Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 2) – Villafranca Montes de Oca to San Juan de Ortega

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.

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Though I believed I’d seen my fair share of the Spanish countryside by the time we got to Villafranca Montes de Oca, this day’s walk was to be a lesson in avoiding assumption. Shortly after leaving town that morning, we entered a large swath of beautiful, undeveloped forest land, and it seemed like there was a new surprise around every curve. I walked down a long, quiet stretch of fern forest, saw the prettiest little flowers, and happily analyzed every new type of rock I stumbled across (sometimes literally). My college geology professor would have been amused at how a girl who’d often slept through class (you can’t blame me – it was at 8am, and you already know I’m not a morning person) would one day grow up to geek out over pebbles.

One of the biggest regrets of my morning was coming to a huge dip in the road and realizing that no photos I took were going to capture its stupefying dimensions. I’d walked up and down mountains before, but this was something else. It looked like a freefall I’d absolutely hate to take via rollercoaster. I was in awe, but still remembered an important lesson I’d found on my first steep downhill climb, going into Roncesvalles on Day 3. I unpacked my sandals and switched shoes, just in case, to make sure there was no way of hurting my toes on the downhill climb. I might have been masochist enough to go on this stupidly long walk, but no way was I going to lose toenails in the process. (Click here to learn about how I took care of my feet on the Camino Frances.)

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It’s difficult to make out in this photo, but the dark spot in the trail ahead is where the trail drops completely out of sight. The little speck far in the distance on the trail is Natalie.

By the time I got to the big hill, Natalie was already far ahead on the trail. In fact, if you look very carefully in the picture above, you can just make out a tiny hiker wearing orange pants on the uphill portion of the next hill. I spent most of the morning alone, only meeting one other person, a woman pilgrim who was nearly done walking her intended portion of the Camino. She and her husband were vacationing through Spain together via RV, and she had split up from him a few days before to walk to Burgos, where they would meet up again and drive on. I thought it was such a pleasant idea for sharing an experience with your partner without forcing them into a specific travel style that didn’t suit.

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Before getting to San Juan de Ortega, where I hoped to regroup with Natalie, I ran across two things I hadn’t expected. The first thing was situated just before coming to the big hill – an archaeological site and memorial plaque, at the site of a mass grave. I couldn’t understand much of the signage, but was able to understand that this site was the unfortunate location of an execution during the Spanish Civil War (here’s an article about the dig, as well as the possible victims). I took a moment to reflect and offer up a prayer, feeling sadly inadequate – it was striking me how woefully unprepared I’d been to be a traveler here. It felt like the ultimate disrespect, to spend so little time getting to know the ins and outs of the country that was to shelter me.

I did my best on the Camino to divorce myself from expectation, and to be present and aware that it was my job to listen, follow the locals’ leads, and most of all, to be courteous in all dealings. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but I take some solace in knowing that I tried. There was so much history under my feet, and I had so little prior knowledge of any of it. I walked on, sober in the realization that I was completely incapable of showing proper respect to the dead here. As much as I have tried to be open to being a child of the world, much of history is alien to me, evanescent, ultimately untouchable. Of course, this is obvious – none of us are time travelers (if you are, call me!) – but it doesn’t keep me from deep regret. The best I could do was to interpret the scene through a human lens, and understand the tragedy that accompanies any theft of life.

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This “Buen Camino” helped dispel a little of the unease felt on this part of the trail.

The second site I encountered was almost the exact opposite scene – an unexpected art installation, in the middle of nowhere. There were no explanatory plaques, so I still have no clue who made the art, or why, but it was a refreshing find. The path had become flat and very wide, and though the mud was drying, it was obvious that had we walked that way a day before, it would have been the same shoe-sucking muck that we’d encountered leading into Villafranca Montes de Oca. It appeared that there had been some deforestation along the trail in recent history. Where before, the trees had come right up to the trail, here there was a wide stretch of fern growth bordering the path on each side. At some point in this stretch, I began to feel uneasy. The quiet was overbearing. Something about the road just felt wrong. It wasn’t the first time on the Camino that I’d thought back to how medieval travelers hadn’t liked to travel through the woods, on account of the threat of brigands. At times, I felt time overlapping. It’s hard to explain properly, but I was afraid of the past of the woods, not the present. Present me felt no threat – in fact, felt no human presence lurking. But another part of me felt tapped into a primordial fear, like I was stepping into someone else’s feeling-shoes, and experiencing their emotional reaction to being watched from the woods of another time.

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Dat banana tongue, tho…

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Dear artist – if you’re reading this, your beautiful sun/moon/heart/rainbow composition was one of the prettiest things I saw on the whole trip. Thank you! ❤

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Either way, as soon as I got to the magical little clearing where the art installation lived, this eerie feeling passed. Perhaps it was the little burst of happy energy from all of the colors, or maybe I was just instinctively relieved to see signs of other humans nearby. I wish I knew who’d taken the time to leave this lovely little art collection behind, and I hope that it grows along the path, in the way that so many areas of Camino offerings seem to grow and accumulate more cairns and milagros. Soon after, I passed a really nice little km marker that gave me the burst of energy I needed to pick up the pace.

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As I’d hoped, Natalie’s pack and hiking pole were waiting in front of a little cafe in San Juan de Ortega when I arrived. I happily dropped my pack and went in to find her, only to realize that she had been waiting for awhile, and was impatient to leave again. Before I’d arrived, she’d taken a short tour of the monastery, checked emails, and had a leisurely cup of coffee. Though we were both relieved to meet up again, I knew that our speeds were no longer aligning, and got the feeling that she had something new on her mind. It felt like the distance was more than physical, and I began the emotional practice of reconciling myself to what was to come, another Camino “break up.” But it wasn’t to be today. She waited with me for a little while, so I could grab an Aquarius and a slice of tortilla, and we took a look at the maps to confirm our plan to march on to Cardeñuela Riopico that afternoon. After my short break, we strapped on packs and headed off towards Ages, chatting happily about the things we’d seen so far this morning.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 3). 

Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 1) – Leaving Villafranca Montes de Oca

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.

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An early view from the day’s walk. Even the most difficult mornings carried their own quiet joys.

From the moment that I awoke, I was feeling run-down and pensive. The day was a struggle, one of the hardest of the Camino, especially mentally. It was also one of the most beautiful and memorable. It was the first day since leaving St. Jean Pied de Port that I walked alone for much of the day, something that provided me with a chance to reflect and come to terms with the changes that I intuited for my near future.

Since leaving home, my anxiety had abated significantly, but this morning I felt that old familiar post-anxiety attack feeling, like someone had hollowed me out, leaving my shell, both fragile and strangely pliant. I am always slower, sweeter, my sense of humor skewed slightly more towards the bittersweet (typically I’m firmly in the schadenfreude camp). I went with the flow, letting my body guide me, packing up and getting ready in a haze. As I’d thought they would be, my clothes were cool and damp in the morning. I knew I should have brought them in from the line overnight, but I left them outside anyway, and by morning they were soaked with fresh dew. It was crisp out, making the effort of donning clammy running capris especially daunting. My butt was cold, and my feet were freezing. I worried that I hadn’t brought enough clothes to get me through colder weather than this.

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This little guy REALLY liked my shoelaces. I’ve got a whole set of photos of him nom nomming away. I didn’t mind one bit; I’m not above bribing adorable kitties to like me.

As usual, I was one of the last few to finish packing and leave the dorm. I joined the rest of the pilgrims in the hotel’s little cafe/breakfast area, reveling in a steaming cup of cafe con leche and a little glass of sweet, freshly-squeezed zumo. I also seem to remember a slice of tortilla (which wouldn’t be hard to believe, given that I ate tortilla at every opportunity – several times a day, on average). This particular specimen must not have been great, though, because I can’t remember anything special in conjunction with that morning’s breakfast. The best part of the morning, as far as I was concerned, was after breakfast, when I plopped down in the garden and let the cats play with my shoelaces for a few minutes. This was just one of many animal experiences on the Camino, but again I was relieved to find that a few quiet moments shared with animal friends gave me the energy I needed to press on.

I walked away from Villafranca Montes de Oca in the morning with the knowledge that we wouldn’t all be heading to the same destination. Terry had decided the night before that she’d like to spend the night in Ages, a tiny, ancient town that she’d fallen in love with on her last Camino. Natalie and I had talked it over, and agreed to walk further, to a town called Cardeñuela Riopico. It would be a challenging day for the both of us, but would make up for some time we’d lost in taking a few shorter days, and also allow us to get into Burgos early the next day, on relatively fresh legs. The promise of a short walk, and maybe even a day off from the trail, buoyed me along for the first half of the morning. Even so, I was to spend much of the day alone, for better or worse.

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From time to time, the Camino Frances intersects with other hiking trails. The yellow arrow tells you that you’re still on the Camino (and headed the right way), while the other trail markers denote the other paths encompassed on this stretch.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 2). 

Anna’s Camino: Compartmental Packing

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.

Before leaving for the Camino, I spent possibly too much time researching, and was a member of several different Facebook groups where people talked about what to bring, what to see, how to get ready, etc. When the conversation about packing cubes came up, I read along eagerly. It’s a generally accepted rule that one doesn’t just throw everything into her pack indiscriminately – it’s much easier to find what you’re looking for if you use some sort of containers to pack things separately. It’s also handy to have containers that provide extra waterproofing for your items. Most people have pack covers, but the pack itself will still get a little damp in heavy downpour, meaning that the items inside are still liable to be damaged in wet situations. Plus, anyone who’s watched The Way can tell you that rain isn’t the only way a pack can get drenched (not that I met anyone else who dropped their bag off of a bridge, but hey, there’s always a possibility!). To provide extra waterproofing, some people use a trash bag as an inner liner, or have waterproof packing cubes. Other people, like me, use Ziploc bags to separate out their items.

Before deciding to use Ziploc bags rather than their more expensive packing cube counterparts, I read a few online conversations about how Ziploc users were terrible people for waking up the rest of the people in the dorm with their packing noise. I thought long and hard when making my decision. I knew that I didn’t want the hassle of a trash bag liner, but I still wanted to make sure my clothes and important papers stayed dry.

I thought about how I’d feel if people woke me up with loud, crinkly bags, and knew that I definitely didn’t want to be that person. Then I realized that there was NO WAY that I could ever be that person, anyway – I’m simply not an early riser. Case closed. I was on the Camino for 35 days, and I woke up before someone else maybe three times. Usually, by the time I finally struggled out of bed, the room lights were on and pilgrims were scurrying to and fro, making all sorts of other noise. As it turns out, sleeping bags and trash bags are far louder than Ziplocs, anyway.

I eventually realized that there are lots of noise makers you’ll come up against as a pilgrim, and either you’ll have to find a way to deal, or stay in a private room. If crinkling bags are a major problem for you, snoring, coughing, squeaking springs, showering, flip flop slapping, doors opening and closing all night, opera singing (not even kidding – this happened to me on several occasions), talking, alarms, and a host of other unforseeable-but-definitely-gonna-happen issues will quickly stack up to make you miserable. Don’t be afraid to ask other pilgrims to please be respectful, but also bring ear plugs, patience, and a sturdy sense of acceptance. You’re going to need it.

For those of you who have made it this far, and want to know exactly what kind of bag to buy – I fit all of my clothes that I wasn’t wearing into a large, travel Ziploc Space Bag. They’re different from your typical Ziploc bags in that they have tiny perforations at the bottom edge of the bag, so you can pack the bag, squeeze out extra air from the top, then start to roll the bag down (like rolling a tube of toothpaste), and the extra air escapes out of the bottom of the bag. In the end, it’s about the closest you’re going to get to a vacuum-sealed bag without attaching it to a vacuum, and you’d be surprised how well the bag packs down to save room. I was able to fit all of my clothes in the bottom compartment of my backpack, keeping the bulkiest item in the pack at around hip level to save my back. As I traveled, besides being glad of the extra waterproofing, I also was grateful to know I had one more level of protection against bedbugs. It was nice to know that if I accidentally ran into bugs and had to boil all of my belongings, I’d still have one set of clothes that they wouldn’t be able to get to. I also used a gallon-sized Ziploc bag to keep my various papers safe and dry, as well as a smaller baggie just for my passport. I also had a vinyl bag for my toiletries.

No matter whether what you decide to use, make sure to take the time to look into how you plan to segregate and waterproof the items in your pack. You will find it highly useful to include some sort of organizational compartments on your Camino packing checklist. Don’t wait until the last minute to find out what works best for your budget and needs.

Anna’s Camino: Day 15 – Belorado to Villafranca Montes de Oca

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.

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Follow the arrow. Maybe I don’t remember too much of the day’s walk because it was mostly all in shades of brown and gray…

Terry! Cats! Wet Laundry! Inclines! Cream Soup! Single Beds! Muddy Feet! What a weird, painful, memorable day. Well, kinda. I actually have very little memory of the day’s actual peregrination, just bits and pieces of before and after. There’s a vague impression of the albergue feeling cold and a touch damp when I woke up, and of waking to the sound of my alarm and quickly (very quickly – I got great at this) shutting it off before it could annoy anyone else.

On the whole, I was usually the very last pilgrim awake each morning, so for me, keeping the alarm noise down wasn’t so much about waking anyone else up as just not wanting to intrude on anyone’s need for morning quiet. I’m not a cheery, good-morning-y type of person (not grumpy or anything, just generally not at my best first thing in the day), and I’ve found that the more peaceful my first hour or so is, the better my entire day will go. I prefer to be woken gradually, with cuddles (not too many, not full body, not from the wrong person), soft music (not the wrong genre – which could be any genre, depending on how I feel coming out of whatever I was dreaming, so best that you watch carefully for cues that I’m hating your playlist), and/or cats (all cats are good cats, except Charlie, who’s just the worst). See – I’m totally easy going! Totally got this morning thing down. *Cue maniacal laughter as I set the last person to wake me up’s house on fire.* Nah, not really…I’d never do anything that unsubtle.

OK, you’ve got me, I’m painting a rather dramatic picture of myself. Ask anyone who’s woken up in the same room as me, and they’ll tell you that I’m an OK human being. My general setting is “even keel,” even first thing. In all seriousness, the only thing that is guaranteed to make me hunt you down and cause you bodily harm is unnecessary noise. Especially pointless and/or repetitive noises, like continued alarm noise (see above), TV sounds, music that I hate, dogs barking, or conversation that isn’t directly related to someone getting me coffee and/or bacon products posthaste.

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Mornings are tough – even on the Camino.

I don’t care how much of a morning person you are – people who talk at full volume first thing in the AM, within earshot of people who are trying to sleep and/or slowly wake up, are complete asshats. Yeah, you heard me, loud morning person – you suck. Stop it. No, I don’t care if you’re chipper and want to get going, or if you think that the sleeping person should have already been up minutes ago. You’re awful, and the fact that no one has told you this yet is most likely due to them endeavoring to get their seething morning hatred out of the way lest they cause you bodily injury while requesting you put a sock in it. Take your conversation elsewhere, heathen.

I’m not always successful at it, but I do try not to be a hypocrite in such matters, especially in public situations. Which leads me to a controversial statement: I packed my clothes in a giant (crinkly, loud) Ziploc space saver bag. Quelle horreur! Anyway, to keep this blog post to a minimum, I wrote a whole new post re: Ziploc bags vs. packing cubes. Check it out here, if you’re so inclined. Long story short: if you’re the last person awake, everyone else’s packing-up noise far outweighs the Ziploc bag in the room (but when it’s bedtime, you should make sure you’re the first to finish up with bedtime ritual stuff, so you aren’t crinkling when people are trying to pass out). Yes, you guessed it – I’m also very particular about people being noisy when I’m trying to fall asleep. I probably won’t say anything about it, if you’re being noisy. But I’ll hate you, silently, forever and ever. Sorry ’bout that. I’m a work in progress, much like New Orleans streets (if you’re from New Orleans, you’ll get the joke).

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Packs and poles, waiting for their owners outside of a cafe.

So back to the Camino – I woke up, got dressed, packed up, and walked to the town square with Natalie. We stopped at a little cafe for cafe con leche and zumo, accompanied by our own snacks from our pack – bread, meat, and cheese. I had a brief laugh at the pile of pilgrim backpacks outside the door. We met up with Terry again at the square, and left town together, but the rest of the morning is a haze.

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Natalie and Terry, walking ahead of me.

I walked faster than Terry, and Natalie walked faster than both of us, but just like most days, we ended up playing leapfrog over the course of the day. Sometimes we all walked together, sometimes we walked in pairs, and other times we walked alone. I was generally somewhere between the two of them (sometimes behind, as in the picture above), so I kept an eye out ahead of me for Natalie’s orange pants, and behind me for Terry’s bright green windbreaker. When Terry and I walked together, we talked about books (we’d both read our fair share of Camino-related titles), and I asked her questions about her life. She’s the wonderful sort of woman who thinks of herself as rather ordinary, but then can start a sentence with “Back when I was in the Peace Corps in Africa…” I loved getting to know her.

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Mud. So much mud.

We got into Villafranca Montes de Oca together in the early afternoon, too late for lunch, too early for dinner. Just before we got there, we had to walk down a long, terribly muddy hill. The mud was ankle-deep in places, and very slick, so it was a weird combination of trying to maintain balance while also trying not to get a shoe pulled off in the muck. That last stretch was a killer, so though it was a shorter walk than most days, in all, I was exhausted. As we entered the town and started the uphill walk to our albergue, my shins were screaming in pain. There was no doubt in my mind that I had shin splints in my left leg, and the muscles in my right calf were seizing up, too. I was terrified that this was it, the day I’d snap my Achilles tendon. Terry said she remembered reading something about massages available in town, so I kept my mind on that little snippet as we walked, to try to stay calm.

Terry and Natalie were both experienced peregrinas. This was Natalie’s second time on the Camino Frances, and Terry’s third, so I trusted their information more than any book or app. When we got close to town, Terry gleefully announced that there was an albergue in town that was attached to a very nice hotel, Hotel San Antón Abad, which was renowned for its hospitality. As we walked through the little town and up the hill towards the hotel, I was intrigued to see that we’d be entering the estate through a walled garden – basically the back door of the hotel. The garden was still lush, even at this late date, and to my delight, there were cats. They were a little more sleek and cared-for than seemed typical, and my estimation of the hotel was greatly improved when I saw that someone had even left bowls of cat food out on the back patio.

The hotel is a grand old building that has catered to pilgrims since the 14th century. The regular private guest rooms are inside the main structure, with the albergue segregated off into a separate wing in the back. Terry and Natalie entertained thoughts of the three of us sharing a posh hotel room for the night, and the staff were happy to let us take a look at our options. We all took our boots, by now covered in mud, off in the main hall, then padded upstairs in stockinged feet after the front desk attendant, who unlocked rooms and stood aside to let us inspect the digs. The rooms were ornate, with plush rugs and custom upholstery throughout, priced at about a third of what an American hotel room of the same quality would have fetched per night. It was almost a shame to decide against a night of luxury, but in the end, we decided as a trio to forgo the expense and bunk down with the other pilgrims for the night. As it turned out, this was a great decision, since the albergue had a whole room with single beds! The last time Natalie and I had slept in a place with single beds was nearly a week prior, at Zabaldika. Once you’ve been walking 15-mile days for a week or two, nothing can replicate the joy of knowing you don’t have to painfully clamber up metal ladder rungs to sleep in child-sized rickety top bunk.

Terry, Natalie, and I picked beds at the very end of the dorm, which was great in that I got an entire corner to myself (with my own electric plug – woot, woot!), and no one would be walking past the beds in the night. Unfortunately, this also meant that once the lights were out that night, I would be walking through a pitch-black room, past a long line of beds, to get out to go to the bathroom (and of course I had a couple of times that I needed to get up to pee that night – awesome). We chatted as we went through all of the motions of making ourselves at home. Everyone has something different that they do. I always liked to get my sleeping bag unrolled and laid out, my pillow inflated, and slip my sleeping mask and ear plugs under the pillow for easy access later that night. Natalie inspected every nook and cranny for bedbugs, flipping over her mattress and inspecting all of the joints of the wooden bed. Terry carefully spritzed down every available surface with a homemade lavender concoction to ward off insects and ensure a peaceful night’s sleep.

Once unpacked, I showered, put on new clothes, washed my dirty outfit in the bathroom sink, then went out to hang everything up on the line. It was cool and humid out, with low clouds hanging in the sky, so I had little hope that the laundry would actually dry by morning. This was a recurring theme for me over the course of the Camino, as it was always mid to late afternoon by the time I arrived. Between cool evenings and heavy morning dews, I got used to starting the day in cool, slightly damp duds.

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Hopes crushed. *Sigh.*

As soon as the laundry issue had been sorted, I hobbled back down the hill into town. The hotel’s regular masseuse wasn’t in that day, but the front desk attendant had told me I’d find another massage therapist just down the street, at the bottom of the hill. My descent into town was consumed with thoughts of how heavenly the massage would feel. I had somehow come to believe that I would be miraculously completely healed if someone else could just touch my shins. In retrospect, it’s most likely this faith that made the resulting experience a breaking point in my day.

I found the right house, then knocked on the door. A woman answered the door, and in limited English told me that the therapist was away, but I could call her and she’d come back if I wanted an appointment. I asked if the woman would call her for me, since I didn’t have a phone to use. The woman said no. I asked again in a different way, using my limited Spanish vocabulary to try to bridge the gap, but she said no again. Finally, I gave up and trudged back up the hill to the hotel. One leg was throbbing, the other was filled with a stabbing heat. Halfway up the hill, I had to take a break to sit on the sidewalk and cry. It seems so trivial now, but at the time, the combination of pain, fear that I’d surely be gravely injured if I didn’t receive professional attention, and just the general frustration of not being able to make myself understood all piled up and pushed me over my emotional limit for the day. I sat there in the middle of nowhere and cried for five minutes or so, then did a mental “suck it up, buttercup” and continued back to the hotel.

One of my favorite things in life is soup. I love cream-based soups, in particular. New England clam chowder is an ultimate favorite here in the states, but long ago, a friend who lived in Austria turned me on to Knorr powdered soup mixes. Cream of asparagus soup and cream of potato soup fill me me with a sparkling inner joy that just can’t be replicated by many other things. Maybe smoked salmon, really good triple cream brie, and freshly baked baguette. OK, I shouldn’t be writing this hungry. The point is that as soon as I got back to Europe, on my first grocery store run, I scoped out the soup section and happily scooped up a few packets of Knorr cream soups. For the remainder of the Camino, I traveled with at least one soup packet on me, in case of dinner emergencies. In this case, in the aftermath of my failed attempt at finding a massage, and the fact it would be hours until dinner, I decided to make a pot of cream soup to cheer myself up. The rest of the afternoon was spent enjoying soup and writing post cards to the folks back home, interspersed with a little time in the garden, trying to coax the cats close enough to be petted.

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This photo is from the next morning, but these are the cats from the garden. ❤

Pilgrims continued to arrive through the afternoon, and it was here that Ruth, an Anglican priest, first crossed our path. She would feature more heavily a day or two down the line. I also met a married couple who seemed a little standoffish with the other pilgrims, but something about them intrigued me. I’d meet them again a few days later, as well. Only one pilgrim out of the bunch stood out as someone I’d rather not meet again. I was lightly napping that afternoon when a gaggle of pilgrims walked into the dorm room and started to unpack and get settled. For the most part, everyone was doing their own thing and being quiet, but one older guy seemed intent on regaling everyone with his knowledge and experience. He spoke loudly, waking me up in his need to command the entire room’s attention. By now you will know how I feel about people who wake me up. I disliked him immediately, sight unseen, and as he continued to talk, I was further annoyed by his tone of voice, the way in which he sought to both ingratiate himself to his captive audience and place himself on a pedestal. He seemed like one of those people who define themselves as a “guru” or “thought leader” in their career field. Let’s call him Pilgrim Bob.

Pilgrim Bob proudly proclaimed that he’d retired from his job a few years back, and had been walking the Camino ever since. This was his umpteenth time walking the Camino Frances, though he’d walked other routes. He knew everything there was to know about every town on the route – just ask him. If anyone needed any help with anything at all, he was there to guide you to the right answer. But of course the Camino wasn’t what it once was. So many people, all year long. Just too many people, and everyone thinking they’re an expert, though of course most of them hadn’t walked anywhere before, and only found out about the Camino from watching The Way. Those folks weren’t REAL pilgrims. Not like Pilgrim Bob, who was now devoting his life to being a REAL pilgrim.

The conversation went on in this vein for some time, until someone actually did ask him a question. The answer was to unnerve me for the rest of my walk, and possibly forever. It’s seriously something that I still worry about. It was a question about bunk beds vs. single beds, and if we’d be seeing any other places with single beds. Of course, Pilgrim Bob couldn’t answer the question properly, but made up for this by telling an anecdote. It seemed that a few years before, Pilgrim Bob had stayed at another albergue, where they’d just gotten new wooden bunk beds. He was on the bottom bunk, and had been napping there for awhile, but decided to get up to get something out of his pack. Only seconds after getting up, the top bunk collapsed. Had he stayed a moment longer, he would have been peregrino mush. Bob went on to say that he heard of another pilgrim who was killed in this same manner, crushed by a falling top bunk. I already hated climbing to the top bunk, and feared rolling off at night. Now I also feared sleeping on the bottom bunk and being crushed in my sleep. Awesome. Thanks a lot, Pilgrim Bob, you jerk.

Terry and Natalie were out walking around town, and missed out on the Pilgrim Bob story, so I told them that night when we met up for dinner in the hotel dining room. The hotel offered an excellent pilgrim dinner. I had spaghetti as my first course, followed by steak and chips, and I remember that Natalie had cuajada for dessert, but no clue what I had. Probably creme brulee, my old standby.

I had a breakthrough moment during dinner, as well, possibly as a result of the emotional current of the day, maybe just because the wine was flowing, or perhaps it was all of this and more. Many days on the Camino seemed to just be powerful, in their own weird way. I learned so much, changed so much, came to appreciate my weirdness, my wildness, be it ever so elusive. As we sat there at our little dinner table, all three of us peregrinas, I looked at my friends’ faces and saw myself. I saw who I would become, and for the first time, I wasn’t scared. I was excited. I was 33, turning 34 in under a month. Natalie was about 15 years my senior, and Terry was around 20 years her senior. All of us were unmarried, a condition that had been lately filling me with fear and dread, even though I simultaneously felt like a total idiot for feeling that way. After all, I was dating, and I didn’t need a man to survive. Indeed, most of the time, flying solo seemed the most natural and only truly acceptable state.

Tonight, I looked at my new friends across the dinner table, both so strong and free and genuine. I already loved them, so soon into becoming acquainted. How could I not? We’d shared so much of ourselves, no games or posturing. Just honesty as we placed one foot in front of the other each day. They were amazing women, living interesting lives on their own terms. I’d spent the last few days coming to terms with my high esteem for them, and here at dinner, I was now suddenly connecting the dots and seeing that I could have just as much esteem for myself, if I chose. I didn’t need to be scared of being somehow broken and useless because I wasn’t married by some imaginary “sell-by” date. I didn’t need anyone else to make myself amazing. I just needed to keep on being me, and I’d be amazing all on my own, just like my friends were.

After dinner, we strolled back through the garden to our dormitory, happy and sleepy. It was cool and crisp out, and the air smelled of wood smoke from someone’s fireplace. We had all just started to get ready for bed when the hospitalero (rudely, we all agreed) popped into the dorm and turned off the lights about 20 minutes before 10pm. A low murmur of shock traveled down the room, and the room (even Pilgrim Bob) united in a general grumble-fest for about five minutes. No matter the albergue, the rules stayed the same, and we pilgrims got used to a certain routine: lights on at 6am, everyone out of the albergue at 8am, lights off at 10pm. Turning the lights off early was just not cool, man. Headlamps came on (not mine – I’d thrown it out a few days before, to save weight), there was a flurry of last-minute pack crinkling and sleeping bag rustling, and then, one by one, the tiny lights went out. Another day on the Camino had ended. Lucky for me, I slept well, with only a couple of awkward trips down the length of the dorm room to get to the bathroom in the dark. The next day was to be one of my hardest yet.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 1). 

Just When You Thought You Knew It All

Last night, I heard something beautiful. I was listening to a meditation on addiction, and the man on the recording was asking listeners to picture a person or creature in our lives that we love, that we count on, to whom we could open ourselves. It could be a family member, a lover, or even a beloved pet that is there for us in times of need. But in opening up this idea, the speaker said something like, “You might not be able to picture this person just yet, but they are there, still. Their love, though you haven’t met it yet, reaches across the divide of time and space – they are reaching for you even now, just as you reach for them.” The point being, not that there is a soulmate or love interest for everyone, but that we have counterparts in the world who need us as much as we need them. Friends. Family. Strangers who will count on us in moments we have yet to imagine. And yes, maybe lovers. Maybe just pets in the future. For me, at the moment, I’m picturing the next crop of pilgrims I’ll meet on the way to Santiago de Compostela.

I met a handful of truly magical human beings on my trek across Spain – and they’re still influencing my life in various ways. Natalie’s music, her superpower of listening with an open heart and mind, her easy-going nature. Claire’s resilience, her way of making a statement with such effortless grace, her dogged determination to see exactly whatever it was she sets out to see, in her own way, in her own time. Terry’s eye for adventure, and never-ending curiosity, her grit, and her way of walking the walk – I am truly inspired by the effort she puts into living humbly. Nestor’s joy and kindness, always giving to others, even when he was making his way through his own darkness, with a smile that lights up a room, and this effortless charm that’s utterly irresistible. Jakob’s fairness and strength, a protective presence with a streak of impishness, the improbable feeling of finding a long-lost sibling on the other side of the world. David’s inquisitiveness, the analytical mind of an engineer, the bemusement of world traveler who knows he has so much more to see, and too many odd things to explain already. And now that I’m back, I get to know others that I didn’t get know on the road – so many beautiful people, each on their own quest. We all walk the same Camino; it’s a matter of relaying the signs and symbols to each other, to get to know where the others are at at any given time.

In my darkest moments, I reach across the divide of time and space to my pilgrim friends. In particular, I spend time in one particular moment, no longer than 5 seconds maybe, but big enough to live a whole life in. I return, time and again, to the albergue where Jakob, David, and I slept the night before my birthday. It was a terrible town, like one big, awful strip mall. The name escapes me right now, but it was within the last 100 km before Santiago, and I disliked it intensely. We were just a few days away from the end of our pilgrimage. The albergue was cheap, but it had internet and hot showers, and a place to do laundry. The pillows were threadbare, the mattresses barely more than bags of springs. It was a huge place, enough room for at least 80 or so pilgrims, but there were only six of us there that night.

Even though we had all the room in the world to spread out, and had been living on top of each other for days, there was this unspoken agreement to stick together. At first, I wanted space, but to be honest, as soon as I’d put my things down by the bunk, I started worrying about how far away the boys would choose to be. As it turned out, I didn’t have to. We actually moved rooms and beds a couple of times, looking for the best mattresses and WiFi signal. Finally I settled on a particular bunk, and Jakob immediately posted up on the bottom bunk next to mine, with David on the top bunk of the bed on the other side. A couple of weeks before, it had felt a bit odd sleeping on a bed just a few feet away from a strange guy, like an intrusion of my privacy, but any oddness had ceased, leaving familiarity and an odd necessity. Jakob called himself my German Shepherd; maybe that had begun to wear off on me. I grew accustomed to having him near.

Before we went out to dinner, we washed clothes (Jakob had forgotten his headphones in the laundry for the second time, so I made sure to pick on him about it, enjoying the hell out of my favorite of all moments, schadenfreude). The guys took me out for a birthday feast of pulpo and Estrella Galicia at a local pulperia. We were the only folks in the bar, and the owner told us that any local knows you aren’t supposed to eat octopus at night, since it’s a heavy food. I didn’t care – it was exactly what I wanted for my birthday – friends and local food in a foreign country – how could you go wrong with that?

After dinner, we wandered around town, then went back to the albergue to get some shut eye. Sometime before bed, we played this terrible game where I laid on the floor and Jakob tried to drop Oreos into my mouth from a great height (NOT a success, since I was laughing hysterically and trying to avoid an Oreo to the eye). That was followed by a push-up contest that ended poorly, too. All three of us were playing and joking around a lot more than usual, I think because we could all feel the end approaching. But finally it was time for lights out…and this is the moment that I return to.

The albergue lights had been turned off, but you could still see by the dim orange light from the hallway. We’d all gone to bed, then one-by-one we’d gotten up to get one last sip of water, go to the bathroom, find forgotten sleep masks or earplugs, steal a second pillow off of an empty bunk, etc. – the last minute things that we get annoyed at little kids for doing at bedtime, but adults all do without thinking. Finally, everyone was settled. The albergue was quiet, and we’d whispered our goodnights to each other. Overhead and to the left, I heard David’s breathing shift as he fell asleep. Jakob, to my right, was still awake. I shifted, and found just the right position in my sleeping bag, clutching my stolen second pillow to my chest like a teddy bear, and began to drift off. As I did, in that delicious weighty time between waking and sleeping, I had one last thought. More of a feeling, really. I felt a deep, abiding gratitude. I felt safe, and completely at peace. I felt love, and knew it was reciprocated. I don’t think I’d ever felt exactly that level of (home? I don’t know what to call it) before. And whenever I’m scared that I won’t feel it again, I simply reach across the divide, back through time, and tap into that goodness where it still lives, WILL live, forever. My own little dose of life-giving elixir. Love.

 

Marching Forth

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It’s the fourth day of Lent, which happens to also be the fourth day of March, hence the silly post title. It’s late at night, and I am sitting on the couch in my underwear, watching a trio of cats go about their nightly ablutions. I should probably be weirded out that they’re all in sync, but I’m too tired to care much. Maybe they’ll all decide to go to sleep when I do, and I’ll get a really good night’s rest. Nope, the youngest just zoomed across the apartment and skittered under the bed like a little maniac. Oh well, it was a nice thought while it lasted.

My apartment smells vinegary, like maybe there’s mold growing in the air conditioner. I’ll have to see about getting an AC repair person in to clean it out before long. I also need to find a handyman who can patch the sheetrock above the window where I slipped and grabbed the curtain and pulled the curtain rod out of the wall (then tried to put it back with spray foam, which kind of worked for a few months). And need to talk to the landlord about the kitchen sink water pressure, since it’s slowed to nearly a dribble. Also, time to replace the toilet seat and the shower/tub knobs. While we’re at it, let’s make a wish to the genie to send us an upholsterer to reupholster this couch, and put new foam in the cushions while he’s at it. Isn’t it funny how long you can just keep ignoring your problems if you work hard enough at it?

Today was a good day. Last night, the boyfriend and I went with one of our good friends to watch Logan (awesome), then met up with four other friends at Holy Ground, my favorite little Irish pub. I didn’t really struggle with not having my cell phone at my disposal, but there were a few times when I was vaguely uncomfortable and realized that typically I’d have Facebook out by now. Both of my girlfriends who were there were on their phones most of the time, and it made me vaguely sad that we couldn’t just all be talking. But we did talk about the photos and stories they were looking at on their phones, so it wasn’t as though I were being ignored. It was just something to think about.

While we were chatting outside by the front door, getting ready to leave, a group of guys in their mid-20’s came up and asked us how to catch the streetcar to head back to the French Quarter. I taught one of the guys how to use Google Maps to find out public transportation schedules and transit times. It was a nice interaction; the wait times were long, so I convinced them to try out this bar instead of heading all the way to the French Quarter. It felt nice to just be chatting to strangers for a second, but maybe because I had the upper hand and they were just being grateful and respectful.

After we got home, the boyfriend and I stayed up and talked for a couple of hours. That was also great, since we’re not on the same schedule anymore, so it’s tough to find the time to connect in meaningful ways. I’ve been way too anxious to go out to public things, so this was the first time in a while that we went out and did a fun thing together, and probably the first time ever where we went out and had fun without either of us getting on social media at any point during the night. Golden.

Today we got up and went to a late breakfast at Horn’s, then ran some errands until it was time for him to get ready for work. I cleaned the house, then went to The Franklin to grab dinner with Dena, a friend from Nashville whom I met on the Camino in 2015. She and her boyfriend Scott are in town before heading off on a cruise tomorrow. It was a wonderful dinner. Neither of them were drinking at the moment, so she and I shared one Estrella Galicia in celebration of Spain, then we had a perfectly lovely dinner with lots of water, and talked Camino, spirit, meditation, life, pain, humanity, all the best bits that I love to discuss. It was so great getting to hang out with the both of them. She’s the first Camino friend I’ve seen in person outside of Spain. Hopefully there will be more of these moments to come.

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It just passed midnight, and my blog title is no longer relevant. Whatever, I’m keeping it. It’s time for bed. I picked up a few great books at the free library this afternoon, so I think I’m going to get to sleep now, then wake up and read all morning on the front porch.

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A little over a year ago, I took a break from my increasingly unhappy life and went on a long walk. I didn’t know what I was looking for, exactly, but I had a good idea that I’d know it when I saw it. As I walked across Spain, falling in love with nature again, learning to trust my body, and meeting new friends from all over the world, the depression and anxiety I’d been suffering for years started to lift away.

It wasn’t a gradual change. It was almost immediate. Within a week of being away from the constant stress of my life as a freelance marketer traveling between Chicago and New Orleans, I started to wake up and spend each day feeling happy, relaxed, and renewed. The walks got longer, my body got stronger, and the stories I allowed myself to share with my new friends on the Camino started to get deeper and more painful. But there was a song in my heart, and I knew down at the core of things that everything was going to be OK, if I could just allow the melody to follow me back to my “real” life.

The first few nights off the Camino were especially tough. I had thought it would be nice to get a nice hotel room all to myself. I hated it. It was hard to sleep, knowing that the guys I now considered family weren’t an arm’s reach away, the next bunk over. I took a side trip to Barcelona to see the Sagrada Familia, and though I fell in love with the town, I spent most of my time there sleeping in my room, mourning the loss of my friends, my trekking poles, and the joy of knowing your simple purpose – to walk – and fulfilling that goal every day. A few days later, I flew back to the states, and was hit with a new wave of regret and sadness, and something I’d later realize is called “reverse culture shock.” After weeks of feeling very little fear or unease, the stress of walking down a street in New Orleans, constantly watching my back, was breathtaking. I realized that a generous amount of the general anxiety I’d been dealing with was directly related to living in New Orleans. I didn’t know what to do with that information, and still don’t, but I am on a reduced timeline here. I never intended to live here for the rest of my life, and now I’m coming to terms with the thought of leaving in the next year or two.

Over the past year, I’ve readjusted to living in this city that I’ve called home for the last 17 years, and tried to understand what it is that makes it so difficult to leave. At the same time, I’ve resisted writing about my time on the Camino. I thought that I didn’t have the words for it, but in reality, I didn’t have the strength. The two situations are deeply entwined, whether I want to acknowledge that or not. Because the Camino woke me up (or maybe was a direct result of being awoken, but not consciously able to grasp all that I knew?). I’m not sure when I realized this, but the life that I’ve been living off Camino is not the life I want. It’s not just career stuff, or body stuff, or city stuff. I’ve been expressing bits and pieces of this here and in real life conversation for a long time, but always with this concept that there was something wrong with me for not just being able to suck it up and deal. But that’s not it at all, is it? The real lesson, the thing I’m just now starting to soak in and understand as true, is that I can have any life I want. I am allowed to want more, and I am allowed to ask for more. It is OK to dislike things that other people love, and to confess my frustrations with things that other people enjoy. This is MY walk, and I can shape it however I damn well please.

When I got back to New Orleans from Spain, I was tempted to just sink into myself again. It didn’t get back to pre-Camino levels of self-hatred, but there were plenty of days when I just slept all day since there wasn’t anything worth waking up for. Eventually, my finances became dire, and I needed to find another job to supplement my unpredictable freelance earnings. While sorting through job posts on an online employment site, one ad caught my eye, with the phrase: “Join our crew of misfits.” I read through the requirements, thought it sounded fun, and applied for the job as a front desk person at a local boutique hotel. The manager and I clicked immediately, and the job was mine. It only took a few shifts for me to realize that I was meant for hospitality. I love it. It’s like being back on the Camino again. And a glimmer of hope appeared, because not only did I realize I’d found something that I truly loved doing. I realized that I had already known this about myself YEARS ago, back when I was waiting tables to work my way through college. Back then, I truly adored what I did, but people kept telling me that service wasn’t a “real job.” There was this concept that I needed a 9-to-5 job, with a suit and a desk, to be a successful human being. I wish that someone back then had taken a look at what made me tick and showed me that there were other options to crafting a meaningful career. Oh well. That’s what Ctrl+Z is for. Time to start all over.

I’ve been working as a front desk person/concierge since February, and really enjoy the job. If you’re a service-minded individual, it’s the kind of job that just comes second nature. My main duty is being really nice to people, which can sometimes be difficult if they’ve had a tough day, but I generally win them over. There are other things – logistics, maintenance, reservations, database coordination, and, being me, a ton of free marketing advice. I love my coworkers, and adore the guest house property. Every now and then I meet a guest who’s so awesome, we end up becoming friends (at least on Facebook), and I’ve had some truly lovely experiences. But it doesn’t pay well at all. To be able to “afford” to do a job that makes me happy, I’ve also been doing some freelance marketing, which does pay well and doesn’t make me unhappy, but leaves me feeling like I’m missing something important. I love my coworkers at the agency, and am happy to be able to work on my own schedule, but it’s not my passion, and it’s wearing me thin, especially when I can’t count on a specific amount or timeline for any paycheck. I was reading this article the other day about the high rate of depression and anxiety in millennials, and how it ties in to many of us working 60 to 80-hour weeks just to be able to pay rent and get by, and I was struck with how I’ve just been constantly plugging away for years, with little to show except for a bad back, a nervous eyelid tic, and the magical ability to go into a full-blown panic attack just from hearing my cell phone ring. Which is why, if you’ve ever tried calling me, you know I don’t answer, but will call you back later. I haven’t had the ringer on for years. Too risky.

So why am I writing all of this? Well, I had a Camino moment a couple of weeks ago, and it gave me some new insights that completely changed my course. The owner of my hotel has always confounded me. He’s a lovely man, but I wouldn’t say that we see eye to eye on hotel best practices. A couple of weeks ago, he sent an email to everyone threatening to fire the entire staff if we couldn’t make certain specific property improvements. Improvements that we’d noted long ago, and had been asking for the money to fix for months. The email didn’t mean anything in the whole scheme of things; he didn’t really want to fire anyone, he’s just from the school of thought that you should terrify your employees to get positive results. I knew this, but it had a strong effect on me. The manager and I were sitting together at the time, and I had to excuse myself to go and have a cry in the bathroom. I was so fed up and frustrated with the situation, and felt hobbled by the lack of change, innovation, and structure. A coworker had warned me months ago that there was a high turnover with people who came in and expected anything to change, but I had thought that maybe I could make a difference. This was the first day that I realized I didn’t have what it took to enforce meaningful solutions in an unhealthy environment.

That night, I went home, and started writing down what it was that I liked about my job, what it is that I was searching for in an ideal workplace, and what it is that I’d like my employer and job to do for me. It wasn’t easy, but I started with things that I have consistently disliked, things that always make me anxious and leave me drained. Then I turned those things around and looked for what would fix them. I ended up with what became a mantra in the job search. In the past, I’d always gone into looking for a job with this idea that I needed to prove myself to my employer. But I’m over that. I am a fantastic employee. My bosses have always loved me; I’ve got a full page of folks who will give me glowing referrals. I’m a good person, I’m honest, I’m kind, I see people for who they are (which can be good and bad), I always give my best, and am always looking for ways to improve. I don’t always have to prove my worth. It’s time to start holding employers accountable, asking, “Why should I work for you? How can you help me be a better person?” The things I realized I needed were as follows:

  1. hospitality
  2. an international company that would offer me chances to travel and relocate
  3. structure
  4. accountability between all levels of coworkers/managers
  5. educational opportunities
  6. guaranteed advancement
  7. great workplace culture, with the ability to be radically kind every single day

I realized that it was time to go corporate. Twenty-year-old me was not pleased. Thirty-four-year-old me breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, a plan! Now it was time to make the list mean something.

Two weeks ago, I sat down and applied to about 20 different jobs over the course of two days. This is nothing new; I’ve been sending out resumes to jobs all over the country for so long that it just seemed to be one of those common tasks like washing dishes or sweeping the floor. What was new was that I focused in on making sure that the companies I applied for fit my criteria for what I wanted in a workplace. And of those 20 applications, three called me back. One response was so poorly written that I disregarded it immediately. One response was for a great position with a hotel that I wasn’t sure of. The final response was a phone call from a very friendly-sounding guy from a hotel that I didn’t know much about, but was owned by a company that seemed to fit my criteria: Marriott.

Last Thursday, I went to an interview for a marketing position at a luxury hotel that is technically part of a chain but doesn’t seem to have much of a connection to the rest of the brand. It was a bad interview. I knew right away that it wasn’t for me. The person interviewing me would have been my boss, and she seemed unhappy. As we talked, I checked things off of my mental checklist – will this place allow me the ability to relocate? Doesn’t seem likely. Is there structure? Meh. What about educational opportunities? The interviewer seemed confused about what I was asking. Could I advance within the company from here? There wasn’t anywhere else to go. The interviewer was kind, but at the end of the day, I walked out feeling like I’d dislike working there. It would be one more place without defined needs or goals in place, that would stress me out and make me hate going to work. So no.

On Friday, I suited back up to head to the Marriott interview. The interview the day before had been rather demoralizing, and I had to dig deep to paste on a smile. It didn’t help that this interview was for an entry level position, also not ideal, but sometimes you have to take a step down to get in the door. Once I got into the hotel, I felt right away that this place was different. It was comfy and modern, with a great color scheme. The interviewer was really pleasant, and easy to talk to. The interview was mostly scripted, but the non-scripted parts were entertaining, so I was immediately at ease. One of the first things the interviewer said to me after finding out that I’d walked the Camino was, “We’ve got hotels in Spain, too, if you want to go work there some day.” (Will this place allow me to relocate? Check!) He took his time and answered all of my questions, and every answer reinforced that this was the right choice. Then I headed to my second interview, meeting the woman that I’d be replacing. We had a coffee and a nice, long chat about what we were looking for in life. She explained advancement opportunities (ample), educational opportunities (tons), and the basics of the job (fun). I walked out of there knowing that I REALLY wanted this job…but there were more interviews to go.

On Monday, I met the GM and the sales manager, this time for two very relaxed interviews. I got a little teary-eyed while speaking with the GM; I just dug him as a human being. He was efficient and eagle-eyed, and obviously cares about his employees. That visit ended with a job offer, conditional upon passing a drug test and background check. I’ve spent the last week on pins and needles about the background check, hoping they wouldn’t fault me for my insane student loan debt, or find something in my past that didn’t fit the brand. Of course, this is ridiculous, since I’m a terribly lame human being with minimal adventures or wild stories, and no criminal past. But I do so love to invent things to worry about! My poor boyfriend has spent the last few days reassuring me that I’d probably know if I was a criminal, and I’d definitely be getting the job. Luckily, I was wrong and he was right – this morning I got the call that I passed the final hurdles, and can start next week. I’m going to be working as an Event Specialist, handling the needs of large groups who reserve blocks of hotel rooms in conjunction with an event (weddings, trade shows, reunions, that kind of thing). It’s going to be challenging, but rewarding, and there are multiple route options for advancing to the next rung on the ladder, when the time comes.

So I’m backtracking a little bit, career-wise, but it won’t be for long. I’m still going to have to work some crazy hours, probably at both hotels and the marketing agency, to stay afloat for awhile as I stock up on office apparel, get some medical and dental treatments that I’ve been putting off, and pay off debts that I couldn’t put much of a dent in over the last year. It’s going to be hard for awhile, but much easier in the long run. In a sense, I’m hitting “undo” on a big chunk of my professional life, but I’ve learned a lot of things that will still come in handy. I know what kind of boss I respect, and what I’d never do to a coworker or employee. I know how much I adore being helpful and kind, and that I can enrich my personal life by way of my professional life if I so choose (I do). I know that I am nimble, a problem solver, a fixer, a “can do”-er. I know that I’ve finally started a real career, and that I’m joining a company with which I’ll be able to continue on until I retire, if all works out. And if I play my cards right, at the end of that career I’ll have traveled the world, and be getting ready to start a new adventure with my own B&B somewhere. Who knows? I’ll keep you posted 🙂

Day 14: Anna’s Camino – Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Belorado

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.

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If you’ve been reading along, you might remember that I had my first “Camino moment” in Zabaldika, after reading some beautiful thoughts from the nuns there. My second Camino moment happened on Day 14, in Grañón, Spain. It’s not a pretty thing, but it was a raw, emotional occurrence that changed me in some mysterious way, so I’ll tell you.

I don’t remember much about leaving Santo Domingo de la Calzada, except that we met at the same little restaurant where we’d had dinner, and had one last coffee with Australian Mark, who would be staying behind for one more day on doctor’s orders, until they could make sure that he didn’t have any lasting damage from that blow to the head. English Mark met us there, as well, and that’s the last time Natalie remembers seeing him, though I ran into him once more later in the day. We had our coffees and juice, said our goodbyes, and got back on the road. Natalie was walking faster than I was that morning, and I trailed behind her, sometimes catching a glimpse on the road ahead, other times chatting with new pilgrims as we passed on the road.

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Along the way, we walked through a little hamlet and met up again for a mid-morning snack at a lovely little albergue. We met Ruth, a bubbly Anglican minister on holiday, and chatted briefly with her as she decided whether or not to call it a day and stay here in this town instead of moving on. The hospitalero was a woodcrafter, and had some beautiful simple jewelry on display. Before leaving, I bought what are still my favorite pair of earrings, little teal circles with tiny, yellow, applied wooden arrows, a reminder of the yellow arrows that mark the Camino. After a quick bathroom break, we walked on, and Natalie quickly pulled ahead again, heading towards Grañón.

I’d read about Grañón before, and had heard that it’s a magical place that pilgrims tend to love. I didn’t have the same experience, and for a long time, I thought that maybe people were wrong. Now that I know a little more about magic, especially in relation to totem animals, I’m inclined to believe with the original assessment. Just because something’s magical and life-changing doesn’t mean that it’s got to be all sunshine and lollipops while it’s happening. Anyway, as I walked into town, I encountered a small, starving dog on the street. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence, as heart-breaking as that might be. Animals aren’t put on a pedestal there like they are in the U.S., and I’m not in a place to pass judgment, but I did feel heartbroken quite often over it then. This dog came up to me, and I petted her and scratched her belly for a little while, until a dour-looking old man clomped down the street, waved his cane at me, and shouted at the dog. She cowered, then scampered away, he scowled at me, and I moved on, shocked.

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A few blocks farther down the street, I spotted a bunch of pilgrim packs outside the door to a cafe, and saw that Natalie’s bag was there, as well. I stopped, heaved off my bag, and started to walk into the cafe. At the threshold, I noticed two grown cats and two sets of kittens, all sick, eyes swollen shut and noses dripping. I wondered how many of the kittens would live through this. My brain stopped, and something else happened. It was like I was standing outside of myself, watching everything unfold. I watched myself grab a kitten, clutch it to my chest, then collapse on a nearby bench, sobbing uncontrollably.

It’s hard to explain what was going on, because I didn’t exactly know, myself. I was causing a scene, crying quite loudly. The kitten squirmed, trying to get away from the crazy lady holding it in her iron embrace. Pilgrims rushed out of the cafe, and suddenly I was surrounded by kindhearted souls who thought I must be seriously injured. People were asking me “what’s wrong? what’s wrong???” and all I could manage through the sobs was, “The kittens, LOOK!” After a minute or two, it was obvious that I wasn’t hurt, and was just having a little mental breakdown, and people left me to cry. The kitten wriggled out of my arms and ran back to its brothers and sisters. A couple of fellow cat ladies patted my hand and told me that they understood, but I could see that they were as mystified as I over this ridiculous outburst. I apologized, pulled myself together, picked up my bag, and decided to move on, with or without Natalie. To me at that moment, it seemed that the town was obviously full of negative energy, and I needed to get out.

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I had walked almost to the town border when I caught a glimpse of an adorable little terrier sitting on the bench at the bus stop. This little guy was exactly everything that I’d ever want if I were to adopt a dog – he was small, sandy-colored, shaggy, smiling, and his little body just quivered with excitement as I got closer. He looked so joyful compared to everything I’d just experienced, and I was drawn to him. I dropped my bag on the bench, took a seat, and spent the next 15 minutes getting a huge dose of much-needed love from the little mystery dude. I tried to take a photo of the two of us, but every time I’d push the button, he’d give me another kiss. It was incredibly restorative, especially since he was wearing a collar and was well-fed. It renewed my faith in humanity, at least for a few moments. Eventually, I’d been sitting long enough that Natalie happened along, and the little dog was very happy to offer her some love, as well. After a few minutes, we reluctantly said goodbye to the pup and walked on. Here’s a little slideshow of our meeting…

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The rest of the day is a blur. I remember walking through Redecillo del Camino, a town famous for its elaborate baptismal font. We stopped and took a look, and had a cup of coffee at a nearby cafe. At some point in the day, I also ran into English Mark for the last time, also at a cafe. Maybe this was the same one? I can’t remember, and Natalie doesn’t remember seeing him again after breakfast, but when I saw him for the last time, he called me over to the bar, almost giddy in his eagerness to tell me a story he’d just heard about a road marker we’d passed earlier in the day, called the Cross of the Brave:

In medieval times, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Grañón were locked in a dispute about the land the lay between the two towns, particularly who had rights to the lumber there. The towns were constantly fighting, and finally someone thought it would be smarter to just pick a champion for each town, and have them fight it out. The winner would determine which town had land rights. On the day of the big fight, the champion from Santo Domingo arrived, covered in oil. The only way the champion from Grañón could best the oily bastard was to grab him by the only part that wasn’t greased up – his anus. The fighter from Santo Domingo was thus thrown out of the ring (some say off a cliff), and Grañón won rights to the land, though the winning fighter died only days after the battle. Soon after, the Cross of the Brave was erected in memory of the fight. Mark finished telling me this story with, “But which one was truly the ‘brave’ one?” followed by a deep belly laugh. I’m glad that’s my last memory of him.

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The baptismal font at Redecillo del Camino.

Natalie and I covered another 15km, but I don’t have many photos. That night we ended up at an albergue called the Cuatro Cantones, and it turned out to be a lovely spot, run by a very nice family. Our friend Terry from Seattle was in Belorado that day, so once we got settled into our room, she came over and we all went out for a late lunch at a nearby bar. I can’t remember if I took a nap or not, but for the first time, I did no sightseeing (despite the fact that the town looked really interesting, and I sincerely regretted not being able to see more). That night, Natalie and I had dinner at the albergue restaurant, and invited the other peregrina from our small room (only three of us there – yay!) to join us. She was not a native English speaker, but between the three of us, we got along famously and had a great dinner together. After dinner, I snuck away to an empty bedroom to call my parents, then it was lights out.

Click here to read about Day 15.

Anna’s Camino: Day 13 – Santo Domingo de la Calzada

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.

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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.

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View from the doorway of my dorm room in the municipal albergue.

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.

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Sign in the albergue kitchen that tickled my fancy.

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.

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The chicken coop is very bright inside, but there are two chickens in there, I promise!

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.

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Steps leading up to the bells.

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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.

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Delicious paella.

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.

Click here to read about Day 14.

Anna’s Camino: Day 12 – Navarrete to Nájera

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.

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I’m pretty certain that Day 12 ranks as my shortest day on the Camino, right after the walk up to Orisson on Day 2 (since I’ve been counting my arrival in St. Jean Pied de Port as my Day 1). From Navarrete to Nájera is only around 7 or 8 miles, so it’s not exactly a trek. But I started to feel pretty sick this day, and the short walk still took a lot out of me.

It was misting out when we woke up in Navarrete. Nothing major, just enough to make many of that morning’s crop of pilgrims take a little longer to get out of town. It was still dark out when Natalie and I left the albergue, and the town was still locked up tight. Why go out on a morning like this if you didn’t have to? We made a beeline to the first light we saw spilling from an open doorway near the cathedral square, and lucked into a cute little café, where we had orange juice, cafés con leche, and a chocolate bar for me. The place was tiny, just two counter-height tables, a couple of standing displays of snack foods, and enough standing room for a few people to line up to order at the little window near the front of the shop. We were among the first in the shop, and we squeezed in at one of the tables to have our light breakfast and look over the map for the day’s walk.

Word spread that it was supposed to rain today, and those who weren’t already wearing rain jackets or ponchos started pulling their bags open to grab what they needed. Pack covers went on, as well as rain pants, and gaiters. There was an air of expectation and resolution, no complaints, just giving in and going with what nature had handed us for the day. It’s all you can do.

As it turned out, the mist remained a constant through much of the morning’s walk, obscuring what were supposed to be beautiful views. However, it never did turn to a full downpour, which was great for me, since my health gradually declined through the morning. I’d brought two packs of tissues with me from the U.S. in case I needed to “use the facilities” when there were none to be found, and had to resort to popping a squat on the side of the road. I only needed those tissues in that capacity three times over the entire Camino, but I was very glad of them on this day, when I needed to stop and blow my nose every few minutes, it felt like.

Side note on tissues – first off, don’t assume you can just put them in the top of your pack and stop to take them out when you need them. If your nose is running like crazy, just put them in your pocket or if you have a waist pack, that’ll do, too. It will really slow you down to have to unstrap your pack and take it off every time you start getting particularly snotty. Secondly, don’t go hog wild and use a new tissue for every nose blow. I know it’s gross to think about, but when you’re on the Camino, you’ll start to understand how wasteful that is, and how little anyone cares that you’re reusing your tissue a few times. Just make sure to wash your hands once you get to the next cafe, and don’t touch people or things too much without de-germing as much as you can. No one needs your cold, but to be honest, everyone understands that when you’re sleeping in close quarters and wearing yourself out on a daily basis, your health is bound to take a hit, and we’ll all share each other’s germs at least once. Sucks, but them’s the breaks. Lastly, do your part to keep the Camino clean for all who come after you. Never, ever leave your trash behind you. If you use a tissue, pack it away in a plastic baggie, a pocket, wherever – just take it with you and dispose of it properly the next time you encounter a trash receptacle. You’ll be surprised and dismayed to see how disgusting parts of the trail can get, where people just leave their gross trash behind on the road. It’s quite sad, and we all need to do our part to lessen the impact. If you want to be an even better human being than I am, you could forego disposable tissues and just bring a handkerchief or two. They’re useful for more than nose blowing, and can be washed and reused for years to come.

That morning was absolutely gorgeous, and ranked as one of my favorite portions of the Camino. I loved the silence in the mist. One of the strange and interesting parts of the day is that we passed through a section of the Camino that was designated as an art exhibit. From what we could understand, there were supposed to be installations all down the trail, but in reality, the only thing we saw that could be art was a weird, solitary painting that looked almost as if it had been discarded there on the side of the road.

At one point in the morning, we walked out of the mist into a tiny town that was really just a roadside cafe. It had the feel of a truck stop, just no trucks. We popped in to grab breakfast, and I ended up having two breakfasts – a Kas naranja and a chocolate bar, plus a slice of tortilla and cafe con leche.

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That day, Natalie and I stayed pretty much within eyesight of each other, and played a game of hopscotch with English Mark. He and Tom weren’t walking together anymore; Mark’s feet were really taking a toll on his ability to keep up with the athletic Tom, so they talked it over and Tom walked on. It’s something that has to happen, and something that I’d prepared myself for years before getting to Spain (benefit of reading too many Camino journals), but it’s still a really tough moment for every pilgrim to have to make that kind of call.

Mark seemed sad to not be walking with his buddy, but also had a carefree air, like a weight had been taken off. He had finally found HIS Camino, and he was enjoying it despite the pain. As he walked, he listened to the Rolling Stones and various podcasts. Later that morning, during another coffee break (Is anybody doing the math on how much coffee I consumed on the Camino?), we sat at a cafe bar together and shared podcast names. I recommended a ghost story podcast that I enjoyed back in the states; I wish I could remember what he recommended I listen to. I’d love to give it a listen now.

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Walking into Nájera

The day remained overcast and gloomy – my favorite type of weather. We made it into Nájera in the early afternoon, and headed for Albergue Puerta de Nájera, which Natalie knew of from her last Camino a couple of years before. It was a solid choice, an adorable place with some private rooms and some dorm-style rooms with 6 to 8 beds each. The bathrooms weren’t unisex, which was a lovely bonus, but the bathrooms did share a wall. As I was taking my shower that afternoon, the weirdest thing happened. Along the walk, I had two major “earworms” occur. One of them was shared with Natalie – we both got into the habit of humming “La Vie en Rose” as we walked, keeping time with our walking poles. I have no clue why she was singing it, or if I got it from her, but later in the Camino I realized that it was also used on a popular shampoo commercial that played on TV every now and then at various cafes, so one or both of us might have gotten it from TV or from the other, who knows. The other song that happened ALL THE TIME for me was The A-Team soundtrack, from that popular 80’s TV show. I hummed it to myself daily, sometimes in hour-long loops, as I walked. I whistled it. I embellished it and turned it into a jazz tune. It drove me mad, but I couldn’t get rid of it. That day, as I showered, on the other side of the shared bathroom wall, I could hear a Portuguese peregrino singing a song – the theme to The A-Team. I almost died laughing, then spent probably a little too much time wondering if all of we pilgrims had tapped into a collective consciousness while walking. Can’t remember the theme? You’re welcome:

Along the Camino, you’ll find that some albergues like to have men and women in separate dorms and bathrooms, and others just mix it up. This one had same sex bathrooms and mixed dorm rooms. By the time we got to Nájera, I don’t think anyone really cared one way or the other about either thing. Everyone was courteous, there was no creepiness to having to share spaces – we were all sharing a goal, and though I’ve read some stories about incidents here and there, nothing untoward happened in any place I stayed. One of the couples in our room were a married American couple in their early 60s, who had been walking the Camino backwards, and were headed back to St. Jean Pied de Port. I don’t remember many details about them, but they were a pleasant pair, and they were into food and wine. There was a small communal dining area and kitchen downstairs in the albergue, and I remember him proudly unpacking a bag of supplies to make them both sandwiches. He did it with such attention to detail and obvious joy that the end result struck me as a gourmet masterpiece, despite the fact they were just regular old sandwiches. She poured wine and commented on his sandwich-making skills from time to time. They were so clearly relishing every second together, and this beautiful meal was just one more layer of the loveliness of their adventure. I didn’t exactly envy them, but in them, I saw what I’m looking for in life – a partner to share my adventures, and then make them sweeter just by being himself and laughing along the way.

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Sometimes you go shopping for staples, and end up getting entranced by the candy section…

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Other times you find things to laugh about (this is a mayonnaise-based “salad” mixture made of CARP, not crap)

On groceries – As far as groceries went on the Camino, Natalie taught me pretty early on to grab supplies at night for the next morning. I tended to buy a baguette, goat cheese or soft sheep’s cheese, thinly sliced ham, chorizo, eggs, yogurt, Knorr soup packets (an obsession of mine, since they’re not readily available in the U.S.) – I preferred chicken noodle and cream of asparagus or cream of mushroom – and chocolate. I didn’t buy everything all at the same time, of course, but some days I’d decide on walking with sandwich materials, and every morning I really wanted to have boiled eggs and yogurt to start out the day. Breakfast along the Camino is pretty depressing if you’re used to something hearty – they stick with coffee of some sort, fresh juice, and thick slabs of toasted bread, so if you’re used to starting the day with a nice helping of protein, you’re going to need to prepare yourself the night before. If you’re walking with other people, it can be beneficial for your wallet and your pack weight to go grocery shopping together, and everyone buy a piece of the puzzle. This means everyone can share resources at breakfast and snack time, but no one has to carry too much extra weight.

Another thing I learned on the Camino is that Americans are pretty uptight about food spoiling. You don’t have to refrigerate yogurt in cool weather – yogurt keeps for a couple of days, boiled eggs keep for a day or two, and sausage and cheese keep for a few days, as well. There’s a reason you think of people in the “olden days” eating bread and cheese, and hunks of cured meat. We’ve gone overboard in our dependence on refrigeration. Use common sense, but also don’t freak out about having food in your pack for a day or two. If you’re really afraid that the thing you’ve bought is going to spoil, share your resources with your friends, or talk to the hospitalero and leave the food behind for other pilgrims in your albergue’s refrigerator.

After we’d gotten our things settled in, Natalie and I decided to tour the town. We walked by this shop that looked absolutely dreamy, full of beautiful painted pottery, but when we tried to walk in, the shop owner told us that they were closed for siesta. So we made a note to come back by, then walked to Santa María la Real de Nájera, a famous monastery where many early royals are buried, to take a tour. After the monastery, we tried to visit the pottery shop, which now had a few customers, but the shop owner yelled at us and told us he was still closed, so we gave up on that plan and walked some of the back streets that used to be the Jewish part of town in medieval times. I was surprised to note that the area seemed a little sketchier than anything we’d experienced before, and was glad to have company. It was one of the few occasions that I was uneasy on the Camino. We passed a group of men sitting around, drinking beers and talking, and they seemed different. They stared at us with open unfriendliness, more of a “what the hell are you doing here?” vibe than an open threat, but we got the hint and walked back towards the center of town.

I couldn’t really pinpoint why they didn’t strike me as belonging (something about manner of dress and the way they were hanging out), since I’m no expert in Spanish culture, but we were obviously encroaching, and afterwards it occurred to me that they might have been Travelers. I can’t be sure of that – maybe it was just the bad part of town, or maybe we got the wrong idea, who knows? It’s a shame, though, because we were trying to get a better view of the cliffs behind town where there were little caves carved out that used to be religious dwellings.

Back at town center, we started looking around for a place to grab dinner, and ran into Mark, posted up at a cheesy-looking sports bar, drinking his trademark huge beer. We were all happy to see each other, so Natalie and I ran in to have a drink, grab some tapas, and see if he wanted to meet up for dinner. Though I’ve recounted some things about Mark before now, I think it’s important to say that this was really the first night that I felt I was starting to understand him. He told us that it would be his birthday in a few days, and also told us more about his job, and gave us some clues about his Camino. He had been a bus driver/tour guide with a popular tour company, and had traveled quite a bit. His manner was loveably gruff, rough around the edges, that bittersweet mix of joy and sorrow that I honed in on immediately. We had some things in common, and that night over drinks he let us in on some of the things that made him a special human being. I’m so happy to have had those moments to get to know him, now that he’s gone. One of the things that he said that made both Natalie and me laugh was something to the effect of, “Everyone wants to know your life story, why you’re here on the Camino and how your suffering lead you here, blah, blah, blah. What if you just want to take a long walk?” Very gruff, very “I don’t have feelings, stop assuming things.” Then, in almost the very next breath, he went on to start thinking out loud about why he was on the Camino, sharing those feelings that he’d just insisted weren’t a thing, lol. He was a funny, sweet guy. I hope he got what he needed.

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Later that night, I was brought to tears over dinner, specifically over a dish called Patatas Riojanas (Riojan style potatoes), a dish of potatoes stewed with chorizo. It’s strange, since my home area of Eastern North Carolina doesn’t have any strong ties to Spanish culture, but one of my favorite simple NC dishes is stewed potatoes, often served as a side dish to Eastern NC BBQ. Patatas Riojanas tastes like an improved version of the stewed potatoes I grew up eating, and that night, maybe particularly because I was sick and worn out and feeling a little more sentimental than usual, I started crying with joy at the dinner table as I ate my Riojan stewed taters. Here’s a simple recipe for Patatas Riojanas if you’d like to try to recreate this magic for yourself! Note that Spanish chorizo is a hard, smoked sausage, very different from the fresh, raw Mexican chorizo that we typically see in the states. You’ll have to do a little research on where to find Spanish chorizo in your area, but it’s available online if resources are scarce in your neck of the woods.

The other big memory I have from that night is back at the albergue, right before lights out, as Natalie and I unrolled our sleeping bags and got ready for bed. We were sharing a bunk bed (I got the bottom bunk – woot!), and she and I were sitting back to back, rifling through packs. It struck me that we probably wouldn’t be walking together much longer, and I got a little teary, so I told her how lucky I felt to have gotten to meet her. Like it wasn’t just by chance. It was a lovely moment of friendship, and I still feel like if there’s such a thing as Divine Providence, it led me to run into Natalie that first day on the bus into St. Jean, then again at Orisson. I’m also glad I had such happy things happen that day in Nájera, since the next day’s walk was going to be…well, I’ll tell you about that next time.

Click here to read about Day 13.