In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.
Two things happened that morning in Nájera. First, I woke up feeling like death warmed over. Second, after packing up, getting feet ready for walking, teeth brushed, etc., I walked downstairs to meet up with Natalie, looked outside, and realized that it was not only still dark out, it was cold, windy, and rainy, as well. Pilgrims left in ones or twos ahead of us, reluctantly, with a defeated air. Several caught cabs from the front door to their next destination, opting to avoid walking in these conditions, altogether. We stood for awhile just outside the door of the albergue, staring off into the dark, willing the rain to stop before we moved on. It didn’t help.
While I was planning for the Camino, I read over a lot of different information and opinion pieces on what the best equipment would be to have with me for days like this. Many people say that waterproof pants are a necessity. Gaiters are handy for wearing over your boots to keep out water (and on dry days, dirt and rocks). There are some heated opinions on whether it’s better to wear a rain jacket or a poncho, and most people have opinions on how to best waterproof your backpack and belongings. People also wear rain hats, and a lot prefer waterproof shoes or boots, as well. In the end, I chose to avoid most of these products, after reading up on what equipment most ultralight hikers deem necessary for this kind of walk, and realizing I didn’t feel like dealing with the weight of extra items that I could honestly live without, if I was willing to undergo slight discomfort from time to time. As far as rain was concerned, I had:
- A pack cover
- A gallon Ziploc bag for electronics and travel documents.
- A large Ziploc travel bag for my clothes.
- A rain jacket (which I later left behind, along with my fleece, in favor of buying a combined warm/water resistant jacket in Leon).
- Eventually, I also bought a cheap poncho on a tempestuous day, but it only lasted a few days before I got tired of it.
My shoes were not waterproof – they dried out just fine. I made the decision to not get waterproof shoes after reading that they have a tendency to make your feet sweat, promoting blisters. I’m prone to overheating and being really cranky when my feet get too warm, so this was a very important decision for me. I also wore running leggings (which I wear most of the time at home), which stay close to your skin when they get wet, so they stay warm and don’t chafe or start to feel uncomfortable. Next time, the only change I’d make to this program is to buy a lightweight, warm, and completely waterproof jacket before leaving the U.S. That combo is worth its weight in gold.
I left Nájera wearing the rain jacket I’d purchased in St. Jean Pied de Port, which I already hated with a passion. I’ve always hated raincoats. I don’t own one. It’s the sound, mostly, that crinkle that moves with you. Ick. I took it off from time to time that morning, but every time I thought the weather was clearing, it would stop raining for a minute or two, then return a little harder. My feet got gradually more damp, and I had also started to run a fever and had to blow my nose seemingly continually, so between that, the warmth from the jacket, the cold wind and rain in my face, and my squelchy shoes, I was miserable.
At some point, I started getting pretty dizzy and spaced out. The only clear thing I remember from that morning was that I was walking at a pace that was, as my dad would say, “slower than snail shit.” Other pilgrims seemed to be sailing by, left and right. So when I saw a big, beautiful snail crossing the Camino, I stopped to watch its progress and took a photo to show my spirit animal to the folks back home.
The rain started coming down pretty hard right before I got to the first town of the day, Azofra. I trudged into town, spotted the nearest cafe (always easily picked out by a few things: backpacks, stacks of hiking poles, hanging signs for various drink brands, and the quintessential red plastic tables and chairs for outdoor seating), and fought my way in through the crowd of pilgrims who were already there, attempting to dry off while staring glumly at maps and cell phones. It was a sad, sodden little crowd, but also weirdly cheery. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a certain kind of good-naturedness to being a pilgrim. Those that can’t suck it up and go with the flow can have a much more difficult time on the Camino, as the hard parts start to stack up and seem insurmountable. If you can master the art of just forging ahead, even when things seem impossible, you’ll save yourself all of the added stress. One way or the other, you are going to get to your destination. How you get there, and in what mood, is up to you.
With that in mind, I should tell you right now that I stopped walking in Azofra, and took a cab to that night’s destination, Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The decision to take a cab certainly didn’t come lightly. I sat in that cafe for an hour and a half, looking at the map, enjoying a slice of tortilla and a café con leche, blowing my nose repeatedly, and generally feeling like a complete loser for wanting to give up on the day. Natalie was there when I arrived, so I talked it over with her first. While we were sitting there, English Mark came along and had a seat with us, so I talked it over a bit with him, too. Eventually Natalie got back on the road, and Mark started packing up to leave, and I still hadn’t made up my mind.
In my pre-Camino research, I’d joined a Facebook group for pilgrims old and new, and had read many somewhat negative comments and conversations. One of the prevailing opinions I kept running into was people who thought it was cheating to use any transportation other than horse, bike, or foot, since it wasn’t “authentic.” I didn’t disagree with this, exactly, but I was (and am) of the opinion that medieval pilgrims took whatever mode of transportation they could to get to where they were going. Yes, they still walked and took horses, but they weren’t above catching a ride on a cart if someone offered. And if the point of this pilgrimage was to teach myself the lessons I was having trouble learning in my daily life, I needed to use this as a time to stop letting my pride and overwhelming need to always follow the rules push me into stupid decisions. I was clearly ill, it was terrible weather for walking with a fever, and at this rate, there was no way I’d catch up with Natalie tonight if something didn’t change. So I asked the bartender to call me a cab. It cost me around 20 euros, but I got there in less than 20 minutes. It was the first and only day that I made it into town before noon.
The municipal albergue was open when I arrived, and I was the very first one in for the day (no surprise). The hospitalero took one look at me and made a low whistle of appraisal. Evidently, I looked as crappy as I felt. He ushered me in, took my payment, then showed me up to my dorm. I’m not sure if this albergue was actually larger than that at Roncevalles, but it felt massive. There were three stories, with multiple dorm rooms, a large common room with couches and long tables for dining, and a big kitchen. The shower rooms were pretty massive, too, making a nice departure from the last few days of bathrooms (especially the tiny ones with limited hot water at our albergue in Viana). I found my bunk (I still got stuck with the top bunk, even though I was the very first person at the albergue. What a crock!) took a nice hot shower and changed into my last set of clean clothes, then gathered up all the dirty clothes and headed to the tiny laundromat across the street. I’m calling it a laundromat, but it was actually just three pay washers and dryers in a little glass storefront, no attendant or much of anything else.
While my clothes were washing, I looked around for a pharmacy. I’d bought cold medicine on our way out of Pamplona, but it wasn’t cutting it. I needed something way more powerful. A few blocks away, I found a little pharmacy and went in, then got in line behind a couple of Canadians. I struck up a conversation with them for a second once I heard them speaking English, and it turned out they weren’t pilgrims, they just happened to be there on vacation. Maybe it was the cold talking, but I didn’t like them much after hearing that. Well, that’s not all. I also didn’t like them much after hearing them argue with the pharmacist in a rather petty manner.
It turned out that the Canadian guy was also looking for medicine, and he actually wanted the exact thing that I did – a cold and sinus medicine that also contained Ibuprofen. He told the pharmacist, who spoke perfect English, what he’d like. She listened carefully, looked up a few things in her computer, and told him that she didn’t have anything like that. Then he started to talk down to her, insisting that the pharmacist was wrong, saying, “In MY country, where I’M from, this exists.” It was really crappy behavior, the kind I’d expect from an American abroad, to be honest. I started wondering how close he lived to the US border. In the end, the pharmacist found a sinus product with Ibuprofen in it, and the couple went away happy. I don’t think they were trying to be rude, really, but sometimes you don’t have to try to achieve. On the bright side, they’d found me what I wanted, so on my turn at the counter, I asked the pharmacist for the product by name, and was rewarded with a sweet smile and a box of some kick-ass meds, yay!
Medicine in hand, I walked back to check on my laundry, and heard what every cat lover hates – a nearby feline’s cries of distress. It was coming from over my head, maybe a block or two away, so I followed the noise, looking up at the facades of the closely-set buildings that lined the cobbled street. About four houses down from the laundromat I spotted her – a Siamese cat stuck outside on a ledge, wailing. I talked to her from street level, and she stopped crying to look down. I saw that she couldn’t get back inside the window she’d come out of without physically backing up, and feared that if she fell off the ledge, she’d now be stuck out in small town Spain, where street cats aren’t that lucky. On the other hand, if she fell off of the ledge, she wouldn’t be stuck there for the rest of the day until her owner came home. I knocked on the large, wooden front door, which turned out to be a general door to the apartment building, and the woman who answered didn’t speak English and didn’t know whose cat that was. After standing in the street for a few more minutes, feeling helpless, a college-age, dreadlocked hippie dude strolled down the street, arms full of grocery bags. The cat yelled down off of the ledge, and he looked up and sighed. It was obviously his cat. He spoke soothingly to her, then noticed me and my look of concern, and grinned, shaking his head, a clear gesture that kitty was prone to getting stuck on the ledge. We shared a tiny moment, no language, just the universal love of animals. A minute or two after he’d walked in, the next window down opened up and the cat was able to run back inside without backing down the ledge again.
As soon as my laundry was done, I downed some medicine, then took a nice, long nap, well into the afternoon. When I woke up, the beds that had been empty all around me all had sleeping bags on them. The guy who had set up shop on the bed beneath mine looked like one of my friends from home, and he was wearing a Star Wars t-shirt, yay! As I got out of bed, I said hi to him, but he scowled at me and didn’t reply. I could hear people bustling around out in the hallways, so I brushed off that short encounter and took a walk around to see if I could find anyone I knew. A man (I honestly can’t remember who it was anymore, but it was a pilgrim I knew) saw me coming out of my room and told me that he’d seen Natalie in another of the dorms, upstairs. So I walked up to find her, and ended up running into Mark in the stairwell, grinning from ear to ear, excited to be going out to find a pint.
Mark was in a great mood that day, which is so weirdly like him to be all excited about terrible things. He’d gone to the pharmacist and showed his feet, which had slowly been getting worse ever since Roncesvalles, in part because he didn’t want to adjust the routine that had gotten him to this point, and partly because once he discovered Compeed, he’d put it all over his existing blisters, and they’d gotten infected. To hear him tell it, there had been some horror on the pharmacists’ part as they gazed upon his mangled toes, but they’d hooked him up with some great medicine, and he was enthusiastic about making a full recovery. He had to lance his blisters and inject them with an antibiotic, then do some fancy bandaging. There was a girl with him in the stairwell, but I can’t remember who she was, either, though once again, it was a pilgrim I knew. She, being a truly lovely human being, was going to help him lance the blisters and get fixed up. I loved Mark’s boundless enthusiasm, tempered with a deliciously twisted sense of humor. He wasn’t a fan of churches, so I don’t think he visited the cathedral that day, but I wonder if he would have enjoyed the gruesome reliquaries in the cathedral art gallery…
Natalie had already visited the town’s cathedral, but offered to go a second time with me. I was feeling good enough that I didn’t want to miss this important landmark, especially since it’s central to a particularly amusing story of a miracle that once occurred in the town. During the middle ages, the legend goes, a pilgrim family walked through Santo Domingo de la Calzada on the way to Santiago de Compostela. The family’s teenage son was handsome, and an innkeeper’s daughter tried to seduce him. He resisted her advances, and she, feeling insulted, hid a silver cup in his bags. When he and his family tried to leave town the next day, she reported him as a thief, and he was tried and executed at the gallows. His body was left to hang as a sign to would-be thieves, and his poor parents continued on their pilgrimage. Much later, after reaching Santiago de Compostela, receiving their blessings, and turning around to come home, they passed through Santo Domingo de la Calzada again, and passed by their son’s body. Miraculously, he wasn’t dead after all, but had been hanging there, alive and unharmed, the entire time. He yelled down to his parents that he’s still alive, thanks to Santo Domingo, and they, realizing the miracle, ran to beg the mayor for clemency in light of this obvious sign of their son’s innocence. The mayor was just sitting down to a dinner of roast chicken when the parents came calling, and he laughed outright at their ridiculous story, saying “Your son is as alive as these chickens I’m about to eat for dinner!” At that moment, the two chickens hopped up from their roasting pans, grew feathers and beaks, and started to dance around the table, squawking. The miracle was recognized, the boy was cut down and returned, whole, to his family, and from that point forward, the town has kept two descendants of those original chickens in a special pen in the town’s cathedral.
The chicken coop and art museum in the cathedral are pretty cool, but weirdly, I think I got more out of the ticket office than anything else I saw that evening. You have to buy tickets to the cathedral across the street in this rather banal looking storefront. Inside, it’s very brightly lit, and set up like a regular old tourist gift shop. They’ve got all of the normal touristy things that you can buy – postcards, t-shirts, small toys, that kind of thing, but there were also all sorts of weird, cheaply-made items that were more typical of the popular dollar store-style Asian markets that you’ll find in many larger Spanish towns along the Camino. The incongruity was very pleasing, for whatever reason.
After walking through the cathedral, Natalie bustled off to meet a new friend of hers, another Mark, this one from Australia. She’d run into him earlier, and made plans to grab dinner that evening. I was invited to tag along, but first I wanted to visit the town’s bell tower, which featured a variety of bells that rang at specific intervals. I was hoping to get to catch the bells in action, and was happy that it worked out as planned (though they were very loud). Unfortunately, if I had a video of the bells chiming, I must have erased it on accident, but I did manage to get a couple of photos.
When I got to the restaurant, Australian Mark and Natalie were having a cocktail in the front of the cafe, waiting for dinner service to start in the dining room. They invited me to pull up a chair, and I gladly joined them. I didn’t remember this Mark, but we’d actually met days before, back at Zabaldika. He and Natalie had been sitting across from each other that night at dinner, and had gotten to know each other then and during the meditation circle that I’d skipped in favor of going to sleep early. Mark had been walking more quickly than we, but had had a brush with death the night before. He’d tripped and fallen in the shower, and busted his head open. He was bleeding and in shock, but luckily, another peregrino came to his rescue and called the hospitalero. The hospitalero happened to be a Reiki healer. He called the paramedics, but in the mean time sat with Mark and helped draw away the pain and fright using Reiki techniques.
As Mark recounted the story of the injury and his thankfulness for those who had come to his aid, I was quite taken with the sincerity and emotion of the moment. As he continued talking through dinner, it was clear that he was suffering emotionally from other issues in his life, and really needed to get some things off his chest. So I ended up crying at dinner for the second night in a row, but this time over something a little more important than a beautiful meal. Every now and then through dinner, I recall looking over at Natalie and getting the feeling that there was something more here than she’d expressed to me yet. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it that night, but it would soon be pretty obvious that I was witnessing the sweet opening notes of a Camino romance.
At dinner that night, I realized yet again that I was familiar with Rioja-style food, when I ordered paella for what I thought was the first time. The dish that was delivered to me was savory, flavorful, a little greasy and soft, and kept reminding me of something that I couldn’t quite grasp. Eventually it hit me – my great-grandmother on my father’s side made a dish she called Spanish Rice, made of rice, ground meat, and tomato sauce, with a few spices thrown in. Nothing to write home about, but one of my dad’s favorite meals, and something I grew up eating very often as a kid. I ended up hating it – had to melt slices of cheese over it to be able to force myself to eat it. Probably the only ingredient that Spanish Rice and paella had in common was rice, but somehow the paella here at this restaurant tasted like the Spanish Rice I’d grown up eating as a kid, except that now, the nostalgia (and better ingredients, most likely) made me love the dish. It was a very weird thing to realize, since now I’m wondering where in hell my great-grandmother, who grew up on the coast of NC in a very insular area, got a recipe for bastardized paella?
Back in the albergue that night, things were a little wild. The common area for pilgrims to hang out was very large, and a few groups of pilgrims had gotten together to cook big communal dinners. After the plates were cleared away, they got to singing and making music, and it got rowdy in the way that only happy pilgrims can make happen – around 30 or 40 people were playing spoons, banging pots, and singing at the top of their lungs in various languages. All amazing, but not if you’re tired and want to sleep. At 10pm on the nose, that same Reiki-healing hospitalero rolled through wearing a red clown nose and striking a miniature gong, making it clear in a kind way that everyone needed to go to bed immediately.
There were around 20 beds in my dorm room, maybe more. That night, my unfriendly bunkmate kept most of those 20 people awake with ungodly snores that physically shook our rickety bunkbed all night. I was a little better-rested than the others, since I’d had a chance to sleep most of the day AND I had some great ear plugs that blocked a portion of the noise (not all, by any means), but when the lights came on in the morning and everyone started packing up, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how many people were shooting dirty looks at the only guy in the room who’d gotten a good night’s sleep. At breakfast, I saw him meet up with his friends at one of the communal tables, and get more angry stares from other peregrinos. I wondered if his friends had discovered his snoring problem and decided to stay in another room to get more rest. I had been in that same position before the Camino with a family member with whom I’d (in retrospect, unwisely, since I knew her propensity for snoring) shared a hotel room, and how much I hated her chipper little “Good Morning!” after keeping me awake all night with her foghorn snores. I will never, ever share a room with her again, and I don’t care how much I have to pay. Sometimes, when you love someone, you need to take measures to protect your own sanity in order to save the relationship. I never ran into the unfriendly, snoring peregrino again, but often wondered what became of him.