriotic and proud region that covers a heart shaped area of the North of Spain, and some of France. The people in this region, who have their own distinct culture, language and history from the country they are governed by, will not rest until they are made independent, and remind the travellers within their borders that they are independent, at least in spirit. Posters and stickers on walls, light posts, windows and doors warn us: “Tourist remember, you are NOT in SPAIN or FRANCE – you are in the BASQUE country.” Basque flags hang off flagpoles, boats, and house windows, and many a person wears the Basque colours, or T-shirts demanding independence. San Sebastian, one of the biggest cities, is known as Donostia.

The week long fiesta here is a strong and sure demonstration of the strength of Basque pride. The first firework set off is the lighting up of the Basque name for their country, “Euskal”, and the celebrations are sponsored by the phone company “Euskotel”. More than a few of the fireworks are in the Basque colours – an explosion of red, green and white. (Upon seeing a house decked out in a pattern of red, green and white flowers, I muse “I’m surprised their amber traffic lights aren’t white!”)

The Basque country will most probably never gain full independence (it is an autonomous region, but movement for its independence was knocked back overwhelmingly by Spain’s parliament in 2005, and then a proposed petition for 2008 never took place). Spain will not let it go, and it is a contentious issue all over Spain – although here, what is wanted is very clear. And what is sure, is that for Basque pride to wane or be forgotten, a complete turnaround in the psyche of the people here will be necessary. And if they continue to raise their families rich in the history and traditions of their country, and continue to speak their language so proudly as they do now (there is no other language that Euskadi has been found to be linked with) then at least unofficially, the Basque country will always exist.

And where there are people who still have faith (just like Dumbledore says) then there is always hope.


Day 2: Sore, but in San Seb

The trek today was quite difficult; we leave San Juan at about 8, and after a coffee with Funny Spanish Man and our German friend, we set off over the mountains. Along breath-taking coast line we trod, and meet an interesting local out for a morning jog. The sweaty man entreats us to take the coastal option – the cyclists’ route – when we reach an upcoming intersection. He mentions that some pilgrims choose not to believe his suggestion that the coastal path is the most scenic and beautiful. He leaves us, going the opposite way, but then he miraculously appears, even sweatier than before, at the intersection of paths where we must choose which way to walk. We go his way, but, as suspicious as any tourist that has travelled through Asia can be, we keep looking behind us in case he and his mates are actually bandits ready to rob gullible pilgrims.

No bandits come, just some more locals out for their morning jog, and we feel silly having doubted the lovely man. The scenery is amazing. We cross a semi-ruined Roman Aquaduct, and muse over the direction of Greenland, and the location of the ill-fated Titanic.

8km later, we are trudging into San Sebastian. Tired and weak, our bodies still adjusting to the conditions of walking and carrying our gear. Everything hurts. I am grumpy and sore. An amazing peach brings me back to life for a short time. We once again gain the last two available beds in the Youth Hostel. We could have stayed in the Pilgrim Hostel, but this doesn’t open until 4pm, and we would have had to endure a 4 hour wait with our bags and no freedom to explore. The beach was calling, and the town seemed to be buzzing with excitement about something. The hostel staff informed us that the building was open until 4am –because it was a week-long fiesta (a curfew that many of our roommates would make full use of).

Just before 11pm, we venture out of the hostel and find the beach front so packed with people it is difficult to move, and we know something big is about to happen when we see a man hosing down a fenced off area – wetting the gardens, park benches, and basically anything within the barriers. The palm tree fronds are tied upwards, tucked away from whatever was going to happen. It dawns on us that we are in Spain – either it’s fireworks, or something is going to be set on fire. Just as I figure out how to ask the woman next to me when something would begin, BOOM! It starts.

A massive explosion rocks the thousands of people gathered along the beach front, and the fireworks dance in the night sky. The crowd shows their satisfaction by applauding in the brief pause that ends each set of the display. I have never seen such amazing fireworks – but if anyone knows how to impress using lights and fire in the sky – it’s the Spanish.

There is so much joy in the air, and when the show is over, we disperse with the rest of the crowd into the city centre. The buskers start up and we watch an impressively implausible breakdancing show, as young children dance around as if it’s not midnight at all.

As we walk home along the beach, we pass groups of backpackers who have found themselves homeless with all the city’s hotels and hostels completo, and they are fashioning small backpack and sleeping bag ‘camps’ on the sand, huddling together for security and warmth. (The next morning we pass a couple on their mats, hidden inside their sleeping bags, but we can’t see their backpacks and hope to God that they weren’t stolen during the night.)

Tomorrow we will stay another day, to explore the city properly, so we settle down to sleep and wait for the other travellers to stumble in at 4am after a wonderful night’s revelling in the celebrations.

Pre-Day 1: Just in the Nick of Time

You may never have heard of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or in English, the Way of St James, so let me give you the rundown in 25 words:

St James, Christ’s apostle, was beheaded and his remains allegedly taken to Santiago de Compostela causing the Spanish city to becoming a major Christian pilgrimage destination.

(Damn, 26.)

For a millennia, people from all walks of life, various nations, and – believe it or not – faiths, have walked, biked, ridden a horse or led a donkey to the beautiful city of Santiago de Compostela that lies in the North West corner of the Iberian Peninsula, just above the border of Portugal. (If you have recognised the gap in years between Christ’s life and 1000 years ago – St James’ remains were supposedly buried prior to the city being built and miraculously rediscovered centuries later, leading to the construction of the cathedral, the first pilgrims, and the expansion of the town.)

The Camino has spawned various books (Paulo Coehlo loves it – The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist), and a Hollywood movie (The Way, 2010 – Emilio Estevez wrote this, and his dad plays the lead role), and the Knights Templar (made famous by way of the Da Vinci Code) were responsible for protecting pilgrims from bandits along the way. However, many Australians haven’t heard of the Camino – although it may surprise you how many have completed at least 100km of the journey and received their Compostela.

Every year, tens of thousands – and in Jubilee Years, more than a hundred thousand – people walk the Camino. Most of these are European, but some are Australian, South African or New Zealanders, some are from Asian countries, and they range from young, fit travellers, to the grey nomads who sometimes struggle to climb up onto the top bunks.

Pilgrims stay in hostels specifically catered to pilgrims. You pay a small amount (sometimes just a donation), usually receive breakfast, and you can only stay one night – all pilgrims are expected to move on in the morning. Facilities are simple. Showers are sometimes cold, and bed bugs do exist. You wake up, you walk, you find food, and you sleep. That is the simple, but beautiful life of a pilgrim.

Troy and I are set to start out in Irun, the border town of France and Spain, staying one night before setting out. Our train is scheduled to arrive at 9:35pm, but at 9:45 we are still moving. My guidebook says the pilgrim hostel closes at 10pm. And I’m stressed. So we run. Finding the hostel is not too hard, but when I ring the bell, it is past 10pm. A woman answers, “Ola. It’s very late… we are closed.”

“I know, I’m so sorry, lo siento.”

She opens the door and welcomes us somewhat hesitantly.

“Thank you! Muchos Gracias!!” We dump our bags inside the entrance, there are people milling around the cramped hallway and kitchen.

Another woman pilgrim seems to be late as well, and the three of us are shown our beds – the last three remaining in the hostel. Wow, just in time.

As the hospitalero is filling out my Credenciale, (a ‘Pilgrim’s Passport’, to identify you as a pilgrim and prove – by way of stamps – your kilometres travelled), I remember receiving my first, in August 2007. I had dreamed of doing the Camino for years, something that some Spanish dream of their whole lives, and now, 4 years later, I am doing this for the second time. But this time, we are walking the Northern Route – less popular, and more difficult – than the Camino Frances that I completed last time.

The young American woman who was late with us, from our same train from Paris, is visibly shaking with excitement at the Credentiale in her hands. “I’m SO excited! I’ve been wanting to do this for 6 years, and now I can’t believe I’m HERE, and starting TOMORROW!” She looks at me with almost wild, frantic eyes, “How am I going to SLEEP?!”

When the lights go out just before 11, I know I also will not be able to sleep. I am excited but apprehensive, and due to some unfortunate incidents last time I did this walk – paranoid about bed bugs (I don’t want to talk about it). The room is small, with three bunks in a tiny room, no ventilation, and it is hot. I toss and turn, listen to music, try breathing techniques, but nothing works. There is a fiesta in town and the fireworks go long into the night. I hear Troy shifting uncomfortably, reading his book, and listening to his iPod.

“Troy!” I whisper. “I can’t sleep… can you?”


It’s always when you need sleep the most that it eludes you.

And tomorrow we walk.