Presenting: Ingrid Folkers and Her Inspiring Story of the Camino de Santiago
Ingrid Folkers and I connected via Facebook some time ago and we realized we that we both share the same birth country – Austria – and both of us have been living in or close to Toronto for many years. Last year I also found out that she went on a pilgrimage in 2012 on the famous St. James Way or Camino de Santiago, a topic that has long fascinated me. Ingrid is good friends with Mony Dojeiji and Sue Kenney, both inspiring women for whom a pilgrimage on the Camino has been life transforming. Recently, Ingrid and I had a chance to get together in person, and I learned that the long walk on the Camino de Santiago had a similarly deep impact on Ingrid. Have a look here at her fascinating story:
1. Please tell us more about yourself and your background. Where are you from originally and what made you come to Canada?
I was born in Villach/Austria, a town with ancient roots, build on the river Drau and surrounded by mountains. Even as a very young child I liked to travel. My mother used to tell me I would go to stay with my aunt and I never got homesick. I was the only child and at the age of 20, left Austria for Canada as a landed immigrant. I needed to spread my wings and initially did not plan on staying long. Just long enough for my father to give me permission to attend University. My father died a year after I left home and by that time I had fallen in love with Toronto and I stayed in Canada.
2. You have had a very interesting and diverse career. Please tell us about your diverse work experience.
I was trained as a Hotelier/Chef in Austria, and worked for some time in the Hotel industry in Toronto. However, I first started as a Nanny in Forest Hill and eventually worked in a variety of jobs, including the University of Toronto. I got married and had 2 children and became a stay at home mom. During my time as “Mom” I explored some of my artistic talents, ran a porcelain study at home, and also had a 24 year successful career with Tupperware Brands Corporation.
3. More recently you embarked on a career as a tea sommelier. Please tell us more about this unique profession.
About 8 years ago, I attended a workshop at George Brown College called the Pleasure of High Tea. I was hooked and enrolled in a 2 year Tea Sommelier Certification program in 2009; I graduated as one of the first Certified Tea Sommeliers in Canada. With my hospitality background and my new found passion, until recently, owned a small company called Tea Occasions, offering Afternoon Tea events and educational seminars in my client’s home. I continue to speak and teach on anything Tea and occasionally host Afternoon Tea for my friends.
4. In 2012 you decided to embark on the Camino de Santiago. What motivated you to do this?
This is a question that has no simple answer. I found out about the Camino about 5 years ago, through my friend Sue Kenney who has now walked the Camino yearly for about 12 years. 2012 was an important year for me, I was turning 60. I originally had plans to go to the Spring Tea Harvest in China, and when those plans fell through, I changed my ticket for Spain and on September 5, 2012 I took my first steps on the Camino. Once I had made the decision, the Camino took over. It was difficult to concentrate on my day-to-day life, I was consumed with finding out everything about it. Added to know all about it was the inner voice that kept reminding me about some items that had been bequested to me by my parents and childhood memories long forgotten got stronger. More and more it felt like I was not only making this journey for myself, but also to finish a quest.
5. The Camino de Santiago is over 800 km long. How did you prepare for this trip?
Initially, I read every book written about the Camino, I joined online forums to talk to veteran pilgrims and “want to-be” pilgrims like myself. I went on a shopping spree for the necessary pilgrims gear, started walking every day, eventually walking between 10 to 12 km before breakfast. Somehow, through Facebook connections, I became friends with a wonderful group of Camino experts, here at home as well as in Spain. With their guidance, by the end of August, I was physically and mentally ready. To my surprise, I was not as prepared as I thought I was.
6. Please tell us about the first portion of your trip. What was it like to embark on this long journey?
My plan was to walk an average of 20 km per day and walk the route by myself, as a pilgrim, carrying my backpack and sleeping in albergues and refugios, the hostels established all along the 800km. I also planned to stay in Casa Rurales, the Spanish B&B’s or hotels once in a while. I decided to fly from Toronto to Paris and then travel by train to Bayonne, in the south of France, then take the train to Saint Jean Pied de Port, the starting point on the French side of the Camino de Santiago. I had booked hotel accommodations for the first 3 nights to sleep off my jetlag and to ease into being a pilgrim.
Not everything went according to my plans. My plane got delayed by 12 hours, which made me miss my train connection to the South of France. I spend 400 Euros for a 1 way ticket to Biarritz to keep on track. The room I had booked in Bayonne was worse than any accommodations I encountered during the rest of my trip. Once in SJPD, I collected my pilgrim’s passport/credential, a document given to each pilgrim to collect stamps at each albergue, as proof that you are walking.
In the mid-day heat (not recommended) I started the steep climb up the Pyrenees to my first overnight stay. I thought I was prepared; NOTHING prepared me for this ascent. There were times that afternoon that I thought this to be my first and last day on the Camino. The first week on the Camino I now fondly call my Camino Boot camp. Those were some of the most difficult days but also very rewarding.
7. Please tell us a bit about the practical aspect of walking 800 km. How much did you carry? Where did you stay overnight? What about food, laundry and other practical matters?
My backpack weighed about 16 lbs, it included 2 of everything in clothing, a fleece/silk liner I used as a sleeping bag, minimal toiletries, a small first aid kit, Tilley hat, sandals, camera, chargers, voice recorder, my tea set and lots of tea, raingear. I also wore a fanny pack that held all the things I would need during the day, i.e. money, some snacks, water. I walked with a pilgrims staff for support.
Albergues and refugios run by the municipalities and churches offer a mattress or a bunk bed as sleeping accommodation. Rooms are shared sometimes with as many as 80 people. The fee for a bed ranged from 5 to 8 Euros a night or “donativo” which means you give what you can. Private Albergues are a mixture of private rooms and shared accommodations. They have more amenities and cost a bit more and can be booked in advance. Then there are Casa Rurales, those are B&B’s, charging anywhere from 25 Euros upwards including breakfast and dinner. Hotels are usually available in the larger towns and offer pilgrim rates.
Most albergues have washing machines for laundry. Showers are often co-ed. Some have communal kitchen, others offered a cooked meal for an extra fee, but mostly one eats in local restaurants asking for a Menu de Dia. Along the walk, there are many bars that offer a place to rest, have a café con leche, sandwiches, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
8. What kind of people (and animals) did you meet on the trip?
As I had decided to walk on my own, I had the choice to either walk by myself or walk with others. I just read the statistics for 2013, there were 200,000 Pilgrims arriving in Santiago de Compostela, walking the various Camino routes. With that many pilgrims walking, one actually never walks alone. Sometimes I walked with the same people for a few days, only to lose them for weeks and then meeting up again. I met some very interesting people, all ages, people with lots of money or no money at all, various religious beliefs, physical size and shapes, loners and chatty. We all had a common goal: to reach Santiago – and that created a unique bond.
I had read about the “wild and dangerous” dogs of the Camino… I saw none. However lots of farm animals as I walked through the small towns and they had the right of way.
9. You decided to record your experiences. How did you do that? What difference did recording this experience make to you while on the Camino and afterwards? What does it mean in retrospect?
I had decided to walk without cell phone or other tech gear. I even lost my watch 2 days into my journey. I stayed away from computers for the longest time and eventually started writing on Facebook to keep in touch with my family and friends. All along I was voice recording as I walked. I was not writing a journal, like so many other pilgrims, I wanted to record what I saw with my camera and what I felt with my voice. As it turned out, those recordings are a wonderful time capsule and wonderful memories of my transformation from tourist to pilgrim. They are an invaluable resource in my writings.
1. How did you stay in touch with people on the Camino? And what role did social media play in connecting with people afterwards?
In Burgos, about 300 km into my walk, I bought a Spanish cell phone so I could be reached in an emergency. This was a very good decision on my part, because not long afterwards, I was injured and needed the phone to keep in touch with my Spanish friends and whenever I needed to make a reservation. In most places I had access to a “pay per minute” computer and as time went on, I started to write about my days on Facebook.
I had decided that I would not ask for contact information from pilgrims, however, I handed out a teabag with my information to those pilgrims I felt a deeper connection with, leaving it up to them to get in touch with me.
Once I came home, I took time away from the computer to reflect on my experience. This was a necessary step to walk back into my “normal” life. After some months I created a Forum group Camino Gifts of Friendship. It started with a few dear Camino friends and gradually other fellow pilgrims got in touch with me. Somehow, the ones that were meant to find me, did, approximately 50 people and we continue to be in touch.
2. You also mentioned that somehow walking on the Camino and meeting with people from all different nations enhanced your language skills. Please explain.
My mother tongue is German, but I also was taught English and French in school. My mother was born in Slovenia and as a child I got familiar with that language. Living close to Italy, I had a smattering of Italian and a polite phrasing of Spanish. Today my primary language is English, and I speak German with my mother-in-law and rarely use any of the other languages. About 1 week into my Camino, I noticed that my languages were coming back, more fluently than I could have ever imagined. This ability to speak a variety of languages enhanced my Camino experience. Very few of the Spanish people I met spoke English, but among the pilgrims, English was spoken. However, the most important language on the Camino is the language of the heart. A friendly smile, a happy Buen Camino, a hug when needed and being gracious to ones host and fellow pilgrim mattered more than being fluent in any language.
3. One important person you met was “Stuart”. Please tell us about him.
Stuart I met the last few days before reaching Santiago. Stuart now is 82 years old and truly a Camino veteran from Scotland. He also over the years has served as “hospitalero” for many years. Hospitaleros are the volunteers that keep the albergues running. He was instrumental for me reaching Santiago on my birthday, something I thought no longer possible after my injury. He coaxed me along when I was about to give up for the day. He was one of the many Camino angels I met. We have kept in touch via email and even though he told me that this was to have been his last Camino, he again walked this year. The Call of the Camino is very strong for some.
4. Several hundred kilometers into the trip you had an accident. What happened and what did you do from there?
About 3 weeks into my walk, on the Meseta, a section of the Camino I did not enjoy, I decided to take an alternate route called the Calzada Romana – The old Roman Road. This is a road very few pilgrims choose and perfect for me since I wanted to walk alone for a while. On September 29, after about 10 km, my left ankle hurt. One step I was fine, the next step I barely could walk. I was totally alone, just like I wished. The Camino provided.
5. Pilgrims often say “The Camino provides”. Please explain that saying.
There is a saying about the Camino “The Camino provides”. Another saying is that “The Camino Listens”. It is prudent to be careful what one says or thinks. Some people call it coincidence, I call it Camino Magic. I ran out of water, no town in sight, but all of a sudden there was a fountain. I needed a stone to sit on, there was a boulder, on that lonely stretch I needed help and there she was for me, a Ukrainian pilgrim who happened to be a foot specialist. With her help I was able to hobble to a small town called Reliegos and from there got taxied to the emergency department at a hospital in Leon for x-rays. I was told I was ok, to take it easy for a few days and continue when I felt better.
6. You also encountered many acts of kindness on the Camino. Please tell us about some of these.
From Leon onwards, my Camino changed. I no longer could walk the distances as before, I walked very slowly, much slower than the slowest pilgrim, so I walked alone most of the time. Occasionally, a pilgrim would walk with me for a few km, but quickly would walk onwards. Now I relied on the help of the local people and help they did. They walked with me, made sure I rested, fed me, hugged me when needed, looked after my ankle, sometimes gave me a ride when I simply could no longer walk and a town was far off. In return they ask me to hug the Saint for them. “Un abrazo a Santos, por favor”. I carried a long list of names with me. This was the time I was one with the path, I saw and heard things that I would have missed walking as before. I was walking forward by walking inward and on a journey back to myself.
I was in constant pain and didn’t find out until back in Canada, a month later, that I had been walking with a broken leg.
7. Finally you reached Santiago de Compostela, on a broken leg. What was that like? What does Santiago de Compostela mean to you?
With the help of my friend Stuart, I did walk into Santiago de Compostela on October 20, my 60th birthday. The Camino listened and provided. As I was walking the last 20 km, counting down every km, I re-connected with pilgrims I had not seen in a long time. Somehow the word had gone out that it was my birthday and all day long, pilgrims were whishing me Happy Birthday.
Reaching Santiago was magical and as I walked past the haunting sounds of the Galician “gaita”, the Spanish bagpipe, that greets each pilgrim walking through the doorway into the Prazo Obradoiro. It was a jubilant and emotional moment. I had made it. After I presented my credential at the pilgrims’ office I was presented with my Compostela, the much coveted document confirming that I had arrived a pilgrim in good standing. I walked into the cathedral, up the steps to the statue of Santiago, hugging him and read out aloud all the names of the people that had helped me along my Camino. I watched the huge Potafumeiro swing and listen to the angelic voices of the nuns during pilgrims mass.
All together I spend a week in Santiago; it is a beautiful city and I am looking forward to visit again.
8. After reaching Santiago you also continued on to Finisterre (or Fisterra in Galician). Please tell us about that.
For most Christians, Santiago is the end of their Camino. Myself, I wanted to walk onwards to Fisterra and Muxia – the end of the World and the Costa del Morte (Cost of Death). Instead of walking an additional 4 days, I took the bus to Fisterra. I also visited with my friend Tracy Saunders, an ex-pat British/Canadian, who has made her home in Galicia, and has a post-Camino retreat called The Little Fox House. In her peaceful home, I started my new Camino, my journey home. In her company we drove along the Costa del Morte to Muxia. Standing on the stones in Muxia felt like coming home. All along, I felt that my parents, especially my fathers’ energy, had been walking with me and the quest part of my Camino was resolved.
9. Please tell us about the “culture shock” you experienced readjusting to your regular life after your return. How has this walk on the Camino influenced your life in the long run?
After I left Galicia, I flew to Barcelona to spend a few days there. I got to see very little of it, my leg was not any better. I managed to visit Montserrat and the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia and the Market. Aside from the obvious physical challenge, I was not ready for the noise of a tourist town. I had spent 7 weeks in solitude, simplicity, away from noise and the hustle of everyday life. Barcelona was hectic and noisy.
Once back home, it took me many months to focus on everyday life. I missed the simplicity of the Camino.
I have been back now for 13 months, however, there isn’t a day I don’t think about my journey. It was life changing and like so many pilgrims, I too long to go back. As profound as the journey was for me, my everyday life has not changed much. I am part of a couple, a marriage, a mother, but only I walked the Camino. Changes that I would love to implement as a personal choice are not necessarily the choices my family would welcome. The changes for me were a reconnection to myself, a re-awakening of those dreams most of us set aside as life takes over. Just as one walks the Camino de Santiago, step by step, so too I am now walking my Camino of Life, step by step with an open heart and mind. It is a more quiet life and filled with new dreams.
10. You are also planning to return to the Camino de Santiago next year. Please share with us your plans for this upcoming journey.
Hopefully, in 2014, I will be able to do so. I would like to walk some of the sections I was not able to, and add a few other Caminos, i.e. Camino Del Norte, Camino Ingles, Camino Finisterra and possibly the route in Portugal from Porto. I have set aside 3 months to spend in Spain, walking and serving as hospitalera.
Since I know the Camino listens and this Pilgrim would love to return, I believe the Camino will provide. Buen Camino a todos – Ultreia!
Thank you, Ingrid, for sharing your amazing Camino experiences with us and we hope to have an update from you from your upcoming trip to Spain. Happy travels…