First Timer’s Guide to Camino de Santiago

Camino1It’s been three months and I can’t get the Camino out of my system.

I only knew of the Camino a week before I started the walk. Looking back, I probably wouldn’t or daren’t embark on this journey if I had known more about it. It was a suggestion by my new friends Irene and Tony, a foolhardy decision on my part, a few days of cold feet, and finally a challenge from my son.

Having walked 350km across the Pyrenees Mountains from France to Spain and won decent respect from non-believers, I can now claim bragging rights to boast about it if indeed there is anyone interested to hear about my adventure. Surprisingly there are, and I’ve been talking about it to friends and their friends.

The Camino is truly an extraordinary journey and I really want others to try it. But of late, I’ve been busy with work and feel kind of bad not being able to share this wonderful experience to more people.

The next best thing is to write about it as a first timer’s experience in the Camino. So here goes – a Singaporean mid-lifer’s point of view of the grand walk.

What is Camino de Santiago?

“Camino de Santiago” is Spanish for Way to Santiago. It is also referred to as The Way of St James in English or Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle in French. IMAG3075_1 The Camino refers to Christine pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in north-western Spain. The scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago.

The Camino routes date back to the Middle Ages and link ancient towns and quaint villages each with its own religious monuments and churches, some humble while others magnificent. Along the way, the countryside is beautiful and tranquil, or harsh and menacing depending on the weather.

There are many routes ranging from medieval trails to modern day tracks and many books written for the pilgrim. Check out http://www.caminoguides.com/index.html Camino2 There are also many videos on YouTube and a movie starring Martin Sheen titled “The Way” which is shot on location with actual pilgrims in most scenes. These should give one a fair preview of what to expect of the Camino.

Preparing for the journey

I am possibly the most unprepared, impromptu pilgrim-to-be. My preparation was less than one week. No training whatsoever. No research of the routes or the weather. Absolutely no idea what the walk was about. So if I can do it, anyone can.

The only thing is one must be relatively fit, been exercising regularly, done some outdoor sports, experienced camping and preferably climbed a mountain.

Next thing to prepare is the gear. I have a pair of trainers with tired soles. No way can they last me for the walk. Searched my luggage packed with clothes for a summer vacation, not a hiking trip.

Thus to Decathlon I went with Irene to buy a pair of walking shoes, a sleeping bag, poncho, energy bars, muscle relief creams, plasters, sun screen creams and dry-fit T-shirts on sale.

Decathlon has a good selection of sportswear and equipment online if you’re gearing up for your trip. www.decathlon.com

To break into my new shoes, we went for a 15km village walk on 25 July, St. James Day. That was when I felt seriously unfit and struggled all the way. But the outdoors, the forest trails, the spectacular views of the vast countryside invigorated me and I yearned for more walking.

My feet felt sore at the end of the walk but luckily no blisters. I’ll be fine with my new shoes.

That was Friday. On Saturday, Tony printed out the final maps and plans of the daily routes of the French Way from Lourdes to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. From there to Spain, we’ll rely on John Brierley’s Camino Guidebook.

Borrowed a haversack and walking stick from Irene and packed 7-kg of stuff needed for the next two weeks. Walk Packing List (minimum)

  • Toiletries – basic personal, sunscreen, lip balm
  • First aid – plasters, joint and ache relief cream, common medication
  • At least one set of dry clothes & socks (wash the set you’re wearing at the end of each day)
  • Light towel
  • Sleeping bag
  • Raincoat / poncho
  • Hat
  • Water bottle (at least 0.75l, top up along the way)
  • Passport
  • Cash (Budget 30euros per day)
  • Credit card
  • Phone, charger, adapter
  • Maps, guidebook
  • Walking stick (optional)

Night before the Camino, I wrote a post on the planned route from Lourdes to Logrono. At that moment, I was still uncertain if all this is ever going to happen at all. http://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/gr-78-to-camino-de-santiago/

No turning back

The problem with someone like me who live in the city all my life is I think I could easily get a cab from anywhere to anywhere, that shelter is at most an hour away commuting in comfort.

The morning when Tony dropped us off by the roadside in Lourdes, I was half expecting him to pick us up again for a nice breakfast and perhaps a tour around the Basilica.

That was my first shock. He simply drove off without fanfare, leaving us with our backpacks and sticks, maps and our good legs to bring us across to Spain.

I remembered what Irene said. “This is it, Joan. We’ve just got to keep walking forward till we reach our destination. Are you ready?”

yes…. NO! I’m not ready. What am I supposed to be ready for?

But Irene has already started walking ahead. That’s how it was. The pace was set. I simply have to follow Irene. There’s no time to think about anything.

Within minutes, I was already tired. We barely reached the end of the church where the singing of hymns sounding softer with each step as we approach the forest. How am I going to continue with the rest of the way when I’m already tired before we even started?

Irene probably sensed my plight and paused to talk to me. It helped. We talked on and on about all kinds of things and I forgot about my tiredness. She pointed out the Camino signs that we have to look out for every few kilometres to stay on the right track. These signs are made by volunteers from various Camino organizations in Europe to help pilgrims along the way. Camino3 Be comfortable about being uncomfortable

In the first few days, Irene walked with me within visible or audible distance. When I got more confident on my own, we walked at our own pace, Irene way ahead and I was always far behind, taking photos, resting, munching snacks.

After the third day, I got used to the tiredness, the discomfort of the odd pebble inside the shoe, the weight on my shoulders, the heat, the cold, the dampness, the dryness, the solitude, the new vulnerability of a naked soul in the openness of nature.

All kinds of thoughts drifted in and out of my mind. Random thoughts on heavy breaths. Hours walking like a robot or a zombie, sometimes marching, sometimes dragging my feet. Every now and then, I wriggled my toes to make sure the legs are still with the rest of the body. Hunger pangs came and went. Reached out for the bottle to quench the thirst. Toilet breaks – find a secluded spot, have a quick one and move on.

When we arrived at the day’s destination and checked into an inn or albergue, we immediately freshen up, wash our clothes to make sure they dry by morning, have dinner, relax, record our day’s walk, check for blisters or any injuries, apply muscle relaxant on the legs, ointment on the shoulders and study the route for the next day.

My phone alarm was set for 5am, pretty early and pretty dark. If we had our own room we had the luxury of switching on the lights and making as much noise as we want. But if we’re sharing a room, we had to grope around in the dark and as quietly as possible, grabbed all our belongings and head to the kitchen or reception area to get ready.

We usually start walking before 7am depending on whether we took breakfast in the albergue or along the way. In the Camino, I learned that we walk two paths simultaneously – the outer path which we haul our bodies and the inner pathway of the mind and soul.

For me, it was only after the eighth day that I started to experience the spirit of the Camino and walked the inner pathway.

Sleeping with strangers, walking with friends

The main host for the Camino is northern Spain which covers the proud Basque region through wine-growing Rioja and scenic Leon to historical Galicia. There are UNESCO sites along the way and countless architectural and natural wonders.

Spaniards are very supportive of the pilgrims and will always lend a helping hand when asked. Villages have Camino signs painted on walls and cities have special signs on the pavements. It’s quite impossible to get lost. If you are, there’ll be someone to help you.

The Camino is a collection of routes from different parts of Europe converging at French St. Jean-Pied-de-Port before the pilgrims cross the border to Spanish Roncesvalles. At the pilgrim office in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, you register to receive a credential on the pilgrim card and get a printout of important information on routes, contacts and accommodation.

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Different villages and towns have different standards and quantity of rooms or bed spaces. On the French side, Irene and I stayed in various types of pilgrim accommodation from priest’s lodging to private suites costing from voluntary donation to 25euros per night. In Spain, the average night stay is 10euros dormitory style. That’s when the fun begins. IMAG1878 It’s been many years since I slept in places with shared bathrooms and beds in a hall sleeping with people from all walks of life and of all ages.

There were people we met along the way who ended in the same albergue. We shared meals together, learned about each other, where we came from, why we’re doing the Camino, exchanged experiences, talked about the next day’s route, what’s interesting along the way, where to stay for the night.

It takes very little to make friends. A simple Bonjour or Hola will open any conversation and heart. Camino pilgrims are all very warm and helpful, no expectations, no strings attached.

In the village Zariquiegui we couldn’t find any available beds. We forgot to book in advance. Been walking for almost 7 hours under the hot summer sun. The next village is 6km away and there’s no guarantee it had available beds.

I couldn’t walk another step, slumped on the first chair I could see, had a cold drink before I could think properly. Was prepared to sleep outside the church in my sleeping bag. No way could I walk to the next village. Irene and I started to discuss our options.

A French lady was listening to us and started talking to someone on the phone. Then she told us to check the albergue again because someone had just cancelled. We did and thankfully found a place to spend the night.

Expect the Unexpected

Along the Camino, we met many interesting people – the young, the old, the in-between, all coming together for different reasons walking the same path. Some walked with us for a few kilometres, or from one village to another, and sometimes the entire way the whole day. Brief encounters, chance meetings, lasting impressions.

Everyone is walking their own Camino. All of us are aware of the effort required and what we are going through, walking the same path overcoming the challenges that face us. Each day into the Camino, it became clearer to me why I ended up in this walk. Destiny perhaps. A divine intervention maybe.

It’s been a long time since I attended mass. The last one got me more depressed than before I entered the church. So I stayed away.

On the eighth day of my walk in Roncesvalles, the Church of Augustinian Canons was offering mass for pilgrims at 6pm. I was half-hearted about going and Irene didn’t want to force me to. But we went. I must confess I went just because dinner was only ready in an hour’s time and there was nothing much to see in the village. Camino4 Entering the church, I immediately felt different. Can’t really describe it, just a sensation of being unburdened and lifted. The mass and hymns were in Spanish. I didn’t understand a word but everything was brilliant, illuminating and crystal clear. I was touched, almost close to tears.

When the priest read out the countries from where we came from, Irene and I were so proud to hear Singapore being called. We went forward to receive the blessings for a safe and meaningful journey in the Camino. It was a beautiful moment.

From then on, the walk became one of mindfulness, respect and reflection. I realized that I’ve overcome the physical pathway and walking the inner path – the road to myself.  

Appreciation – Grammy style

I would like to thank

Irene and Tony for introducing me to the Camino and guiding me all the way.

Everyone following my blog and facebook, cheering me on

My new Camino friends who made my journey delightful and memorable

Fellow pilgrims who shared stories on the road

The church volunteers for tirelessly attending to all pilgrims

The people in the villages and towns who gave us directions and wished us well

The Camino de Santiago Organization for the great work all these years

And my son for pushing me to go for this walk

Joan Yap

Related posts. http://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/07/25/way-of-st-james/ http://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/bon-camino/ http://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/back-to-st-jean-pied-de-port/ http://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/the-spanish-way/ http://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/your-own-camino/ http://whatboomerswant.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/after-thoughts/

Gunung Pulai

View from Gunung Pulai to Johor

View from Gunung Pulai halfway mark

Forced out of Singapore by the closure of our Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, three nature-starved friends and I crossed the border to Malaysia Gunung Pulai for a hike this morning.

Gunung is the Malay word for mountain but this is actually a hill (bukit) just over 650m (2,000 feet) high with two telecoms towers on its summit and a 4.7km tar road cut through virgin rain forest.

Its a popular walk with the locals who turned out to be an extremely cordial bunch with ready smiles, friendly eye contacts and warm greetings.

It was just a two-hour climb and less to descend. But that’s enough for our fix - the fresh country air, sounds of birds and insects, sights of lush greenery, the simple sweet scent for nature. Will certainly be back again.

Joan Yap

Towering Seraya trees

Adorable kampong village kids happy for a photo with fellow hikers

Adorable kampong village kids happy for a photo with fellow hikers

Kampong house where you can park your car in their yard for a small fee.

Kampong house where you can park your car in their yard for a small fee.

Singlish

255px-Coxford_Singlish_Dictionary

When my niece’s British boyfriend met the family for lunch for the first time, he wore a strange look throughout and we thought he was just nervous, naturally.

As it turned out, he was having a hard time following our conversation even though we were speaking English, well sort of.

Foreign friends who hear Singaporeans for the first time will be puzzled by our concoction of words and expressions in an English soup of speech.

It’s not that we can’t speak proper English but when we’re together, we somehow break into this unique blend of colloquialism known as Singlish.

The origin of our Singlish is similar to the other former British colonies. It’s defined as English-based creole which is an adaptation with the native language, in our case a host of native languages.

The main ingredients of Singlish are from southern China dialects, native Malay, Straits Malay and Indian English. Besides using borrowed words and phrases, Singlish favours shortening and orphaning of words that will make an English purist squirm. Some examples of Singlish –

Chope  < to reserve >

Tompang  < to get a ride or favour >

Kopi-O  < coffee without milk >

Tah Pow  < takeaway >

Lah  < this has no particular meaning and is used at the end of a sentence or to emphasize another word >

When used in daily conversations, it goes like this – Please chope this table. Can tompang you to buy kopi-o? I go tah pow some deserts. Want to eat what? Quick-lah.

It’s confusing and may sound totally gibberish. But it’s alright. We get by in this world.

In fact there was an interesting incident when our Air Force pilots on a combat exercise in USA completely baffled their counterparts by switching from Standard English to Singlish after realizing that the USAF pilots were eavesdropping on their conversations.

So if you are in the company of Singaporeans and can’t understand what we’re saying, we’re most happy to switch to English for you. Any time-lah!

Joan Yap

World’s most expensive cars

Photo credit : Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg

Photo credit : Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg

It’s Formula1 season here. Another one-of-its-kind night race, the first in the world in 2008 won by Spaniard Fernando Alonso. People involved in the event have been busy for weeks, fans are arriving, last minute ticketing frenzy, entertainment all lined up, glitz and glam guaranteed.

According to TripAdvisor, the cost of the cheapest race ticket, one night’s stay in a hotel close to the circuit, a burger meal, a pint of beer (most expensive in F1 venues ), and a soda, could chalk up to a total of S$622.67 (US$500), making Singapore the seventh-costliest place in the world to watch the grand prix.

Besides beer, Singapore is the most expensive place in the world to own a car. Even the stars from Fast and Furious were shocked at the prices we pay for our four-wheels.

A small family car such as the Toyota Yaris costs about S$120,000 (US$96,000); China Chery subcompact car is over S$85,000 (US$68,000); BMW 3series sedan S$200,000 (US$160,000); Mercedes E63 S$500,000 (US$400,000); and we’ve not gone into the dizzying range of luxury cars.

Why so expensive?

It all started on labour day in 1990 when the transport authority implemented a quota limit to vehicles called the Certificate Of Entitlement (COE). The COE system was intended to curb vehicle ownership by imposing an additional variable cost to anyone buying new cars.

Today the average cost of a COE is S$70,000 (US$56,000). Top this to the price of your dream car and only then are you entitled to put it on the road.

Oh I forget to say that the COE expires after 10 years. I know it’s hard to accept but that’s one of the high costs of living here. My own run-around faithful 4-seater will be ten next year and I’ll have to scrap it even though it’s in immaculate condition. (sigh)

Now you understand why Singaporeans get excited when we see the prices of cars in showrooms overseas because back home, most of us can only ogle.

 Joan Yap

Sing Dollar

Sing$

Singapore is still a relatively unknown country to the rest of the world if my experience at the Camino is anything to go by.

It’s the usual questions whenever I tell people where I’m from – Are we part of China or Korea or Japan? Where did I learn to speak English? Is Singapore a city, a state or a country?

The most interesting question was from a lady from Idaho, USA who asked if Singapore has her own currency.

Come to think of it, she’s quite right to question the sovereignty of a country she heard of for the first time. Having our own flag does not necessary mean an independent country, I mean a school or club has its flag too.

So yes, we have our own currency – the Singapore Dollar aka Sing Dollar or SGD/S$ – which has been in use for the past 47 years.

Being a diehard history buff, I can’t help telling you how our currency came about. It won’t take too much time, I promise.

To cut a long story short, different forms of currencies were used here tracing back to the fateful day when an Englishman and a Scot landed on this infertile, mosquito infested, tiger roaming, obscure island that was razed to the ground and abandoned by the Portuguese way back when.

Spanish$

Around noon one January day in 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles and his sidekick William Farquhar arranged a treaty with a hastily appointed Malay sultan and his chief minister for the right to set up a trading post on behalf of the British East Indies company. The whole deal which almost caused a war between the Dutch and the British was transacted in Spanish dollars, real de a ocho aka “pieces of eight”, the de facto trading currency of that time.

Straits$

As the British Empire grew in power and established the Straits Settlements, the Straits dollar became the currency for Singapore for almost 100 years until it was replaced by the Malayan dollar just before the outbreak of WWII.

banana-money

During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, Imperial Japan issued a new currency for its occupied territories. Informally known as “banana money”, the notes have motifs of overbearing banana bunches and no serial numbers as they were printed whenever money is required, thus causing hyperinflation and subsequently became worthless by the end of the occupation.

Malayan$

The years leading to independence from United Kingdom, Singapore used the Malaya and British Borneo dollar, aka ringgit. These post-war currency notes adopted anti-forgery features such as security threads and watermarks. The first series in 1953 bore the head of a young Queen Elizabeth. Later series carried more ethnic themes, a sign of breaking away from the monarchy.

Singapore became fully independent in 1965 after the tearful separation from Malaysia but continued to use the ringgit.

Finally two years later, we issued our own notes and coins at par with Malaysia and pegged to the Sterling Pound £1 = S$8.57. Today £1 = S$2.05 and M$1 = S$0.40.

We’ve come a long way since, don’t you think?

Joan Yap

Little Red Dot

900px-Singapore_Panorama_v2

I promised my foreign friends that I’ll write about my country, Singapore and will start with a warm introduction.

Back from a spring-to-summer vacation in temperatures averaging 19°C, the heat at home takes some getting used to.

Singapore is one degree north of the equator along the latitude that crosses Uganda and Kenya in Africa, and north Brazil, Columbia and Ecuador in South America.

Its a “cool” 29°C now with humidity close to 90% which means you’ll start sweating the minute you’re out of the shower. Unless you have the air-con on which almost every home has, and that’s why we’re dubbed the most air-conditioned country in the world. It’s actually conceivable to artificially cool our environment.

Only 700 sq km in size (less than one-tenth of metro London) with a growing population, organic and imported, most of us live in high-rise apartments, also referred to as pigeon-holes or shoeboxes. But don’t be fooled, these little plots stacked up in the air cost more than big family houses in many parts of the world, Something we’re still trying to get over and probably will never be as long as we choose to stay here.

In terms of history, we can be considered an infant compared to our neighbours and greater civilizations. Though young, we are a neighbourly and civilized metropolis built from the ashes of war after the breakdown of the British Empire and gaining full independence in 1965. And yes, many of us have witnessed the birth of our nation.

A nation with a mixed heritage of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian and other races, we have a unique blend of customs, social practices, food and language that can only be found in this tropical island fondly known as the “Little Red Dot”. Look at the world map and you’ll understand why.

For more insider stories about Singapore, stay with me and I’ll reveal them in the following weeks.

Joan Yap

LittleRedDot

A very special vacation

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What a summer this has been! Caught in a whiff of passion, the lightest nudge, a bold self-invitation and a lifetime experience.

Pounced on a good deal by Air France – two cities for the price of one, packed for two weeks and travelled around for two months. Walked the Camino, a pilgrimage I’ve only learned about last month;  stayed with Irene and Tony whom I’ve only known for one day.

So glad I came. Glad I took the chance. If I had done the practical thing by staying home, I would not have experienced the long walks and drives, the warm Spanish hugs, the many French kisses, the little tiffs about going left or right, the joy of reaching a new destination every day, the freshness of home grown vegetables and fruits, the toiling and tilling of earth, starlit nights and crispy mornings, the fullness of country living, and the pride of putting Singapore in the Camino map.

Thank you Irene and Tony, for being so gracious to open your home and hearts to me. We bade farewell this morning but the memories shared together will stay with me forever.

Till we meet again, some captured moments.

Joan Yap

At Maury for Tour de France

At Maury for Tour de France

Sending us to Lourdes to start the Camino. I still didn't know what I was in for that morning.

To Lourdes to start the Camino. Still didn’t know what I was in for that morning.

Putting Singapore in the Camino world map

Putting Singapore in the Camino world map

Start of a new day of walking

Start of a new day of walking

Camino chicas

Camino chicas

Irache wine fountain for a drink and more

Irache wine fountain for a drink and more

Boating

Boating

Fixing John Deree

Fixing John Deree

Simply irresistible!

Simply irresistible!

Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday!