El camino sin inglés

If you are about to embark on your very first camino, perhaps after seeing the Way like my very mother, it will be very helpful to have some Spanish up your sleeve. The universally known ‘hola’ is a wonderful starting point upon which you can develop a useful vocabulary which will serve you well upon reaching each ciudad, pueblo or aldea.

I begun the camino with a less than rudimental knowledge of the Spanish language. Quite fortunately for me, the aforementioned British-French second-timer agreed to pass her time walking teaching me some very helpful basic Spanish phrases. I recall the first full sentence that she taught me, “Puedes llenar mi botella porfa?”, meaning “Can you please fill up my water bottle?”. You can imagine how much I had to ask this one. Just a basic pronunciation tip – the ‘ll’ is a ‘y’ sound in Spain, just like ‘Paella’ (“Pie – Aye – A”). You may just confuse some Spaniards by adding the L sound.

If you’re not fortunate enough to have someone at your side to teach you, don’t fret. There is a wealth of information online which can give you a basic idea. It may seem a little overwhelming at first, so I’ll just add what I found helped me greatly below.

Buenos días – Good day – An Australian “G’day”

Buenas tardes – Good afternoon (a little later than our western standards – from approximately 3pm-8pm).

Buenas noches – Good evening (Definitely later than western standards – after nightfall)

For the two above – a simple “Buenas!” said in a rather enthusiastic tone will be well-received by both town-folk and it will be a nice welcoming sound for the peregrino (Pilgrim).

BUEN CAMINO! – This means “Have a good camino (walk)” and is a definite for all peregrinos. It was so wonderful to hear this and shout it right back at passers by and share the enthusiasm.

Cuánto cuesta? – How much is it? (It would be good to say “Cuánto cuestan?” if there is multiple things to which you are referring).

On this note, I would highly recommend you to learn to count in Spanish. This will help you greatly from noting how many water bottles need filling to how many people and nights will be staying at the albergue (pilgrim hostel).

Learning a new language is a thrilling and highly rewarding experience. In saying this, it can also be a frustrating process. Whatever the case, your Spanish hosts or checkout chicks will definitely regard your attempt as a good thing and with enough smiles and points (certainly in the beginning!), you’ll be able to get yourself by!


How about a pocket knife for that bus ticket?

A young twenty-first century polyamorous gypsy girl walked beside me along a highway, into oncoming semi- trailers  and played a heavy part in expanding my one-word Spanish vocabulary from ‘Buenas!, which locals from along the way had attempted to teach me to say in response  with flailing arms, to an enthusiastic ‘Buenas tardes’ after they arose from siesta. From ‘una bolsa, por favor’, to Luke and I taking turns on not butchering the phrase ‘can you please fill up my water bottle’ in uncountable cafes and bars, to asking her politely to leave the room for 45 minutes to allow for some couple privacy and ward off any hospitaliero attempting to keep the place Christian, she kept me excellent company whilst we opted to take the much-less-hilly highway as Luke hiked along-side following fluorescent yellow arrows. We knew our feet would not thank us later, as the asphalt concrete pavement was no relief for tired feet, however in the scathing heat and 30 kilometres into the day, we were not in the mood for more hills.

Her first day walking el camino de Santiago was, in nice terms, a disaster. The day began at sunrise, her legs could not have known that they would walk a gruesome 50 kilometres without any recourse of shade in the September sun , and with tens of kilometres sometimes between towns, her water supply ran out early on and was substituted by the liquid from her eye drops. Mmm, salty. The arrows directed her towards a decently sized albergue, ran by a perfectly nice family I’m sure. €50 that she promise she would pay in the morning later, not exactly what any pilgrim would expect, she threw down her small backpack and sleeping bag from the top floor, and got the fuck out of there, money in tact. I can imagine any Christian-guilt that plagued her swiftly disappeared upon realising in the walk out of the village surrounded for miles by plains and plains, this particular albergue-owner had whited-out the actual arrows and diverted el camino right to his front door.

Thank you for curing my awkward smiles at strangers with some well-needed Spanish responses, and kinder surprises, and Nutella with that pocket knife, and bocadillos, and taking the top bunk preventing bed bugs from destroying limbs as they did your elbows, but mostly, for keeping us brilliant company.

Principals!…What’s a principe?

Principals. A double biscuit filled with delicious chocolate airy goodness that we promptly grabbed out of the top of our backpacks. Strategically placed to brighten the spirits of walking in diagonal torrential rain in land where it proudly claims to rain 300 days of the year? Hell yeah it was. They sat right next to the dozen boiled eggs that turned sustenance into a semi-weekly competition to see who could boil the best eggs, the loser’s batch frustrating the living day lights out of anyone attempting to delicately pick off tiny pieces of egg shell crushings and the winners, boiled to perfection and an easy-peel dream. Admittedly not the first time that a severe lack of funds led to a ridiculous competition, the winner propositioning his own nickname of “Lukey Swollens”, there was no skimping on Principals as the highlight of any days walking.

Although they weren’t quite ‘Spain’s Tim-Tam’ as our Queen of Snacks Jo proclaimed, which after that I wasn’t sure we had adequately described the heavenly amazing wondrousness that is a tim-tam straw, Principals were pretty damn incredible making a spontaneous rest in the middle of a random open field on a crazy-windy day stick in your memories. I have a feeling that the Spanish pronunciation attempt had something to do with the advertence our eyes took to the very front of the pack, clearly stating in plain, well…not English, that they indeed were actually called El Príncipe. This would have helped made the connection between the little boy prince on the front of the pack with these biscuits; the Prince. Hmmm. I remember quite clearly saying to Luke ‘nope, they’re still Principals’ and continued walking along.

The first arrow.

For anyone embarking on a helluva distance pilgrimage, without the so-called essentials of a sleeping bag, tent, rain jacket, fleece, a sports bra, hiking boots and walking poles, you may just not want to lose these bright yellow way-markers on attempting to find one of 30 albergues (pilgrim hostels) on day one. Yep, you guessed it, we became slightly lost in the twenty seconds between stepping off the bus in Cácares, a medieval city in the oh-so-dry region of Extremadura and what was a semi-educated guestimation on the direction to meet fellow peregrinos at the only albergue in town.

It took almost an hour before we realised it was indeed siesta, the 3 hours of the afternoon where the town is silent and the people disappear home from work to sleep, eat, chill with family and most likely get some of the good stuff. Shit. No one sight to ask for directions, not that we knew exactly where we were going. This, my second trip to the land of Jamon, San Gria and Tapas and I remembered a golden nugget of info stashed in my memory since busing through stunning Andalucía (Sevilla, Granada, Valencia…) – every single city has a Plaza España and a Plaza Mayor. The hub of bars, pharmacies, all the essentials really.

“Donde es Plaza Mayor?”, I probably yelled at the only person I could see, I imagine waking up from a good food nap. She probably said something like…down the road, to the left, up the hill…but speaking at roadrunners pace it all sounded like blubblubblubblub to me. Thank goodness for a culture of emphatic, in your phase hand gestures and loud voices. Another twenty minutes of the walking in the blazing sun and there it was, Plaza Mayor. F***ing Hallelujah.

A warm hug from his walking buddies for the past two weeks, a One euro coffee and my second stamp in my credencial and shit was sweet.(Credencial = a.k.a pilgrim passport. You show this little baby at the destination, but must get a stamp (“sello”) at every albergue along the way). An evening of local wine, live jazz and a comfy bed was just perfect.

The following morning, I put on the nike tights, top and runners I would wear for the next 28 days over 700 kilometers and with a well-welcomed ‘Good f***ing Luck’, day one had begun. Finding our starting arrows, the painted yellow on highways, rocks, trees, houses, lamposts, street signs and whatever else was near every 5-10 metres was a comforting sight that you knew you were going in the right direction.

A short day of 11 kms along the N-545 Highway that unknowingly we would spend a more than desired amount of time on, and soon enough we were in Casar de Casares. Arriving before siesta, we found the nearest tienda (like a corner store) and stocked up on canned tuna, rice, kinder surprises and bread. Om nom nom. The diet of champions surely. The albergue was luckily one of the only few of its kind, filled with 10 bunk beds with mattresses 1 cm thick, 9 65-75 year old men with smelly feet and one shower. But now, day two.

Sevilla numero dos.

I must have mentioned the infamous, hilarious and delicious company of four under thirty brits who up and opened a rooftop hostel in Sevila. Arriving in Sevilla after a seeming half-lifetime, in which hundreds of hours spent on the Eurail and mouths stuffed with french breadsticks often mistaken for delicious lightsabers, the first spanish to come out of my mouth in a while with ‘donde es la hostel ‘la banda’?’ lead me uselessly to an equally quizical tourist. Hmm, Time for attempt two.  

Walking in what must have been figure eights in the scorcing October sun (apparently spring?) for almost fourty five minutes, I recalled that calle dos de mayo was semi-sort-of-kinda near the Cathedral, the starting point of el camino de santiago and the reason for my return to Sevilla. Credenical in hand, first stamp in the top left corner and I could almost feign I walked and totally didn’t get the bus past the first 300kms on the 1000km on foot journey to Santiago de Compostela. No, not Santiago, Chile. Although, that would have been impressive and I’m sure I could have used it as a line if need be. Yep, totally using a religious based pilgrimmage to score. Only slight judging please. 

A pathetic knock on the wooden door of my favourite hostel (yep, just went there) and an incredible hug awaited me from the chef of some freaking delicious Lasagna that occasionally crept into my dreams and a tall friend that actually remembered me. Amazing. How many brunette Aussie travellers they must have had in the preceeding six weeks; I can’t even imagine. Over a one euro beer at midday and shared stories of my moroccan adventures of extremities of fun, and how the hell I agreed to walk 700kms over three and a half weeks. My nasty sweatiness from the station didn’t make an obvious impression on them, must have been the beer. 

Two nights of home made sangria with cinnamon quills and orange zest and help making dinner for 30 people for the fare price of one free plate of food for my hungry belly and I was not ready to leave. Can’t forget the upgrade from a 12 bed dorm room due to my rapidly diminishing bank balance to a 4 bed dorm, definitely made life pretty damn sweet for my short visit. 

One almost missed bus and onwards to Cacares, another sweaty anticipated hug from someone surely missed and the start of a hell of an adventure on foot. The more-than-welcomed month of vagabond, polyamorous (say it sexily, go on) new found friends, aerated tuna, newfoundlandian pins and jamon. 

Adios Cataluña, estaré de regreso.

Barcelona. Try adding a sexy accent in there and hopefully the Cataluñans will welcome you into their celebrations – more than commemorations of the battle resulting in fall of the troops two hundred and ninety nine years ago. Celebrated with an obvious public holiday, and a tradition for building the largest human towers these excited Spaniards could muster, the child who couldn’t be more than eight years old waving vivaciously at the top – nearly enough to knock a hundred people to the ground, couldn’t help but make you smile. The parades of people with wall sized red and white coloured flags, with a hand painted blue star on a white background in the corner, chanting and setting off fireworks, made the night of sharing homemade tapas with a re-kindled love in a small apartment complete with a shakespeare collection of works, mexican wrestlers postered across the fridge, vintage binoculars and a baby grand simply incredible. Maybe because I had just agreed to attempt at least half of a country on foot with the excitement from my counterpart bringing a grin on my face that made my teeth hurt, with everybody in the room well aware of my issues with camping. These issues were – a lot more than many, and the homemade sangria from a €1 bottle of wine was a good distractor from my past hates, as a friend sometimes does.

Hey Jude. I couldn’t help making the pun although I was sure he’d heard it as twice as many times as not. My past week inviting four lovely british guys who provided extremely good company to any passer by to genuinely stay at my house in Sydney during their trip ‘down under’ (still maintain Brits as well as Americans do shocking Australian accents, and these guys were no exception), led me to befriend another friendly Brit standing behind the counter of my first place to stay in my week visit to Gaudi’s city. Making me the cheapest, strongest drinks that could be found in the city and such friendliness, made me want to come back to visit this new friend, which soon led me to invite to stay with me if ever Sydney as well.

I did return to Barcelona, twice. Once in escape from the dreary weather from the city of butter as it’s mascot en route to 300 kms north, and once again to collect my  backpack which I had quickly developed  a love-hate with, from the guy who saved me from from both the €1 per km en route a pie (on foot) charge, and carrying an extra 15kgs on my back 700kms to Santiago de Competela. To this marathon enthusiast,  befriender, and city guide to a girl with still a slippery grip on this whole ‘travelling alone’ thing; You are seriously the shit.

For now, to the week of thunder storming on a sailing boat on the ocean, surrounded by seventeen year old with an unfortunate love of Croatian goon, and great memories of a city that I had so much hesitation leaving.