Day 0 Brussels to Irun

Back in January, I took a few days off to go hiking in Portugal.  Brussels just doesn’t represent as far as things like ‘sun’, ‘ocean’, or ‘hills’ go, and with flights something like 15 euro each way, it was hard to say no.  While I was there and directly after getting somewhat off-trail and then sliding down a giant muddy mountain biking path on my ass, I found myself confronted by a couple from Cornwall, who weirdly had been sailing at the place I used to work at.  The guy explained that he was preparing to walk ‘the Camino’ in Spain in September.  I’d heard vaguely of this before—a couple of people I know have walked it, and Mr France also mentioned that it existed.  I said that I’d love to do something like that, but because of breaking my back twice, carrying equipment wasn’t possible for me.  Cornwall then said that he was only carrying 5-7kg, as there are pilgrim’s hostels (albergues) the whole way—no need to carry camping or cooking equipment!

A few months later I was writing my dissertation and day-dreaming about doing a hike afterwards, and this led pretty quickly to my booking flights to Spain, arranging to borrow a pack, and weeks later I found myself walking over the border between France and Spain.  Not just once, but three times, because I find the idea of walking to another country hysterically funny—not something you’d want to try in Australia!

I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly well prepared for the hike.  I’d found that there was a Camino along the coast, and decided to do 500km of it from Irun to Gijón (Xixón).  I downloaded a free map and some kind of free tourist book, bought an app (Wise Pilgrim) and would later download the Spanish-only Camino app from Eroski—but I didn’t really know what was going on, though given my history, felt competent to deal with whatever arose.

Physically, I’d just spent something like 18 months predominantly on my ass, researching/studying.  So in the three weeks between finishing my dissertation and heading off, I started doing a few hikes—I did about 9 in total, with the longest being 25km from Leuven to Wavre in Belgium.  Of course, there were no hills, and I would be walking a theoretical average of 25km a day on the Camino (it ended up being over 30km a day), but I kind of hoped my body would just deal with it—and I could take rest days if necessary.  I also asked one of the guys from school what I should do nutritionally in order to not completely wreck myself.  But that’s honestly all the preparation I did.  I think it would have been beneficial to do a little more, and definitely a lot more if you’re not used to hiking.  Most of the people I encountered on the Camino were in the 55+ category, and I think I only got away with the non-training I did because of my age.

As far as the equipment I had with me, I borrowed a 35-ish litre pack from a friend’s parents, bought some new trail-running shoes without holes in the soles (and made the switch to Salomon after 8 or so years with North Face shoes), and picked up a bit of equipment.  I took a first aid kit; raincoat for the bag; miniature wind-up torch for emergencies; some zip-lock bags for snacks and chargers (NB: do not take plastic shopping bags with you if you are staying in shared accommodation.  If you do, you deserve to get stabbed.  Don’t freaking do it!  Try using cloth bags instead—I use free bags I’ve been given by various English schools, and they do a great job.  Plastic bags keep people awake/awaken them because they make a hell of a lot of noise, and it’s inconsiderate as fuck.); a microfibre towel; a light sleeping bag (graded for 25 degrees Celsius…which it was not.  Most places had a blanket I could use though, and there was only one night where I ended up sleeping in extra clothing); a set of thermals to use as pjs/wear if it got cold; full waterproofs; a few singlets; a pair of running shorts;  zip-off/convertible hiking trousers; lots of socks of course; toiletries including some biodegradable/enviro-friendly soap which could be used equally for your body, plates or washing; a camera; an off-brand camelpak; a blow-up pillow; and a ‘treat’ in the from of my Kindle.  Over the course of my trip I lost one sock and broke a pair of sunnies (once I got to Madrid!).  Overall, with daily food and a lot of water I was carrying 10-12kg, which felt fine but is theoretically too much.  For the Camino you’re meant to aim for 10% of your body weight.  Had it posed a problem I was willing to shed pretty much everything.  I think it would have been useful to have a pair of sandals and a pillow-case, but otherwise I had everything I needed.

biarritz irunDay 0 was getting from Brussels to Irun.  I booked a flight with Ryanair to Biarritz, over the border in France.  It was only around 20km from Irun however, so I caught a train to Hendaya.  Of course, it wasn’t that easy (is it ever?!).  Inexplicably the train from near my place in Brussels decided not to run, and so I hit immediate panic stations.  The normal airport was shut down after the bombings of course, so I had to get to ‘South Brussels’ airport (Charleroi), which isn’t actually in Brussels at all.  I ended up catching a bus then a metro then a coach to get to the airport.  Security is way up at the airports of course, and this meant that there was a massive queue to get into Charleroi, with every car and every bus passenger being ID’d by military/security staff.  Then once I got off the bus, there was a line with security to get into the airport.  Then inside, I had clear normal security, which was packed and absolutely not moving—it was insanity.  I finally got through, and was running through the airport to my gate with my belt and toiletries in hand as I didn’t have the time to spare to put them back on/away.  I ran down a set of stairs and people got in my way, which somehow precipitated my falling down the stairs while they told me off (pro-tip: if someone is running in an airport, get the fuck out of their way.  It’s like they say, “today, you; tomorrow, me” ;)).  In the end, the only reason I made it only my plane was because it was delayed—I definitely would have missed it otherwise.

I ended up spending far too much time waiting for a bus in Biarritz, and after a few hours (and checking their website, which said nothing), gave up on that.  I headed to the train station instead, whereupon an elderly Frenchman asked what I was doing and where I was going.  I explained that I was doing the Camino del Norte, and he looked surprised, with an exclamation of “toute seule?!”.  Damn straight, by myself!

As mentioned, I arrived in Hendaya and then walked across the France-Spain border a few times, before finding my first albergue.  After a stroll through some nearby wetlands, I went and had ‘meal surprise’, not being able to order in Spanish and being eminently confused by the woman’s French, before preparing to leave in the morning.

Albergue number 1, in Irun.
Albergue number 1, in Irun.

My spend on the first day, all in euro of course, was 5 for the albergue, 8.50 for dinner, and 7 in the supermarket—plus travel, of course.  I didn’t record spend on a daily basis, but for me it averaged at about 30 euro.  It varied between about 15 per day all included, to 40 when I had a couple of recovery days in Santander and stayed at a pensión.

I’m going to write a series of posts about this trip, which may take me a little while (mainly because, as usual, I took farrrrrrrr too many photos).  Bear with me!

Heating Up

The girl is back in ze motherland!  Whoa.  Pictured in the horrible featured image: Domoedovo Airport, Moscow.  And also some dirt on the bus window.  Photography skills: 10/10.

Of course, I didn’t arrive completely without adventure.  It all started in Brussels airport, where I arrived in plenty of time (shockingly), only to find that my bag was 27kg.  Oops.  I’m sure it was nothing at all to do with the 9 bottles of Belgian beer in my bag..!  So, being unwilling to spend 35 euro in fines, I settled down to repack my bag.  And by ‘repack’ I mean ‘throw out beer’.

I asked a staff member whether there was a bin nearby where I could throw out said beer, and she was absolutely shocked.  “You can’t throw out beer,” she exclaimed.  She then assisted me in repacking things from my suitcase into an assortment of bags I could take into carry-on, and we left out some beer then reweighed my bag.  It was just under 23kg—so she gave me back the beers I was going to throw out, turned the scale off, and let my again-overweight luggage go straight on through.  Result!

I spent most of the flight asleep thanks to a somewhat hectic few weeks, then landed, passed through immigration (after a bit of questioning about what my ‘business’ is here in Russia), and—I was back!  I pretty much went straight to Му-Му (moo-moo) for snacks, then jumped on the bus to the metro.  All along the road were little old ladies selling berries picked straight from the forest by an array of lanky-looking men.  It was super warm, also—my first-ever hot weather in Russia!

My other first re-impression was the smell.  I’d forgotten about the Russia smell.  I mean, it’s normal for countries to smell different—the UK is really distinctive, as is Australia.  And apparently Russia.  It’s a weird musty smell, mixed with undertones of excrement and a coppery tang.  It’s strongest in the metro, but you can also smell it in the streets and on the roads.  It’s not really offensive, just different.

Then there’s the metro: it’s so good to be in a country with such excellent public transport again.  And navigating the metro is a breeze (having pre-downloaded Yandex.Metro was probably not a terrible idea).  In saying that, it would probably be very difficult for someone who can’t read Cyrillic, as the signs aren’t in English.  Actually I’ve been really surprised by how much English there is in Moscow—it’s far more than there was in St Petersburg when I lived there.  Lots more people seem to speak it, more signs are in English (though these are still rare), and apparently there’s a solid ex-pat community who actually hang out and speak it.  I went to a freaking comedy club with stand-up in English, for goodness’ sake!  (But more on that in a sec.)  All the same, even finding the hostel where I’m staying might be tricky, because nothing can be easy in Russia ;).  In fact, a lady at the hostel said that she thinks foreigners who come to Russia are ‘almost heroic’, because of its sheer difficulty.  Haha I’m really selling it here, right?!

A few hours after getting in I met up with Jack, who I did my CELTA course (fancy English teaching diploma) with in Prague.  We went out for an “epic pizza of epicness” (I wrote this in my notes for this post, but I think it was just the hunger talking) and some delicious lemonade (I’m such a child—and no, I’m not going to stop with the interjections).  We then popped next door, to the comedy bar.  Where a Russian guy speaking English with an American accent ripped on Australians for our inability to speak the English language.  Apparently he lived there for six years, and was stoked to arrive in an English-speaking country: only to realise that we maul the language so badly, he couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  He was pretty entertaining.

I was only out for a few hours—Jack left at about 11pm and I stayed on for another hour or so chatting to a couple of his friends.  The usual Russian bar stereotypes held (as pointed out by Jack)—there were many more women than men.  And actually there were mainly women in the sitting/drinking areas, and more guys on the dance-floor.  The exception being three incredibly thug-ish looking guys who were sitting in a booth and clearly planning on world take-over or robbing a bank—it was definitely one or the other.

Apart from that, my Russian language skills are extremely rusty, but I’m sure if I work on it heaps while I’m in Piter, I’ll get back up to scratch.  And hopefully ditch the Australian accent I’ve apparently gained.  (Because that’s a common accent for Russian speakers, right?!)

Posts re Saturday and Sunday-Monday will be up soon.

Douche Душ Dusche

Sometimes English is weird.  There is, of course, the example of ‘pineapple’, which manages to be called ‘ananas’ in all the other languages: informs me that the word ‘pineapple’ comes from ‘pine’ + ‘apple’ (really helpful there), which still makes about zero sense.  I’ve just done a similar search for ‘shower’ (because isn’t etymology fun?!) after realising that the German word for ‘shower’ is Dusche.  Much as it’s douche in French, and душ (‘dush’) in Russian.  Why don’t we have the same word as the French or German?  Interestingly, I found that ‘shower’ comes from the proto-Germanic skuraz/later German Schauer, being like a rain shower.  I can see how this would fit with the English mentality of having one’s own personal rain-cloud following one around :p

I’m now in the UK, and as usual, refusing to believe in jet lag.  This is the seventh time I’ve moved hemispheres (Australia-UK-Australia-UK-Australia-Russia-Australia-Europe), and I’ve travelled between the two more than that of course.  I’ve left the UK on a Saturday and been at work in Australia on the Monday several times now, and done the same the other way around as well.  I even have a vague recollection of going straight from the international airport in Aus to work.  Apparently refusing to believe in jet lag works out for me, and I blame it all on my system flying over.  I generally fly Etihad, so it’s all about staying awake for the first 10 or so hours of the flight then having a 3 or 4-hour nap; cleaning your teeth, washing your face and changing your socks in Abu Dhabi to feel human again; then sleeping immediately once you get on the plane for the last  8-10 hours.  That’s pretty much what I did this time, apologising to my poor body as I took a sleeping pill once on the plane in the UAE.  And hey, it’s worked: I stayed awake all day in Germany, went to bed at 19:45 that night in the UK, slept through until 6 the next morning, then stayed awake with two micro-naps until nearly 23:00.  Haha in saying that, I was pretty seriously confused for the first few hours yesterday, and I woke up just now needing to throw up.  My poor body doesn’t know what’s hit it!

After my bonding experience with creepy Ronald in Düsseldorf airport, I went on a mission to check in for my flight.  I’d managed to get a business class ticket for only 15 euro extra, and as if it wasn’t totally worth it to spend the day chilling in the lounge!  Now, if my prior ridiculous behaviour in Russia, Finland, the UK and Greece didn’t give it away, I don’t take airports very seriously.  At least this time it was airline staff rather than border security I was taking the piss with: I went to check in and the guy said “I need to see a passport”.  I replied with “just any passport, or did you want to see mine?”  He laughed then looked at me disbelievingly and asked “why, how many passports do you have with you?”  “Obviously a bagful,” I replied.  Haha asking ‘concept checking questions’/CCQs unfortunately comes with the English teaching territory I’m afraid—if you say something ambiguous, or use the wrong word, I’m 100% going to fuck with you.  I’m sure it’s never annoying..!

Little else entertaining happened in the airport—one guy asked me rather indignantly why I didn’t speak German, which made me laugh; I had silly conversations with a lot of randoms; and then I wound up in the lounge.  Sadly (!) the business class lounge was closed for the day, given it was xmas, so I had to put up with the first class lounge.  Lame, am I right?!  So I ate lots of delicious food and had a shower in a gorgeous bathroom (hence the pre-occupation with the word for ‘shower’), and generally had a good time.

I flew into Manchester later that day and waited for my friend Tilly for an hour or so, then she picked me up and took me back to Liverpool, where I am now.  So far it’s been very chilled—yesterday we pretty much hung out, ate chocolate, watched Netflix, and watched snow fall on the skylight.  What’s a bit weird is that I can’t stand how early it gets dark in the northern UK: when I lived in Manchester it used to really get to me, and it was dark well before 4pm here yesterday.  Yet when I was in Russia it was night all day, and I kind of loved it.  There’s just a different feeling about it here.

One last burst of entertainment, because I’m well aware I’m absolutely waffling right now.  One of my friends and I were talking about going out, and they said that they couldn’t, because “actually I’m out on bail at the moment”.  I pause, as I know they’re staying with their parents at the mo.  So I go “out on bail?  You mean, from your parents?  From your friends?”.  My friend pauses.  “Well I was arrested.”  Hahahahahahahahahaha.  Actual bail.  Bail from the police.  For partying-related offences.  Hilarious!

Apart from that, i’d forgotten how hard it is to understand scouse accents.  It was only slightly more difficult to understand people speaking German, so a completely different language, than it is to understand people here.  The different words and slang don’t help, but the accent is just insane.  Priceless.