Stories from Senegal – Corner Shop Democracy with Rum and Tonic

M’bour beach

We leave the relentless noise and building and traffic of Dakar and move onto the relaxed coastal town of M’bour. It is quieter here. Life is more relaxed, groups of children spend afternoons playing on the sandy streets, running in and out of the sea or kicking footballs on dusty pitches marked out by the half circles of tires.

M’bour football pitch

The sense of community is immediately clear here from the way in which children run between houses and neighbours share conversations shouted across and down a street. It is clear too in the warmth of the welcome to our Air B&B by Oumi, Yafatou and Ibou, who look after Maison Patrick for it for its French owner.

With it’s own swimming pool ( another complicated ethical issue in this land where water is at a premium).

Swimming pool in Maison Patrick, M’bour

But, ethical or not, we spend the afternoons, so hot the sand on the beach burns your feet, lazing by or mostly, in, the pool, chatting with our hosts, while they work. Their warmth and friendliness is a lesson to us all in acceptance of us, of our culture, of all that we have and that they do not, . ..and during those hazily hot afternoons, we have time to talk, about their lives here, about their families, about their faith.

Ibrahim Diouf (Ibou)

As ever, the hot days are punctuated with the call to prayer. By late afternoon, after fasting from 5 am, tempers are frayed and exhaustion sets in, temperatures reach 35 or 36 degrees centigrade.; men rest by the side of the road and the heads of taxi drivers droop. In the markets, stall holders try to find shade under their makeshift counters while in the Saturday market in Dakar, one of the stall holders simply lies down on top of the pile of clothes he is selling and goes to sleep . To outsiders like us, the fasting of Ramadan feels like a religious marathon that must be run every day for a month. But we did not meet a single person, who, for one second would have considered breaking the fast. The Islamic faith is not something the majority of the population of Senegal choose, it is part of who they are. And what I have come to understand, is the potential power for good of such an engrained faith.

Not once, wandering around Dakar or M’bour did we feel threatened. There were few policemen on view. We stayed away from the most strictly religious areas, but we were only ever greeted with smiles or Wolof questions. I am not sure that we have felt so safe in other big cities around the world. And it is hard not to make a connection between a society that is governed by the shared and unquestioned moral code that comes with their faith, and the security we feel. The religious society of Senegal is led by a secular government., almost 50% women. Girls and boys attend school and can study at university. It is one of the view countries that has managed to combine a secular state with a religious population.

For practising Muslims, drinking is forbidden and the tourists are only slowly returning after Covid. So often, in the evenings, we sit alone, usually feeling bemused, in bars. The bartenders hand us drink menus but when we request one of the drinks from the list, they shake their heads.

“Sprite or beer only” says one barman, pointing at the long list of cocktails.

We try again at another bar, but supplies of alcohol are low. There is little point in keeping shelves stocked with no customers . “Rum and Coke,” says Ninesh hopefully, eying up the bottles behind the counter and making a best guess . After a few minutes the barman brings over a glass half full of a transparent liquid . “Sorry,” he says, “I poured the rum and then realised we have no Coke. Is rum and tonic ok?”

We persuade him to buy a bottle of Coke from the local shop but while he is gone, a new customer arrives, wandering around the bar, calling his name.

“He’s gone to buy some Coke,” I say . The customer does not seem surprised and sits down on a nearby sofa when suddenly, out of nowhere. a new bartender’s appears to rise up from behind the bar, like a vanishing trick in reverse. Ninesh and I stare at the space she wasn’t a few minutes before . Taking the order from the new customers, the apparition walks into the kitchen and starts constructing a pizza. When our barmen returns, he has bought one small bottle of Coke from the local shop. Definitely no second orders expected. .

It’s only when we return to the bar the next day, that we see there is a makeshift bed behind it. anyone lying down can’t be seen.until they sit up and their heads rise above the bar. Ramadan exhaustion has created the magic. People rest while they wait for customers. It is the only way to survive the heat.

In M’bour, street life is everything. In the afternoon the streets are a playground for children who, free from adults, wander between houses, roads and the beaches, toys are made from whatever is to hand: punctured footballs, paint rollers used as markers on the ground, sticks, stones .. empty water bottles. As we walk along the beach a group of children, not more than 2 or 3years old, come up and touch my white legs, gently patting and poking, wondering how long it will take before the white rubs off and the black shows through.

What matters is the friendships that are growing.from the moment the children stopped being strapped to their mothers’ back. They enjoy a freedom that is no longer seen in the UK. They are safe because they feel they beong. The sense of community binds everyone tightly together. Everyone lives as families

” Everyone is neighbours,” says my Yafatou, ” if you go into a home 3 doors away and they are eating, you will eat with them. That is how it is.”

I ask if there are many homeless people in M’bour. She looks thoughtful, as though she is struggling to understand exactly what I mean. I think perhaps it is my broken French but that is not the problem

“But if they are on the street, why do their families not invite them to come live in their home?” she asks. ” The only homeless people here are those who have mental health issues. You will not let someone from your family live without a roof over their heads. Even if you have not a single space in your home, they will come and live with you. Old people will never be put in a home. This is very bad.” She shakes her head, “always you invite them to live with you. They are your family.”

I think about the sleeping figures filling shop doorways in the UK, of the waiting lists for old care homes … And I wonder, when did we stop caring about each other in the UK? When did family stop meaning something greater than the sum of its parts and come to mean something small with inflexible edges.

“Why are they not with their families,” Yafotou asks? And that is hard to answer, hard to explain that sometime it is the family that is the problem. It is not “community,” but family that means something sacred to the Senegalians. “We are 9 people living in 3 rooms,” she says. “We are family,and we are together. That is how it is. It is good.”

And at the heart of this community, is the corner shop. There seemed to be little that cannot be found on its heaving shelves. Teabags are sold individually, as are very small bottles of Coke. But more importantly it is the community hub. People wander in and sit down on crates or sacks of rice, women during the day, men at night. And I can’t help feeling that it is in this red dusted corner shop that the biggest decisions are made and the smallest problems are solved. We never walk past it when it is closed, not in the heat of the day nor the velvet warmth of the night. .. Perhaps there is a lesson for all of us in that. If you know the cost of an individual tea bag, you must know what is truly important to the people who need to buy them.

I vote for corner shop democracy, Senegalese style

Corner shop, M’bour

Stories from Senegal – Wolof Whimsies and Western Ways

We spend a day on the Island of Ngor.. It’s winding cobbled streets and beautiful beaches, home to an artistic community. Like everywhere in Africa, we are constantly bombarded by people wishing to sell us things. But there is an innate creativity embedded in the island, walls decorated with colourful mosaics, wild pictures full of vudu images and graffiti full of poetry and wise sayings.

Art wall, Island of Ngor
Wall art, Island of Ngor
Wall mosaic, Ngor Island

It feels calm after the clamour and dust of Dakar. No cars, just goats and sheep and artists and colour. We sit, eating lunch at a small beach table, watching as the sea almost laps at its legs. It is a hot, sleepy afternoon. The sellers of baskets, football T-shirts and brightly coloured sarongs, rest on the mats on the beaches between the tourist rounds. Creativity demands languidity, long hot days of Ramadan-fasting, demands that afternoons must be taken slowly. Time slows, measured only by the rhythmic breaking of the waves on the soft sand. The calm of this sheltered beach is deceptive, all around the wild Atlantic swirls unpredictably, creating lethal rip tides which have claimed the lives of many Dakarians (48 in the first 6 months of 2021)who come to the beaches to cool down, despite many of them not being able to swim . From the edges of Ngor Island, we sit for a while, watching waves crashing on rocks just beyond concrete walls that contain anti-French slogans – beauty and ferocity, creativity and revolution, they are uneasy neighbours here.

Atlantic waves – where riptides meet, Ngor Island

 On our way back from the island we wander along sand-baked streets and winding alleyways towards bars that overhang the coastline. So close to the waves we can feel the spray on our faces these table-clothed, restaurants with comfortable chairs, feel like a universe away from the children we have passed playing football on dust fields or the people scraping a living by selling whatever they have on pavements or to gridlocked cars. And it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the dissonance and guilt that haunts all travellers: that we are enjoying something that we should not be enjoying…..But we manage to convince ourselves that the best way to survive it is to order another western drink….and eat another bowl of tiny peanuts.

It is hard to know whether we harm or hurt the places we visit. But on another island, opposite the busy Dakar port, there is no question of the damage we white Westerners can do.

The Island of Goree is where many of the slaves from Senegal spent their last few months before being shipped to America or Europe. We walk round the slave house, see the tiny rooms that housed the petrified slaves- parents separated from children, husbands separated from wives. Between 1711 and 1810 more than 180,000 slaves were transported from Senegal and The Gambia, many of them through one small doorway in this house.Shackled and broken, they walked through this doorway knowing that they would never see their homeland again. And it is hard to understand what makes one race believe they have the right to steal the lives and souls of another, what makes people believe that the colour of someone’s skin can be used as a way to define their value and importance and status. Near the Slave House, the grand houses lived in by those made rich by trading in human lives, still stand. There people partied and socialised as those they had captured passed through the door. I look at my non-African almost-black husband, standing in the doorway, staring out to sea, I think of Stephen Lawrence and George Floyd and of the millions who are still trafficked today .. and for a moment I cannot breathe. It is a long time since I have been so aware of my whiteness,

As we get close to our Air B&B, I feel the eyes of a girl, no more than 2 years old staring at me. I stop and smile but she just keeps staring. And I find myself imagining how colourless I must seem to her. My pale skin, my dark clothes, my greying hair, compared to her ebony skin and her vibrantly coloured clothes and headscarf. Slowly she begins to grin ..  

Nothing in Senegal is colourless.  

Not the people, not the laundry hanging out wherever there is space, not the clothes, not the redness of the dusty roads not the artwork that is everywhere, not even the buses

For many of the 3 million people living in Dakar today, even the most difficult lives are threaded through with vibrant colours. Babies tied to backs with pink or orange or yellow sarongs, brightly coloured patterned headscarves and dresses creating splashes of colour across every street. And perhaps I am too optimistic, but it feels like hope. for a moment I imagine a 2 year old girl standing in a narrow doorway, staring out to sea, her bright pink headscarf moving in the breeze.. a symbol to all those who were forced to leave that there will never be enough doorways to quell the spirit of Africa.

The colours of Africa (with verbal permission from parents)

Stories from Senegal- Waves, Wives and Gerard Depardieu

Senegal mother

We are travelling again.  

Far from the horrors of Ukraine and the shape-shifting outlines of empty human beings that is our UK government, we have sought solace on the Western Coast of Africa in Senegal.

We’re beginning our journey in the never-ending city of hot, pulsating Dakar, where crossing the road means taking your life in your hands and where lives are lived out on uneven pavements, surrounded by traffic and fumes and goats. In Senegal, there are always goats.

Senegalese goat

It takes only a day for us to be subsumed by the chaotic vibrancy and African heat of this dust-red city.

It takes only 24 hours for us to realise that our traditional Western concept of time, divided between day and night, work and leisure, wakefulness and sleep, is not something that exists in Senegal. 

The edges that define our lives in the West, are blurred here. 

 Work begins when people wake up and ends when people fall asleep. And while they work, there is time to stop and think and talk and consider and sometimes rest in the heat of an African afternoon. People gather together on armchairs and  street sofas that might be for sale or might be part of someone’s home. Women in vibrantly coloured clothes cluster on street corners as they wash clothes or prepare the communal evening meal, or to watch the world go by.

In the heat of an African day, time passess haphazardly. It is Ramadan now, days spent fasting and reflecting while you work, the approach of the coolness of the African evening brings with it the communal meal that ends the fast for another day. As the sun begins to sink, the anticipation is almost tangible. Restaurants spring to life, people carry plates of food to share with groups of friends, the laughter and chatter takes on a new energy, the hope that in the West, comes with the rising of the sun, arrives here with its setting.

After the meal, shared on pavements or on beaches or in expensive living rooms, children start racing each other through the cooling, night streets, roads become football pitches, the night lies ahead of them, full of infinite fun. Shops which have done little business during the day, become suddenly full, sewing machines hum, rooms that open onto streets become meeting places to discuss business.

It is not light and darkness that bookend time here, not the beginning and end of a working day that creates routine and structure. Instead, in this 96% Muslim country, it is the regular call to prayer, echoing from mosques and minarets that punctuates and structures lives

It is faith that shapes the days here, not light and darkness. That is something we must learn to understand better.

We are strangers, guests in this vibrant, chaotic land that we will never truly understand. In its constantly crowded streets nothing is clearly delineated.

A Dakar street

It is hard to know whether the fruit and vegetables on a stall are for  sale or are the main ingredients for the evening meal, breaking the Ramadan fast  

Hard to know if the pavements, where they sit and eat together at the end of the day, are also where they sleep. 

Hard to know if what you are looking at is a market place or a shanty town. 

Hard to know what is home and what is a workplace – sarongs hung over the end of stalls so that people can sleep amongst the piles of shoes, they have been trying to sell or tools and wood they have been working with. 

Even on the fume–filled grid-locked roads, past and present are confused as cars vie with horse-and-carts to move their way forwards.

Walking along one busy road, we watch as traffic grinds to a halt, while a boy with a wheelbarrow fills a pothole with sand and wanders off . No one seems to mind, at least a problem has been fixed and time is something the people of Dakar have plenty of. 

Sand filled pothole

From the balcony of our beautiful, tastefully furnished AirBnB in our first stop, a suburb of Dakar called Ngor,.  I sit on the tiny balcony each morning.sipping my espresso from a capsuled coffee machine. Our building is one of the few completed buildings on a semi-building site. I watch as the workmen opposite build a house, one bucket of sand at a time. From the second floor, a small bucket is lowered on a rope and filled with gravel and sand which is painstakingly hauled back up. On the pavement opposite, on dusty chairs, a few other men offer advice and point helpfully at the pile of gravel that must still be shovelled and transported.  Much of Dakar is being built in this way, full of half-finished apartments and houses. Everywhere we walk, we wander across rubble-strewn land and through building sites that double up as shops.

Furniture for sale on a half-built road

And I wonder how many days of how many lives are spent building homes, one bucket at a time. And how many of those who are creating homes for others, have a roof over their own heads.  

Almost 50% of Senegalese people live in poverty, life a matter of making it through until tomorrow. On streets, on busy roads, people selling anything they can find. And yet, it is not hopelessness that we sense as we balance our way across the edges of other people’s pavement lives , tip-toeing past shared meals cooked over open fires, . It is not hopelessness that we see but a sense of community, of shared values, of making the most of what you have, of surviving despite the odds.  

One of the things that keeps Ngor going, is the fact that it is surrounded by the wild Atlantic Coast with perfect-for-surfing waves and a lively fishing community.  

As we walk on the beach one evening, watching goats being washed in the sea, we are greeted by Yossa, who insists on being our tour guide. and is, he tells us, second-in-charge of his fishing community village.

Goat washing in Ngor

“They are not being washed, the goats,” Yassa tells us, “they being treated for parasites.” He points at a huge house on the Island of Ngor across the water, “Bridget Bardot, she lives here… but she wants to save the goats.stop from eating. And she can’t. So she doesn’t come anymore.”

We wander past the goats t the end of the beach, where Yassa shows us the small homes, built either side of narrow passageways with sudden views of the open ocean.  

“We are a cooperative,” he explains  “ One quarter of what we catch to the village, 3 quarters to us. This way we look after the old and sick. “ He introduces us to a group of young men who are building the fishing canoes they use. They are made from seasoned wood from Senegal and as with everything in Senegal are brightly coloured. 

Fishing canoes, named by wives, Ngor

“When you marry,” says Yossa, “ your wife chooses the colours and name of your boat. He waits for my approving nod before turning to my husband.  

“ How many wives you have?” he asks 

“Just the one,” he replies. 

“ Me as well,” says Yassa, “I have just one wife. Before we could have 4 wives. But one is better. 4 wives, many problems.”

He smiles and takes us down a narrow alley towards a sacred tree.  As a former French colony, Senegal still has many connections with France. Bridget Bardot is not the only famous French guest.

“Gerard Depardieu, one year he comes and he eats a lot and drinks a lot,” says Yossa. “He is very big. I bring him to the sacred tree but he is too wide, he cannot get through the passageway”  

He laughs but I can’t help wondering if this is how the West is perceived here. Victims of a greed so great that it suffocates spirituality and distorts values  

“ I do not want to travel,” says Yassa, . “ I am happy here in my community. I am proud to be from Senegal.” 

I look at the brightly coloured canoes, watch the reflection of the sun dancing on the shimmering, water listen to the chatter and the laughter of the men as they build the canoes and the women preparing dinner, as the waves crash rhythmically on the shore.  

And staring at the sacred tree, I wish with all my heart, that I could say I feel the same about England.  

The End of the Road

We have done it.. we have reached the end of the Camino. In front of us is the wide open blueness of the sea

There are no miles left to walk, we have run out of land.
Distance to the end of the Camino: 0 kms

There is one decision that everyone who walks this last leg of the Camino has to make: whether to end in Muxia or Finisterra.

“ You have to end in Finisterra,” the bi-lingual merchant banker tells us, “ everyone leaves their walking boots there or some other personal thing. You must leave part of yourself on the Camino. ..”

Immediately I am extremely relieved that we are going to Muxia. I stare at my dusty boots – they have kept me going across so many miles. It doesn’t seem fair that they should end their lives on a big, impersonal pile, plus they are expensive.

Ninesh tries to explain that we already have a studio apartment booked in Muxia but I’m beginning to think
Merchant bankers are better speakers than listeners.
“ Then there is a big bonfire,” she continues, and they burn everything… it’s like a big party.”

I look at my boots again and whisper “ don’t worry, I will keep you safe.”

When we reach the fork in the road: Finisterra to the left, Muxia to the right, we do not hesitate.. I sense the relief right to the soles of my boots.

Muxia is a small fishing town balanced on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. As we walk through our last long Camino day, we keep hoping that we will see the sparkling water over the crest of every hill. Instead the way seems unendingly long and the view remains resolutely land-locked. On one of our first days on the Camino, a peregrino who had locked her front door on her life in France and just started walking, told us that if you let it, the Camino will always provide. We nodded and thought secretly that she had bought into the spiritual myth of the Camino. But on these last 2 long days of walking, just when I was thinking that we had set ourselves impossible goals, solace arrived unexpectedly On the first day, in the middle of a forest, a hidden field of blueberry bushes suddenly appeared and a table holding punnets full of berries with a jam jar for donations and on this last day, the sea resolutely refusing to appear over the crest of any hill, a gardener, shouts at us. Thinking we have trespassed we quicken our pace, but he starts waving and keeps shouting.
Ninesh stops.

“ He’s saying apples,” he says.
We turn back and the gardener fills our arms with fresh apples from his tree. It is not the sea but kindness and generosity we should be watching out for over the horizon.

It is not until we have almost reached Muxia that we see the ocean, azure blue and forever, glistening through the trees.

The path for this very last part of the journey is mostly through shaded woodland. Being the less popular route, we walk on our own almost the whole way. The air is thick with heat, the silence broken only by birdsong. In front of us on the sandy path, dappled with sunlight, butterflies dance, gentle flashes of colour against the woodland green. It would have seemed fitting if the 7 Dwarves had crossed our path, hi -hoeing themselves to work. It is a Disney perfect day on this ancient route.It is not until we have almost reached Muxia that we at last see the ocean, azure blue and forever, sparkling through the trees.

The sea laps clear and inviting on the white sand as we hobble the very last km of our journey.

While I collapse on the warm rocks balanced on this Western tip of Europe, Ninesh walks a slope to the 0 km yellow arrow.

“ I’m not climbing another hill EVER,” I explain, probably more loudly than I meant to, when he suggests I go with him.
With the sun-warmed rock on my back and the sound of waves breaking all around me, I allow my mind to drift far away from aching legs and blisters. When we started our journey, 550 miles ,34 days and over 5 years ago ( we had to miss one year of walking due to Covid) it’s hard to know if we truly believed we would finish it. We were surprised enough that we had managed to start- it is rare in life that we actually do what we mean to – although being married to a man with such determination and detailed planning skills as Ninesh, makes it more likely. What I do know is that our journey across the North West of Spain has not been purely measured in footsteps. We have walked through lost villages and busy cities, across never ending fields of sunflowers and through gnarled, ancient forests. We have climbed mountains in the Spanish heat and walked beside gurgling streams in the cool shade of trees. We have spent days sharing stories with fellow travellers from all over the world, and hours walking completely on our own. We have learnt the joy of spontaneous conversation and the pleasure of solitude. We have learnt about paragliding in Argentina, the benefits of water melon for the kidneys, the luck that storks bring if they nest on your chimney in Japan and that one day someone, somewhere will realise the importance of Fabian’s Theory of Explosivity. We have met people walking the Camino for religious reasons, for personal penance, for the pleasure of walking, because it is on their bucket list or simply to prove that they can.

And over our years of walking, the world has changed. Since we started my dad has died, our children have left home, the UK has left Europe and the world has been gripped by a pandemic. It has made it harder to get here and will make it more complicated to get home.. but the Camino remains a constant in the confusion and chaos that seems to be engulfing this 21st century world. It is a relief to have arrows guiding us, to have to give no thought to the direction we travel. Real Life is not so easy. Often we find ourselves walking in the wrong direction, following the wrong arrows towards the wrong destination. We confuse desire with purpose, wants with needs, quick fixes with success. We rush head-first towards wrong decisions. We forget to stop and breathe, to allow ourselves time to think. If the Camino has has given us anything, it has given us the gift of time. Time to carry a thought to an end, time to reflect on what we have lost and what we have gained, time to admire the flutter of a butterfly wing and feel the warmth of the first rays of the sun on our backs. Life is precious and transient and full of beauty. It is not always easy to remember that.

And as for the final destination.. am I right? Is it about the journey not the end goal. ..Or is Ninesh right, is that just a load of crap? I watch the sun rise over the port of Muxia, the waters reflecting the reds and golds of a new day and realise that the actual destination has never really mattered.

We could have ended here or in Finisterra or anywhere else. Our final destination has never been a place, it has only ever been a concept, the knowledge that we have completed something that seemed impossible, the right to feel pride, for just a moment, in what we have achieved, a sense of completion and accomplishment. So much of what we try to do in life remains unfinished or is unmeasurable, the Camino has given us a finite goal and we have reached it. We do not need to burn our boots to know that, our aching legs are proof enough. And the bi-lingual merchant banker was wrong about something else too, it is not that you leave a part of yourself on the Camino, but that the Camino leaves a little part of itself with you. This is one journey, one path completed. Sometimes it has been pure willpower that has pulled us up mountains or through the pain of blistered feet but every mountain climbed, burst blister overcome has made it easier the next time because we know we have done it before.

Life is a journey full of different caminos, each with their own set of obstacles, adversities and people willing to help us. That’s what makes it an adventure. We will all of us keep on walking normally through it, until our little piece of land runs out and our journey ends. If, on the way, we have laughed with friends, loved completely, wiped away the tears of others and held out a hand to help a stranger climb a hill, then, whatever path we have walked, we will have reached the right destination.

Until then, Buen Camino.

Simply Camino

Day 6 Negreira to Oliveiroa 38 km

Our penultimate walk of the Camino today was long, almost unendingly long. 38 km. But the weather is kind, cloudy and warm and we have arrived in Oliveraio. Like many new villages on the Camino, Oliveairo would not exist without the Camino: a collection of homes supported by 2 alberges – filled with peregrinos too exhausted to speak.

We climb the stars to our room with the stiff legged walk of too many miles. Tomorrow we walk the same again but we will end at the sea.

The walk today has taken us through woodlands,

past the ruins of forgotten homes.

We walk along black tarmac roads that pass head-high fields of maize, still tended by the hands of the mostly ageing, landowners. This rural north westerly part of Spain seems to hold little for the young.

“ we have a group staying here for 10 days,” says our waiter at dinner “I don’t know what they will do, it is so boring.” And we can see what he means. We are surrounded by fields of maize and concrete is not a natural holiday resort.

“ When do you close?” We ask.
“November, then I go to Canaria for 3 months,” he says, “ here is nothing to do.”

At times it feels as though we were alone in the world. We have left the crowds and the partying young behind us in Santiago.
This last part of our journey is an add on to the ancient route. There is less of a fiesta feel, more of a determined sense of purpose. This part is not for the feint-hearted. Towns and villages are few and far between. The few other walkers often appear lost in faraway thought.

For a while Ninesh is joined by a cyclist who slows down to share a chat and eat an energy bar.

Camino chatting

He has followed the Portuguese Camino, cycling 100 kms a day. Today is his last day, a mere 60 kms left. His energy bar eaten, he cycles on, leaving Ninesh and me to the sound of our footsteps. There have been times today when it has felt as though we were walking alone through this Spanish world.

We rise with the sun and are often in bed before it sets. Our children and all the young party-goers in Santiago,
would not be impressed.

It is strange how quickly we become accustomed to this slower way of life, how quickly our days become shaped by the distance we have to walk, by nothing more than our departures and arrivals. At forks in the road we are guided by the yellow arrows.

Decisions are simple.
This is an uncomplicated life.

We rise with the sun and are often in bed before it sets. Our children and the young Camino party-goers would not be impressed.

Tomorrow we walk until we run out of road … but for now, the sun is setting and it is time to rest our weary legs…

Vegetarian Alienation

graffitied power supply in Santiago

Day 5 Santiago to Negreira 21 km

“ I tell you, it will be complicated,” says the waiter in O P.. as he pours me a big glass of local white wine.
We are discussing the problem with being vegetarian on the Camino. Really, It is not so much a problem as an alien concept .

“Vegetarien,” we ask each night as we walk into a cafe or restaurant. For a minute, the person we are asking usually just stands and stares at us. It’s as though we haven’t actually spoken. We think maybe it’s our pronunciation, so we try again. Usually the second time, the waiter or waitress raise their eyebrows questioningly..

Ninesh tries again. He points at the menu and asks “ sin carne ?.”

Generally the waiter or waitress will then look away, as though lost in thought, before shaking their head and saying, emphatically, “non.”
There does not seem to be any room for negotiation on this. For the last 3 days, after much discussion with managers, most cafes and restaurants have offered egg and chips. Sometimes 2 fried eggs, sometimes 3. The chips are always amazing, home- made and fresh,, but there is a limit to the number of times that an egg and chips dinner sounds appealing.

The strange thing is, that shops and restaurants are full of vegetables. They are overflowing with tomatoes and greens, “insalata,” is served with every meat meal, but somehow the link between salad and a vegetarian option is missing.

“ Between Santiago and Muxir ( our final destination) it is very complicated,” repeats our waiter cheerfully, “ I know, I am from there.”

“ But your menu in this restaurant has lots of delicious vegetarian food,” I reply, tucking into the cheese and walnut salad with a honey drizzle dressing, smoke rising from the portion of vegetarian lasagne in front of me.

Our pony-tailed, sallow-cheeked waiter smiles.
“ Thank you. I will tell the chef. She is my friend. But we cannot find people to work in this restaurant because the menu is so strange.”

And that is it, right there. Anyone who is a vegetarian in Spain, must be strange and probably on hunger strike. Vegetarianism is not a characteristic that can be openly admitted to. If you have a vegetarian in your family, it is probably something you hide from the neighbours and only admit to your closest friends.

“ If you are a vegan on the Camino, I think you will probably die,” says our waiter cheerfully, pouring half a bottle of gin into Ninesh’s glass. He stops pouring for a moment to consider veganism and then apologises. “ sorry, is this enough gin…?

Ninesh looks at his fishbowl glass now 1/2 full of gin and hesitates before replying. The waiter picks up the bottle and continues to pour.

“ I mean,” he says, “ this is your gin tonic, not mine.”

At 3/4 full, Ninesh says stop and I am left wondering why gin can be so liberally distributed but in a country that grows so many vegetables, vegetarianism is such an alien concept.

“ Well,” says the embryologist from Valencia who we meet as we started the very last part of our walk today, “ this is rural Spain. In the city it is easy to be a vegetarian.”

I look at the fields of corn and gardens and allotments full of swollen vegetables in this warm, wet climate, and try to find logic in what she has said.

As an embryologist, she is the creator of life, I think that maybe she is the maker of miracles

“ When people ask me if I have children, I don’t know what to say, “ she laughs, “I don’t have any children of my own, but I have made hundreds.”

She is waking the Camino on her own, this creator of life and bringer of hope, “ at first I was worried walking on my own. But now I know,, on the Camino you are never alone.”

For a few hours we walk together, a finite touching of unfamiliar lives.

Our waiter was right, in Negreira tonight, vegetarian pickings are thin. I can sense the imminent arrival of a plate of egg and chips,

But perhaps the future is different. Perhaps in every embryo that our fellow peregrino creates, there is the seed of a future vegetarian waiting to be born. And maybe, just maybe, one day soon even a vegan will be able to walk the Camino without going hungry.

Santiago de Compostela

Day 4
O Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela 20 km

So….WE HAVE DONE IT. 500 miles, 4 years and more packets of blister plasters than should be part of any life. But we are here in majestically ancient, cobble – streeted Santiago de Compostello, the epicentre of the Camino.

On this journey, all roads lead to and from here. Limping and hobbling the Camino-goers weave between the rich and glamorous city dwellers. In the square ,in the shadow of the Majestic cathedral, ruck sacks are piled high and danced around by celebrating, lithe limbed youngsters. This is how an arrival and an ending should be celebrated, with triumphant jubilation. The buildings, immense, magnificent, beautiful, seem to be watching, as they have for centuries. And for just a moment past and present seem to merge.

But we are on a mission. It’s not our time to celebrate just yet. We need to have our Camino passports officially stamped with the Santiago stamp from the Office of the Pilgrims. At every place along the way, the passports are stamped and dated with different images from the town or hostel where we are staying.. Proof that we have walked each step. This last stamp will complete it.

Strangely, on the whole 500 mile journey, we have never once got lost. The blue and yellow signs with arrows and shells have guided us unerringly along the route to Santiago..

It’s only in Santiago itself that these stop and we get completely lost. Bemused, back-packed travellers limp around in bemused circles trying to find “The Office of the Pilgrims,” which is nowhere obvious. When at last we find it, passports in hand, we are blocked by “ security,” – red-faced and defensive, he closes the gate right in front of us.
“Office closed;” he explains, “ come back tomorrow. 9 am.”
Behind us the stream of hot and foot weary travellers continue to grow. The air fills with choruses of
“ But We’re leaving tomorrow morning. “What are we meant to do.?” “ How will we get our final stamp.” “How will people know we were actually here..”

Security stands, arms crossed and does not budge, as more and more exhausted and blistered people gather around him, imploring, then angry.

This was not how we had envisioned the end to this journey, this walking of a way that is so old no one is completely sure when it began. We digitally literate car-owners who have given up all things 21st century to walk 500 hot and weary miles, we want. congratulations and stamps with hand-written dates from officials who still use quill and ink.. we had expect a red carpet, jesters, applause, Medieval music..all things celebratory and ancient.

Security shrugs.

“It’s full,” he says “too many pilgrims. Send an email.” And he closes the door.

And We are left standing in the hot cobbled street. Once the shock has worn off, I try to be philosophical.

“ If the Camino has taught us anything,” I say, “it’s that it is the journey not the destination that matters,”

Ninesh considers this for a moment.

“ What a load of crap,” he says. And picking up his ruck sack, he wanders off to find an ice cold beer.

We still have 3 more days of walking until our Camino ends on the Atlantic coast. Perhaps he will have changed his mind by then.

Bottled Camino Stories

Day 3

Arzúa to O Pedrouzo. 20 km

Less than 20 kms from Santiago, there is a strange sense of
almost-but-not-quiteness about this sleepy town. As with all Camino towns it is full of stiff-legged walkers. But we all of us know that tomorrow we will walk into Santiago de Compostello and for many, their 800 km walk across Northern Spain will be over. Perhaps we are all of us, too scared to admit that we are share a fear of anti-climax, that we are worried that once a goal is reached, we will lose the sense of purpose that has accompanied us across so many miles, through so many different landscapes, for so many weeks or months or years. Maybe that is why travellers like us choose to walk a little further, to continue until we run out of land..
But those are worries for tomorrow.
This morning we rise with the sun. As though sensing the beginning of an end, the mists linger on the meadows

and an oil-paint sun never quite disentangles itself from the clouds, warming the back of our legs as we walk westwards.

This Galician part of the Camino we have been constantly shaded from the Spanish heat. We wander along wide sandy paths under canopies of trees, wind through thick woodland on narrow paths or thread through the narrow streets of hidden towns and villages. In Galicia the Way is well maintained and tended. The distance to Santiago is counted down on pristine Camino signs every few 100 metres. The kms melt away beneath our feet.. that’s the joy of measuring distance in kms rather than miles. It feels as though you are making constant progress.

We stop to admire a cafe constructed mostly from empty beer bottles, messages scrawled on the peeling labels.

Bottled stories

And immediately I wish my Spanish was good enough to understand the bottled stories. My lack of Spanish is my biggest regret of the Camino. There are so few travellers now from outside Spain and it pains me that I have not tried harder to learn the language of the country we have been walking through for all these years. For so many years, the world has been growing smaller: cheap flights and being part of Europe has meant that travel across countries has been easy and somehow speaking English has been enough. Brexit and the Pandemic have changed all that. Countries have separated into safe bubbles, travel is limited by paperwork and visas. We few who can afford to travel and pay for tests are lucky. Travelling anywhere but your own country has become the domain of the rich and privileged.

“My head thinks in French, my job is in Spain, my love is in Belgium;” said the proprietor of the hostel in Palas de Rei.”
.. and right there is the unravelling of the world we had become used to, where borders did not equate to limits.

The world that had been becoming slowly homogenous, is separating, countries feel scattered and disconnected from each other. In this new post-pandemic life we are nationally isolated, globally detached and for a while we are forced to explore our own lands.. which is not always bad. And so, for now, Spain has rightfully reclaimed it’s Camino and it is truly time for me to learn how to say something other than “ Tengo una tortuga,” in Spanish

in Spanish.

The Casualness of Youth- Camino wandering

This far away from Santiago

Day 2
Palas del Rei to Alzua. 32km

As usual we leave Palas de Rei before the day truly begins. In the cafe where we stand to drink an early morning cortado, ; we bump into the Spanish-American investment banker from yesterday. She couldn’t find anywhere to stay so managed to persuade her cousin to come pick her up yesterday evening and drive her back at 7 am this morning. I’d expect nothing less but such powers of persuasion from a bi-lingual investment broker who is waking the Camino for a second time.

As the sun rose we were waved on our way by a statue in a small village,

Early morning waving

while around us the Camino groups gathered. Even at 7.30 in the morning, Spanish laughter and chatter fills the forest paths. Slowly we are overtaken by the youth, Teenagers who effortlessly stroll past us, who never seem to suffer from blisters or aching legs, who leave hours after us and arrive at our destination hours before us. Early 20 somethings who can party all night and walk 30 kms the next day without raising a sweat in the Spanish heat. As they walk, instead of concentrating on where they are putting their feet, they criss cross the paths, seeming to know where to go without searching for the yellow arrows. I’m not sure that I was ever so casually youthful. I would love to tell them not to take their flexible limbs and endless energy for granted. But I possess neither the certainty nor the language skills of a bi-lingual investment banker. So instead we wish them Buen Camino as they pass us and sometimes they stop their tuneless singing of American and English songs to nod at us sympathetically.

“ Remind me not to put The Final Countdown on my playlist,” comments my husband, Ninesh as the unmelodious group of singers disappear over the crest of the hill ahead and we are left envying their youthful legs if not their musical choices

We stop for a second Cortado and naranja naturel at a picture -perfect cafe by a river,

As we drink in the view with our fresh orange juice, we watch the stir caused by the arrival of a group of riders completing the Camino on horseback. Ninesh is unimpressed.. To us foot-weary purists, anything other than completing the Camino on aching feet is cheating.

“ Blue sky thinking,” suggests a friend when I text to bemoan the fact that it feels as though my feet might be falling off
“Have you ever thought of taking the bus?”

But here’s the thing about the Camino, we may no longer be lithe of body or young in years, but with every, sometimes painful, step we take, we are part of something ancient and magical that defies explanation and leaves your spirit soaring. The world we live in is complicated, too fast, unnecessarily busy..filled with uncertain, autonomous goals and confusing priorities; the Camino is slow and simple and our goal is shared and clear. We are ,all of us, walking in the same direction, sure of our destination. That is something that I could not say with such certainty of my fellow passengers on the number 3 bus to Brixton.

Camino dreaming

Day 1-Portomarin to Palas de Rei, 25 km

We are back to finish the Camino. ..A year later than we were meant to, we have stepped out of a changed-beyond-,belief world of COVID and masks and unrest, back into the sense of calm certainty that is created by this age-old pilgrims way.. in the rest of the world we are all running in different directions, uncertain of what it is we hope will happen. Here we are all of us walking in the same direction with a definite goal: to keep walking until we reach the end of the Camino.

We begin our fourth and last leg of the walk in Portomarin, 90km from Santiago de Compestello, 160 km from Muxia, on the Atlantic Coast, our final destination. Portomarin was where we left the Camino 2 years ago but nothing had changed. We left the taxi as the early morning mist rose from the lake at the foot of the town.

“Buen Camino,” smiled the taxi driver as he handed us our ruck-sacks.. and with those familiar words, we step once more into our peregrino lives.

We walked through ancient ash forests, wide open meadows and almost -touching -the -sky pine forests.

Early morning near Portomarin

And even as the sun was only just rising above the horizon; we were joined by throngs of walkers. In these strange times when proof of vaccination is essential if you wish to fly and travel involves tests and wealth and a huge amount of paperwork, we had thought perhaps, that the Camino would be quieter. Instead, by 8 am Spanish families, or walking groups or crowds of friends make the numbers swell.

Camino crowds

“It’s like a football crowd;” sighs Ninesh and we begin to reminisce about the days when we were part of the special few. This final stage of the Camino is through Galicia. If you complete these last 100km you can say that you have completed the Camino. So even before the Pandemic, this part was busier. The difference is that so far, in these pandemic days, almost everyone else is Spanish..

But even ancient ways have had to adapt. As we turn off a winding road onto a forest path we are confronted by a Camino mobile police station., In the past we would have assumed they were doing random drug searches or looking for an escaped criminal cunningly disguised as a pilgrim. But these are different days and this is a different world and as soon as we saw their uniforms we automatically reached for our vaccination papers.But we were wrong,..they were not searching for anything but welcoming us to the Camino by offering to stamp our Camino passports with their unique police stamp.. in the world of the Camino, we are apparently all on the same side, wherever we are from.

“ I walk the Camino to remember that there is actually life,” a Spanish- heritage investment banker from Chicago tells us. Her family live across and between the USA and Spain but it is Spain and the Camino that she comes back to to re-charge her batteries. Perhaps that’s what we are all doing now, Trying to reconnect with the people we used to be., with each weary step, the memories flood back. One day in and we are already Camino dreaming