Parent Daringly And Travel With Your Kids

Let’s raise resourceful, centred, fully-engaged and wise children. Because resourceful, centred, fully-engaged and wise children become resourceful, centred, fully-engaged and wise adults and the world needs more of those.

Parent Daringly and travel with your kids to raise resourceful, centred, fully-engaged and wise kids.

I am, primarily, a mother, and as such charged with bringing up two men of the future. Today I am going to tell you the story of an ordinary mother and her children, they could be any one of us.

Arriving in Santiago at the end of 800km and 33 days, Melanie, Ben and Harry Gow

Let me introduce you to our characters – here they are. Harry aged 12 and Ben aged 16…

This is us a the end of a walk we took.

For 33 days over the Pyrenees and across Spain for 800km

Here’s the kicker, they asked me to do it.

That didn’t happen overnight, it began the day my parents piled me on top of the luggage in the back of the car and drove for 8 hours to Lake Turkana; a jade green desert lake with a volcano in the middle of it. Populated by Nile crocodiles and scorpions, and blasted by strong, hot winds, it sits in the badlands on the largest rift in the Earth’s crust; and there the cradle of humankind was laid out naked before me.

I didn’t know it was called travel or adventure; I just grew a wide-eyed eagerness for the horizon. I began traveling independently before the Internet, even before Yugoslavia broke down, while the Kibbutz was still a movement and, in fact, I have been traveling since England last experienced 45 days without rain in July and August.

When I had children I knew one thing and that was I wasn’t going to exchange the backpack for a pushchair. I was going to travel with them. Not through a selfish desire to continue what I loved, but a deliberate act of legacy. I’m from Kenya, East Africa and when I came here to the UK I learnt overnight that there are different normals. I know it is one world, that is a fact, whether we see it as one or not is a choice. From the top of any hill you can see the one earth we live on, and I wanted my sons to know this. More than that, I wanted them to learn values like tolerance, compassion, empathy, kindness and gratitude, as well as skills like resilience, persistence and more.

I know that travel has shaped my life, not just because I’m here today telling you about it,  but because it has shaped who I am at my core. I believed in doing it with my children to round them out, I hoped it would build passionate, free-thinking children, who would be resourceful, centred, fully-engaged and wise people.

When they turned to me and asked me to walk with them for 33 days over a little mountain and across a country for 800km, and they were aged only 16 and 12, I had my answer.

I’m not saying it was easy, it’s not meant to be; travel is that heady balance between euphoria for the new and the fear of the unknown. But, that’s dreams for you.

Ben Gow in arms off the tip of Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, with Melanie Gow

My sons have sat in my arms off the southern tip of Africa, India and Australia; and they have seen the curve of the Earth in the horizon, and on to the universe beyond it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Very soon the experience of travel as a series of extraordinary novelties begins to transform into meaning.

We racked up 96 hours criss-crossing north to south down India. Sometimes outside the window an unimaginable vastness slid past, soundless but for the old-fashioned clickety clack of a train steadfast on its tracks; white noise for the thoughts of what lives were like lived in acres of red dirt, beaten by heat and wind.

We were between Jaipur and Mumbai, several hours into the heart of Madhya Pradesh, a state that is home to a large tribal population largely cut off from development. We passed patches of trees bent low and stripped naked, cowed by the conditions, interspersed by low piles of layered cowpats, alongside equally lowly homes.

The train banked with a lopsided tilt, and there was a young woman turning over cowpats spread out on the ground, to dry the underside for a natural fuel. I had time to notice the drape of her terracotta sari falling as she bent, the cracks in the heels of her feet, the hair framing her face beginning to turn a wiry grey.

She looked up as the train passed, and I thought our eyes met. She had a round, deep copper face, the face of a woman who labours ceaselessly on the land; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate and self-sufficient expression I have ever seen.

There was a child in her peripheral vision, of five, maybe less, picking up the already dried pats at the edge, and starting a new pile. The sound of my son’s voice brought me back into the carriage, “Father Christmas doesn’t comes here, does he mum?”

He was seven.

“No, I don’t suppose so.”

“Why’s that?”

“Why do you think?”

Far from losing his childhood innocence, his world went from the black and white of certainty to the brilliant technicolor of empathy.

Empathy, compassion, and an understanding that your start in life is an accident of birth.

On the savannahs of Africa they learnt that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.

In the outback of Australia they learnt a person only looks at their watch if they have to be somewhere else.

From the streets of Hong Kong, despite the dragons coming down from the mountains every morning to drink in the bay below the mountain, they learnt we are all more similar than we are different.

In America they learnt kindness, grandiose optimism, and that a sermon is better lived than preached.

Everywhere they have learnt to love this life, and learnt the power of gratitude to transform a day; they have learnt those values, and those really useful skills… and more; they know they have to be stronger than their excuses.

They have both learnt that you can hang up your shoes anytime, you don’t have to do any of this; you have to decide to get up every day, and get out there. Despondency can set in at times, and you can stew in the juices of your own complaints, but you have no choice but to wrestle the emotional flatline and find the energy to feel for the heartbeat of a day.

The climb up Ocebreiro Mountain, Walking With Angels, by Melanie Gow

Anytime you are afraid you are just at the edge of your comfort zone, you just have to take a step out of it; and nothing great comes out of comfort zones. To save our lives we must risk them, and throw ourselves out into the unknown. It takes courage, but when you are no longer afraid courage is irrelevant and you need faith, faith in yourself.

This has nothing to do with confidence, confidence can be knocked, you need determination, determination allows for doubt and humility, but it is steadfast.

And when you have struggled up the path to the top of the mountain, on your hands and knees sometimes,  you will see from there that there are many ways to get to to the same place. But from up there you will witness the most beautiful dawn, and it will ask you what are you going to do with this one glorious day.

They have learnt that wherever you are, be all there.

Ben and Harry Gow looking out over the Grand Canyon, aged 10 and 7, by Melanie Gow

Whether you are seated at the greatest natural wonder in the world, on the edge of the Grand Canyon.

Or on a cold bench a 5 o’clock in the morning, under a street lamp, eating hot cheese and ham toasties straight form the bakers tray in a city somewhere in Spain

Travelling is the practice of being the moment; it’s a kind of elevated purposelessness. 

For kids life exists in the present, or nowhere at all, and while traveling you almost accidentally discover you are able to focus your mind naturally where time meets eternity.

It is important to be present to it, in that awareness you can hear the earth whisper…

It that space you come to know that lasting peace is found inside

Ben Gow, aged 2, with goats on a rubbish heap in Kenya, by Melanie Gow

We have seen the goats feed off the smoking piles of rubbish in the slums of Africa.

But we have also played in the sand in the silence on the banks of an oasis, high in the Thar Desert in Rajhistan, India; and we know that small space inside where we go to hide, is actually where life happens.

Ben and Harry Gow at an oasis, India, aged 7 and 4, by Melanie Gow Pushkar Oasis, India, Wanderlust

That deep inside us is the unique spark of who we are, with an inherent capacity for coming into being. We are alive at the deepest centre of ourselves in a way that is unknowable until we are sitting in it with wonder.

There we see that things are the way we see them.

We have found themselves miserable trying to find shade in the shadow of hay bales on the side of a dirt track in 52 degrees.

Ben and Harry Gow running on the shore of Lake Michigan, aged 10 and 7, by Melanie Gow

But we have also run free with the seagulls on the shore of Lake Michigan and we know that it is not where you are, or what you are doing, or what you have that makes you happy or unhappy, it’s how you feel about it.

We know they don’t have any control over what happens, what we can learn to have is control over how we respond.

Most of all, we know that a closed door lets nothing in.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What we all want is to make the world a really big place and yet be familiar with it.

To live fully, live lovingly in this world, on this pathless adventure called life with affinity, we must explore unknown territory,

To find any sense of perfection we must learn to read the inner essence of a landscape.  Most of all, we must learn to master our own inner landscape.

We all want this world to be huge, but for us to be familiar with it, Ben on the Camino, by Melanie Gow

We, as adults, know that the simple challenge of living in a world in turmoil can dull that clear-eyed eagerness for the beauty. The pain of disease, divorce, death, the simple brutality of idle criticism or petty gossip, can teach us to be afraid to fight for our dreams. So we draw back, and tell ourselves we are now wise and rational to want so little from life; and we shrink to fit the box we make for ourselves.

From inside our box we hear the sounds of dreams shattering, we can feel the disappointment, and smell the frustration, and hear the broken bones. Many times we watch others endure bruising defeat, and we reassure ourselves that to is they who just need to grow up; and we ignore the dull ache in our hearts.

But, from inside that box we can’t see the fire in the eyes, or feel the knot in the stomach, or know the delight, the sheer delight in the hearts of those who are fully-engaged in The Grand Quest.

So I see it this way, and I have travelled with my sons across four continents, by planes, trains, and automobiles, before eventually walking with them aged 16 and 12 years old, for 800km across over a small mountain and across a country for 33 days.

Arriving in Santiago at the end of 800km and 33 days, Melanie, Ben and Harry Gow

Here we are 800km and 33 days from where we started, far away from when we left our front door

Travel is not about rest and recuperation it is a challenge to your life back home, and it doesn’t so much change you as unwrap you.

Although you may loose a little sleep, you’ll bank a thousand memories; and travel is actually a space in which you can let children fail, make decisions, think, be, gaze at the cosmos and understand our place in the universe.

Deep inside it changes their idea of living, and what life is about.

If we want to grow the leaders and dreamers of the future we have to give them resources, to build resources we have to give them experiences, to give them experience we have to take them by the hand into the world beyond our normal.

Travel equips them to be successful by a radically wider definition than we usually measure achievement by. It’s about growing as a human being, a craftsman, and a thinker. It’s about basing feelings of success on your own efforts and who you are at your core.

It has been the best thing I could do for my children, and it is the best thing I could do with them.

But however we do it, let’s raise resourceful, centred, fully-engaged and wise kids.

Because resourceful, centred, fully-engaged and wise kids become resourceful, centred, fully-engaged and wise adults and the world needs more of those.

One day you too may find yourself walking with your 12 and 16 year old, for 33 exceptional days over the Pyrenees and across Spain for 800km, and it’ll be their idea – if you play it right.

If you would like me to come and talk to your institute, conference, school, or community please contact me here and we can arrange it.

Imagine What Could Change If We Give Our Children The Space To Decide What Kind Of Adults They Want To Be

This was the last time I saw my boys.
The next time I saw them, they were men.

This scene of two boys walking off down an ordinary backstreet in the middle of nowhere in particular seems unremarkable, but it holds the story of a life-changing moment.

Six kilometres out from Carrión de los Condes, down a side street in Villalcázar de Sigra, we stopped in a little bar for a much-needed drink. I felt like I had been walking since the 13th century; we had been getting up at 4.30am every day for me to sew the blisters on my feet, leaving the thread in to drain the fluid during the day, and setting off before the dawn to cover 30km before the midday heat.

I was grateful for a break. When I stood up to get back on the road again, there was a searing pain in my knee so sharp I sat right back down again.

Next to our table was an advertising board with a taxi number on it. Harry looked at me sideways and said, “Maybe it’s a sign.”

Amused that he used this to his advantage, I gave in and agreed we’d take a taxi. Both my sons turned to me and said: “No, you’re taking a taxi, we’re walking.”

This was the last time I saw my boys.

The next time I saw them, they were men.

Eighteen months ago, on that ordinary Tuesday night when we sat down with a plate of sausage and mash with gravy in front of a DVD and 123 minutes later the boys stood up and said they wanted to walk 800km to Santiago de Compostela, this is what I wanted to make happen for them.

That night we had put on The Way, a film by Martin Sheen that is essentially about a handful of middle-aged people walking and talking.

It is a fictionalized account of a man who walks this 9th century pilgrimage, known as The Camino, after his son dies in the attempt; and the stories of those he meets on the journey. As the end credits rolled both boys just knew they wanted to walk it, and we had to do it together. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that before, where you’ve just had to do something. No reasons why and no rational explanation, you just want to do it.

Watching them walk away, I realised that this was why I had walked all this way.

Nothing quite prepares you for watching your sons grow up in front of your eyes; knowing you will never quite be the same person again.

I could never have imagined I would watch them do it. When I woke up that morning there was no indication that this would be the day. As I bought three bottles of soft drink from the bar, it never crossed my mind that it was going to happen right then.

It’s extraordinary how some significant moments are so quiet you would hardly know they were there.

As a parent, we want to conjure a wind underneath our children’s wings, not so they can fly but for them to soar high with passion and joy. I have no end of failings as a mother but in walking away they showed me I had done all right, and I understood that this was the reason I had come on this walk. I was truly at my happiest.

When they left me in that bar to set off for a town, they had no more information than the name of a refuge I would try and get us into. The town wasn’t an easy one, it was moderately large and our accommodation was off the main street, tucked down a side road. I resisted the temptation to tell everyone to keep a look out for them and decided to let them figure it out…
And they did.

singing nuns of Carrion de los Condas, Walking With Angels, by Melanie Gow

That evening we met up again in the simple reception of the convent refuge, with the singing Augustinian nuns, the gorgeous singing nuns from Columbia. Strangely moving and yet absurd. When they sang Amazing Grace, even the strongest cynic would have folded.

After this the guys went to sit outside a bar in the sun and called my sons over to join them. They had their first boys’ night out with the best men, from a dozen different backgrounds, men with values and a sense of wonder and fun, who treated my sons as equals.

You don’t get your first boys’ night out again, so I left them to enjoy the banter and the sangria they were being bought and wandered off to the church, as I had heard it was worth visiting.

It turned out there was a service for the feast day of The Assumption, a significant day in the Catholic calendar celebrating the belief that Mary was taken into heaven without having to live out her natural life, because she was the mother of Christ.

The priest gave a sermon that I could understand every word of for some reason, about the importance of mothers and the grace of the relationship between mother and child.

This sermon on this day was a powerful coincidence.

By the time the softly-spoken, Columbian nun accompanied herself on an acoustic guitar, singing, “Everything Changes Except Love”, I was in tears.

When that sweetly-smiling nun went on to give a speech about Hope and started handing out little paper stars the sisters had cut out and coloured in while praying for us, I gave in and cried – for the next three days. With pride for my sons, gratitude, joy, relief, a feeling of coming home to myself.

Imagine what could change if we give our children the space to decide what kind of adults they want to be; because nothing will ever be the same again.

SAMSUNG CSC

My Prawns Are Broken

The city seemed exhausted by the job of keeping up the performance of serving endless expectations and the anticipations of countless dreams.

20130810-212353.jpg
To Cizur Menor

We set off in the dark. And the cool.

Someone at dinner last night had told us to be careful of getting lost in the dark, and we did have to back track, double check and at one point we went for a while without seeing a sign but then there was a large one right ahead.

It wasn’t till we hit the road and only saw signs for Pamplona that our first doubt crept in. But Pamplona was where we were heading, so we trusted we had to end up where we needed to be. A little later we saw some reassuring pilgrims. However, they were stepping onto our path from the actual pilgrim’s path. We learnt, It took us a couple of days to realise the large signs are cycling signs.

Harry remarked that this time we’d been lucky, Ben pointed out we used our heads too though.

20130810-212714.jpg

We were back on The Way and it was a gorgeous narrow track that rose up from the fields high into the hills above.

Suddenly an anxious woman appeared on the path ahead who asked us if we had passed anybody in the last hour or so. To be honest, I was slowing so most people were passing us and we hadn’t.

A little while later we met a man on his knees on the ground, in tears, with that same woman impatient hovering around him. We managed to gather that he had lost his companion, and didn’t know if they were ahead or behind, or indeed safe.

20130810-212817.jpg

About an hour later Ben asked if Harry was alright? He seemed sad. He was ahead of us again, and then he stopped. By the time we got there he was crying. His arms hurt from the backpack on his sunburn he said, so I took it off him and Ben covered his arms in lotion. Endearingly our little stubborn, hard-head, who had been impatient, and sometimes judgemental of Ben softened under the care, responded to both of us being there for him.

20130810-212924.jpg

He stayed close to us for the rest of the walk into Arras. He asked me if I was OK carrying his pack and, seeing how well he was doing, I told him my legs were a little broken but my mind was Kung Fu Panda strong. But, in truth I was glad to see the end of the trail turn into a bridge to Arras as I was beginning to lag behind.

On our way into the town we saw a very old man bent over shuffling up the street, and staggering into the wall he was walking along. A young man leapt up from his coffee to help.

20130810-213023.jpg

Watching him I realised I had slowed to a shuffle and I was in pain. It really took me a moment or two to realise, I really wasn’t going anywhere. It was one of the hardest things to do to turn to my son, the one I’m supposed to be there for and ask him to take back his pack. I needed help, I could no longer carry both.

The next moment the old man had collapsed, a cafe chair was brought, the local police were on the scene and we had to step out of the way for a land rover with a Red Cross on its side.

Harry had to stay till he was sure the man was OK, meanwhile I was had to find a way to the next stop. We were still in the mind set of achieving the stage set for the day. But I couldn’t walk anymore. We thought to take a taxi to Pamplona and a local lady said it was quite far away and offered to accompany us.

Then a bus passed by and we figured one would surely go to Pamplona, and our companion told us they did from right at the end of the street we were on and ran every 15 mins.

The city had a certain smell, of groomed people and dry cleaned clothes busily worn to the soundtrack of heeled shoes.

20130810-213558.jpg

It was also big, the marble pillars holding up the ornate gold ceilings seemed such a contrast to the trees reaching up into the open skies. We heard music for the first time in a week, it drew us like moths, but the musicians were passed like so much detritus in a day.

20130810-213451.jpg

The streets also seemed worn from having to hold up the lifestyle of a city, patched over with grandiose gestures.
The boys noticed the city also seemed full of old people, it is also true that it was a working day and the old are visible sitting out enjoying the sights and the life. Ben said the city seemed exhausted by the job of keeping up the performance of serving endless expectations and the anticipations of countless dreams.

20130810-213124.jpg

The boys didn’t like the old, like so much life living without being noticed. We talked about seeing everyone as a story, every life has been lived and has seen so much, and to see the courage old age takes.

I know I am trying to bank memories with them to keep me warm on that stoop, I just hope they are there and remember we once had a story.

20130810-213739.jpg
We decided to leave Pamplona, I got up from a coffee break and walked to the toilet like an old woman bent over and staggering.

We took the bus to the end of the day.

20130810-213838.jpg

We ended up at Mirabelle’s in Cizur Menor. An utterly unremarkable place run by an extraordinary woman who peers out from under the brim of a baseball cap to assess you as you walk in with uncanny accuracy.

She has her routine as she sing- songs her way through the “hot drinkings and cold drinkings and Wi-Fee [sic]…” Then she told me to bring my boots at 6pm and she would fix my feet.

She also mentioned that we could get our backpacks transported to the next stop for free on condition we stayed at the sister Albergue at the next stop. In fact the service was available for the next two days.

Which is exactly what I had been secretly wishing the whole bus ride here.

And we didn’t have a preference of where we stayed as we had come with no plans, willing to let each day lead us.

Maribelle tended the blisters on my feet, she had clean syringes and assured me she’d send me on with mine, doused the blisters in iodine and plastered them.

It is an incredibly humbling experience to have your feet attended to.

She then taught me how to tie my boots to keep my feet from slipping forward and causing the blisters on the balls of my feet as her father had taught her. She told us how she understood so much of what he taught her now, his wisdom earned with experience of a long life lived she was now appreciating.

20130810-215248.jpg

She also put sanitary pads on my insoles to absorb the sweat, its important to use night strength apparently. You can not predict what you’ll learn on any given day.

Her hostel is an absolute haven, the town is a new satellite feed to the city with very little heart, but hers is big enough for all.

We found out later she sees each day as a puzzle that she tries to solve by placing people carefully together in her dormitories.

It was a tough call, especially as it would cause us to have to make up a day somewhere, but I had to have a rest day.

Those Little Voices were still yakking away in the background with their schedules and benchmarks and bars, and Harry was upset with me. He had grown fond of the people we’d travelled with and didn’t want to lose them. It was then that we asked him what the real reason was that he was crying that day.

It turns out he’d made a small connection with the Italian who lost his friend and really felt horrible for him. It made him realise what it would have been like if he’d lost us over the Pyrenees, and he was the one who had hoped this experience would bind us further yet was the one who had been impatient.

We saw the Italian in the restaurant we went to for dinner that night and were able to ask him if he had been reunited – happy to report a happy ending.

Having made the decision to stay we were up late, past 9pm and Maribelle told us about her time in London and how she loved the church because she could hear beautiful music for free. And she loves ballet.

She also said she has learnt not to judge people and what she sees most on The Camino is loneliness, “many lonely people walk the Comino because there is a sense of connection or even connections that are real, and it is safe. Many old people walk it for these reasons.”

20130810-214238.jpg

PS Harry was still agitated with the pull between those we had been travelling with and my need to take a day out. We could only get him give in to it by suggesting perhaps we were to going to meet those we were meant to meet for the next stage.

That turned out to be possibly true.

It’s been a day of contrasts and clashing needs.

PPS I’ve been telling everyone all day “my legs are broken” in Spanish, ie “me gambas es roto” .. Until I remembered; gambas means prawns!

Yup! Everyone was confused.

I am a broken woman..

Feet and Philosophy

20130807-222319.jpg
To Larrasoana

On the first day we were so proud of Harry, on the second Ben deserved our admiration. He dug deep and he came out the other side,

It was gratifying to see how well he recovered, yes he had a bed to himself while Harry and I shared the other single, but he slept well and shouldered his backpack in the morning without flinching.

20130807-222435.jpg

I on the other hand went from Lara Croft to fallible over next two days.

I stoically developed blisters on the balls of my feet coming down off the Pyrenees with the weight of the two backpacks. They’re about the size of 50p coins, then there’s a couple on either little toe that dwarf the poor things, and two double-concentrate, mighty, tiny ones inside my heels.

But the Little Voices repeatedly worrying about notching up the allocated kilometres, carrying our backpacks and sticking to the plan is a force to be reckoned with. On top of that I was trying to get in step with what we’ve taken on.

It only occurred to me to wash out our socks at 10pm that first night, I had to use the hotel shower gel sachets as I hadn’t got anthing, we weren’t up at 6am, we ate breakfast where we stayed, we weren’t in the rhythm at all. We were the last to leave, by a long way, and we had to ask if it was left or right out of the village as we didn’t even have our eyes tuned to looking for the yellow shells on a blue background that mark the way – mostly.

20130807-222540.jpg

3km down the road, outside the much needed cash dispensing ATM, we were sitting in the mid-morning heat at the fork in the road where we turned right to go down the trail, watching the digital temperature reader over the pharmacy door opposite click over another degree. We had every reason to make today easier.

I got the bank to call a taxi to carry our backpacks to the next stop.

We had to wait 10minutes and at 9mins 30 I asked the boys if it would be a horrendous idea if we actually got in it too?

The relief of speeding through the baking hot hills in the cool interior of a taxi made us deliriously giggly. Although, I couldn’t shake the nagging Little Voices that said we were cheating.

However, by the time we picked up the trail again we had the 10km left of the day in us, and the littlest things were a delight!

20130807-225230.jpg

A trickle of a stream was a wonder of naked nature. A foal was a symbol of young energy, the butterflies danced. It was getting hotter and we took advantage of any shade.

And it’s not all picturesque, nor was our patience with our different paces yet settled.

20130807-224544.jpg

but that’s OK, even in paradise there are mosquitoes.

Suddenly the English man, Matt of the Lucozade tablets, caught up with us. It was like seeing an old friend. When we had arrived in Roncevalles the night before Ben had said he’d like to shake the hand of the man who gave him Lucozade tablets. Then we had attended the “blessing of the pilgrims” mass, we’d never been to one obviously so we were open to the experience. During a traditional Catholic service you shake hands with those around you. As we turned behind us there Matt was. Ben got to shake his hand.

So it was fun to walk along with him for a while and find out he’s a pastoral carer in a school in Cambridge. We chatted about motivations, and circled around faith and religion, and swapped expectations of The Camino to find we all shared a hope that we’d do things like swim in waterfalls.

Around the next corner was the unmistakable sound of falling water.

20130807-223209.jpg

We spent a happy hour sitting in what felt like a natural spa, just off the path, at the base of a small waterfall.

We said we’d send Matt a picture of him in the waterfall, we’ve lost him and don’t have his contact details so; “Matt, here it is and we hope you find it.” If anyone recognises him, please say thank you from us.

20130807-222842.jpg

The next corner found Larrasoana simmering the other side of a bridge at the bottom of the track. As we crossed the river running clear and cold under it the air tingled with the frisson of an invitation.

We checked into the municipal Albergue, which only houses 54. It was the first hostel experience for the boys. It turned out to be the widest collection of body shapes, ages, ethnicities and temperaments, packed into a large shed of metal bunks with plastic coated mattresses and pillows. One cold tap sink outside to launder clothes, and a washing line.

20130807-223424.jpg

It was however a little haven. There was one place to have dinner, a grocery store with wifi and the river.

Which was one of those moments I’ll remember for its extraordinary contrast with the time around it. It was nature applied with its gentlest touch.

You don’t actually need anything else.

Larrasoana was the perfect space to teach us the basics. Our boots were outside, I vaguely covered the smell of sweat with the smell of shower gel in an attempt to wash a few clothes, and we wandered off down the road to buy breakfast about ten minutes before they closed.

It was 7pm and the temperature had risen a couple more degrees to 37C

20130807-223325.jpg

We were trying to find ways to cope. I cut 4inches off Harry’s hair, Matt gave both boys bandanas. I popped my blisters, fluid spurted across the space and big sacks of empty skin hung on my feet. I slapped Compeed patches on them, and thought I was lucky compared to some of the other feet around me.

I was still wrestling mentally with the the power struggle between sticking to the plan and having to compromise on accomplishing the task somehow. But I was deep down grateful we had made the call to take the taxi, I actually couldn’t have walked much more on my feet, other people’s were bleeding and swollen with puss. The reality was absolutely clear that if your feet can’t carry you it’s game over. They take us through everyday, we really can’t take them for granted.

The pain in my hips was not easing either, and we were also staring down the track of three of the hottest days on record.

We decided to set the alarm for 5am, and walk in the dark.

At the end of the day when I look back, I see that if we’d stayed at the monastery hostel at Roncevalles we’d have been up at 6am and got pulled along with everyone walking and would have had a lot more to deal with. So their curt dismissal turned out to be our advantage.

PS It turns out Compeed is only for hobby hikers and commuters in heels, it really doesn’t stand up to the heat and pressure on The Camino. As I found out the next day, when they had melted, and opened up my blisters peeling the skin back further as they were removed.

PPS it’s going to take me at least another day to finally learn the lesson … I know from researching Toasters Don’t Roast Chickens that your mind and body are inextricably linked, that pain is a communication and you would do well to listen. Your body really is the only one you have. We have to live with our body for the rest of our life, treat it well.

20130807-224851.jpg

Being Weighed And Measured

We took it steady, stiff and tender from the first day having put us over its knee and spanking our backsides, spinning us, slapping our faces and laughing at our audacity to think we had it measured so soon.

20130804-171555.jpg
To Roncevalles:

There is nothing like the alarm of a hostel full of people on the move. The Orisson Albergue is small, we were only bunking with 7 other people, but en-mass there is an energy it’s futile to resist.

Besides the only food between here and there was being served between 7 and 7.30am, only.

Our first pilgrim’s breakfast was a stark introduction to life on The Camino. A bowl of tea, two dry rounds of baguette, butter and jam, and by the time we got to a table there was only plum or cherry left. Who eats those, what’s the point in stocking them?

The boys weren’t complaining, and they’d accepted to eat what was put in front of them, and were even drinking tea knowing that was the deal. I was concerned they hadn’t eaten enough over two days to sustain them over 20km, given Ben hadn’t kept dinner down.

And strawberry jam would make it easier to eat dry, day old, crusty bread.

So I found Jacques, I didn’t know his name then but he was about to play a huge part in our day. A short, leathered, ‘spritely’ elderly man, whose eyes were shuttered to the milieu as he helped serve breakfast. I asked him if he could find any red jam, and he smiled and skipped off to get a handful of options. And that’s how it began.

When we left, we went over to say thank you, he took two seconds to register and then he stood up from his breakfast and asked how Ben was. Then he told us what the day ahead looked like, reassured us the worst was behind us. There was a refreshment van up the hill and then to be sure to take the right hand fork at a certain point. We would know it because there was an obelisk like stone, and to look out for it as it was a gentler way.

Then he said he’d seen the boys pulling together yesterday, going back for their mother. He’d seen it all before, but this he noticed.

He told us to take care, and told Ben to keep his mind strong.

20130804-171433.jpg

It is undeniably beautiful. The mists hung over the valleys as we rose up into the crisp blue sky and to the challenge ahead. However, every time the view caught my breath, my internal draw on my reserves pulled me back to the task in hand. That of walking over Lepoeder, 1400 ft above sea level.

We took it steady, stiff and tender from the first day having put us over its knee and spanking our backsides, spinning us, slapping our faces and then just for mischief spinning us again while laughing at our audacity to think we had it weighed and measured so soon.

We got our first real sense of our fellow pilgrims. There is a school party of Koreans Harry likes, who randomly sit down every forty minutes or so and eat. Lots of The Road is on a road, pilgrims clutter it and the cars have to navigate us like errant sheep.

About 2 hours of walking up hill Jacques drove past, the boys waved. He pulled over and gambolled out of his car to offer us a lift up to the refreshment van. He was leaving his car there all day, he could take our backpacks? We all looked at Ben, who said, no he was going to walk all the way. Jacques patted his back and said he had a lot of respect for that and to stay strong mentally, then he turned to me and said he thought the boys were something special.

I wasn’t going to say this but, it is what it is: I teared up, other people telling me they see the people my boys are growing into does it to me. I did arrive on this walk a little emotionally vulnerable for this nonsense. It’s the point, I think, deep down I want to give them the space and opportunity to choose the men they want to be. Beyond what I can give them. Maybe there’s other reasons I’ll find on The Way, it’s a long road.

Anyway, I’m sure I won’t cry as I kiss a strange old man again to thank him again. Bless him he wasn’t fazed at all.

20130804-171753.jpg
We set off, with the boys smiling and shaking their heads at me. It was a lovely sunny hike through the sheep littered slopes, till Ben said he needed to throw up, again.

All I could suggest was that he vomited with the wind as washing his walking boots wasn’t an option. We gave him some water.

Not long later he threw up the water. He was fatigued, his stomach couldn’t cope with the extra strain of digestion on top of the physical challenge.

The wind had taken on a little force, the sun was high and the trail pitched and yawed without relief.

20130804-175118.jpg

We stopped whenever he had to. He set the goals to the next stop. Slowly the road passed under our feet until he brought us to a halt.

Harry found the stop and start tiring, tiresome. It tested him to go so slowly.

We ate lunch, or Harry and I did, saving half our baguettes for later. I got Ben to drink a little water. There was no sense of how far we’d come or how far there was to go. A brow on a curve was all there ever was just ahead.

20130804-175531.jpg

We slowly got back up and made for the next turn in the trail, and there it was, just like a kebab van outside a night club on a Friday night.

20130804-175815.jpg

There were hard boiled eggs and cereal bars and all sorts of things a modern pilgrim might find delicious. And the Koreans. We have learnt Hello in Korean, “Ayon ha theh yo”. I was worried about Ben’s sugar level, and bought a multifruit juice to try a replace his salts, we even got him a little chocolate. He couldn’t eat.

We just rested. Then when he was ready, we got going again. We were 1400meters from Spain.

20130804-173339.jpg

The sun was beating down, but the wind was tougher. It was so strong birds could not take flight. We watched as a flock of blackbirds took hops against the wind to land a few feet ahead, over and over again until they could catch the wind under their wings and then they were shot away down the valley.

We mirrored their incremental progress across the landscape until all that was left was a short, steep, rocky climb to the summit. Ben still kept stopping. Then a tall Italian, in a bandana, stopped and stripped Ben of his back pack, made him lie down, raised his feet and waited. Harry went to carry Ben’s pack for him and the Italian patted them both on the head paternally and strode off.

Obviously I took the pack off Harry and double-packed it, as we pushed for the border again.

I stood between France and Spain with one son raring to go, already in Spain and the other unable to find the strength to cross from France.

20130804-173602.jpg

The Koreans were taking group photographs, and when Ben was finally join up they took one of us together. They took so many different angels and handed back the camera with a “You choose”. It was pretty much the last time we were together for the rest of The Way that day.

Harry was frustrated. Ben was in his own private hell. I could not leave Ben, I could not hold Harry back.

20130804-174908.jpg

Harry slowly drew ahead and then waited for us at a fountain. 765 miles from Santiago Harry dropped our bottle of water with us, saying he’d found one, without a lid, he was happy to use.

I knew I had to give it up to The Camino and let him go his own way.

20130804-172958.jpg

I told him to remember to go right as Jacques had told us and then trusted him. I can hear parents everywhere drawing a sharp breath, but that is partly why we’re here. These boys have seen and done a lot to draw on, they have resources. Harry has the secret to happiness, and an emotional IQ that draws people to him, and there are so many pilgrims on the route he would be accompanied whether he knew it or not.

Ben and I walked ten paces and stopped. Walked ten paces and stopped.

Then he sat down and cried his heart out, saying he couldn’t go on. Although he knew he had no choice. It was further and harder to go back, and he knew he couldn’t just stay where he was on the side of a path in the middle of nowhere.

20130804-173926.jpg

By this point he couldn’t keep even a little water down. I watched his eyes roll back in his head as he went clammy pale. I kicked myself for not packing glucose tablets, as that was exactly what he would be able to absorb that would give him energy and balance his electrolytes. I just wished we had glucose tablets.

5mins later a young English man walked up to us, asked if we were OK and said all he had to offer us to help was a packet of Lucozade tablets. Did we want them?

Think what you will.

Ben could barely get enough saliva together to chew the first one, so sipped water. Then threw up. He took another and chewed it. Whether they really were powerful enough or it was a Dumbo’s feather telling Ben it was pure energy and would by-pass his stomach, doesn’t really matter as slowly Ben began to be able to walk longer distances.

20130804-172818.jpg

We were out of the wind, there was shade, the trail eased to a stroll. Suddenly coming towards us was Jacques, he was just in shorts, bouncing through the heather, breaking off bits and breathing in the smell. We said hello, he took a second and then registered who we were. He clapped for joy to see us still there.

He was concerned for Ben, and escorted us to a small refuge, sat Ben down and systematically went through his pockets pulling out sesame seed snacks, raisins, homeopathy pills, and menthol pills for big breaths. Each thing would help he said. Ben managed to eat the sesame seeds and honey. He drank a little water.

Jon, a Basque, turned up. Jacques spoke no Spanish, Jon spoke no French but between us we managed, Jacques described the trail ahead and Jon offered to drive us back to St Jean Pied de Port. Ben said no, he had to get to Roncevalles. Jon decided to carry Ben’s backpack for me to the final rise.

We had to promise to send Jacques an email when we arrived at Santiago, then he shook Ben’s hand and tapped his head telling him to stay strong, before waving us off.

With time anywhere is within walking distance.

I heard all about the The Battle of Roncevaux Pass which the guerrilla army of the Basques won on Saturday 15th of August in 778. Ben breathed through three more threats to throw up.

At one point a gaggle of day walkers descended upon us, fussed around Ben, suggested water, and then when they heard that made him throw up, all nodded and agreed noisily the churning stomach feeling was hard, then they wished us “buen courage” and went about their day.

We got to the top of the last decent, thanked Jon, promised him an email too and took back Ben’s pack.

Then we began to descend.

20130804-172431.jpg

I’m just going to throw in that going down with two backpacks was to take its toll, but more importantly we did make it. We talked about the Indian economy and Japanese art as we walked through the most incredible forest with a copper dry-leaf carpet. I took photographs so that Ben would be able to look back and remember it after all the fight is forgotten. At the bottom Roncevalles monastery just appeared suddenly in a pool of sunlight.

It’s such a cliche that you can only do so much for your kids. You can take all the weight you like off them but, you can’t do it for them. All you can do is stand beside them and be there.

That 16km took us 9 hours, and the first thing we saw was Harry’s backpack on the ground across the river at the entrance, so we knew he’d arrived safely. We really enjoyed our cold cokes in the evening sun, together.

PS we didn’t have any cash on us so the hostel couldn’t accept us, and they were so rude and unhelpful and told us to walk to the nearest ATM 3km away (and back) in a most unChristian manner. They really didn’t do any favours to their faith.

My body has never hurt so much in so many places whatever I’ve put it through before so I wasn’t going to walk another step. Fortunately there was a perfectly lovely Basque hotel with one double bed left that took debit cards. We blew the budget for at least two days, but we showered, we ate, we slept and we lived to walk another day.

PPS we met the tall Italian with his wife at dinner that night, so we could thank him. He told us it was their dream to walk The Camino with their sons, who thought he was crazy.

20130804-180619.jpg

PPS Our culture, the western culture, spends a lot of time in its head. In Africa where I was born and brought up its a physical survival game, in our culture it’s a mental survival challenge. We find it easy to spend time thinking, even dreaming, (read channelling, trancing or whatever your experience is) but we are not grounded on the whole. This was the most grounding, physical experience I have come across and the fact that you have to get up and do it again for 31 days is part of it.

20130804-180743.jpg

But First It Grounds You.

We made it to the 4km point despite travel fatigue, 31 degree heat and pounding hearts. We were surprised at how we’d underestimated this. This grounds you.

20130802-093239 PM.jpg

I thought it was ninja parent thinking to break up the first leg into two: an aperitif and a main.

After 16 hours of travel, changing trains, tubes and busses, across two days to get there, I figured we’d take on only 8km for our first climb.

The view featured in the photograph is what I had been aiming for. I imagined our first drink together on the balcony over hanging the mountainside. A quiet celebration of the start of the merry road to Santiago.

20130802-093919 PM.jpg

As we stamped in at the pilgrims post in St Jean Pied de Port, Catherine, our pilgrim registrar, said, “some of it you climb with your hands up the rocks!” So we were wise to get to the Orisson Albergue and take two days, she said.

20130802-094117 PM.jpg

We just took note of the directions out of the village, filled a water bottle, smiled at the shell shapes everywhere and set off with new walking sticks.

The first 4km took us fifty minutes. The first 4km brought out our idea of our roles, we walked different speeds and battled our expectations of how it should be.

We made it to that point despite sheer travel fatigue, 31 degree heat and pounding hearts. We were surprised at how much we’d underestimated things. But, we looked at each other and told ourselves we had this.

We just had to take it easy, right? We stopped to admire the view, we heard the cow bells, we did appreciate what we were walking in. But, the physical challenge became all consuming.

20130802-094634 PM.jpg

The next 4km took us 2 hours and 10 minutes and began a roller coaster of emotions and experiences we could not have ever predicted.

Our different strengths came out, but so did our weaknesses.

Our 12yo managed it with ease, but also with impatience. Our Teen struggled physically, but defaulted to martyrdom to his own detriment. I was just between keeping us together.

Then came the point when we had to use our strengths, but take a leap. Harry had to go ahead to the Albergue, into the hills of France looking for something with no “map” (it is clearly sign posted and there are no other tracks). While I had to “drop pack” and go back for our Teen.

A sore on his toe was opening up and by the time we got back up to my pack it was obvious he was going to struggle, so I had to double-pack it.

At this point the path decided to climb a little more sharply. It rises from 300 above sea level to 700 in 5km.

I had to stop looking ahead as the sight of yet steeper twists played on my mind. I loved the view, every single time I had to stop for breath. I also had to focus on taking one step in front of the other, with Ben.
20130802-095208 PM.jpg

Suddenly we came out on a road for a moment, and a car was coming round the corner. With no idea how far there was left, there was a nano second to make a decision. I stuck out my thumb.

The driver took Ben. Which left me alone, double-packing, in a fading light. Sometimes there is nothing for it but to get on with it.

I looked up and all I could see was hills rising ahead of me with a single track winding like a drunk’s road home. It’s shockingly dispiriting.

The next thing I saw was Harry running back for me.

I knew he’d made it. He was safe. It couldn’t be far as he was running, and that Ben had arrived.

The albergue is tucked around a corner on the east side of a ridge. With a view down over the Huntto area. Even as we walked to it I asked Harry if he meant where I thought he said, and he said his heart had sunk too when all he could see was the hillside rise above him.

The terrain is deceptive, you can be just around the corner from where you want to be and not know it. Right about now Harry said he was going to get fed up with metaphors.

For the next hour our elation slammed into the apathy of the Albergue staff.

They’ve seen every story. Everybody passes through, once, Pilgrims are inflated day trippers. And we were late. An extension to the day, another coin for the shower to dispense, another bunk to point to. Another soup to serve before the kitchen could close.

We sat on the bench outside to eat unceremoniously, in clothes you literally could wring sweat out of. Our astonishment tumbled out over the relief, in between noticing how good the bean soup tasted.

We had nothing but admiration for our 12yo, whilst being properly trounced by him, we’re deeply proud of him all at once.

Harry was the one we thought we’d have to carry, and he took on the mountains like a Capra.

We bathed him in his rightful acknowledgement. Then Ben’s body went into a mild shock and he threw up.

And then threw up again. And so the night was shaped.

He had to bunk down in communal digs, quietly exhausted and shaking. Harry had to accept there was no light to sit and chat by.

And I had to go to bed knowing that our plan to only do 10 or 12kms the next day, to “pace” ourselves, was not possible. There is nothing but more of the Pyrenees for the 20km between where we were and where we were going.

Compulsory check out was 7am

Our next day turned out to be the most extraordinarily testing day we’ve ever put ourselves through, but I don’t have enough wifi to tell you about it ..

So I’ll leave you with a beautiful panoramic of our first view as we left in the morning.

20130802-100200 PM.jpg

PS. Tina, this is for you. In between the violent vomiting, sweat and fatigue we didn’t raise much of a glass of anything – but the thought was there in my mind. Thank you.