After 20 years of thrill-seeking and travelling the globe, micro-adventurer Alastair Humphreys took stock of what he loved about travel, alone in Spain, with a little help from a... violin?
Google ‘Hiking the Camino de Santiago’ and you’ll find 2,680,000 results. Even the Wanderlust website has 13 articles about the famous trek. And with good reason: it’s a fine adventure in a beautiful part of the world.
I have spent most of my adult life looking for exactly that, driven by curiosity, restlessness and a love of big adventures. I draw inspiration from other people’s travels and writing (a subscription to Wanderlust was a fine Christmas present when I was at university) but I always prefer to use them as a springboard to my own ideas rather than as recipes to follow. I enjoy hatching my own plans, daring myself to travel solo, and heading for places most travellers ignore.
This was one explanation for why I found myself unpacking a violin I could barely play in a sleepy Galician town, just a couple of dozen miles from all the hikers on the busy Camino, in the north. I was alone, hungry, and scared.
Another was a travel book I had read and loved for many years. I have been smitten by Spain ever since I read Laurie Lee’s classic story of a young vagabond and his violin.
I love the evening light laden with citrus blossom and the rook-like chatter of old women, dark-eyed and kinder than they let on. I fell, too, for Laurie’s style of travel. He walked slowly and lived frugally. Laurie camped on hilltops, bathed in rivers and enjoyed his encounters with the characters he met on the road.
I procrastinated the awful embarrassing moment of beginning to busk for the very first time by walking across the plaza to splash my face with the cool water from the trickling fuente. I chatted to a market stall owner, fussing over her displays of peppers and grapes and apologised that I was about to break the morning’s peace.
I tightened the strings of my violin and looked around. I really did not want to do this. But the only way I would eat today was if I earned something from busking. I took a deep breath and began to play.
Of course, there was another reason behind my personal little pilgrimage beneath the hot blue sky. I had been reflecting on why travel and adventure is so important to me.
Since leaving school, the drive of wanderlust has been central to everything in my life. I lived in a village in rural Africa for a year when I was 18, for the exhilarating thrill of experiencing everyday life done differently.
After university, I cycled round the world for four years because I was greedy to see more and because I wanted to test myself in the crowds of Cairo, the altitude of the Altiplano and the empty expanses of the Taklamakan. I was searching for uncertainty, risk, excitement and novelty, and I found all this and so much more.
But after 20 glorious years of travelling, it dawned on me that I had changed a good deal as a person - but my adventures had not changed with them.
I was so accustomed to wilderness camping, communicating without common languages, or riding on the roofs of rickety buses with a few chickens, that I had begun to take these things for granted. If I wanted to get the uncertainty and risk back into my adventurous life then I needed to look differently at the way I travelled. In other words, I needed to start learning the violin…
Inspired by As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, I decided to loosely follow Laurie Lee’s route through Spain for a month. I would walk from Vigo in Galicia to Madrid, a journey of about 500 miles through gorgeous landscapes of wooded valleys, clear streams, shimmering plains of sunflowers and drowsy old villages and towns.
To turn it from a ramble into a daunting personal challenge, I decided to travel without any money and only a handful of appalling violin tunes with which to earn any. It was a laughable, ridiculous, frightening, daft idea. In other words, it was a brilliant idea for an adventure.
And that is how I found myself in Galicia, preparing to busk for the very first time. My head was filled with questions and unknowns: What is going to happen? Will this idea work? How far will I be able to get? What happens if it all goes wrong?
These questions, this thrilling uncertainty, carried me all the way back to my earliest adventures: a teenager flying to Africa for the first time or a young man setting out on a cycling journey for the first time.
This, perhaps, was the best part of my walk through Spain — above the comedy of busking, the lovely local people that I met, or the bucolic landscapes.
It showed me that we can always be living more adventurously, whatever stage of life we are at. Indeed, it might require nothing more than learning to play the violin.
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