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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Pilgrimage: Day Fourteen

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 Albergue Encina was clearly a new enterprise, and the owners, just as clearly, were not graduates of any kind of business or hotel management program. A very inefficient, but well-meaning operation, with their main employee a young woman who was more determined than I’ve ever seen to make sure we didn’t understand a single word she said. It had been a long day, and when I asked her, looking at their fully stocked bar, if I could have sangria, her look suggested that I had actually asked her to clean dog poop off of my shoes. She then proceeded to put one part red wine and five parts limonada together. And that was fine with me.

Today we walked on the suggested alternative path out of Hospital de Orbiga and made our way through gorgeous farmland, with snow-capped mountains always in sight. For the first couple of hours we moved with a pack of pilgrims, but gradually the herd thinned. After a long climb we came upon what looked like it might be a fruit stand, but which turned out to be a one-man paradise to which all pilgrims were welcome and where, as our tattooed and well-bronzed host assured us many times, “all things are possible.” He offered juices and snacks, all for any donation we cared to make. It was a crazy little oasis.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503

We picnicked on food from the supermercado in the middle of Astorga on one of the town’s beautiful plazas. What a really lovely town. How enjoyable to sit for an hour, munching on chorizo sandwiches and cherries.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503

On the way out of town we passed an early Gaudi creation, the Palacio Episcopal. Quite tame compared to his Sagrada Familia, but there are a few fanciful indications of where he was headed.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503

We didn’t walk very far today, only about 22 km I’m told. We are spending the night at an albergue in Murias de Rechivaldo, the Albergue Las Aguedas.

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Pilgrimage: Days Eleven-Thirteen

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 albergue in San Juan de Ortegais is an old monastery, and at 5 euros the cheapest place we have stayed. Everyone was kicked out at 8:00 am and we began the trek to Burgos. Cloudy and cold yet again, we went through some really desolate forest, encountered a young man begging for bread money, stopped at the most charming little store for breakfast in Ages, were accosted by a Gypsy, insisting we sign her petition and give her money for a center for the deaf. We resisted.  Eventually we reached the ugly, industrial, and interminable outskirts of Burgos by 1:00 pm. We had decided to take a popular alternative of riding a bus from Burgos to Leon, and with a little help found our way to the bus station and bought tickets for the 5:20 bus.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503With a few hours to spare we sat outside and enjoyed the sun that had appeared in Burgos (and not before!), eating lunch on a lovely promenade near the main archway into the plaza. Afterwards we took refuge from the wind in the Cathedral, only to discover that it was much colder inside than out. But we had bought our peregrino tickets at 3.50 euros and took our shivering selves through one of the most spectacular cathedrals I have ever seen. Its colorful and overly emotional piety is not for me, but architecturally it is truly stunning and a Gothic masterpiece.

The bus to Leon was easy and comfortable and saved us days of travel through a desert that some pilgrims love, but many more avoid. A Canadian we had met earlier was also on the bus and knew his way from the station to Leon’s Cathedral plaza where we have enjoyed a Spanish evening of people watching and a late dinner outside. Finally, at 10:30 pm it is dark.

The next day was unfortunate. The walk out of Leon was more than an hour through dusty, car-filled narrow streets. The city seemed to go on and on, and the early moments of medieval interest soon turned into grimy streets and shuttered shop after shop. But the unfortunate part lay ahead – we found ourselves on the original camino route, having missed a turn-off for the suggested alternative route. The first stayed along a major two-lane highway, the second went through several small, welcoming villages (so the book said).  The first kept us in the sun all day, the second surely offered some shade. This day turned out to be the hottest so far, naturally. By the time we realized our mistake it was too late. We had stopped at a forsaken truck stop and finally looked at the maps. What to do except make the day entirely miserable and walk 32 km to Hospital de Orbiga, where the two paths met up again.

A few things saved the day, however: 1. a couple of challenging games of Botticelli  2. my son’s good humor  3. seeing several “neighborhoods” of underground houses, some still inhabited. They are built into the sides of hills, with doorways cut into the hillsides, and little chimneys sticking out. An early attempt at eco-friendly housing? A hippie commune? An experiment of some kind?  4. coming to Hospital de Orbiga on a long road through farmland, getting caught behind, and then among, a flock of sheep being herded from one field to another by two sheepdogs and a farmer SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A5035. crossing the very long and quite beautiful bridge – new, but medieval in appearance – that Hospital is famous for  6. stopping at the very first albergue across the bridge and finding it very clean and rather inexpensive. Misfortune redeemed.

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