Anna’s Camino: Day 8 – Villatuerta

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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You’re not gonna like this, but I don’t have many memories of the walk from Puente la Reina to Villatuerta. Part of the reason for that is most likely because I’m writing this so long after the walk (I can’t believe it’s been nine months now, though symbolically, I guess I can, since it’s taken me this long to “birth” these journal entries). However, I also think that part of the reason I’m coming up short with strong memories for the walking portion of the day is that by the time I’d been walking a week, I started to Zen out a little while I was on my feet.

Weird thing is, though, I didn’t recognize it when it was happening. Me, with years of running and Bikram yoga under my belt, and no realization that my mind was heading off somewhere else as soon as I’d tied my laces and fastened my pack. Recently, I found myself reading through Belden C. Lane’s book Backpacking with the Saints, and having an “aha!” moment when I read a section on how the body has its own part in important spiritual work (he calls it “soul craft”). He says:

“One might best think of the soul, then, as the place where the body and the rest of the vibrant world converge. The German Romantic poet Novalis argued that the human soul isn’t inside the body, hidden and encased, like a ‘seed.’ Rather, he said, ‘The seat of the soul is where the inner world and the outer world meet.’ Soulfulness is our ability to discover a vital connection with the ordinary details of everyday experience – what we share along our outermost edges with others…Whenever I plunge into wilderness, my body and the environment move in and out of each other in an intimate pattern of exchange…Where I ‘end’ and everything else ‘begins’ isn’t always clear…My ‘personal identity’ is stretched to include the aching beauty of an alpine meadow or the raucous cry of loons on the other end of the lake.”

As you can see, I cut the quote down considerably to get to my point, but if you haven’t read this book yet, I urge you to pick it up and enjoy. It’s a somewhat dense read, but an entertaining and rewarding one.

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So yeah, I think that by the eighth day of my Camino, I was falling into the soul work I’d sought, but didn’t realize it. I know for a fact that my depression and anxiety had already begun to lift considerably. I was genuinely enjoying walking with my Camino sisters Natalie and Claire, and though it always takes me a while to remember names, I was starting to see more familiar faces each day throughout the day, on rest breaks and at cafes. Most memorable to me that day are two feelings – the physical pain in my legs, and a short dose of panic and emotional anguish when I briefly lost both of my friends near the end of the day, and thought for sure that I wouldn’t find them again.

A short look back through my photos reminds me of a few more little details from the day, though. I remember leaving Puente la Reina in the morning, and sharing in (and being slightly amused by) Claire’s irritation with the group of elderly Israeli orchestra members that had stayed in our room the night before. Besides their funny penchant for bursting into song together, they were a slightly pushy group of guys, something that seemed more a cultural difference than an intended slight, but was still annoying. They’d hogged the bathroom day and night, hung out in their skivvies, and one of the guys snored robustly. Then, as we were walking out of town in the morning, one of them stopped Claire to have her take their photo, but instead of asking her, he’d held the camera out and basically said, “Hey you, stop and take our photo.” In general, not the nicest way to ask a stranger for help. We were all a little put off by the less than great behavior, but I figured, what do we know about how old Israeli guys talk to each other and their loved ones? Maybe something that comes off as curt to us was actually a friendly familiarity to them, who knows.

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If you look closely, you’ll see that some enterprising farmer planted a world map on the hillside!

I remember walking up to a town that I’d read had a thriving arts scene, and not feeling like I had time to stop. I felt rushed, and really out of breath on account of the very steep hill up to and through the main street of the town. I’m not sure if that rushing was coming from an external source or what, but I’d love to go back at some point to see if there are any potters selling unique Camino wares. Later that morning, we walked over a nice portion of Roman roads, including a bridge. I marveled at the cart tracks, and how sturdy the construction still was, and made a note to tell my father every detail on our next phone call.

 

On this day, we were all at different speeds. Generally, all three of us walked at a pretty similar pace, overall, but played leapfrog throughout the day. Natalie was still recovering from a pre-Camino knee injury, and every now and then that would slow her down, but usually she was the most efficient of us. Claire walked at a very tidy pace, sometimes using her umbrella as a hiking pole, often keeping a keen eye out for impressive old churches with unlocked doors (even better if they had a credencial stamp handy). My pace, like my thoughts, varied wildly. Hills were really difficult, and often resulted in lots of little sitting/water breaks. My calves and shins hurt, and my achilles tendon had been acting up for a year before the walk, so that wasn’t doing me any favors. At times, I’d get really into the rhythm of my hiking poles, and just motor down the trail, almost hypnotized by the repetitive sound. Other times, I’d get caught up in conversation with one of the girls, or meet a new pilgrim and talk for miles. But other times, I’d stop to look at a tree, or a rock, or a pile of rocks, or some graffiti, then another tree, rock, a bird, the sky, etc. Then I’d just get caught up in thinking about that one small thing, and shuffle along the path, knowing that there was somewhere I was supposed to be going, but otherwise not too concerned with all of the “little stuff” (you know, anything off of the physical Camino).

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I got a huge kick out of this albergue sign. Who doesn’t love a flamenco kitty?

This day, Natalie and I were together a bit more often. We left Claire behind at some point, but then when we stopped for a beer and some paella for lunch, she caught up and we sat with each other for a little while. Eventually, Natalie and I were ready to go, but Claire hadn’t finished just yet, so we walked on. But later in the day, we stopped for another coffee when she didn’t, so it turned out that while we were drinking coffees, she passed us on the road, and eventually we got to a town where Claire was already waiting for us at a fountain. Isn’t it great how the Camino allows everyone to pace themselves but still end up with their loved ones?

 

By the end of the afternoon, I was exhausted. The last towns we passed through were shaped somewhat like American suburban areas, with newer houses on a grid system, and less of the romantic older structures I’d grown to love. It was somewhere in here that I got separated from the girls and started to despair of finding the place we were supposed to bunk for the night. Earlier in the day, we’d made the decision to stop at a place called Casa Magica, mostly because it had great reviews for food, and the guide book said it also offered massage, which we all agreed would be an excellent option. I’m not sure why or how I got so turned around, but for about 15 minutes, I wandered around on the verge of tears, no clue if I was still on the Camino or where to even try to go to get back to the yellow arrows. Luckily, I eventually found a public square near a school, and ran into some German pilgrims who pointed the way for me. A few minutes later, I found Natalie, and Claire arrived a short while later.

The albergue La Casa Magica was everything I’d imagined and more. The place was empty when we first got there, so Natalie and I sat around, waiting for the owner to come back. His entrance was preceded by that of a friendly, humongous black dog named Thor. I was a bit sad to not have more time to hang out with him after we’d checked in, and I recently saw on the albergue’s Facebook page that beautiful Thor crossed the Rainbow Bridge this summer. Rest in peace, big fella.

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The foyer of La Casa Magica. Photo via their website.

As for the house, it was amazing. Nag Champa incense burned constantly in the cool, welcoming public foyer, next to a couple of lovely Art Deco chairs. A nearby lounge included a nice little beer and liquor selection, plus cosy seating, a book exchange, and the omnipresent coffee and snack vending machine. The outdoor patio was also extremely impressive, with room to sit at tables in the sun, or to relax in one of the gaily-colored hammocks strung up under the porch roof. There was also a washing machine – score!

Best of all, for a pretty large house, we seemed to have it mostly to ourselves. There were only about five other pilgrims staying that night, so we three girls got our own room. It was tough climbing up the vintage-tiled stairs to the room, but we were rewarded with what would be one of the nicest sleeping arrangements of my entire trip – a large bedroom with multiple beds, adjoined by two smaller rooms with a single bed, each. I thought of these smaller rooms as “sleeping cubbies.” Natalie took one of the beds in the large bedroom, while Claire and I both took one of the sleeping cubbies. There were thick, warm blankets available, making me feel comforted in exactly the way I needed that afternoon.

When we checked in, there was a pilgrim couple sunning in the back yard, but I don’t recall getting to know them. I took a shower in one of the best bathrooms of any albergue (Rain shower heads and plenty of hot water with great water pressure! Heaven!), then spent the afternoon drinking ales in the lounge, writing in my journal, waiting for the massage therapist to show up. Sadly, though I did get a massage, it was rather underwhelming. I needed some deep tissue action, and he was very light-handed. I was also feeling very chilly that day, a combination of the actual weather, the chill of an old house, and, I realized a few days later, the initial onset of the head cold that was gifted to me by the phlegmy bunkmate in Pamplona.

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Beautiful little crocuses were everywhere along the early days of the Camino.

Dinner that night was nothing short of amazing. It was so beautiful and fancy that I forgot to even get a photo of the meal. The owner of the albergue is a great chef, and after all of the pilgrims had taken their places around the communal dinner table, he fed us a multiple-course vegetarian meal that would have been at home in a fine dining establishment. We had soup, an appetizer of cheese-stuffed peppers, and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous vegetarian paella that had dates (I was really impressed by those dates) in it. I wish I could remember every single detail of the meal, but all I get are flashes of how lovingly the plates were decorated, and the huge paella pan from which he served us. Also, I remember that the desert was my first time trying natillas de leche, and it was crazy delicious.

I wasn’t really up for extended dinner conversation, but we all introduced ourselves around the table, and one couple stands out to me. At the end of the table were a man around my age and woman in her late 20’s who had been walking together for the last few days. They seemed cosy, maybe a little romantic, but there was something in his manner that was off-putting. He talked a little too loud, maybe made a little too much of himself. I made a mental note to avoid him if we passed him again on the trail, and I guess his companion came to the same conclusion. At breakfast the next morning, she asked if she could walk with us for the day. So much for Camino romance!

Click here to read about Day 9.

Anna’s Camino: Day 6 – Pamplona

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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The scallop shell appeared everywhere on the Camino. After growing up on the Atlantic coast, I’ve never been much of a fan of nautical references, but this particular symbol really grew on me. This is the sign for the Albergue de Jesus y Maria, in Pamplona.

I’ve got mixed feelings about Pamplona. Before going on the Camino, I’d never aspired to visit the city before, and my experience there wasn’t exactly negative, but it wasn’t stellar, either. I wasn’t sad to leave, let’s put it that way. That being said, it was still an experience, and it deserves a mention. I did have some interesting interactions there, and met one of my Camino friends there in a very funny incident.

Not long after reluctantly leaving Zabaldika, we walked past a beautiful little farmyard, complete with turkeys, chickens, geese, and a cute little goat! I really wanted to pet the goat, but one of the geese flew to the top of the fence and made menacing noises at us after we’d stopped to admire the yard. Claire shooed the goose away with her umbrella, but the moment was over, and we moved on.

Once you get to Trinidad de Arre, from there to Pamplona grows to be more and more urban. It’s not exactly like walking through the suburbs the entire way, as you’re on a beautiful trail with nature all around, more like walking through a great park. We were all interested in checking out the mill museum in Trinidad de Arre, but it wasn’t open when we walked through. Instead, we visited first church when you walk over the bridge, then stopped to read a little bit about the mill processes on a sign down by the river. We hurried through, mostly because by that point, everyone had to pee, and there wasn’t a bathroom in sight. No one wanted to walk further into town if we we’d have to backtrack to get back on the Camino, so we just kept trucking along.

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The mill town of Trinidad de Arre. At the top are various shots of the Templo Santisma Trinidad, and below is the bridge leading into (and in our case, out of) town. At the back right of the bottom image, you can see a large sign and a small person. That’s the Camino – from there we headed to the right.

Luckily, at some point the park-like trail actually leads straight into a legitimate park, and Natalie spotted a public recreation center with an open sign. Bless her, she was brave enough to ask the lady at the front desk if we three could come in long enough to use the bathrooms, and we were allowed to pass through the little revolving gates that would typically take a token to enter. After that, the walk into Pamplona was pretty smooth sailing.

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This was the first time that I noticed that the word for “bathrooms” that I was seeing most often was “aseos,” (which translates to “restrooms”) not “banos” as typically taught in the U.S. Another common sight was “servicios.” It made me realize how confusing it must be for ESL students to have to distinguish between “bathroom,” “powder room,” “washroom,” “restroom,” etc. The word “komunak” is Basque, and means “common.” Just guessing, but since this was a unisex bathroom, I believe the English translation in this case would be something like “communal.”

One thing I noted was that a lot of people were out in the park with their dogs. At the beginning of the Camino, near Orisson and Roncesvalles, all of the dogs I saw were working dogs – border collies, mostly. Here in the city, I saw mostly border collies, schnauzers, King Charles spaniels, and a particular sort of dog I’d never seen before that looked kind of like a cross between a border collie and a Bermasco sheep dog. I later found out that this was the Spanish water dog. I didn’t take any pictures, but here’s what a Spanish water dog looks like:

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Via Photography on the Net‘s thread for Spanish Dog Lovers, as posted by briarlow in 2006. You should click through to see the puppies!

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Seeing the Pamplona city walls was almost surreal after having had our fill of nature for days. They were imposing, to say the least, and it was easy to see how walls like that could make enemies turn tail and run in less technologically advanced times. When we got to the walls, I was too tired to keep walking, so I just sprawled out in the grass and looked up at the way the sky met the structure for a while. A big dog came over to sniff me, and the girls started laughing as I narrowly avoided getting piddled on!

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At The Abbey, Neil had advised that we walk this particular route to get into the city so that we could enter through the French Gate (Portal de Francia), and though I hadn’t been around to hear this conversation, Claire was excited to get a photo there. We all took turns having the others take a photo, while we were at it, which took a little longer than expected since there was a fair amount of foot traffic entering the city that way. We hadn’t planned it, but we’d entered Pamplona on a local holiday. The streets were flooded with people, and there were lots of protestors, too. I was already tired, but the crowds overwhelmed me, wearing me out even more.

It took awhile to find our albergue, even though in hindsight it’s right in the middle of things. The Refugio Jesus y Maria was an abbey at one time, and now houses around 100 pilgrims in two large, multistory bays. We were some of the first to check in, and got bunks close to the front of the building, WAY on the other side of things from where the bathroom was located. I really wanted to wash clothes, though Natalie and Claire had sightseeing plans in mind. Since clean underwear were a priority, I gathered everyone’s things and offered to sit in the laundry room and wait for a washing machine to open up. While I was sitting in the laundry room, reading and waiting for a machine to open up, an Aussie pilgrim and his older friend (Ron?) came along and struck up a conversation. The Australian man taught me a couple of new leg stretches, since my calves were still seizing up daily after I’d stopped walking. I taught him a hip opening stretch that had helped me a lot. Then the friend (let’s call him Ron, shall we?) asked if I’d be kind enough to throw his socks in the wash with our clothes if he paid for the washer. I enthusiastically agreed, and the men went off to dinner, while I waited for my chance to do some washing.

Little did I know that what should have taken an hour or two was to become an all day affair. Long story short, since it turns out that writing this has made me angry, all over again – the washers at Jesus y Maria are awful, and laundry etiquette is not the same the world over. Since the washer instructions were rather strange, and the timers didn’t seem to work that well, I set my phone alarm for every ten minutes, and spent the afternoon walking back and forth to check out my washer. During that time, my laundry was removed from a washing machine that was still running not once, but twice. Both times, I found sopping wet laundry pulled out of the washing machine, with new laundry in the washer, using up my final minutes. Language barriers being what they were, and realizing after I complained that the people responsible thought I was being silly, I decided to just give up and do it the old fashioned way. I rinsed and wrung everything out in the sink, commandeered a drying rack, and hung it all up to dry.

I seem to remember there being a dryer, and that Claire very nobly took over looking after the clothes and making sure to snag the clothes dryer later that evening, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I seem to remember looking down from my bunk at a triumphant Claire holding a bag full of dry clothing, and breathing an inner sigh of relief. If it’s a fake memory to make me feel good, so be it. I’ll take it. I was most concerned about Ron’s socks, and in the end, he wasn’t unhappy, so a few hours’ stress turned out to be pointless.

At some point, the three of us went to grab food, and wandered into – of all things – an American-style burger joint. I was tucking away a burger and cheese fries when Natalie suddenly exclaimed “I think I’ve been here!” It turned out that of all the random places we could have chosen, we’d happened to walk into a place where she’d eaten a meal a couple of years before, on her last Camino.

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Cool event poster.

Afterwards, the three of us did a bit of sightseeing. On our way back to the albergue, I suddenly got an uncharacteristic craving for a sugary soft drink. I didn’t care, I just needed sugar. It was weird, but I figured it had been a long week, and a treat was fine. We stopped into a little corner store and grabbed drinks, then meandered back towards the albergue. Just as we were getting to the front door, we saw a small crowd gathering, and walked up to see what was happening. A teenage pilgrim that we’d seen from time to time over the last day or so had fainted on the street, and her friends were trying to revive her. I’d only taken a sip of the soda, so I quickly handed it to her friend, to give her a little boost in case her blood sugar was low. A man caught my hand and said, “God bless you.” It was a strange moment. On one hand, I missed my soda. On the other, I wondered if it was supposed to be her soda, all along.

Even though everything on my body hurt, I still hadn’t found the right opportunity to visit the farmicia and stock up on pain meds. I had a few Tylenol PMs left that I was using for pain and sleep, but I was about to run out. Since we were now in the big city, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to find a pharmacy, but it was not to be. It was a holiday, so everything was closed. In my very limited Spanish, I asked the hospitalera at the front desk if there were any pharmacies that would be open. She asked what I was looking for, so I said the only thing that came to mind, “pain pills,” meaning Ibuprofen or something similar. Out of nowhere, this guy pops up beside me. “Pain pills?” I realized I’d seen him a little earlier in the day. He reminded me one of my best friends, down to the black eye, which looked like he’d been hit. My first thought, as uncharitable as it was, was that whatever happened, he probably deserved it (mostly because the friend that he reminded me of has got a mouth and a way of letting it get him into trouble). In short, I liked Nestor at first sight.

That first conversation was short, but funny. I clarified that I was just looking for some Ibuprofen, and he looked disappointed. Turned out that he had been searching for an open pharmacy, too, though I’m not sure what for, exactly, because as we parted to our opposite bays, he yelled to come by his bunk if I wanted anything stronger than Ibuprofen. I laughed and said he should come by mine if he wanted a Tylenol PM. There were about a hundred people in the albergue, and we didn’t meet again in Pamplona, though the girls and I saw him looking for a pharmacy the next morning and speculated on what had caused his facial injury. (I wouldn’t see him again for another week or so, at which point he told me that he’d been mugged in Barcelona before starting the Camino. I felt awful for my prior thought process, but took it as a reminder of my dad’s favorite saying: “To assume makes an ass out of [yo]u and me.”)

For the most part, I slept in a new town, in a different albergue, every night of my Camino. That’s 30 places, give or take. I can say without pause that Jesus y Maria was my least favorite. There are several small reasons – laundry, the guy in the bunk next to me having a terrible head cold which I then caught, the distance to the bathroom – but there’s one MASSIVE reason: it echoes. The building was once a church, and though walls have been built in new places to give it a shape suitable to be an albergue, it still has the marvelous acoustics that you’d expect a church to have. With two two-story, loft-style bays, each with over 50 pilgrims, the sounds can be maddening to a light-ish sleeper. As I’d mentioned before, I was doing pretty well at putting my ear plugs in, my sleep mask on, and calling it a night. But between the guy next to me gargling his own phlegm all night, the people on the floor above me having sex (or at least a round of noisy heavy petting), the hundred squeaky bunk beds, and at least three thunderous snorers on my bay, I slept poorly, and was glad to get on the road the next morning.

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One of the coolest things I saw in Pamplona was an advertisement.

We stopped at a couple of churches as we walked out of town, which put us off-kilter in a way that can only happen when you all have unspoken mental schedules and they don’t coincide. There was never an unfriendly moment between Natalie, Claire, and I, but as we left Pamplona, I felt a little more tension in the air than had been present in the days past. If I had to guess, I’d say that no one slept well, and since Pamplona had been something of a promised oasis earlier in the trip, it felt like a bit of a bust. Or maybe that’s just me. Who knows?

The one bright spot as we were leaving town was needing to pee (me – always) and seeing a beautiful little cafe right next to an open farmicia! Cafe con leches and gorgeous baked goods made everyone’s spirits rise, and afterwards, I hopped over to the pharmacy to ask about getting some pain killers and something to help me sleep, since I was about to be out of Tylenol. The pharmacist spoke English, listened to my requests, and brought a few things to the desk. I was soon the proud owner of a box of 600 milligram Ibuprofen, a tube of Voltaren cream, and a box of the best non-habit forming sleeping pills a girl could ask for (and forget the name of later). From that point on, I took my melatonin & tryptophan supplement every night, and slept the sleep of the people who walk way too far in one day.

That night we’d reach Puente la Reina, where the dwindling sunlight looked like burnished copper, and the church ladies pray to a Jesus with a heart of full of rainbows. For now, all we had to do was keep walking.

Click here to read about Day 7.

Anna’s Camino: Day 5 (continued) – Zabaldika

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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Hanging by the front desk at Albergue Parroquial de Zabaldika.

It’s a long walk from Zubiri to Zabaldika, and that last kilometer or so made the walk seem interminable, as we wound up, up, up a steep, rocky hill. One of my realizations from the early days of the Camino is that I particularly dislike being introduced to new elevations at the end of the day. That being the case, I bitched my way up that hill like a champ. I’m not sure anymore if the moaning and groaning was all in my head, or if I was being verbal, but I’m guessing by that time of day I was letting my discontent be known to anyone within earshot.

It might just have been my mood at the time, but the hardy weeds and bushes clinging to life here and there made the hill seem like an area where only the strong would survive. The detour path from the Camino up to the albergue leads straight into a lush, green church garden, which seems a veritable oasis at the end of the arduous climb. The garden isn’t visible from downhill, though, so on the way up, I didn’t even have the promise of a beautiful place to take my mind off of the climb. Instead, I concentrated on what had quickly become my main goals: a nice, hot shower, a place – any place would do – to sit down, and taking off my shoes. It’s amazing how simple life can be, if you let it.

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The church garden, via the albergue’s FB page.

Claire was trailing behind us for the last part of the walk, but as Natalie and I got close to the abbey garden, we saw a cyclist mount his bike and take a path parallel to ours that went DOWN the hill. I stared after him with a mix of awe and trepidation. “Now there’s a sense of adventure,” I thought to myself.

No, wait, I’m lying. What I really thought was something closer to, “Is that dude insane?!?”

The garden was small, but nicely tended. Green grass, flowering plants, and trees made it an inviting spot to rest, even in early October. At that point, though, I couldn’t see that beauty. I didn’t have the energy to do more than wonder where I’d be able to put my pack down. Claire had caught up by this point, and the three of us walked through the garden, past the door of the 13th century church, and towards what looked to be the front door of the albergue, in a little building attached to the church. Just as we got there, an older gentleman with a wizened face stepped out. He addressed us in Spanish, so Natalie, the polyglot of the group, spoke back. After a second or two of confused back-and-forth, he broke into English with a very strong Gaelic lilt, and we all relaxed.

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The church, with the albergue connected at the left side of the photograph.

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This is the albergue (photo also from their FB page). The church is on the backside of the building, hidden by the trees to the right of the photograph.

Michael and Kathleen (pronounced lovingly by Michael as “Kat-lin”), a married couple from Ireland, were the last volunteer hospitaleros of the year at the albergue. It turned out we’d arrived just in time to ring the church bell and take advantage of the nuns’ hospitality before the albergue was officially shut down for the season. Michael was quite surprised to see us, as the night before there’d only been a couple of pilgrims, and it seemed like the pilgrim traffic was dying down for the season. He was about to be even more surprised, because before the afternoon was out, it was a full house!

As we signed in and took off our boots off, I noticed a handwritten Spanish translation of the traditional Irish blessing (“May the road rise to meet you…”) taped up to the wall. I’m getting teary now, just thinking about that amazing couple who cared for us like their own children during our stay in Zabaldika. They truly were the face of hospitality, and as I write this from the hotel front desk where I now work, I realize that my conversations with Michael and Kathleen started a little chain reaction in my life that is still coming to fruition today. One might even say that my journey into hospitality has a great deal to do with the love that they showered on the weary travelers who came to their door that day.

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The best was yet to come. After boots were off, Michael led us up to the sleeping quarters. It was up two short flights of stairs, so my quads and calves, which were seizing up by then, were definitely not happy with me. However, to everyone’s great joy, there were NO BUNK BEDS. If you’ve walked the Camino before, you’ll understand how something like this might make your heart leap in your chest, might fill you with woozy relief and make you overly emotional. If you haven’t walked the Camino yet, make sure to plan ahead and get a spot at Zabaldika, because the no bunk bed thing is HUGE, I promise.

Beds chosen, showers taken, and fresh outfits donned, it was time to explore. My nose led me downstairs to the kitchen, where Kathleen was cooking up something that smelled amazing for our dinner. We still had a while before dinner, so Michael suggested stopping by the chapel to admire the artwork and have our credentials stamped. The church was still locked, so a few of us sat in the garden to wait, and along came a gorgeous, very friendly little tortoise shell cat. It broke my heart to see that she was limping, as though she’d recently been injured. I sat down to give her an available lap, and she sat with me for a few minutes before rushing off to chase a bug.

Eventually, an elderly, yet spry, nun in a smart outfit of slacks and sweater arrived with a key to the chapel. She didn’t speak any English, so I wasn’t able to talk with her, but she had a very kind demeanor, and as each pilgrim filed in to have their credential stamped, she gave them a little laminated sheet in their language with information about the church, as well as a couple of printed handouts to keep. The church was tiny, and quite charming. It was the handouts that really got to the heart of me, though.

I should interject here to mention that there’s a thing called the Camino moment. It’s unique to each person. Some might have just one moment, others might have a couple, or even many. It’s something like an epiphany, a time when you are touched to the core by something you experience on your Camino. I learned so much on my walk, and had a bunch of great experiences, but only three that I would call legitimate Camino moments. My first was in Zabaldika, reading the handouts the nun had given me:

El Camino

The journey makes you a pilgrim. Because the way to Santiago is not only a track to be walked in order to get somewhere, nor is it a test to reach any reward. El Camino de Santiago is a parable and a reality at once because it is done both within and outside in the specific time that takes to walk each stage, and along the entire life if only you allow the Camino to get into you, to transform you and to make you a pilgrim.

The Camino makes you simpler, because the lighter the backpack the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive.

The Camino makes you brother/sister. Whatever you have you must be ready to share because even if you started on your own, you will meet companions. The Camino breeds community, community that greets the other, that takes interest in how the walk is going for the other, that talks and shares with the other.

The Camino makes demands on you. You must get up even before the sun in spite of tiredness or blisters; you must walk in the darkness of night while dawn is growing, you must get the rest that will keep you going.

The Camino calls you to contemplate, to be amazed, to welcome, to interiorize, to stop, to be quiet, to listen to, to admire, to bless…Nature, our companions on the journey, our own selves, God.

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim

  1. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” opens your eyes to what is not seen.
  2. Blessed are you pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others.
  3. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you contemplate the “camino” and you discover it is full of names and dawns.
  4. Blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered the the authentic “camino” begins when it is completed.
  5. Blessed are you pilgrim, if your knapsack is emptying of things and your heart does not know where to hang up so many feelings and emotions.
  6. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that one step back to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without seeing what is at your side.
  7. Blessed are you pilgrim, when you don’t have words to give thanks for everything that surprises you at every twist and turn of the way.
  8. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you search for the truth and make of the “camino” a life and of your life a “way,” in search of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  9. Blessed are you pilgrim if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image in your heart.
  10. Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” holds a lot of silence; and the silence of prayer; and the prayer of meeting with the Father who is waiting for you.

I got to #5 and started sobbing uncontrollably. I sat down in a pew and cried for the next five minutes or so. Then I went up to ring the bell, because the nun said we could (not the bell on the right – it was cracked and the townspeople hated to hear it – but the one on the left was fine), and, feeling like everything was right with the world after a good cry and bell ringing, not that that made much sense to me at the time, I went inside to see if it was time for dinner yet.

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Still looking a little glossy-eyed from my pre-bell-ringing cry. This picture was taken as the bell was ringing; it wasn’t as jarring as I’d have imagined beforehand.

Kathleen was a miracle worker. She laid out a feast for us that night, most made from scratch, and all made with short notice, as almost all of the pilgrims had shown up late in the afternoon. She’d changed her plans from a simple dinner to feed Michael and a few pilgrims to a lovely multi-dish affair that allowed around 15 of us to all have seconds (and a few had thirds!) She and Michael were vegetarian, so she made an effort to cook some dishes for omnivores, like bangers and mash (with chorizo, of course) and shepherd’s pie, and some for vegetarians, including an amazing bean casserole and a veggie shepherd’s pie. Bread, sliced meats and cheeses, and plenty of wine and water kept us all very happy, too.

The best part, however, was the conversation. It was the first time since Orisson that I’d been lucky enough to be part of a communal dinner. I was sitting next to Michael and Kathleen, and chatted with Michael about music (as soon as he’d heard I was from New Orleans, he’d chortled with glee and proceeded to interrogate me about local music – turned out that he was a huge folk and blues fan). To my right sat a young Frenchwoman who, it turned out, was a singer. I can’t remember everyone sitting at the table, but the conversations flew fast and thick, and the strands of growing connection between people who had been strangers just hours ago seemed to me to be almost visible. The Frenchwoman (I want to say that her name was also Natalie) was walking with two brothers from Denmark, who had started walking from their front door and had been on the road for months. There was also a father and his teenage daughter from the US, Mark from Australia, a Polish man with whom no one could speak (he had limited English and no Spanish or French), at least one Spanish man, one or two guys that I’m forgetting, and of course myself, Natalie, and Claire.

One of the pilgrims noted that Kathleen’s command of French and Spanish were both very good, and she told us that she’d been a languages teacher before she retired. She and Michael spoke a few words to us in Gaelic, which they speak in exclusively when talking to each other. I found that particularly touching, as it’s a beautiful language and it seemed like a lovely representation of their devotion to each other. Towards the end of the meal, I remember just looking around, watching everyone as they shared stories of home, and feeling completely at ease with my life for what felt like the first time in a great while. That’s probably the moment when I realized that no matter what, even if Natalie and Claire were to walk on without me the next day, I would never be alone here unless I wanted to be.

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Our Savior of the Sticky Notes. Actually, I’m not certain why Jesus is surrounded by post-its, but at the time I assumed that these were prayers from visiting pilgrims. I loved how modern and accessible the nuns were; it made Zabaldika feel more homey.

It was Sunday, and the priest who would typically give mass was doing so in another village. Instead, the nuns invited us to come back to the chapel for singing and a group meditation. However, after dinner, I could barely keep my eyes open, so I decided to call it an early night while the others went to hang out with the nuns. Although I did what was right for my body, it turns out that the group meditation was quite impactful, and Natalie and Mark were still talking about it weeks later. If you end up in Zabaldika and the nuns invite you to come hang out, don’t miss it!

Kathleen and Michael met us back downstairs in the kitchen in the morning, where once again the lovely Kathleen had laid out an amazing spread. At some point in the night it had occurred to me that Michael might enjoy listening to one of my favorite American folk artists, Greg Brown, so I asked if he’d heard of Greg before. Michael’s eyes lit up, and Kathleen started laughing, “Now you’ve done it!” It turned out that Greg Brown was also one of Michael’s top folk singers, and he enthusiastically told me about the time they’d traveled to see him play at a jazz festival in the US. Before leaving, I wrote down a few local New Orleans bands that I thought he’d get a kick out of. I wish I’d thought to get their contact information, just to keep in touch and send a postcard from New Orleans.

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This “burrometer” was hanging by the front door of the albergue. Good to know that silliness exists in every culture!

 

It’s not easy being a hospitalero, sending away new family every morning, and welcoming another wave of soon-to-be family every afternoon. I thought that Michael and Kathleen were doing a bang up job of it, though. Leaving hurt a little more that day than it normally did. What made it worse, though, was another encounter with the sweet little local cat, whom I’d mentally named Encanta. After we’d formally left the building, boots on, packs and sticks in tow, there were still a few matters that Claire needed to catch up on via email, so we all sat just outside the front door, where we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way as the albergue got cleaned and readied for a new day.

Very soon, Encanta came limping up, and after a minute or two, she hopped onto my lap. I held her for close to a half an hour, and realized that, except for our brief meeting the day before, this was the first decent dose of animal time that I’d gotten since leaving home almost a week before. It hit me then how much I missed my cats, and how necessary pets were to my wellbeing. I soaked up all the love I could, and gave Encanta all the scratches and kisses I could before we had to leave. From that morning until the day I left Spain, I entertained thoughts of finding a way to adopt her and bring her back to the states. I’m sure she’s just fine with the nuns, but next time I’m heading through Zabaldika, I intend to check up on her.

 

Click here to read about Day 6.

Anna’s Camino: Day 5 – Zubiri to The Abbey

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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The Abbey, located in Ilarratz, Spain. Image via their FB Page. Visit them and click “Like.” They’re always in need of volunteers and donations, so consider helping them restore this gem!

A funny thing happened on the day we left Zubiri, but it’s hard to find a way to put it in words, since the change was literally all in my head.

At the end of my last blog post, Natalie, Claire, and I were at the municipal albergue in Zubiri, Spain. The next morning, I awoke in a manner that would become pretty much the norm for the rest of my Camino: people started to stir and pack up around 6, and I stubbornly stayed in bed until around 6:30. Eventually I took my earplugs out and wrapped them in my eye mask, deflated my pillow, and sat up to see where my girls were at. Claire was also on a top bunk, and she and I made grumpy little morning grins to each other as we tried to pack up as best we could without crawling down from our bunks just yet. I had a momentary thought that I was SO lucky to have ended up with two other non-morning people.

I was still getting my packing routine down to a science, but it went something like this: tuck earplugs into special pouch, tuck pouch in sleep mask flaps, deflate pillow, wrap sleep mask (with earplugs) in pillow, stuff pillow in its own bag. Next step is to change pants in sleeping bag if at all possible (pants were stored under pillow all night, along with pillow bag and sleeping bag bag). Slide out of the sleeping bag, shift over just enough to pull it out from under me, zip it up and roll it up, then stuff it in its bag (which was under the pillow all night, with the pillow bag). Get out of bed, pack PJs, pillow and sleeping bag in backpack, change shirt (typically wore sports bra to bed to make it possible to change out in the open in the morning, since bathrooms could be touch-and-go first thing), off with the hiking socks, on with foot treatment stuff (Un-Petroleum Jelly from Alba, moleskin, toe tubes for little toes), on with socks. Pack everything else into pack, and roll out with pack and walking sticks, either towards breakfast area if there was one, or to boot storage if I needed shoes on first. From waking up to walking out, the entire routine took about 15 to 20 minutes, giving me plenty of time to get out before they kicked us out, but still stay in bed for as long as possible.

We three met up in the communal kitchen/dining area to eat breakfast. I can’t remember what we had, other than cafe con leche from the kitchen’s vending machine. It wasn’t that great, but it was much better than anything you’d get out of a vending machine in the US. That was the morning that I started getting into the habit of texting my boyfriend “good morning,” since I knew that I was waking up just around the time that he was going to bed each night, and it was fun to have a few minutes to say hi before hitting the road. Claire was trying to get a few things settled via email before leaving for the day, so we dragged breakfast and chatting time out a bit, and were the last to leave the albergue. As we were leaving, Claire noticed that Natalie had decided to leave her Keen walking sandals behind in the donation area. Natalie had decided that they weren’t useful for showering, she didn’t need them for walking, and they were just weighing her pack down. It turned out that they were the perfect fit for Claire, so voila! she had a new pair of sandals. We shuffled off together, the slowest of the pack, but happy to be walking together for another day.

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A bridge somewhere between Zabaldika and Ilarratz.

Natalie had already walked the Camino Frances a couple of years before, and was walking this time with the intention of stopping at places she hadn’t stopped at before. Other than that, she had time, and didn’t mind if she walked a shorter or longer day than other pilgrims. Claire had a shorter amount of time alotted to walk the Camino, and was concerned with schedule and budget. She was particularly interested in visiting all of the churches she could along the Way, and no matter how “in a hurry” things got, she’d still stop to check if the churches we passed were locked or not. My biggest goal on the Camino was to relax and stop worrying so much about making other people happy. I wanted to use the walk to step out of myself for awhile and find a way to be more content with myself. My only concerns at this point of the Camino were to get to know my new friends, to walk as far as I was comfortable, and to make sure to try tortilla as many times as possible.

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Exactly how I was feeling by Day 5.

We had talked a little bit the night before about our itineraries. We were all looking forward to getting to Pamplona, and many peregrinos were going to be walking straight from Zubiri to Pamplona. However, we all walked a little slower, and our friend Terry had suggested that Zabaldika was actually the perfect place to stop for the day. The abbey there dated from the 13th century, and in recent years had been abandoned until a small order of nuns moved there to reopen the place and turn it into a warm and welcoming albergue for passing pilgrims. She said we might even get to ring the church bell if we behaved ourselves! So we talked it over, and set a course for Zabaldika and the nuns.

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Gotta love a good industrial area.

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Photo taken before I realized how much I detested the paved portions of the Camino. If you look carefully, you can see that on each side of the pavement in the distance, there’s a well-worn path where smart pilgrims have elected not to kill their feet.

It turned out that Claire had a close friend, Neil, whom she said owned an old abbey between Zubiri and Zabaldika, so we decided to stop in and see him along the way. As we got closer to what I was thinking of as Neil’s hangout, I realized that I hadn’t quite understood what Claire had meant by “old abbey.” La Abadia de Eskirotz y Ilarratz, known simply as The Abbey, is rather unassuming, compared to many other Spanish religious structures. It’s presumed to be a 12th century fortress that was converted into a church sometime in the mid 13th century. Neil and his partner purchased the property from the diocese and began restoring it, but have been met with some unfriendliness from the local community during the course of restoration, presumably because the couple are outsiders and locals fear that the building will be put to bad use. However, as we three pilgrims saw during our private tour of the building and chat with Neil, the church was forgotten and unloved for quite some time. It was looted, the ceiling was falling in, there was water damage and settling, and it was in danger of becoming a ruin before it came into private possession. Furthermore, Neil and the team of volunteers who have been working for years to bring this beauty back to life have pledged to never use it for financial gain or in any way that would damage the building, grounds, or local community. They simply want to restore a gem back to its original state – and they’re doing a damn good job.

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These rosettes in the front portico are said to have been created to capture the exact spots where holy water fell when the priest was blessing the door of the church at its opening.

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Inside, looking at the main altar. This altar would have been hidden for centuries behind the type of altar one typically sees in churches throughout Spain – a giant, elaborately carved and heavily gilded/painted wooden structure that probably concealed much of the back wall of the church. Amazingly, this mostly intact painted altar is so rare that it’s worth more, culturally, than the altar that once hid its presence.

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That skull and crossbones is an original lectern from the middle ages or early renaissance, found tucked away in the attic when Neil and his crew moved in.

 

Neil and Jacobie, his volunteer, met us at the door of the building, and Neil and Claire quickly got to catching up. Several more pilgrims walked up as we did, and the volunteer gave us a quick tour of the place, explaining the architectural details that remained intact, including several very important and unique touches, like rosettes laid in stone at the front door, stars carved in the door lintel, a remarkable painted altar which was in spectacular shape due to being covered by a later altarpiece (now missing, presumed looted), and a small medieval lectern that was found tucked away in the attic when the team started renovations. After the other pilgrims had left, Natalie and I sat down with Jacobie over a wonderful cup of homemade cafe con leche, and asked her story. It turned out that she had grown up in South Africa, like Neil and Claire. She moved to London for work, but had taken time off recently to walk the Camino Frances. During her walk, she visited The Abbey and met Neil, and the project stayed on her mind after she finished the walk and went home to London. After a month or so, she called Neil to see if he could use any help, quit her job, and took off for a couple of months of volunteer work at The Abbey!

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This photo is also via The Abbey’s FB page, taken from the Camino as you come up alongside the church. The gravel path you can see in the mid-ground leads down from the Camino, by the graveyard, to the front door of the church. You can just see the built-in benches on the portico where Natalie, Jacobie, and I sat to have coffee and a chat.

At one point, I asked to use the bathroom, and I was pointed upstairs to the staff toilet, typically off limits. The tour we’d taken had only led us into the large, open main floor, so I was excited to get to go up where the choir would have been. I didn’t realize that there was a whole second section to the building beyond the church, itself. (I should have, since it’s an abbey, and that means there had to be some form of living quarters, but that’s what you get for turning your brain off and going on a long walk.) Up the stairs into the choir, then through a doorway, into a dark, spooky hallway, down another set of stairs, and you’re in the other half of the building. It was a sturdy enough space, but one that’s not exactly confidence-inspiring if you’ve always had the secret fear of dying by falling through a floor. The ceilings were low, and the beams were quite hefty. Some looked to have been touched by fire, but it might just have been centuries of fireplace smoke. The bathroom was absolutely charming, though. It was flooded with light, covered in old floral linoleum, and the plumbing didn’t work, so you had to use a couple of buckets of water to make the toilet flush. I was weirdly happy over the entire experience, especially knowing that not many people got to see the bones of the building the way I had.

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Behind the scenes. The floor is obviously strong enough to camp out on, but I’m a coward.

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Beams. Much more impressive in real life.

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Probably my favorite bathroom experience on the Camino, just for the novelty. Note that the door is missing a window pane, so when you’re on the toilet you’re just staring out at the big open room with the tent in it 🙂

After the bathroom, I walked back outside to find that Claire was getting a tour of the grounds. Natalie and I tried to let them have their distance, since it’s not often that two old friends get to have a private conversation when one has moved to a different country, and they only had an hour or so to catch up before we’d have to move on. While Nat and I were looking around the building, she pointed out that you could see exactly where the old Camino had been in relation to the building. It has moved slightly over the years, as the path was widened and improved by the local government, but the old path is still there to see, running right beside The Abbey, like two old friends, still close enough to talk.

Eventually, we bid The Abbey farewell and walked on. Zabaldika was another two hours’ walk away, and it was already getting on towards afternoon. As is the way on The Way, our paces varied. Sometimes we’d all be walking together, other times one of us would fall behind or move ahead, and sometimes we’d all be walking alone, lost in our own thoughts. When we walked together or in pairs, we’d typically talk about our lives back home. For my purposes here, I won’t ever share anything deeply personal that a Camino friend shared with me, because the Camino is a place where many people go to figure themselves out, free of judgment, with the help of other people who are in something of the same spot. As I quickly learned, almost everyone I met had an issue or two that they were trying to work out by walking, and some days were heavier than others. You never had to talk with anyone if you didn’t want to, but often people were surprisingly open about their lives and what they were hoping to achieve, so it could feel a bit like a big walking group therapy.

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Follow the arrow.

That day, I remember a specific conversation that Natalie and I had. It means a lot to me, because it was the beginning of a shift in my perception. One of the big problems that I was dealing with for a year or two before the Camino was a feeling of being left behind by my best girlfriends. For much of my youth, I just assumed that I’d be the first married, with kids, and a house/picket fence/etc. My biological clock ticked for about a year in my early 20s, and by my late 20s I was starting to secretly dislike the idea of ever having children. By the time I hit my early 30s, I was getting out of an eight year relationship and realizing that I really, really didn’t want children – and I didn’t have too much faith in ever getting married, either. Nor did my finances look like they’d ever be right to own a house, or a car, or even have a dog, for that matter. In short, the traditional “American Dream” was not where I was headed, even under the best of circumstances. Without any of those things in my future, where did that leave me? What would my life be? Was it worth living? I didn’t know. And while I was sorting through all of these weird questions, one by one, almost every one of my best girlfriends got married and started having children. I was happy for all of them – they’d found good partners, professions, homes, and had moved on to the next step that worked for them. But as they became wives, then mothers, they shifted into new life perspectives, becoming subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) different people. They were still my friends, but our friendship had changed. I felt alone, left behind, and like it was horrible of me to ever talk about how hurt I was out loud, because I was the freak who couldn’t get her shit together, not them. At the same time that I was thinking that I was a loser with no life to look forward to, I was also thinking, “Hey, look at this amazing life I get to live now that I’ve figured out I don’t want to get tied down to other people!” But that was the smaller thought, being buried under all the “Gee, what a loser, might as well just die” thoughts. That’s where I was hanging out, mentally, on the day Natalie and I had our first heavy talk.

As we walked the path, Natalie and I got to talking about life as a single woman without kids. First, a little about Nat. She’s cool with a capital C. She’s about 15 years older than I am, but looks a little younger than me. She advocates for the disadvantaged and abused for a living, plays banjo in a folk band and guitar in a rock band, and splits her time between small homes in the Yukon and Mexico. When you’re talking with her, she’s truly seeing you, and she brings joy with her into a room. She’s just got this amazing inner light that attracts people to her, and her genuine goodness is evident as soon as you have a conversation with her. In retrospect, it’s no wonder that she was one of the first people that I noticed on the Camino; how could I not?

As is my wont, I started rambling on about the sorrow and anger that I’d been harboring, and once I got started, I laid everything out on the table: how I was lost and lonely, but had no way of peeling that away from the anger and sadness, so I couldn’t talk to the people I needed most in my life anymore. She listened to everything, interjecting here and there to clarify something I’d said. Then she gave me a truth. She said that she’d been through a similar thing, but it had passed. And yes, her friends had become different people, and she’d been forced to make some changes to adapt, but in the end, the kids grew up, and most of the friendships remained and grew strong again. There was more detail, of course, but these were the basics that allowed me to accept that I was allowed to grieve for old times and old feelings, without feeling guilty. I was allowed to be frustrated that things change, but it was also time to realize that while my friends were building their own life stories, I had time and space to do other things with mine. You know, things like spend a month walking across Spain, or hours writing blog posts about architecture and emotions.

It was a good talk. Afterwards, we caught up with Claire and took a short break by a beautiful, fast-moving river. We drank tea and had some snacks, and I took off my boots and laid back on a makeshift bench while Claire and Natalie described their homes to each other. It was a beautiful afternoon.

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Claire, sorting out a few things. I believe she has the tea canteen in her hands. Also, check out Natalie’s amazing orange pants. A few days later, I was able to describe her to an innkeeper by her pantalones naranjas (and it worked).

 

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The first time I saw this font, but certainly not the last. Claire’s beloved umbrella hangs on the fence, too.

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The river where we stopped to rest and have snacks.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about Zabaldika. It was one of my favorite spots on the Camino, so I want to spend a whole post just about that night.

Click here to read Part 2 of Day 5. 

Anna’s Camino: Day 4 – Roncesvalles to Zubiri

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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There are several weird things that I remember most about my time at Roncesvalles: how difficult it was for me to crawl up into the top bunk without bumping my shins on the bed frame, how very hot the hot water was in the bathroom taps, how loud the toilets were when they flushed, and the feel of my bare feet on the dormitory floor as I walked downstairs to rescue my boots from boot storage. There was warm wood, cold stone, and also a place where the floor was nubby and hurt my feet a little. The floor in boot storage was dirty. I also remember borrowing one of Natalie’s skirts while all of my clothes were in the laundry, and looking through the huge pile of throwaway items that pilgrims had left on a table downstairs in the main corridor.

That pile of left-behind stuff at Roncesvalles was an eye-opener, for sure. There were so many weird and random things in it from all over the world. My favorite was an entire set of foam hair curlers, left by someone who’d given up beautiful curls in exchange for less back pain, I supposed. I’d packed rather sparingly, only bringing 14 lbs of gear with me, including my pack. Still, by the time we hit Roncesvalles, I’d figured out that I could get rid of my hair conditioner, and I was calculating what else could go at some point. While I tried to find ways to make my pack lighter, Claire, who had packed on a budget and was always keeping an eye out for new and better gear, found a couple of nice clothing items in the pile and actually ADDED things to her pack. Natalie, who was a hiking pro with plenty of experience in her native Canada, had a heavy pack but also exactly what she knew she wanted and could carry all the way to Santiago. She’d even brought a “going-out” outfit with her, including comfy dress boots!

In the morning, we retrieved laundry from the nuns, packed up, and moved down to the dining hall, where Claire cooked up a quick batch of oatmeal. I’d intended on just waiting while she finished her meal, then heading out on an empty stomach (I’m not much for breakfast), but Claire insisted on feeding all three of us, and we had a hurried breakfast together as the volunteers shooed lingering pilgrims out the door to start getting ready for the new batch of wanderers who’d be walking in in a few hours.

It was chilly and just getting light out when we left the albergue, but by the time we made it to the edge of town, it was fully light. Terry and Phyllis were taking pictures by the Camino distance sign on the edge of town, so we stopped and got into a few shots, then walked on together. Terry and I got to know each other a little better, and found that we both had a penchant for reading Camino journals and related stories. Natalie, Claire and I quickly outpaced Terry and Phyllis, but exchanged hopes that we’d meet up again down the road.

 

The walk out of Roncesvalles led us through an oak forest that was said to be inhabited by witches, as well as through a small town famous for its witch trials. I didn’t realize it until later, but once we reached Burguete, we were in Hemingway country. This part of Navarre was where Ernest Hemingway used to love to vacation with his family. It’s famous for being a great fishing spot, though I mostly admired the lovely architecture. I was still new to the Camino, so I hadn’t really grasped that the architectural styles would be changing drastically as I crossed Spain. In hindsight, I wish that I’d have taken more time to admire the buildings and historical markers as we passed through, since they were very different from anything I’d be seeing down the line. Burguete was the first place we stopped at that morning, since I needed to use the bathroom and we were all interested in finding a snack. I’ll always remember the cute little pub where I tried a delicious slice of spinach pie, as well as my first bite of tortilla (Spanish omelet). There was also a new and exciting find – a Jai Alai court! I’d always thought of Jai Alai as a strange ballgame from the 1960s that is typically only played in American casino towns, but it turns out that it hails originally from Spain. Burguete’s neighborhood Jai Alai court reminded me of any municipal basketball court in the USA, with a few small differences.

 

After our bathroom and snack break, we were off again. I had to laugh on our way out of town as we witnessed a rare sight, indeed – a group of cyclists in spandex and aerodynamic helmets was cycling down one lane of the road, when they were suddenly passed by a group of motorcyclists, clad in black leather and looking like hell on wheels! It’s not every day that you see biker gangs’ worlds collide in such a manner. After we left Burguete, a lot of the rest of the walk was rural, through lovely stretches of farm fields and woodland areas. At one point we passed a field with a bunch of fat, farting horses. We stopped to pet one of the horses, and in getting closer to the paddock, I grabbed at a weed to move it out of my way. And that, children, is how I found out about stinging nettle. I can tell you what poison ivy and poison oak look like, but until Spain I’d never seen a stinging nettle. For the next five minutes or so, both hands and one of my shins burned like crazy! I even took a picture, in case I needed to tell a pharmacist just what I’d gotten into.

Up until now, I’d had relatively little pain, other than the normal muscle aches and sore feet from walking more than I was used to. This was the afternoon that the lactic acid buildup started to get to me and I started to get into real muscle soreness territory. By afternoon, my calves were done for the day, and were not afraid to let me know it! Luckily, I hadn’t experienced any blisters or serious foot pain, mostly because I had taken one big lesson very seriously: whenever I started to feel a little bit of “heat” from friction in my shoes, I stopped immediately and treated the issue. I was wearing socks with built in liners, and also applying an organic petroleum jelly substitute (Alba’s Un-Petroleum Jelly) to my feet every morning before putting on socks. I also took breaks to take off my shoes and socks and give my feet air, put on more jelly if I felt I needed it, and address any hot spots with a piece of moleskin. On top of that, I had two pairs of shoes that I’d switch out as the mood hit: a pair of New Balance trail runners, and a pair of Teva Tirra sandals. Spoiler alert: I walked for 35 days, and never got a blister or any serious foot injury. Each peregrino has their own method of foot care, but mine worked perfectly, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

 

Natalie walked ahead of us that afternoon, since she had some health issues that needed care and Claire and I were taking our time. Before splitting up, earlier in the afternoon, we had stopped for a break in a little town before Zubiri. We were looking for a place to grab lunch, but nowhere seemed to be open. Finally, we lucked across a tiny cafe with a little picnic table outside. We grabbed cold beers and ordered bocadillos, then went out to the picnic table to take off our shoes, drink our beers, and figure out where we were going. There were several kittens running around in the parking lot, and I tried to coax them over with scraps. Meanwhile, the girls looked over our various guidebooks and we decided to meet up in Zubiri at the municipal albergue. I wasn’t excited about going to the cheapest albergue on the list, since I’d heard it could be dirty, but I also didn’t want to split up from my ladies, so I kept my opinion to myself. It turned out to be just fine. I hobbled into town that afternoon just behind Claire, and we grabbed beds in the same dorm as Natalie’s, just a bit farther down the room.

The municipal albergue was pretty bare bones, with shaky metal bunk beds that made me scared to have the top bunk. I was quickly getting used to the first come, first served rule as far as beds went, and even though I am not fond of heights or shaky beds, I resigned myself to the probability that I’d be sleeping on the top bunk for the next 30+ days. This night was the first time I remember making the conscious choice to get a bed by the door, since I knew I’d be getting up at least once during the night to use the bathroom. To my dismay, the bathroom wasn’t in the same building, but in a smaller outbuilding across the courtyard. I remember grabbing my things and heading to the bathroom to shower, and my legs being in such pain that what should have been a 20 second walk took a couple of minutes. Other pilgrims lounged in the sunny courtyard, journaling, chatting, and hanging out laundry, and several gave me looks of pity as I slowly made my way over towards the promise of a nice, hot shower and clean clothes. By now, my quads had seized up, too.

After taking a shower and washing my clothes, I regrouped with the girls, and we decided to find a pilgim meal somewhere close by. We walked back into town center to take a look at various available menus, and eventually chose a sports bar with a lot of locals inside. I can’t remember all of that night’s dinner, but I do remember that I ordered steak, with some amount of trepidation (steak in a sports bar? eek). However, I shouldn’t have been worried. It was one of the most tender and delicious steaks I’ve ever eaten in my entire life, and it cost about $5 US. All I could think of was all of the fat, happy, free-range farm animals I’d walked by over the last couple of days, and that fair treatment certainly pays off in the end. Over the course of the pilgrimage, I’d start to think more about the animals I was meeting, and have second thoughts on consuming meat, but for this day, I was very satisfied with my perfectly cooked piece of cow.

As wonderful as dinner might have been, I was exhausted, and almost fell asleep before dessert. I decided to leave the girls and head back to the albergue to see if my clothes had dried on the line yet, and get ready for bed. What awaited me was a mini nightmare for a new pilgrim: the clothes line was empty. My clothes were missing!!!!

I was so exhausted and confused that instead of taking a second to consider what might have occurred, I jumped right to worst-case scenario. Sobbing, I walked into the communal kitchen and announced to all of the pilgrims there that my clothes had been stolen. The people who could speak English popped into action, asking what I’d had on the line, where it had been hanging, and if I needed anything else. A few non-English speakers comforted me with kind eyes and pats on the back. I’m sure a few people rolled their eyes (as I’m doing in hindsight) at the sight of an over-tired, emotionally distraught woman in blue elephant pajamas, sobbing over a few things that could be easily replaced. I was mostly worried about a special t-shirt that I had worn that day, and intended to wear when I reached Santiago de Compostela. After a minute or two, I regained my sanity enough to stop the waterworks, and a helpful peregrina helped me retrace where my laundry had been. As it turned out, a married couple had washed their laundry earlier and hung it close to mine. The wife had sent her husband out to grab their things off of the line and throw them in the albergue’s only clothes dryer to make sure they were dry for the morning. He’d grabbed anything that looked vaguely familiar, including all of my clothes. I apologized for being a head case, and she apologized for sending her husband out to grab the laundry in the first place. He joked that he wouldn’t need me to pay rental space in their clothes dryer, and all was good. We hugged, the communal kitchen was once again a tear-free zone, and we all went to bed soon after, with nice, dry clothes.

Getting out of bed that night to hobble to the bathroom was torture. I resolved to pick up any and all available drugs as soon as we reached the next pharmacy. Other than that, though, no bed bugs and no excessive snoring from anyone in the dorm, so life was pretty good!

Click here to read about Day 5.

Anna’s Camino: Day 3 – Orisson to Roncesvalles

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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For much of the morning’s walk, all I could hear was the wind and the chiming of the tiny bells the sheep wore.

The trek from Orisson to Roncesvalles was, without a doubt, the most beautiful and emotionally-jarring leg of my Camino. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some stunning vistas to come, but this little slice of the world is shockingly beautiful on a good day, and it was the perfect day to cross the Pyrenees on foot.

I walked away from Orisson alone, and was on my own for about an hour before I heard a pair of pilgrims walking up behind me. I’d met the two the night before at Orisson, and remembered that they were from Chicago. Andy was in his mid-20s, and had just finished up a teaching gig in Asia. He wanted to walk the Camino before moving back to the States, and his dad, Peter, had decided to join him for a portion of the walk. The three of us chatted a bit as our paces allowed, and walked together for small times throughout the day.

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The first of many beautiful horses I was to see along the Camino.

I got the feeling that Peter thought I was unprepared (which was fair – I was). The father-son duo were very outdoorsy, and, along with Andy’s brother, had traveled quite a bit when the boys were younger. Learning from my experiences the day before, I decided that since the day was gorgeous and I didn’t have any set time to be in Roncesvalles, I’d take my time to sit and take my shoes off whenever I felt like it. There were sheep EVERYWHERE, and the trail was often littered with sheep and horse dung, but every now and then you’d find a rock that was just perfect for sitting on to take a break.

It was also perfectly quiet out. The wind was blowing, but you could hear the bells the sheep wore tinkling from a mile away across the mountains. That first day, my ears were actually ringing from the silence! But as I sat there on this particular rock, admiring the landscape, letting my feet breathe, I heard Peter mention me. He and Andy were far down the mountain. He couldn’t have known I’d be able to hear him, and I know he wouldn’t have wished to hurt my feelings. He was criticizing my shoes (New Balance trail runners – perfect choice for the Camino if you have hot feet and you’re prone to ankle blisters from high ankle choices like hiking boots). I heard Andy shushing him in what I was to learn was his characteristically kind and easy-going manner. A minute or two later, I saw them approaching from around the bend and down the mountain. As the song says, voices carry.

Everyday Anna would have been deeply hurt at the thought of being criticized. Camino Anna took into account the cold, damp feel of the stone beneath her tech-fiber covered butt, the amazing breeze wafting across her sweaty toes, the rich smell of grass, mingled with sheep dung, the sound of those bells tinkling across the mountainside, and the sincere tone in Andy’s voice as he had asked his father to stop being so critical of a stranger…and I let it go. Of course, not enough that I’d forget it, but that moment seems set apart from many others, in that it was one of the first major learning moments of my Camino. It was a time when I had a choice – confront someone for being (unintentionally) jerky, or refuse to escalate a stupid conversation and go back to enjoying the hell out of this little slice of heaven. I made the right choice. I hope that I can continue to reflect on that for the rest of my life, and let it guide me into continuing to reject unnecessary drama.

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A hint at the mud that was to come later that afternoon!

Two or three hours into the day’s walk, there was a special treat waiting for us on the mountain – a little food truck with the last credential stamp in France! There was also hot coffee, tea, and chocolate, juice, boiled eggs (to become a favorite on the Camino), fruit, and this amazing local sheeps’ cheese that was made by the farmer/food truck owner. I ended up sharing some cheese with Andy and Peter, then buying my own wedge for later.

As we happily drank coffee and ate our revitalizing snacks, Natalie and Claire walked up. We chatted briefly, then I walked on.

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The Virgin of Orisson (Verge d’Orisson)

Most of the rest of the day was walked alone and with various people. Andy and Peter and I crossed paths a few more times, and I walked a while with Natalie and Claire, but once we got into Spain, the path got muddier and more difficult, and I found myself growing weary and retreating into myself a bit more. I took frequent breaks to nibble on the sandwich that I’d brought with me from Orisson and catch my breath.

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Taking a break. I could hear the waterfall, just couldn’t see it!

At one point in the day, I was sitting close to a waterfall that I could hear but not see, letting my feet dangle over an embankment, eating the end of my sandwich. The trail in that area is a popular walking trail for nature enthusiasts, so every now and then a biker or walker would pass me going the opposite way. To amuse myself, I’d say “Hey, you’re heading the wrong way! Santiago’s that way!” Most of the time, the hikers would laugh, but one time, a couple of middle-aged Brits laughed, then stopped and asked me what everyone was doing. They’d seen all the pilgrims, but didn’t know anything about the Camino. They asked me how much farther I had to go, and when I told them, “Oh, about 30 more days or so,” the man shook my hand and wished me luck, lol!

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Only 765 more kilometers to go – piece of cake!

 

Heading down toward Roncesvalles, you walk through a dimly lit forest that seems almost magical if you’ve been living in the city too long. Along with all the trees, there was also ankle-deep mud that threatened to suck off your shoes, and a thick covering of slick leaves, just to add a little extra excitement. I saw a few people slip and fall, and if not for my trusty walking sticks, would have surely met the same fate. One thing I found out about mud of this type is that my innate reaction to squelching through mud is to get the uncontrollable giggles. A fair number of pilgrims must have thought I was absolutely insane as they passed me on the trail, because I laughed uncontrollably for at least an hour of muddy trail, squelching all the way!

Claire and I caught up just before Roncesvalles, and I asked where Natalie was. It turned out that she’d hurt her knee before starting the Camino, and was nursing the injury still. The pain had come back in the afternoon, so she was taking it slow on the descent into Roncesvalles. There was a waymarker noting directions to the albergues and town center when you first leave the trail and enter Roncesvalles, so I offered to stay there with our packs and wait for Natalie while Claire walked to find the main albergue. A few minutes after Claire walked off, Natalie appeared at the woods’ edge. She was pleasantly surprised to see me, and I felt proud to have made a helpful decision. It seemed like Natalie, Claire and I were becoming an item, which was both a surprise and a relief. Even though it had been really easy to meet new people thus far, much easier than I’d anticipated, I couldn’t believe I’d had the good luck to meet these two kind strangers at the very outset of my journey. Without even meaning to, I’d found my first Camino family.

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Thank goodness for Scotch (and the kindness of bartenders).

Claire was eager to get a bunk and get her affairs in order, but Natalie and I were both much more eager to find a drink and let a day on the Camino roll off our backs. We walked together down to the nearest pub, where Natalie got the closest thing they had to a brandy, a Spanish liqueur called Pacharan, and the bartender gave me a double Ballentines on the rocks with an espresso chaser. We sat in the sun, sipping our drinks and getting to know each other a little more, stopping to say hi to various pilgrims we knew from Orisson and the day’s walk. Andy came along and pulled up a chair. Terry and Phyllis soon straggled over. Claire found her way to us, along with a couple of women she’d met earlier. It was a gorgeous afternoon on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, and we were all quite content with the task that life had offered us – enjoying the company of our fellow pilgrims.

The main albergue at Roncesvalles is quite impressive. It’s a huge old monastery that’s been repurposed to give pilgrims a place to bed down for the night. I loved the sturdy, well-made bunks, each with its own private locker, and thought it was particularly nice that each set of four bunks makes its own semi-private pod. In many of the other albergues I was to experience on the Camino, you can see most of the room from your bunk. Here, each set of four beds had a modicum of privacy, which is nice when you’re getting eased into the idea of sharing a room with a hundred other people. Natalie, Claire and I were sharing one pod, with the fourth bed belonging to an Irish cyclist who was traveling the Camino with his brother.

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Statue of the dying Roland, as Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) is where Charlemagne’s nephew, hero of “La Chanson de Roland” took his last stand against the Basques.

After we moved into our bunks and got things settled, I took our laundry down to get washed and dried by the nuns in real washers and dryers, since hand washing the night before hadn’t gone splendidly for any of us, and we were all feeling in need of sparkling new duds. Claire decided to go on a tour, while Natalie and I went to dinner (my first pilgrim meal – spaghetti, fried fish and french fries, rice pudding, and lots of wine). Midway through the meal, the table launched into a half-English, half-Spanish conversation about current Spanish politics, which I found very interesting and enlightening. What really got me was that of three Spanish pilgrims at the table, each had a strikingly different opinion on the current political climate, but they all got along quite well (they were best friends taking just a few days to walk on the Camino) and managed to keep their political ideals separate from their personal interactions. In other words, they were much more civilized than Americans fighting over politics.

Dinner over, we went to the pilgrim mass at the local church, where the priest blessed all of the pilgrims and wished us a good journey. After such a long, tiring day, I was touched by the ceremony, but also just exhausted and ready to hit the hay. I went to sleep feeling very thankful for everything that had befallen me thus far, though a little scared of bed bugs, as Natalie had told me earlier that they typically live in the wooden bunks. Still, I was asleep within minutes and slept soundly until the lights went on the next morning.

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The moon from the albergue window when we woke up the next morning and prepared to leave for Zubiri.

Click here to read about Day 4.

 

Anna’s Camino: Day 2 – St. Jean to Orisson

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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The clock tower in St. Jean Pied de Port, taken as I was leaving town in the morning.

The morning that I started walking the Camino, I woke up before dawn. It was dark out, even though it was almost 7am. My clothes were still damp from the night before, since I’d hand-washed everything that I’d been wearing for the last 48 hours of travel. I was a little grumpy to have to put on slightly damp, very cold, clothing, but there were so many other things on my mind that I was mostly just congratulating myself for having done an OK job of getting them slightly dry overnight.

Mostly, though, I just remember being a little anxious about what I was about to do. I had no idea of what I was getting into. Sure, I’d spent months researching and asking questions, and reading every Camino journal I could get my hands on, but now that I was here it was finally hitting me that there was no real way to be prepared. All I could do was just step out the door and continue to put one foot ahead of the other for as long as the road went on. So that’s what I did. I finished packing up my things, turned off the lights, locked the door, and started walking back towards town.

First thing’s first, I found an ATM and took out 300 euros to put in my money belt. I wasn’t sure where I’d see my next ATM, and I also knew that I’d want to keep my fees as low as possible, so I took out the maximum amount the ATM allowed. I was a little nervous for a minute or two about having that amount of money on my person, but that was the last time that kind of fear even occurred to me. Coming from New Orleans, it quickly became apparent to me that I’m used to a much higher level of threat and crime on a regular basis than is happening at any given time along the Camino. Once I started to get a good feel for the people along The Way, I stopped being afraid. Of course, I continued to keep my money in a safe spot and remain on the lookout for anything or anyone suspicious, but my anxiety level about personal attack was at a negative level in comparison to what I feel on a daily basis walking around in my home city.

After getting cash out of the ATM, I walked back towards the pilgrim office, where I’d told Lee and WooYung that I’d meet them in the morning. I waited around there for awhile in the dark, watching pilgrims straggle past me in small groups on their way out of town. There was a certain air of apprehension. The streets were still dark and quiet, and except for the sound of walking sticks clacking against the cobblestones, there wasn’t much to tell you that the pilgrims were all leaving town. I waited around for a few more minutes for my buddies, then decided to see if the little pilgrim gear store I’d seen the day before was open yet. I still needed to get walking sticks, and it was misting a bit, so I thought a raincoat might be in order.

While I was picking out my walking sticks, the talkative lady with the pretty knitted hat came in to buy a few things. We stood together at the register for a few minutes and chatted politely as the shopkeeper rang up my new raincoat, walking sticks, and headlamp, then I stayed near the shop to wait for my friends and the woman walked off. I realized I still hadn’t asked her name.

After another ten minutes or so, I decided my Korean pals must have left, so I started walking. I quickly caught up with small group of people, including a 50-ish Canadian man named Gary. We chatted on our way out of town and up the winding road that led up into the mountains.

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Gary took this pic of me right before we parted ways.

Things quickly got difficult for me. I’d known that the hike over the Pyrenees was going to be intense, but nothing had prepared me for how horribly out of shape I was when altitude was thrown into the mix. I’d been going to the gym daily, and doing a lot of running and weightlifting, but hadn’t had the opportunity to work on an incline. Walking up into the mountains on the way to Orisson was a very good lesson in what I wasn’t very prepared to do. I huffed and puffed along with Gary for awhile until I realized I wasn’t going to be able to keep walking all in one go. We hugged and bid each other Buen Camino, and my fourth Camino friend walked on without me.

I used my raincoat to make a waterproof seat and plopped down on the side of the road to take a breath. I tried not to get too scared about how much trouble I was having breathing, and how hard my heart was pounding. Instead, I took calm, steady breaths, and focused on enjoying the landscape around me. It was absolutely gorgeous. The day was cloudy and a little misty, but I’d worked up a good sweat on the walk up, so I was still warm despite the chill in the air. Now and then, small groups of pilgrims would pass me. Most asked how I was doing, and offered me a snack or a piece of chocolate. I declined the offers politely, but thanked everyone for their care.

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View from the roadside during one of my breaks.

After awhile, it was time to pick up and get started again, but to my dismay, about 20 minutes later I was again huffing and puffing and feeling dizzy. So I stopped again. And started again. And stopped again, and so on. It took me almost four hours to walk the 9 kilometers (just under 6 miles) from St. Jean Pied de Port to Orisson. Along the way, more people offered me chocolate, and I started to accept, lol. It was still a lovely trip, even though for awhile I was sure I’d die of a heart attack.

For a while, I watched a group of pilgrims playing fetch with a neighborhood dog. A little later, as I looked back over the route I’d just taken, I noticed two fast-moving hikers covering a lot of ground. They were way in the distance, I could barely tell they were people, but the way one of the little dots moved made me think of WooYung’s determined gait. From then on, every time I stopped to take a little break, I’d scan over the trail behind me and down the mountain to see if I could see those hikers, and as they got closer, I realized that I’d been right – they were Lee and WooYung, moving steadily closer. I remembered that they’d mentioned having been in the military, and it dawned on me that there was no way I’d ever keep up with these guys once they passed me on the way to Orisson. Sure enough, once they got close and saw me, they slowed down a little to walk with me, but eventually we said our goodbyes and they moved on.

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The rest of the morning is a bit of a blur. I was alone on the Camino Frances, but other than the persistent thought that I might keel over before I even got to my first albergue, I was having a pretty good time. The landscape was gorgeous, though misty. Every pilgrim I’d met thus far had been very kind and pretty interesting, so I was relatively sure I’d meet people I had something in common with. And there was another thing. I knew that I had 45 days in Europe, and the bulk of my trip was ahead of me. It was just starting to dawn on me that all I had to do was walk and eat and sleep. Luckily, I’d had the forethought to reserve a bunk at Orisson instead of deciding to walk all the way to Roncesvalles as many (stronger, hardier) pilgrims do. A lot of people decide to do a much longer trek from St. Jean Pied de Port all the way over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles in one fell swoop, but I’d had a feeling that I wasn’t up to that kind of a hike on my first day. And I was right. By the time I saw Orisson on the ridge, around 11am in the morning of my first day’s walk, I was DONE. I wanted a shower, a bed, and a glass of wine, not necessarily in that order. Most of all, I didn’t want to walk another step.

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A prettier view of Refuge Orisson than I could have taken, via their website. If you’re not sure about walking all the way to Roncesvalles (or even if you are), I’d encourage you to try to get a room here for your first night. It’s a great place, and worth every penny.

The first thing I remember about Orisson is seeing that they had soup on the menu, and realizing I was absolutely starved from the day’s walk. The second thing I remember is seeing the woman in the knitted cap again. It wasn’t quite time to check into our bunks yet, so the pilgrims who’d chosen to stay overnight instead of walking on put their packs to the side and ordered lunch in Orisson’s sizeable communal dining area. Offerings were simple but hardy – ham and cheese on baguettes, a thick, creamy vegetable soup, coffee, and wine. I ordered food and sat next to the only person I knew, knitted cap girl, who turned out to be Natalie, from the Yukon. Within minutes, we were chowing down and talking like old friends. It turned out that this was Natalie’s second time on the Camino Frances.

Once we were allowed into our rooms, Natalie and I shared one of the three bunk beds available. The other beds were taken up by Phyllis and Terry, old friends from Seattle, Claire from South Africa, and Karen from Canada. Dreamy, yet pragmatic, Claire intrigued me from the start. I was also interested at the friendship dynamic between Terry and Phyllis, and gave them silent props for having the guts to do this kind of thing with a friend. Karen had a streak of “diva” to her, but once she and Claire got to talking about meditation techniques, I took it as a cue to remind myself to stop judging books by their covers.

All sorts of things were odd about that first night in an albergue. There was the shower, which operated with a token, and cut off after five minutes. That was eye-opening. Then there were the little hygienic disposable covers to put on the mattress and pillow. I was so scared of bed bugs, despite the precautions. Then there were the heaters, which we were informed wouldn’t be turned on until night time. Everyone had clothes that needed to be washed and dried, but with air-drying the only possibility, and so much dampness in the air, we resigned ourselves to wearing damp clothes the next day (which I quickly found to be the norm if I was hand washing my things, since I never ended up walking into town in time to catch a full afternoon’s dose of sunshine).

That night, after an afternoon of getting to know new people and figure out Camino routines, everyone met in the dining room for a lovely communal meal. We introduced ourselves, shared where we were from, and shared what we wanted to about why we’d each taken to the Camino. There were people from all over the world in that room, yet it felt like being surrounded by family.

That night, we found out that Terry snuffle-snores in her sleep (we all agreed afterwards that it was a very sweet sound). We also found out that Phyllis couldn’t sleep with any noise. After she firmly reprimanded the sleeping Terry for snoring – waking up all of the rest of us – I struggled to get back to sleep, but never quite accomplished the deep rest I was looking for. I was afraid this was to be a pattern for the next month, but my body quickly adjusted, and I slept better on the Camino than I typically do at home.

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One of the last things I saw before leaving Orisson was a statue of St. James greeting the sunrise. I felt invigorated, and ready to face the new day.

The next morning was my first real experience with what it was going to be like to wake, pack, and breakfast before a long day’s walk on the Camino. Luckily, I wasn’t the last out of bed, since that honor was reserved for Karen, who’d taken sleeping pills, was wearing ear plugs, and had to be firmly shaken to wake up!

After a quick breakfast with a bowl of coffee, I was off. I didn’t know whether to wait or walk on, given how slow I’d been the day before, so I walked on alone, leaving my new girlfriends behind. I figured if we were meant to walk together, we’d see each other during the day.

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My first Camino sunrise 🙂

Click here to read about Day 3.

Anna’s Camino: Day 1 – St. Jean Pied de Port

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.

I’ve struggled with posting photos of my Camino for a few reasons, foremost being that I miss it so much, and was afraid that going back through the photos would be too emotionally difficult. But the time has come to rehash my journey in more than just memory, and I guess I’ll start the process by sharing some photographs with you.

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The line to get into Notre Dame de Paris, where I got my pilgrim credential stamped for the first time. When I visited in 2005, I found the cathedral to be a spiritually uplifting place, but this time it felt too cramped and taken over by tourists. Then again, I didn’t get a lot of sleep the day before, so I might just have been in a crappy mood.

My journey to St. Jean Pied de Port was pretty arduous. I flew from New Orleans to Paris, spent a day in Paris doing a bit of sightseeing and getting my pilgrim’s credential stamped at Notre Dame de Paris, then took a night bus to Bayonne, from where I was to catch the first train out in the morning to St. Jean Pied de Port. This entire journey was more than 24 hours in the making, and since I don’t sleep well on planes or in automobiles, by the time I got to Bayonne at 4am, I was exhausted.

I was the first to arrive at the train station, and it wasn’t open yet. A couple of South Korean pilgrims, WooYung and Lee, arrived right after I did, and we spent an hour making the most of our limited shared vocabulary. The first train was supposed to leave for St. Jean Pied de Port around 8am, and we planned to grab the train, get to St. Jean, spend the day sightseeing, then start our respective Caminos the next morning. Unfortunately, none of us were particularly stellar with the French train ticketing system, and due to a series of miscommunications, we missed our train by about five minutes. The next wasn’t leaving for a few hours, so while we waited, we picked up a fourth pilgrim, a German teenager named Dennis. The Koreans suggested that we might as well get a beer in the train station bar, so we filed in to order breakfast and beers. I shocked the guys by ordering a shot of whiskey to go with my espresso, sealing my Camino cred from that point forward. The Koreans were amazed to see a lady drinking whiskey, and for the first time in the journey, I felt a little more relaxed.

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Poster of the Pope in Notre Dame de Paris, saying “Have the courage to swim against the tide. Have the courage to be happy.” It felt like a message from the Universe.

Eventually, we caught our train, but while we waited in the station, many more pilgrims started to file in, finding friends or making them, hanging around and looking awkward with their boots, packs, and walking sticks. Once we finally made it onto the train, I noticed that pretty much everyone heading to St. Jean was a pilgrim. One woman in a pretty knitted cap caught my eye (and my ear) as she quickly made friends with every stranger sitting near her. I didn’t talk to her, but noted she was friendly and a little louder than I tend to be, and made a mental note to catch up with her once I’d had some sleep and wasn’t feeling so overwhelmed.

The train tracks were being repaired further down the line, so at some point the train stopped and we were transferred to a bus. I marveled at the winding roads and the local flora. Several topiaries caught my eye, including one large bush that was cut to look like a basket. I made note to tell my mother. I also admired the local architecture, and found myself a bit peeved to not have a little more time to explore St. Jean before heading out in the morning.

The bus let us out at the train station, and our merry gaggle of pilgrims disembarked with no clue of where to go. We didn’t know it then, but it was the first of many days where most of us would just stop worrying and start following the guy ahead of us. Luckily, someone up there had a clue of where they were going, and we all made it to the Pilgrim Office, where we stood in the road and waited for someone to let us in. It started misting just a bit, and I got my first taste of “just dealing” – no umbrella, just my pack cover and a sense of humor.

We gave our names and countries of origin, listened to a spiel about how to leave town in the morning (which, it turns out, I really should have paid attention to), and got a very handy guide to distances between towns, available albergues, and elevation between St. Jean and the next town, Roncesvalles.

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The view from my hotel room in St. Jean Pied de Port.

After all of the pilgrim preparation had been taken care of, I said goodbye to my Koreans (Dennis had already found new friends) and headed off to find my hotel. Unlike most of the pilgrims I met, who opted to stay in albergues right off the bat, I’d rented a private room for the night. It was a great decision. I ended up with a beautiful, private room where I was able to hand wash my clothes, do a little journaling, and catch up on most of the sleep I’d lost on my way from New Orleans to St. Jean. I was nervous about the next morning, but excited. I was finally on the Camino Frances!

Click here to read about Day 2.

Every Encounter

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Just one of the many animal friends I met along the Camino de Santiago. He was so soft!

Today’s Daily Post prompt asks us to share a quote that we return to again and again. Mine is “Every encounter is an encounter with yourself.” To me, that means that every creature you meet in life is a reflection of you. How you see them is a direct result of how you see yourself, and how you treat them says a lot about you.

I left to walk the Camino last October right after I’d been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I’d known for some time that things weren’t “right” with me, but I’d had trouble expressing it to others. I was locked inside myself in a way that I’d never been before. Walking in Spain was not a luxury – it was a necessity. I needed those long days in nature to help untangle my thoughts, and to start finding a way to love myself again. I needed the exercise to learn how strong I could be, and had always been. I needed the people that I met to learn how small the world really is, and how much love is available if we just open our hearts and minds to it.

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I met this sweet dog after a particularly sad encounter earlier that morning with a litter of sick kittens. We hung out for about a half an hour, and he kissed me the entire time. Definitely made my day better.

But I didn’t figure this out while I was walking. In fact, my mind was strangely blank for most of 30+ days I spent hoofing it through Spain. At times I despaired, in fear that I wasn’t “figuring IT out” – whatever IT was supposed to be. No matter what, though, every day on the trail I met at least one animal (sometimes more), and every time that happened I felt compelled to slow down, take a break, and shower that cat, dog, horse, etc. with love. I was lucky to be walking with people who understood that I needed this, and that they shouldn’t try to hurry me along when my animal encounter of the day happened along. It was moments like this that I most felt in tune with my favorite saint, St. Francis of Assisi. It started to dawn on me that his deep love for all creatures wasn’t just a symbol of his faith, but of mental health, and an understanding of our interconnectedness with all beings.

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There were so many starving and abused animals on the Camino, and it broke my heart. I saw this sweet lady looking in the window of a cafe, so my friend Jakob and I stopped to feed her our lunch rations. She was scared of Jakob, so we surmised she’d not been treated kindly by men. However, she let me pet her after a bit, and I made sure she ate until she was full. I worry about her still.

It was only after I’d gotten to Santiago de Compostela that I read the quote “Every encounter is an encounter with yourself” and it suddenly hit me that I’d been showering animals with the love I needed to feel. I needed that kind of unconditional caring, and I’d shown myself that I was capable of giving it to to my fellow creatures – so what was stopping me from doing the same for myself? It was a huge moment in my life, for many reasons. I suddenly felt such deep respect and love for my walking buddies who had intuitively known that I was in deep need of these love lessons, and helping me nurture that time each day. I felt an even greater love for the animals that I met along The Way, and for the lessons in acceptance that they’d taught me. Most of all, I could finally connect my ability to love others with what it should feel like to love myself. It’s a really big life lesson, and I’ll be working on it for the rest of my time here on the planet, but I’m so happy that it finally got through.

My current endeavor, The Hobbit Walk, is an extension of the lessons I learned on the Camino. Click through to find out how you can help.

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Pablo was one of the last Camino cats I met. He ran right up to us on the trail, so I sat down and cuddled him for awhile.

How to Deal with Bed Bugs on the Camino

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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Learn more about how to detect bed bugs via Orkin.

Bed bugs were my second largest fear (after blisters/foot injury) while preparing to walk the Camino Frances. I spent almost as much time researching bed bugs and how NOT to get them as I did researching gear, terrain, customs, clothing, etc. In my “normal” life pre-Camino, I looked up potential hotels on BedbugRegistry.com, which charts where bed bugs have been found, and avoided these places like the plague. But when I was researching albergues, I quickly came to the conclusion that many, if not most, have had at least one run-in with bed bugs, and it would be a waste of sanity to do more than keep an ear out for current reports and try to avoid the ones who were currently infested.

Still, when I first started walking, I spent a lot of precious time and energy worrying about bed bugs. I talked about them with other people. I diligently checked the corners of the mattresses, and all the nooks and crannies of the bunks. I always used my own travel pillow, and never touched the albergues’ blankets. I curled up in a ball inside my permethrin-treated sleeping bag, half-awake, senses pricked for the first sign of bed bug attack. In short, I was well on the way to losing my damn mind. Thankfully, the Camino helped me get my priorities straight, and I had a good long time to enjoy the journey without freaking out about insects. So that’s what I’m going to write about here.

I was lucky to never experience bed bugs, but I slept in beds next to people who did. I even walked with two different people who experienced severe reactions to bed bugs that required medical care, and several more who were attacked, but lucky enough to not experience the extreme itching and swelling that comes along with a bad reaction to a bed bug bite. From this I learned a few things: treating your gear doesn’t guarantee you won’t be bitten, getting bed bugs in one place doesn’t mean you’ll have them forever, and no matter what, getting upset just makes everything worse for you and everyone around you.

There are three layers to the bed bug issue: prevention, avoidance, and treatment.

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This is the brand of permethrin that I used. It was easy to apply, and dried without leaving a weird smell or damaging the fabrics. Click through to visit on Amazon.

Prevention – When I found out that one of the best ways to keep bed bugs from infesting your gear was to spray everything with a chemical called permethrin, I was dismayed. I try to avoid unnecessary chemicals as much as possible, and was wary of what kind of damage it might do. However, as time grew short, I made the decision to spray down my belongings, and was pleased to find that once dry, nothing smelled bad and my sensitive skin never experienced any negative side effects. Permethrin can be purchased online, and acts as a deterrent to not just bed bugs, but also fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes. It’s great for treating gear and clothing that you plan to use in any location that boasts a lot of insect activity. It’s also classified by the EPA as a likely human carcinogen, so pick your battles.

Once you’re in Spain, most pharmacies along the Camino carry a spray that you can use directly on your skin that has some permethrin in it, and it’s best used topically at night on any exposed skin. I don’t know the name of it, but several friends used it and the pharmacist will understand what you need. I believe that it’s a product also commonly used for scabies, as permethrin is typically used in scabies creams. If you’d prefer to avoid using chemicals, I’ve been told that lavender essential oil also works to repel bed bugs, and there are various lotions and sprays available on Etsy and across the Internet that might work with your normal sleep routine while helping prevent bed bugs.

Keep your clothing and other fibrous objects in an air-tight plastic bag, and make sure you seal it securely after every use. Bed bugs won’t chew through plastic, and this keeps at least one set of clothing safe and clean just in case everything else gets infested later.

One additional thing that I found during my original research was a thing called a bed bug undersheet, by LifeSystems. I bought one, but it didn’t arrive in time to go with me to Spain, so I can’t attest to its efficacy. It’s used by spreading it across the mattress and hooking it to the four corners of the bed. The fabric is treated to repel bed bugs. Let me know if you’ve tried one and find it useful!

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Image credit: Piotr. Read more bedbug facts here.

Avoidance – First and foremost, keep an ear out for news. Pilgrims are always sharing information up and down the Camino. If you’ve made friends with any other pilgrims who’re walking faster than you, stay in touch via Whatsapp or Messenger and ask for updates if they hear about new bed bug issues. Contrary to popular belief, bed bugs don’t prefer wood over metal, so choosing your albergue based on the types of bunks it has won’t be of much help.

No matter where you stay, look around the mattress seams for spots of dried blood. Pick up the mattress and look around the wood slats very carefully for signs of bed bug infestation (dried blood spots, bugs themselves). Check anywhere there’s a 90 degree angle. Bed bugs are not invisible; if you’re looking you can see them easily. Another trick a pilgrim friend of mine used was to carry a small spray bottle of lavender essential oil and water, and before putting anything on the bed, spritz over the mattress and around the frame. The bed bugs hate lavender, and will surface. Take a bug to the hospitalero immediately for proof, and so that they can institute treatment measures in the room.

Also, never put your backpack on your bunk. This works two ways – you’ll potentially protect your bag from getting any critters, and also help prevent the spread in case you’re already carrying some with you unknowingly.

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Mom always said not to let the bedbugs bite! If you’ve been bitten, here’s a list of common remedies.

Treatment – If you get bed bugs, do not panic. It’s not your fault. You’re not dirty, and you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just something that happens, and it’s definitely something that you can overcome. First, tell the hospitalero right away, so that treatment measures can be instituted in the room immediately. Chances are strong that they’ve dealt with this in the past, and will have a routine down. Also, tell your bunkmates so that they can be on the lookout for symptoms (which can sometimes take a day or two to surface).

Before heading off for the day or doing anything else, wash EVERYTHING that can be washed in the hottest water, and dry it all on the hottest dryer setting. This includes your backpack, sleeping bag, and all clothing/cloth items. If you’ve used permethrin on these items, you can (and should) wash them just in case. The permethrin lasts for a number of washes, and it’s better to take every precaution.

Next, go to the nearest pharmacy. Don’t worry about your language skills – even if you’re in a small town and the pharmacist isn’t fluent in English, he or she will understand “bed bug” and can provide you with the help you need, or tell you if you should go to the doctor for additional treatment. If you haven’t started using the aforementioned bug spray or some sort of lavender, this might be a good time to start. The pharmacist will recommend the right creams for bringing down swelling and itching. The worst case scenario is that you might have to go to the doctor to get a cortisone shot and perhaps a stronger cream to soothe your skin’s reaction.

Whatever you do, don’t avoid the situation, and don’t bring your bed bugs to the next town. As soon as you realize that you’ve been attacked, stop and handle it. If it’s first thing in the morning, stay at that albergue and have that hospitalero help you. If you don’t realize until you’re on the road, just be up front and honest with the hospitalero at the next place. Tell them that you think you might have bed bugs, and you’d like to wash all of your gear. Most hospitaleros will want to help you out, though they’ll be worried about bed bugs getting into their establishment. No one wants the bed bugs to spread, so you may find yourself wearing borrowed clothes and not allowed to go up to the bunks until your gear is washed, treated, and checked again.

Tips for Re-entry – If you picked up bed bugs on the Camino, or are just afraid that you might have even though you haven’t experienced any symptoms at all, you might be thinking about what you can do to make sure that none hitch a ride home with you. First off, come to terms with the fact that there is no 100% foolproof way to avoid bed bugs entirely for the rest of your life. You could get them anywhere – on public transportation, from visiting friend, from your next door neighbor’s apartment, even at your favorite department store. After you’ve done as much as you can, you will have to find a way to let go of the worry and let things take care of themselves.

That being said, here are some additional steps you can take once you reach Santiago de Compostela, just to ease your mind a bit. First off, wash everything you have with you one more time on the hottest washer and dryer settings. Afterwards, consider getting rid of clothing or items that you don’t want to keep. You can donate some things at Pilgrim House on Rua Nova, and they’ll have ideas for where to donate the rest. While you’re visiting, ask about getting your gear treated. When I was in town in November 2015, there was a service that treated gear, possibly by dry cleaning and spraying with pesticides. The kind folks at the Pilgrim House will know more.

Bed bugs suck. No one likes them, and no one wants them. One bad bunk bed could possibly lead to days of irritation. But I spent many anxious months worrying myself unnecessarily over something that wasn’t going to happen. I’m hoping that this post will give people the tools and peace of mind they need to address bed bugs on the Camino with grace, then move on with their lives, whether or not they ever suffer a bite.

Did you get bed bugs on the Camino, or know someone who did? Did you find any amazing preventatives or special treatments you’d like to share with others? Please leave your bed bug experiences in the comments below.