Pilgrimage: Reflection

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

During this time I’ve been writing most nights in a beautiful journal, covered in the softest green leather the color of peridot (which happens to be my birthstone), and which has been a companion on this journey.  There are quotes scattered throughout its once empty pages, things such as Emptiness is the beginning of holiness (Emilie Griffin), or from the 14th century’s guide to mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing:

Pay attention then, to how you spend your time. You have nothing more precious than time. In one tiny moment of time, heaven may be gained or lost.

On this final day of our pilgrimage, today’s quote:

Humility is what created the space within us – within our hearts and minds and souls and spirits – for obedience to grow. – Robert Benson

Well, walking this way of St. James is most definitely humbling! But as we neared the city of Santiago de Compostela our packs seemed lighter, the greetings between pilgrims more jovial. Our paths were leading us all to the same place, the town’s main square in front of the cathedral, and what greeted us in the gateway to the square but a Galician bagpiper. It sounds scripted now, but in the moment it felt entirely natural and right to hear the music of this region playing in accompaniment to our final pilgrimage steps.


We dropped our packs off at the hotel – no more bunkbeds for us – and went to the Cathedral in time for the noon pilgrim’s mass. We were early enough to get fairly close, and learned the songs that the nun taught the congregation before mass began. The words were in Latin, so familiar enough, and we sang loudly, in a vain attempt to encourage those around us to do likewise. And we saw the famously huge botafumeiro swing across the transepts, dispensing incense over the crowds – an attempt to perfume pilgrims fresh off the camino perhaps?  In medieval times most likely done with a hope of fumigating unwashed pilgrims! When the swinging ended, even the eight attending priests joined in the applause.



With the distance of six years now, I wonder still at the hold that these three weeks of walking have on me. To have done something that connects me with over a thousand years of pilgrimage, to have stepped out of all my normal patterns of life, to have become empty and paid attention and been humbled – these are all experiences that crystallize moments of learning and awareness about our place in creation. Unforgettable. I long to return, but even if I never do I know that I carry all I learned on that route through northern Spain in my heart on this life’s pilgrimage, wherever it takes me.


Buen camino!



Pilgrimage – Days Twenty and Twenty-One

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

My sore foot slowed the pace, but we walked to Arca – 22 km I think. A beautiful day and many pilgrims on the camino. There is a real sense of community now as you meet up with people who you’ve seen along the way. Even people we recognized, but whom we had never actually spoke to, seemed like old friends.

SMELLS:  Today was filled with smells. Stretches of eucalyptus mixed with mint, patches of the most delicate sweetness contrasting with manure – and that’s everywhere, though usually not such a powerful part of the experience. We came upon a scene of manure being thrown onto a field – compost instead of compostela! – and that took the smell beyond pungent.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503

ALCOHOL: Most pilgrims enjoy the wine served with every pilgrim meal. Many are laughing about drinking more than they ever do at home. What seems obvious to me is that a lower alcohol content in the local wine, and perhaps more important, an absence of sulfites, makes the wine tastier and less affecting. It doesn’t go to my head in the same way as a glass of wine immediately does at home.  And better yet, people don’t seem to feel ill effects the next day!

I’ve seen no signs that this is a culture plagued by alcoholism, but I don’t really know about that. I was amazed one morning in a restaurant, drinking my freshly squeezed orange juice, to observe a local man making quick work of  a substantial quantity of vodka.  It was 7:30 a.m. and no one seemed to raise an eyebrow.


SOUNDS: Sadly, I’ve heard very little music along this way. A couple of albergue-keepers have loved classical music and played it as background music, but so little local/folk music so far. Perhaps when we reach Santiago I will finally hear the famous Galician bagpipes. The bells have gotten most of my attention. Every church has two bells, and they often tell the time. The small bell rings the quarter hours, once (0:15), twice (0:30), thrice (0:45), and 4 times at the hour.  And then the larger bell rings the hour itself.  A charming addition to rural life? NO! The bells almost never have any resonance. Clunk, clunk, clunk…the sound usually made me laugh, or wince. What a missed opportunity for a little extra beauty in the day.

The albergue in Arca was new and seemed nice enough, but beginning at 3:45 a.m. it became very noisy all of a sudden, and we decided we couldn’t sleep anymore, so we left at 5 a.m. It was still very dark – the kind of “darkest before the dawn” dark – and we really didn’t know where we were going. Fortunately, a group of four young Spaniards were also leaving, seemed to know the way, and best of all, had flashlights. We followed them, along with a woman from Kentucky named Georgia, for more than an hour. At dawn we were three, picking up a fourth – a Brit named Deva, who we had met before – and together we walked the final 10 km into Santiago de Compostela.


Pilgrimage – Days Eighteen and Nineteen

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Wednesday: A beautiful day for walking, no rain, and it was a 30 km day. The owner of the albergue where we stayed in San Xulion has a daughter who is an opera singer, on the faculty of the University of Barcelona. Once we got talking (well, he only spoke Spanish so my son translated as best as he could), he put on Mozart’s Requiem, and then only classical music thereafter. He said, with some disdain, that peregrinos have no culture!  His words, not mine.


I sat outside on a flower-filled patio and spent a long time talking to a Finnish couple. This is funny because they told me themselves that Finns are famous for the loooong silences in their conversations. They said that the Swedes are non-stop talkers in comparison. I’ve been to Sweden, so I know that is REALLY funny. These Finns, however, were some of the chattiest people I’ve ever met, perhaps explained by the fact that they told me they live very close to the Swedish border!

Dinner was equally chatty. We sat with a British woman, Jane, who lives in Glastonbury. I asked her first thing if she was a Druid, but she’s not. She didn’t laugh at my question though. She loves Glastonbury because she finds the people there very different from the rest of her countrymen, so she says. She loves nearby Wells Cathedral too, and I urged her to go to Evensong immediately upon returning to England.

Thursday: Well, it had to happen, I suppose. Everyone’s fear on the camino is an injury or a fall.  And because I was feeling rather great about having no pain this morning, and perhaps just a little too sure about myself on a long downhill stretch of muddy rocks…I fell. It was inelegant, as these things always are. My body went one way – down – and my right food another – backwards. Nothing broken, but I walked 20 km or so on a very sore foot and it’s swollen now.  (and six years later, my right toe reminds me that it probably did break that day and I should have been more respectful of my pain!)

After I fell I was immediately surrounded by four young men, my son included, who were quite worried.  I had been hearing the group of three Americans near us on the path singing, and when I looked up into their concerned faces, my first question was if they belonged to an a cappella group.  A non-sequitur under the circumstances. I sent the three away, though they were reluctant to leave me on the ground, as I insisted.

Hobble, hobble, hobble. We reached an albergue with space around 2:00 and went across the street for an early dinner. A large circle of mostly Americans, and Jane, were there, including my three young men. I went over to thank them for wanting to help, and met a few others. One from Cape Cod, another from Albuquerque. Everyone is feeling more congenial now that the end is in sight. 40 km to go.  One and a half days to do it. Hobble…hobble.

I finished The Age of Innocence. A book about judging others, and doing the right thing. I guess it wasn’t as inappropriate for the camino as I originally thought. I started another book I’ve picked up along the way, The Red Tent, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.

I awoke in the night, my foot absolutely throbbing and I called out to anyone in hearing distance within the large bunk room, asking if someone had any aspirin. An angel of mercy appeared with aspirin and water, and sleep became possible.



Pilgrimage – Day Seventeen

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Emptiness. That is the feeling – or the outcome maybe – that best describes my experience on the camino. Thoughts come, judgments, fears – but they all seem like things to let go of, to empty myself of. There is a basic simplicity to each day. Perhaps as close as I’ll come to living like our ancestors. Each day has one purpose – walking to Santiago. Food and water  are usually rather spare for most of the day, and when I do drink water or eat an orange I can almost immediately feel it going to work in my body. After walking comes rest, then dinner, then sleep. Simple.

The biggest disappointment for me is the lack of deeper conversations with other pilgrims. Each day you meet new people and have many of the same superficial conversations. I think maybe people are just too tired – or too empty.

And my hope is that this emptiness will be filled by good things. Love, acceptance, joy, fearlessness, optimism…

The camino changed in Sarria. Those walking just the final 100 km have now joined us, and it does feel crowded and a bit competitive. But I’m trying to let go of those judgments…how wonderful that so many people are getting a taste of the camino!  Perhaps they will come again and begin further back, spending more time as peregrinos.

Today was a 23 km day, walking from 8 am to 2:30 pm. We are staying in a really wonderful albergue run by a South African couple. They tell us that some parts of the building are 1,000 years old. The bunk room itself looks at least 500 years old. We stopped in a little restaurant that had only been open for 15 days, run by a Filipino-Spaniard and her husband (from Malta I believe), and their beautiful little daughter, Mereia. It was a really good day, despite all those niggling resentments towards the new pilgrims on the road.

Let go!

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Pilgrimage – Day Sixteen

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

The best day of walking yet! People have said that you finally feel stronger after two weeks on the camino, and for me this is true. For the first time nothing hurts. No blisters, no sore muscles. About 25 km today, and it seemed that the last 5 were not much harder than the first 5. We walked through a lot of farmland, straight through the middle of small farms – which means we walked through and around a great deal of cow dung. The funniest moment of our day, though, was probably when we walked between two roosters who were calling back and forth to each other.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503The day began with fog, but later a mix of sun, clouds, some warmth, some cool winds. No rain, no complaints. We have stopped at an oasis of an albergue in Aguiada, which served the best food yet during our pilgrimage, and, unusually, it was vegetarian.

I finished another book today – one that I didn’t actually enjoy so I won’t name it, but my son is reading it now and we’ll discuss later. I’ve moved on to Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, which is a hilariously incongruous book to read on the camino, but it’s what is available.

8:00 pm seems like a perfectly appropriate bed time on the camino. At least the right  time to climb into my sleeping bag and read. Around 9:00 pm our host (or hostess?) began playing the upright piano that was outside on a a covered porch. The piano sounded as you might expect (out of tune), but the music was free-flowing improvisation, akin to music by Philip Glass. I should have gotten up to investigate, but I just laid in my half-sleep and enjoyed it.

Something I’ve been thinking about: litter and graffiti. There’s too much of it on the camino. A low point was peeking into a tiny boarded up chapel and seeing a small altar and ancient baptismal font, both covered with graffiti, as were the walls. Not anti-religious graffiti, which might seem to have a point, but just silly stuff with names and dates. And who throws their cookie packages and drink cartons on the ground while walking in some of the of the most beautiful countryside imaginable? I decreed that litterers should be hung, but my more reasonable son thought that was a bit harsh. I’m not so sure. Littering is lazy, disrespectful, antisocial, crude – it’s a sin. I hope it’s a mortal sin!

I was thinking about that word “sin” too. In Spanish, and in Latin too, it means “without.”  To be without God.

But there’s more to this. I have seen needlessly judgmental attitudes expressed all along the camino. People who have walked from their homes in Germany or Holland or France look down on those who began in St. Jean Port de Pied (the traditional starting point of the camino.) Those who began at St. Jean feel superior to those who start in Burgos. Those who carry their packs (mine is 19 pounds) judge as somewhat lesser pilgrims those who pay for a service to take their pack from place to place. And everyone seems to look down on those who only walk the final 100 km (which is what many church youth groups do).

And here I am in judgment of litterers, so I decided to litter and become a sinner too. I took a used tissue and tucked it into a plant along the way. I hope no one can actually see it, and it will soon disintegrate, but I felt bad about this for several kilometers.


Pilgrimage – Days Fifteen-Sixteen

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

We stopped for a real breakfast at the Arroyo Vineyard on our way out of town. Everything is so much fresher here. Eggs with golden orange yolks, and bacon that has never known nitrates, freshly squeezed orange juice. We spent most of the day walking along the Rio Valcarce, and are staying in an albergue in Vega de Valcarce.

An easy, comfortable day of walking was followed the next day by an intensive day of entirely uphill walking.  We traveled perhaps 24 km, and every step was hard-earned. Early in the day we passed a small stable where three horses were being groomed. One of the cowboys, surely the original Marlboro Man, asked in Spanish, then in English, if we wanted a ride to Cebreiro. I laughed, wanting to say yes, but landing on no. After hours of climbing I realized that I would have been feeling very sorry for any horse that carried me up those steep, rocky, muddy paths (but six years later, I still regret not accepting a horseback ride next to an impossibly handsome vaquero!  I’m sure my husband understands).

This is the day that we finally enter into Galicia, a distinctive region with its own dialect and a strong Celtic influence.  I am eager to hear the local form of bagpipes. [A memorable Galician bagpiper is featured prominently in YoYo Ma’s film Music of Strangers. If you haven’t seen this, please find it and fall in love with the joy of music all over again.] As promised, the hilltop town of Cebreiro was heavily fogged in. The views may have been incredible, but we were not to find out. We stopped for an early lunch at a charmingly rustic and very old place – an old barn turned restaurant? A much-needed fire was burning in the grate and two women were cooking  large amount of pork. We asked for soup and were served the traditional Galician soup of white beans, greens, and potatoes….but it was awful. Grimacingly awful. I don’t know what they did to the soup (made it with dirty dishwater?), but it became clear they had little use for the IMG_0062.JPGperegrinos – at least the American ones. We were grossly over-charged, but enjoyed an hour of escape from the cold fog and some rest, before continuing the climb.

Lunch was forgotten when we settled into the albergue in Fonfria. A comfortable sitting room for reading, and for many, a chance to watch the French Open finals. Nidal in three straight sets, so not a particularly exciting match, but a happy experience for my son and the other pilgrims who joined in watching with him.

Lots of Canadians, and more Americans then we’ve met anywhere else, including someone from Potomac, Maryland – so close to home. We met a talkative young Slovenian man who was happy to tell us about his country when asked. He is a welder, traveling the world to work on large oil tankers and cruise ships, but I think he should have been working for his country’s embassy because his love for Slovenia was so very evident.

There were perhaps thirty of us at the long dinner table tonight.  Galician soup again, but much, much better this time. [I’ve linked the recipe if you’re interested.] Lively conversation all round. We are strangers, but we know something about each other that only other peregrinos can know.





Pilgrimage – Days Fifteen-Sixteen

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

The cold and rain has returned, but the wind has not, so it was bearable today, and we had a plan for where to stay tonight, so the day had a clearer ending point than usual…except our destination turned out to be a refugio without running water. Very primitive in every way. Having walked 27 km by 1:30, we arrived to find it wasn’t open yet, but a taxi lingered nearby, as if the driver knew no one would actually want to stay there.  Perhaps he expected this weary pilgrim to plead with him to take us to the nearest albergue at any price.  And I was tempted, I admit, but my son was not swayed by this version of the devil, and we walked away, knowing that the next town was 8 km away. I knew I would be slow and told him to go ahead without me.  This turned out to be the longest and loneliest two hours of my life on a difficult, stony path, which steeply descended for the last several kilometers. As I shuffled – and there is no other word to describe my gait – into town, the first face I saw was that of my son, and he had found us a place to stay – with running water! It was a very nice albergue in fact, and one that only took donations. The name has “Apostolic” in it, so I am wondering if we’ll have to sit through a prayer meeting tonight, after dinner at 8:00.


There was no prayer meeting. Out little group of five around a dinner of salad and lentil soup was comprised of a sweet, young Hungarian couple, a Filipino living in London, a Polish-Canadian, and us. Again, we seem to be eluding the Americans, though everyone tells us that there are many of them on the camino.


The next day, we stopped at Cacobelos Municipal Albergue which is built around a church in a rather unusual design, with little individual cubicles, and a large shared yard where people were hand-washing their clothes in tubs. Dinner involved a van ride to a local vineyard called Spanish Steps-Bierzo-Arroyo Family Vineyard. The driver turned out to be part of this enterprise, coming in to play guitar and sing for us. Ah, and the wine, as it is throughout this country of vineyards, is more than drinkable! Our table of Canadians and us was quiet, but appreciative. This was a 30 km day and my legs and feet are aching, but the walking and views today were beautiful.


This place is a gardener’s dream. The cool, damp climate supports a variety of vegetation that we can only dream about in D.C. Masses of poppies, lavender, and daisies grow as wildflowers. Wild roses on the edge of the woods and massive cultivated roses in nearly every yard. In one garden I saw blooming irises, roses, and azaleas – which would never bloom at the same time in my garden. Petunias, pansies, geraniums…but flowers are really the least of these gardens. Everyone grows vegetables and fruit trees – in their front yards, in a narrow strip next to their homes, in a huge community garden next to the village. Gardening is in their bones. Fig trees and peach trees, nut trees, a small fruit I don’t recognize (quince?), and buckets of cherries. Those are ripe now and sold everywhere, and so yummy. We’ve bought them at every chance from little stands, knowing that they were picked earlier in the day, one euro for a 1/2 pound or so.

People are growing potatoes and onions, beans, artichokes, leafy greens, a large cruciferous-looking thing I can’t identify, which has something like beans hanging off the plant. And grape vines.  Everywhere. There is such a wonderful sense of abundance.

Of course, as the reader may have noticed, it’s rainy, cloudy and cool much of the time, so we’re not talking about paradise exactly. And sometimes abundance is defined as too many empty and decaying homes. It is clear that the economy is currently as terrible as the news tells us, but there is no poverty of the spirit as far as I can tell. We’ve met a couple of beggars, but they seemed to be camino opportunists. Is that too cynical of me?

I’ve asked, whenever I have the chance, why someone is walking the camino. Sometimes it feels intrusive to ask, but I do anyway, and some of the reasons I’ve heard so far:

  1. I don’t know.  (I like this answer.  I have a feeling a true answer becomes clearer with time)
  2. As an act of thanksgiving (for blessings, for healing, for help)
  3. I’ve read or heard about it and have always wanted to do this
  4. The film “The Way” (which many Spaniards think is the reason most Americans are here)
  5. Walking is the best way to really see a country.

I especially agree with this last one. How many times have I walked in my own city and seen things I had passed by for years and never noticed from the car?