My Ladies

For Margaret.  Granny, wife, daughter, friend, registrar of births, deaths and marriages, generous host, natural comedienne, two time cancer survivor, youngest 70 year old I know. My Mum.

Annie, Nellie, Mary, Peggy, Jeannie, Anna, Margaret, Nicola.  Although this may read like the line up for a new girl band it is in fact my direct female ancestral line going back to my Great Grandmother.  A lady neither I nor Mum got to meet unfortunately, particularly as she appears to have been quite the force of nature.  Widowed not long after the birth of her fifth child in Donegal she subsequently raised her children alone, supporting them by working in the local general store, taking in a lodger and ultimately moving all to Belfast to increase the opportunities on offer to them.  A strong, working single parent; I wonder would we have had much more in common?

Just before coming on the Camino it dawned on me that I am the last mother-to-daughter female on this particular line and I was drawn to bringing photographs of what I’ve now come to refer to as ‘My Ladies’ with me.  From what I’ve experienced directly as well as what I’ve heard through family stories the two characteristics that seem consistent through this line are strength and humour; two qualities I’ve found invaluable on the Camino.  I have two colour photocopies of the compilation of photos I made of My Ladies.  One is a laminated copy which has come out of my rucksack on the rare occasion that we’ve stayed in a nice hotel because, well, we’re women and what woman doesn’t appreciate nice bed linen and large, soft towels? The other copy is folded up at the back of my journal close to a rose quartz I’ve had for years and, with just one walking day left of this 800km adventure, I’ve yet to decide whether I’ll leave them in a church in Santiago, the Cathedral itself or perhaps in Finisterra (what used to be thought of as the end of the physical world and the beginning of the spiritual one).  Symbolism and ritual are rife on the Camino but, if I were to hazard a guess at what drew me to bringing My Ladies along for the ride, until recently I’d not have had a very clear answer except maybe to say gratitude.  Gratitude for what they’ve given me and for the opportunities I’ve had that they can somehow experience through me in spirit. I had a special, yet difficult to explain experience relating to My Ladies on a hill just outside Pamplona that I haven’t shared with Mum yet so I’ll not do so here.  (For that reason and also due to a suspicion that I may come across in this blog as batty enough already!).

Then recently, during one fairly unremarkable stretch of Camino walking, Exploradora called me over to a very modest stone cross on a pretty barren stretch of land and told me she’d found something that may be of significance to me.  She subtly left me alone and I found the piece of writing below which describes in more eloquent words than mine why I now know My Ladies are with me.  I think there may have been a lot of dust at that stone cross as there was a lot of it in my eyes by the end of reading it.

Walking, I am listening to a deeper way.  Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.

Linda Hogan (b. 1947) Native American writer.

Ladies, it has been a pleasure walking alongside you.  Feel free to walk with me again anytime.

To Santiago x


My Onion and Related Camino Lessons

Since we arrived in St Jean Pied de Port to start our Camino over a month ago, we’ve had many people ask us the common pilgrim question ‘so why are you doing the Camino?’.  I can’t speak for Exploradora but I’m not sure I’ve yet given an answer that I’m totally satisfied with.  Besides the basic facts (that I love Spain, speaking Spanish, enjoy long distance walking and travel), there still remains a little bundle of personal reasons that made this desire to walk the full Camino Frances too insatiable, and too darn loud in my head, to ignore any longer.

In summary, this little bundle of reasons is what I think of as my Onion.  On reflection, I now realise that what I wanted was to strip back the ‘stuff’ of life, for a little while, to see what was hidden under the layers.  Taking off a layer of obligation; to opening the mail, to daily electronic communications, to (unnecessary?) chores, to people pleasing, even to generating income for a while (so counter-intuitive it feels alien to type).  Taking off a layer of physical ‘stuff’; the endless choice of gadgets, clothes, toiletries and other material things that I’ve been persuaded into feeling that I ‘need’ to help run Nicola Enterprises.  Taking off a layer of pretence (that I didn’t appreciate I still practiced); feeling natural telling other pilgrims ‘actually I’m not okay, thanks for asking, I really hurt today.  How about you?’, feeling good about myself despite (or because of?) my shiny face, Carmen Miranda-style hair scarf and mala bead new ‘look’ or allowing silences to permeate conversations with people I’m comfortable with.

The word that has kept coming up in conversations with Exploradora when I describe how thrilling it is to shed layers like these is authentic.  So I’d comfortably call out authenticity as my first big Camino lesson.  Although I have certainly felt, especially in recent years, that I’ve led an authentic life I realise that there are definitely still layers left to shed.  And just to clarify, I don’t mean authentic in that reality television style of being ‘real’ by forcing my opinions on others; rather respecting authenticity in myself and others, valuing difference whilst remaining true to myself.  I’m getting deep here so I really wish I could tell you the suppository story.  I can’t, sorry, as I’d betray confidence.  It was a true story told to me last night by my Mum on the phone which had me giggling long after the call, retelling it to Exploradora back in the room.  I had spoken to my son and parents in turn and it felt like home, despite the distance, to hear their accents, quirks, sayings, unique humour and warmth.  I realised then that this lesson about authenticity isn’t just about me (arrogant pilgrim!), but that it is also about valuing those in my life who are so wonderfully, weirdly, authentically themselves.  You know who you are, you odd bunch.

The tricky part for me on the authenticity note is that, on pilgrimage or not, we all encounter people who are wearing many layers, their authenticity hidden from view.  I’m learning how to deal with that better; from setting boundaries, to challenging attitudes that offend myself or others when it feels of genuine benefit.  Or avoidance. The people pleaser inside me winced a little with that last one, but I need her to get uncomfortable from time to time.

My second big Camino lesson is acceptance.  Acceptance of myself; my imperfect body with its shin splints, tiredness, sore feet and gastroenteritis, my imperfect mind that makes up songs with swear words to express frustration about loose rocks and flies on a hot day rather than feel gracious about being on this wondrous adventure.  Acceptance of others; their views, their ways, their habits and even their darn positivity when I just want to moan about skinny pillows or flies using my generous forehead as a graveyard.  And finally acceptance of what is.  The Camino, in my experience, gives you a little sliver of everything; from thunder and lightning storms with hail in your eyes while climbing the highest peak to scrambling down a rocky mountainside in 34 degree heat, from happy, hippy pilgrims to opinionated, competitive ones, from flat terrain on the meseta to the unbelievable heights of the Pyrenees, from cute, charming accommodation to the Spanish version of Fawlty Towers.

Nailing my pilgrim lessons to the mast may appear premature as I have several walking days left to go before I reach my final destination at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.  I may have new insights between now and then, or I may not.  But I do hope to be a much smaller onion.

Achilles Heels (Shin Splints and Tears)

In Greek mythology, when Achilles was a baby, it was foretold that he would die young. In order to prevent his death, his mother took Achilles to the River Styx, which was supposed to offer powers of invulnerability, and dipped his body into the water; however, as she held Achilles by the heel, his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river. Although Achilles grew up to be a man of war who survived many great battles, one day a poisonous arrow shot at him was lodged in his heel, killing him shortly afterwards; hence the term Achilles heel now being used to describe various types of vulnerabilities.

It has been my experience that the Camino can at times feel like a new pair of walking shoes rubbing and irritating your ankles. You can be stoical and graceful and pretend they’re not pushing your buttons but eventually there will be a pain or irritation you’ll need to address. My first figurative Achilles heel, a ghost of an irritant I thought had long passed, was disproportionate disappointment in myself when my body experienced an injury (a ‘failure’ as perceived by my self-critical inner dialogue). I knew deep down after a couple of days strapping a painful shin splint and walking on without treatment that I risked ending my Camino altogether. After a painful evening following a very hot 19 mile day the frustration and tears came, representing an illogical disappointment in myself as well as a fear of not being able to complete my long anticipated journey. Making time to consult a pharmacist, resting more than I’d have liked and spending parts of subsequent evenings pressing a food bag full of ice to my lower leg will, I trust, get me to Santiago healthy and with no long term issues. Ironically, the first day I felt strong enough to walk without a support bandage I was so elated that I doubt I’ve walked any other Camino day at a faster speed or with a greater spring in my step! Maybe this little issue is less of an Achilles heel for me now; time will tell.

This experience spurred me to thinking about the non-physical Achilles heels that can also be triggered by the Camino. I’ve personally felt and also witnessed in other pilgrims plently of emotional and spiritual vulnerable spots so far. One manifestation of this common to many is tears, and lots of them! I’ve had a few myself and have also witnessed several pilgrims crying quietly in village churches, by the side of tough, rocky mountain paths and during one to one conversations with virtual strangers. Some shed tears for lost or missed loved ones, for personal regrets or fears, for happy or spiritual reasons or simply because a particular day is physically demanding due to incline, terrain, heat or storms. There seems to be little concern about masking tears on the Camino which, for me, was a little unusual at first but ultimately quite liberating and natural.

My main observation about the unashamed demonstration of vulnerabilities or Achilles heels on the Camino is that I find it an attractive and very human quality. In some cases they’re the key to a really interesting connection and conversation with a fellow pilgrim and in most they also challenge the initial subconscious assumption that many of us make about people after conversing with them for a very short period of time. Another sentiment that I hope I’ll be able to integrate into my post-Camino life.

The third Achilles heel that comes to mind which has affected many of us is gastroenteritis, but for obvious reasons I’ll spare you any further analysis!

The Shirtless Belgian…and Other Camino Connections

I got your attention there, didn’t I Mum?

I’m disappointed to say that I’ve yet to encounter any WiFi on the Camino that is happy uploading photos via my ancient iPad to this blog platform; so even if I had have been brazen enough to take a photo of said Shirtless Belgian I couldn’t share it with you.  Maybe I wouldn’t want to share.  Anyway…

Almost 400km in and I’ve discovered that there a number of ways that fellow pilgrims connect on the Camino.  There’s the head down, minimal eye contact ‘we’re concentrating on this sodding hill’ mutual acknowledgement; not unfriendly, just a silent acceptance of each other’s pain.  Then there’s the ‘Buen Camino’ (have a great journey) cheery, timeless greeting; it crosses all language barriers and is even more welcome at tricky sections when both parties are out of puff and the effort is still made.  The next type of connection I’d define as ‘helpful and informative’; weather forecasts, blister strategies, tips about cultural or gastronomic highlights in the next town or village or, crucially, where the next toilet is.  The there’s the ‘easy conversationalists’; the chat that starts with the Camino but branches out to other travel adventures, stories of respective countries, customs, experiences, family and friends.  All adding a sublime richness to the Camino experience.  If you’re really lucky though you may also experience the truly ‘magic’ connections of the Camino.  Exploradora and I for example have been good friends for a couple of decades and so far the Camino has served to both challenge but ultimately strengthen that ‘magic’ bond we arrived with. We’re blessed, as we’ve seen other pilgrims on the Way going through some quite tricky times together.  But we trust for them that 800km will ultimately iron out any wrinkles in their relationships.  What is fascinating for me in particular though are the ‘magic’ connections that can occur with ‘new’ people; deep connections that happen in a single conversation, eclipsing at times the ones you’d typically make over months or years at the water cooler in work, in a large friendship group or at a social club.

As I don’t know who will ultimately read this blog I need to respect each pilgrim’s identity.  My audience could be just my parents admittedly but, just in case, I’ll generalise a little and use two examples.  The first, an early morning chat on a steep, rocky hillside not long after I had encouraged Exploradora and her strong legs to go at the pace they were designed to take.  Eating her dust, I took a water stop close to a man from across the Atlantic I had been introduced to a couple of evenings before; a total gentleman in both manners and human nature.  It felt natural to cut the small talk quickly and we both shared some similar, emotional, family centric experiences that had occurred only days before on the Camino.  Surprisingly for me, we were both unashamedly comfortable welling up and crying briefly together and, as we parted company again (as we both knew we felt like walking alone) he thanked me for sharing tears with him.  As I walked on I thought ‘how odd is this freaking Camino…but I like it’.

The Shirtless Belgian appeared from nowhere some days before; a hot day with very little shade, Exploradora and I had gone quiet walking the last long stretch of the day when two Belgian men joined us.  We paired off for conversation and, within less than two minutes, this lovely young man and I were talking about our rationale for embarking upon the Camino, the similarities in our respective upbringings and our attitudes towards work and finding our respective lives’ meanings.  Bam!  No weather chit chat.  No world politics.  No Camino logistics about accommodation choices.  Just the real stuff (for us anyway).  We then went on to topics of mutual interest; NLP, personality types, self development topics.  In less than three quarters of an hour our weary legs were pleased to reach our next town but, for me at least, I could have talked with this intelligent man at this level for longer.  It felt deep, of meaning, but at the same time light as a feather.  No ‘heavy’ offloading, trading sob stories or striving to say anything profound.

I trust this unique Camino experience will allow me to continue to meet kindred spirits like the lovely gents I’ve described here. In ponchos, waterproofs, t-shirts – or no shirts.  I’m not picky.

Units of Measurement

There are many things to consider before starting your Camino. For us it went something like this: 34 days walking or even longer hikes and cut the duration? Book ahead or go with the flow and risk no available beds at the next location? Communal albergues or hostales with twin rooms? Carry all our belongings each day or just a day pack and send the rest via baggage transfer? Factor in rest days or not? Start each day in the dark or wait until after sunrise? Walk fast or meander? Attack the long days and the hills or stop for breaks along the way?

Should you choose to, there are many ways to judge a pilgrim and his or her pilgrimage. Are you a ‘true pilgrim’ if you walk less than 40km a day, stay in bed and breakfast accommodation, take a few rest days, use a baggage transfer service and walk at a pace that stretches you but still accommodates enough ‘puff’ to talk to other pilgrims? Or are you a ‘true pilgrim’ if you aim to complete the Camino in a record number of days, enjoy the community of dormitory living in albergues, take no rest days, carry all your belongings each day and get a buzz from starting really early and hitting your own speed targets, only taking on water and snacks on the move?

Whilst I lean more towards the first example (800km is challenge enough for this old bird without complicating matters further), I firmly believe that anyone with the tenacity to take on a pilgrimage of this nature is a ‘real’ pilgrim, regardless of approach, and all deserve the same degree of respect. Almost two weeks in and we’ve met people walking the Camino in stages planning to come back year on year, cyclists completing up to 70km a day, injured pilgrims calling taxis along the way, less fit people taking frequent breaks and pilgrims of the long lunch with wine variety not caring what time they reach their destination. And when we’ve spoken with fellow pilgrims about their reasons for walking the Camino we’ve been frequently moved and inspired, for a wide variety of reasons.  Even the ones originally dragged along by friends or spouses begin sentences with “next time…”

As humans we can’t help but create mental units of measurement to judge our own and others’ lives: marital status, nature of employment, salary, type of home, weight, fitness level, beauty, confidence, children, no children, lifestyle choices, the list goes on. On the Camino however I’ve experienced the lowest degree of judgment than any other place or time in my life. The rare comment about not staying in a communal albergue or not carrying all my belongings on my back each day have been exponentially outweighed by genuine concern for my strapped shin, interest in my accent and heritage, humour in many different forms shaped by varying cultures, shared meaningful conversations about life and even some shared tears. And no one seems to care if my face is tired and shiny and my wild hair perched on top of my head like a bird’s nest.

I wonder will my units of measurement shift when I return home? Like most people I suppose, before this experience I’d have thought that I’m not a very judgmental character, but this experience I find pushes your boundaries somewhat.  Will my units of measurement be kinder, more flexible, more meaningful?  Will I look deeper, beyond the homeless pilgrim’s dirty clothes and gaunt face to his loyal, healthy, happy dogs, before I pass judgment? I hope so.

Dory on the Camino

I spoke in my last post about simplicity.  On a loosely related note, just over a week into my walking adventure I’ve begun to notice something about the changes in my thoughts when I’m walking long distances, exacerbated on the Camino I believe by how interested I am in the people I’m walking with and the nature I’m surrounded by.

When walking a stretch with someone else, Exploradora or a friendly pilgrim who I’ve struck up a conversation with, I’m fully in the conversation and it doesn’t matter if it lasts six minutes or sixty.  No phone pinging or ringing, screen glaring in my sight line or somewhere else to get to in twenty minutes that makes me mentally ration my time while I’m ‘listening’.

When walking alone I do have some profound, sentimental and/or moving thoughts and insights.  I just wanted to get that on record before I give you a typical transcript of my Dory-like* mental process on the Camino (I’d like to return home with some personal and professional integrity in tact).

What a beautiful sky, and what a view of Pamlona from this height, how lucky I am to be here (welling up a little). Who would have thought that ‘bad year’ when I was unwell I’d be doing this (sniff, wipe tear away)………….(some seconds later)……………Is that rabbit poo? Or it could be from a fox, I saw one yesterday…………Hmmm, I must set my intention for the day………..Did I pack enough snacks? Or plasters?  My ankles are chafing……………………Ow, a loose rock………………Another fe**in hill, seriously?……………………I’m thirsty………..Is that the Hungarian from day 1?…………………… How does that girl look so glamorous on the Camino?…………….Nearly stood on that snail, I’ll move it under this bush……………………………..I wonder how far away Alto del Perdon is?  My shin hurts………………………Ooo, lovely poppies………………………………………………….I’ll need a pee soon…………..Interesting, almonds grow in furry pods……………………………..God bless you vines for your grapes, fresh and fermented.  Red with dinner tonight I think………………………….Why do I still call them cow bells when horses are wearing them…….?”

This typical mental dialogue may well be followed by minutes on end of next to nothing of significance going on in my brain, purely working on navigating the path, road or gravel ahead and taking in my surroundings without feeling any need consciously or subconsciously to delve any deeper than that.

I could conclude that I’m just a simple sort with little gravity to her thoughts but I’ll choose to take a kinder perspective.  Walking is my therapy, as I believe it is for many other pilgrims/ ramblers/ hikers, and as long as I can do it it always will be.  Instead of forcing anything I can just go with what’s right for me at the time.  I can think deeply and process situations or emotions when it feels right or I can take life lightly and as it comes too.  I’m mentally taking note to remember to maintain this flexibility of thought post Camino, especially when I don’t have the luxury of time for a long walk.

Modern life can create a sense of urgency to grasp pockets of time and squeeze in ‘meaningful moments’: intense conversations when time is short and you and loved ones are frazzled, the pressure to ‘let go and relax’ right now because it’s Christmas time/ that holiday you’ve saved for months for/ that spa treatment you’ve squeezed in on a busy day.  Instead of just letting moments be.

Exploradora and I have talked a lot so far on the Camino about being a Human Being rather than a Human Doing.  More on that later, we’re works in progress.  And she’s almost finished hand washing my t-shirts (the girl’s a saint) so I’d better shift myself and get presentable for another highly affordable tasty pilgrim dinner.  A sure fire way to temporarily forget the shin splints and aching joints.

(PS the Dory reference is from the movie Finding Nemo, she’s a blue tang fish with a ten second memory. Watch it if you haven’t already, time well spent).

For now, buen Camino!


I should be more organised.  I should have trained more.  I should be packing rather than using the gasman’s presence in my home as an excuse to message friends instead.  I should be slimmer, fitter and with flawless skin for the inevitable photos along the Camino.  My legs are pearly white, should I pack fake tan in case the weather requires shorts?  Should I rummage around for a second inhaler lest the Pyrenees wreak havoc with my lungs?


I could take a short moment instead to look out the window at this cold, damp day and think about how darn fortunate I am to be able to take six weeks out to fulfil a long held dream.  Fortunate also that I have a son who I don’t need to worry about, fortunate to have a loving, supportive family watching my back, fortunate to be self-employed and able to negotiate extended leave with my fabulous boss.  Fortunate to have a body that, despite its various challenges, is game enough to have a go at walking 800km.  Fortunate to have my fabulous friend Exploradora coming with me to share this amazing adventure.

leap-of-faithI tell my coaching clients that ‘should’ is an unwelcome visitor in the coaching room.  So I shall be taking my own counsel and will be leaving him behind.  My Camino, my Way.  My Way will probably be at a moderate pace and will most likely be with straighteners in my bag (I’ll pack fewer toiletries).  This middle aged, modern day pilgrim isn’t focussed on being the fastest finisher each day, the most fluent speaker of Spanish or the most authentic, ‘worthy’ pilgrim, denying all creature comforts.  Besides comfortable clothing, essential toiletries, medication and a ridiculous amount of blister plasters I’m bringing with me an open mind, a feeling of immense gratitude and a sprinkling of fear and excitement.

Three days to St Jean!


“I love it when a plan comes together”

Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, enigma from 80’s favourite “The A-Team”

Not quite as dynamic as The A-Team perhaps but this type of plan excites me.  Colour coded, symmetrical, displayed on the kitchen wall and able to be ticked off smugly, appeasing the OCD demon that resides inside my head.  This was my training plan for the 2015 Nijmegen Marches which entailed walking 40km per day in the Netherlands for 4 consecutive days.  I had a similar plan for the 2014 London2BrightonIMG_2058 100km which I ultimately completed in a little over one very long, sleep deprived day.  So, when I committed to trekking 800km across Spain, I imagined I’d muster up something similar.  Or even more impressive.  Put a transition from employment into self-employment and a number of life/parenting variables in the mix however and the ‘plan’ evolved into something like this:

  • Sitting on backside talking to Exploradora (my walking buddy’s pseudonym) about the fun we’ll have on the Camino
  • Sitting on backside working through lessons on my Spanish language app
  • Sitting on backside searching for remaining bits of walking kit online
  • Actual walking

To date, on a not so good week that has been the actual order in proportion of time taken for each activity.  When you add the occasional glass of prosecco that tends to accompany the first activity it hasn’t been my healthiest plan to date.

Exploradora and I identified recently that perhaps our plan required some refinement and, since we’re starting the Camino with one heck of a trek in the Pyrenees, we thought “aha, a hill walk”.  Belfast’s scenic Cavehill seemed like the obvious choice, leaving our IMG-20170319-WA0001 (1)cars outside the beautiful Belfast Castle and attempting the most challenging of the routes on offer.  It had been raining for 5 days straight however so we were met with shoe sucking, walking pole engulfing mud puddles, slippy leaves and concealed tree roots to trip over.  All manageable if you’re paying attention and looking out for route markers, but if you’re prone to talking excessively and getting so absorbed in conversation that you don’t recognise you’ve passed the same point twice not a great improvement on the original flawed plan.  Lost on a hillside in my own hometown, socks soaked through with runny mud I shared my concerns about the Camino with Exploradora.  A new plan emerged.

Show up.  Continue to put one foot in front of the other.  Pay attention.

See, it’s colour coded, so it’s a real plan.  And I think I may get it laminated as a reminder for everyday life.

¡Buen Camino!