Day 21 (Part 2): Villarmentero de Campos to Calzadilla de la Cueza

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.

All beautiful moments must come to an end, and soon enough, it was time to pack up and leave the garden at Albergue Amanecer. Buoyed by our little break and the lovely surroundings, my moodiness from the morning disappeared as we hit the road again. The weather had cleared up over the course of the morning, and once again we had blue skies and puffy clouds.

As we walked, Jakob and I discussed who we were and why we had each decided to walk the Camino. Despite our easy friendship, our lives had been extremely different. I was an only child, raised in a rural area by a lower income family.  I moved a thousand miles away at 17 and never looked back. At nearly 34, I had three college degrees and dozens of seemingly random jobs under my belt. My dreams of singing and writing hadn’t even gotten off of the ground, and I’d bounced around from idea to idea all of my life. I was pretty good at most things that I tried, and job transitions weren’t too difficult, but I’d yet to find a job about which I could be passionate. I was introverted, introspective, and struggling with depression. I was walking to find answers to questions I didn’t know yet. Though I enjoyed the religious architecture along the route, my only connection to Catholicism was my slight obsession with St. Francis, and I found him more in nature than in the built environment.

By contrast, my new friend grew up in a close-knit family, in conditions that many would call comfortable (both of his parents are professionals, and his father is well-known in his field). His family had lived in the same area of Bavaria for many generations – longer than my family had been in America. At 30, Jakob had only recently finished his law degree after many years of school. His dream was to become a judge, and he was almost there. His Camino had long been planned to span the bridge between graduation and job placement, and as we walked, he was keeping track of his job application process as it rolled along back home. I was surprised to learn that in Germany, there is no requirement to practice as a lawyer before becoming a judge. We discussed what the job meant to him, and the nuances of job hunting for a judgeship near his home in Munich. He was driven, optimistic, and given his patience and open-mindedness, I couldn’t help but marvel that he’d be great at his chosen profession. He was also religious, and for him, the Camino was a way to connect with his name saint, James the Apostle (called Jakob in German tradition, from the Latin Iacobus).

I was surprised, given how much I liked my new friend, that he was also highly active in his college fraternity. It took me awhile to wrap my head around how different it was to be in a frat in Germany vs. the U.S. He showed me a photo of their old-fashioned uniforms (complete with funny hats and military braids). Involvement seemed strict, and academics and conduct were of the utmost importance. Connections lasted a lifetime, and older members made sure that the college-age brothers didn’t stray off the path and embarrass the organization. But like the American frats with which I had more experience, beer was also a key ingredient. How could it not be, in the beer capital of Germany?

Speaking of imbibing, we found great kinship in discussing the party reputations of our respective hometowns during their two biggest festivals – Oktoberfest for him, and Mardi Gras for me. We shared funny stories of various debauchery we’d witnessed, and popular misconceptions of what these giant, world-renowned parties were actually all about. We each issued unconditional invitations for a festival exchange program – one day I still plan to make it to Oktoberfest.

IMG_7436

Bocadillo, Aquarius, Coca Cola – who could ask for more?

In early afternoon, we reached Carrion de los Condes, and sat down to have lunch at a little cafe. I had no idea, but this was about to be one of those life changing moments. We posted up at our table, me with an absolutely giant sandwich. I pulled out my phone to peruse the WisePilgrim app, and he pulled out his yellow guidebook (then only published in German – the English version came out a few months later), looking up our options. We were about to hit the longest stretch of the Camino with no opportunities to stop, and if we chose to keep walking, we’d have to really commit. No bathrooms, no water, no cafe con leche, nowhere to rest our weary feet! It would be hours before we’d make it to a stopping point, and it was already afternoon. Was it crazy? Should we do it, or just stop here for the night? Once again, I got this feeling that the Universe had put us together as some sort of challenge, to keep each other encouraged.

As we ate and mulled over the choice, it was also in the back of my mind that we must be reaching the end of our time together soon. It seemed natural to me that we would walk in each other’s company for a few days or so, then split up. Easy. No pressure. I was on track to find Natalie again, and also practicing a kind of detachment. Despite how much fun I was having, at some level I was letting things wash over me without getting too involved. Perhaps I was guarding my heart? I don’t know what I was thinking.

But then, over that jamón y queso bocadillo muy grande, somehow the conversation turned to books and TV, and I mentioned that I really loved the miniseries “Band of Brothers.” Weirdly enough, the show was my introduction to the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, and it was a series that I rewatch yearly to remind myself of determination, grit, bravery, and goodness. Jakob immediately geeked out, and gushed that the show was one of his favorites, too. In fact, he’d watched it multiple times in German and English, to make sure not to miss any nuances in the dialogue. I told him that years before, when I was training to run the Chicago Marathon, I’d spurred myself on in difficult moments with Easy Company’s battle cry, “Currahee!” He said he’d often done the same. With that simple exchange, something shifted. No more conversation was necessary – we were all in. We could keep walking. We could do this. That was also the moment that I realized I’d been handed a new Camino family without even trying.

The next albergue was 18k away, in Calzadilla de la Cueza, which meant at least another 4 hours walking at our current pace. We’d be very lucky to arrive before dark, and there were storm clouds on the horizon, so we’d probably be walking through crappy weather. It was a stupid decision, made out of false bravado, and one which had terrible consequences. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On our way out of town, we stopped to purchase two cheap ponchos. I had a raincoat and a pack cover, but had found that my pack was still getting wet inside when I walked too long in the rain. Luckily, I’d packed all of my clothing inside a big space saver Ziploc bag, so my clothes stayed dry, but I still didn’t like the moisture in the pack. Additionally, wearing the raincoat made me feel like I was in a walking sauna. I thought maybe the poncho would do the trick if we encountered heavy rain, and soon, I got a chance to test out the theory.

IMG_7445

Within about an hour after leaving Carion de los Condes, the sky went from somewhat cloudy to absolutely treacherous. The wind whipped up into a frenzy, and we were hit with heavy bursts of rain. I changed out of my trail runners as soon as the weather shifted, to attempt to keep them dry. Instead, I switched to my Teva Tirras, worn with socks. My feet were cold and damp, but didn’t chafe – and I knew I could count on dry shoes the next day. Underneath the socks was the typical layer of moleskin on all of my “danger zones” known for chafing, plus a thin coat of Unpetroleum Jelly (made by Alba). The rain was so relentless that in the end, I ended up wearing the raincoat and the poncho together.

Between the insane crackling of the poncho and the wind whistling across the open Meseta over the Camino, there was little conversation. We marched on, wet and miserable, all afternoon. From time to time, the rain would let up a bit, and one of us would point out something funny or weird to examine along the road, from old boots left behind, to road markers. From time to time, I’d begin to despair that we would see civilization again. The road stretched on forever in those moments. Inevitably, though, as my spirits sank, Jakob would draw my attention to some small wonder at the side of the road. For awhile, we both put in our headphones, and realized we could walk “together” but separately, singing along to our own tunes. Singing is always a spirit lifter for me, and this worked out perfectly. Towards sunset, we stood and admired the clouds racing along the horizon. There was power in the land, and prayer in the walking. We were discovering something important together. It was still an incredible relief to see the first rooftops of Calzadilla de la Cueza appear on the horizon.

IMG_7451

IMG_7455

It was dusk when we walked into town. Luckily for two completely exhausted peregrinos, the Calzadilla de la Cueza Albergue Municipal was on the left, immediately as you walk into town. I don’t know if either of us could have walked another step. As it turned out, the facilities were cheap and pretty nice. The bathrooms seemed newly refurbished and very clean, and the beds were comfy. There were maybe 10 other pilgrims there that night, including Tom, the older American guy I’d met with British Mark a couple of weeks before. I said hi, and he not only acted like he didn’t remember me, but was also a little rude about it. I was too tired to care much, but Jakob later told me that he saw the interaction and was taken aback on my behalf. As we started to unpack our things, I heard Jakob start laughing, and looked over to see that he was peering at me through a giant rip in his poncho. I’d already decided I couldn’t stand the way mine crinkled as I walked, so I told him he was welcome to have mine as a replacement. My pack would just have to get wet now and then.


After a hot shower and putting on some dry, warm clothes, I felt slightly more human. However, my legs were killing me, and my face was chafed from the wind and sun. It was obvious that the day’s activity had taken its toll on my already tired body. I massaged my legs with Volaren, popped an Ibuprofen, and donned compression socks, but even with that, I could tell I’d done some serious damage to my legs and feet. We’d walked around 34K over the course of the day – over 21 miles, almost a marathon. Even with all of the walking I’d done up until now, it was a huge leap in distance, and I knew I’d pay a price. Leaving the albergue in search of food was out of the question, since I could barely walk. I ate a few random choices from the vending machine while checking my Facebook messages in the break room, and went to bed before the dorm lights were out.

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

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

Two things happened that morning in Nájera. First, I woke up feeling like death warmed over. Second, after packing up, getting feet ready for walking, teeth brushed, etc., I walked downstairs to meet up with Natalie, looked outside, and realized that it was not only still dark out, it was cold, windy, and rainy, as well. Pilgrims left in ones or twos ahead of us, reluctantly, with a defeated air. Several caught cabs from the front door to their next destination, opting to avoid walking in these conditions, altogether. We stood for awhile just outside the door of the albergue, staring off into the dark, willing the rain to stop before we moved on. It didn’t help.

While I was planning for the Camino, I read over a lot of different information and opinion pieces on what the best equipment would be to have with me for days like this. Many people say that waterproof pants are a necessity. Gaiters are handy for wearing over your boots to keep out water (and on dry days, dirt and rocks). There are some heated opinions on whether it’s better to wear a rain jacket or a poncho, and most people have opinions on how to best waterproof your backpack and belongings. People also wear rain hats, and a lot prefer waterproof shoes or boots, as well. In the end, I chose to avoid most of these products, after reading up on what equipment most ultralight hikers deem necessary for this kind of walk, and realizing I didn’t feel like dealing with the weight of extra items that I could honestly live without, if I was willing to undergo slight discomfort from time to time. As far as rain was concerned, I had:

  • A pack cover
  • A gallon Ziploc bag for electronics and travel documents.
  • A large Ziploc travel bag for my clothes.
  • A rain jacket (which I later left behind, along with my fleece, in favor of buying a combined warm/water resistant jacket in Leon).
  • Eventually, I also bought a cheap poncho on a tempestuous day, but it only lasted a few days before I got tired of it.

My shoes were not waterproof – they dried out just fine. I made the decision to not get waterproof shoes after reading that they have a tendency to make your feet sweat, promoting blisters. I’m prone to overheating and being really cranky when my feet get too warm, so this was a very important decision for me. I also wore running leggings (which I wear most of the time at home), which stay close to your skin when they get wet, so they stay warm and don’t chafe or start to feel uncomfortable. Next time, the only change I’d make to this program is to buy a lightweight, warm, and completely waterproof jacket before leaving the U.S. That combo is worth its weight in gold.

I left Nájera wearing the rain jacket I’d purchased in St. Jean Pied de Port, which I already hated with a passion. I’ve always hated raincoats. I don’t own one. It’s the sound, mostly, that crinkle that moves with you. Ick. I took it off from time to time that morning, but every time I thought the weather was clearing, it would stop raining for a minute or two, then return a little harder. My feet got gradually more damp, and I had also started to run a fever and had to blow my nose seemingly continually, so between that, the warmth from the jacket, the cold wind and rain in my face, and my squelchy shoes, I was miserable.

At some point, I started getting pretty dizzy and spaced out. The only clear thing I remember from that morning was that I was walking at a pace that was, as my dad would say, “slower than snail shit.” Other pilgrims seemed to be sailing by, left and right. So when I saw a big, beautiful snail crossing the Camino, I stopped to watch its progress and took a photo to show my spirit animal to the folks back home.

img_6784

The rain started coming down pretty hard right before I got to the first town of the day, Azofra. I trudged into town, spotted the nearest cafe (always easily picked out by a few things: backpacks, stacks of hiking poles, hanging signs for various drink brands, and the quintessential red plastic tables and chairs for outdoor seating), and fought my way in through the crowd of pilgrims who were already there, attempting to dry off while staring glumly at maps and cell phones. It was a sad, sodden little crowd, but also weirdly cheery. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a certain kind of good-naturedness to being a pilgrim. Those that can’t suck it up and go with the flow can have a much more difficult time on the Camino, as the hard parts start to stack up and seem insurmountable. If you can master the art of just forging ahead, even when things seem impossible, you’ll save yourself all of the added stress. One way or the other, you are going to get to your destination. How you get there, and in what mood, is up to you.

With that in mind, I should tell you right now that I stopped walking in Azofra, and took a cab to that night’s destination, Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The decision to take a cab certainly didn’t come lightly. I sat in that cafe for an hour and a half, looking at the map, enjoying a slice of tortilla and a café con leche, blowing my nose repeatedly, and generally feeling like a complete loser for wanting to give up on the day. Natalie was there when I arrived, so I talked it over with her first. While we were sitting there, English Mark came along and had a seat with us, so I talked it over a bit with him, too. Eventually Natalie got back on the road, and Mark started packing up to leave, and I still hadn’t made up my mind.

In my pre-Camino research, I’d joined a Facebook group for pilgrims old and new, and had read many somewhat negative comments and conversations. One of the prevailing opinions I kept running into was people who thought it was cheating to use any transportation other than horse, bike, or foot, since it wasn’t “authentic.” I didn’t disagree with this, exactly, but I was (and am) of the opinion that medieval pilgrims took whatever mode of transportation they could to get to where they were going. Yes, they still walked and took horses, but they weren’t above catching a ride on a cart if someone offered. And if the point of this pilgrimage was to teach myself the lessons I was having trouble learning in my daily life, I needed to use this as a time to stop letting my pride and overwhelming need to always follow the rules push me into stupid decisions. I was clearly ill, it was terrible weather for walking with a fever, and at this rate, there was no way I’d catch up with Natalie tonight if something didn’t change. So I asked the bartender to call me a cab. It cost me around 20 euros, but I got there in less than 20 minutes. It was the first and only day that I made it into town before noon.

img_6792

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

The municipal albergue was open when I arrived, and I was the very first one in for the day (no surprise). The hospitalero took one look at me and made a low whistle of appraisal. Evidently, I looked as crappy as I felt. He ushered me in, took my payment, then showed me up to my dorm. I’m not sure if this albergue was actually larger than that at Roncevalles, but it felt massive. There were three stories, with multiple dorm rooms, a large common room with couches and long tables for dining, and a big kitchen. The shower rooms were pretty massive, too, making a nice departure from the last few days of bathrooms (especially the tiny ones with limited hot water at our albergue in Viana). I found my bunk (I still got stuck with the top bunk, even though I was the very first person at the albergue. What a crock!) took a nice hot shower and changed into my last set of clean clothes, then gathered up all the dirty clothes and headed to the tiny laundromat across the street. I’m calling it a laundromat, but it was actually just three pay washers and dryers in a little glass storefront, no attendant or much of anything else.

img_6789

Sign in the albergue kitchen that tickled my fancy.

While my clothes were washing, I looked around for a pharmacy. I’d bought cold medicine on our way out of Pamplona, but it wasn’t cutting it. I needed something way more powerful. A few blocks away, I found a little pharmacy and went in, then got in line behind a couple of Canadians. I struck up a conversation with them for a second once I heard them speaking English, and it turned out they weren’t pilgrims, they just happened to be there on vacation. Maybe it was the cold talking, but I didn’t like them much after hearing that. Well, that’s not all. I also didn’t like them much after hearing them argue with the pharmacist in a rather petty manner.

It turned out that the Canadian guy was also looking for medicine, and he actually wanted the exact thing that I did – a cold and sinus medicine that also contained Ibuprofen. He told the pharmacist, who spoke perfect English, what he’d like. She listened carefully, looked up a few things in her computer, and told him that she didn’t have anything like that. Then he started to talk down to her, insisting that the pharmacist was wrong, saying, “In MY country, where I’M from, this exists.” It was really crappy behavior, the kind I’d expect from an American abroad, to be honest. I started wondering how close he lived to the US border. In the end, the pharmacist found a sinus product with Ibuprofen in it, and the couple went away happy. I don’t think they were trying to be rude, really, but sometimes you don’t have to try to achieve. On the bright side, they’d found me what I wanted, so on my turn at the counter, I asked the pharmacist for the product by name, and was rewarded with a sweet smile and a box of some kick-ass meds, yay!

Medicine in hand, I walked back to check on my laundry, and heard what every cat lover hates – a nearby feline’s cries of distress. It was coming from over my head, maybe a block or two away, so I followed the noise, looking up at the facades of the closely-set buildings that lined the cobbled street. About four houses down from the laundromat I spotted her – a Siamese cat stuck outside on a ledge, wailing. I talked to her from street level, and she stopped crying to look down. I saw that she couldn’t get back inside the window she’d come out of without physically backing up, and feared that if she fell off the ledge, she’d now be stuck out in small town Spain, where street cats aren’t that lucky. On the other hand, if she fell off of the ledge, she wouldn’t be stuck there for the rest of the day until her owner came home. I knocked on the large, wooden front door, which turned out to be a general door to the apartment building, and the woman who answered didn’t speak English and didn’t know whose cat that was. After standing in the street for a few more minutes, feeling helpless, a college-age, dreadlocked hippie dude strolled down the street, arms full of grocery bags. The cat yelled down off of the ledge, and he looked up and sighed. It was obviously his cat. He spoke soothingly to her, then noticed me and my look of concern, and grinned, shaking his head, a clear gesture that kitty was prone to getting stuck on the ledge. We shared a tiny moment, no language, just the universal love of animals. A minute or two after he’d walked in, the next window down opened up and the cat was able to run back inside without backing down the ledge again.

As soon as my laundry was done, I downed some medicine, then took a nice, long nap, well into the afternoon. When I woke up, the beds that had been empty all around me all had sleeping bags on them. The guy who had set up shop on the bed beneath mine looked like one of my friends from home, and he was wearing a Star Wars t-shirt, yay! As I got out of bed, I said hi to him, but he scowled at me and didn’t reply.  I could hear people bustling around out in the hallways, so I brushed off that short encounter and took a walk around to see if I could find anyone I knew. A man (I honestly can’t remember who it was anymore, but it was a pilgrim I knew) saw me coming out of my room and told me that he’d seen Natalie in another of the dorms, upstairs. So I walked up to find her, and ended up running into Mark in the stairwell, grinning from ear to ear, excited to be going out to find a pint.

Mark was in a great mood that day, which is so weirdly like him to be all excited about terrible things. He’d gone to the pharmacist and showed his feet, which had slowly been getting worse ever since Roncesvalles, in part because he didn’t want to adjust the routine that had gotten him to this point, and partly because once he discovered Compeed, he’d put it all over his existing blisters, and they’d gotten infected. To hear him tell it, there had been some horror on the pharmacists’ part as they gazed upon his mangled toes, but they’d hooked him up with some great medicine, and he was enthusiastic about making a full recovery. He had to lance his blisters and inject them with an antibiotic, then do some fancy bandaging. There was a girl with him in the stairwell, but I can’t remember who she was, either, though once again, it was a pilgrim I knew. She, being a truly lovely human being, was going to help him lance the blisters and get fixed up. I loved Mark’s boundless enthusiasm, tempered with a deliciously twisted sense of humor. He wasn’t a fan of churches, so I don’t think he visited the cathedral that day, but I wonder if he would have enjoyed the gruesome reliquaries in the cathedral art gallery…

Natalie had already visited the town’s cathedral, but offered to go a second time with me. I was feeling good enough that I didn’t want to miss this important landmark, especially since it’s central to a particularly amusing story of a miracle that once occurred in the town. During the middle ages, the legend goes, a pilgrim family walked through Santo Domingo de la Calzada on the way to Santiago de Compostela. The family’s teenage son was handsome, and an innkeeper’s daughter tried to seduce him. He resisted her advances, and she, feeling insulted, hid a silver cup in his bags. When he and his family tried to leave town the next day, she reported him as a thief, and he was tried and executed at the gallows. His body was left to hang as a sign to would-be thieves, and his poor parents continued on their pilgrimage. Much later, after reaching Santiago de Compostela, receiving their blessings, and turning around to come home, they passed through Santo Domingo de la Calzada again, and passed by their son’s body. Miraculously, he wasn’t dead after all, but had been hanging there, alive and unharmed, the entire time. He yelled down to his parents that he’s still alive, thanks to Santo Domingo, and they, realizing the miracle, ran to beg the mayor for clemency in light of this obvious sign of their son’s innocence. The mayor was just sitting down to a dinner of roast chicken when the parents came calling, and he laughed outright at their ridiculous story, saying “Your son is as alive as these chickens I’m about to eat for dinner!” At that moment, the two chickens hopped up from their roasting pans, grew feathers and beaks, and started to dance around the table, squawking. The miracle was recognized, the boy was cut down and returned, whole, to his family, and from that point forward, the town has kept two descendants of those original chickens in a special pen in the town’s cathedral.

img_6824

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

The chicken coop and art museum in the cathedral are pretty cool, but weirdly, I think I got more out of the ticket office than anything else I saw that evening. You have to buy tickets to the cathedral across the street in this rather banal looking storefront. Inside, it’s very brightly lit, and set up like a regular old tourist gift shop. They’ve got all of the normal touristy things that you can buy – postcards, t-shirts, small toys, that kind of thing, but there were also all sorts of weird, cheaply-made items that were more typical of the popular dollar store-style Asian markets that you’ll find in many larger Spanish towns along the Camino. The incongruity was very pleasing, for whatever reason.

After walking through the cathedral, Natalie bustled off to meet a new friend of hers, another Mark, this one from Australia. She’d run into him earlier, and made plans to grab dinner that evening. I was invited to tag along, but first I wanted to visit the town’s bell tower, which featured a variety of bells that rang at specific intervals. I was hoping to get to catch the bells in action, and was happy that it worked out as planned (though they were very loud). Unfortunately, if I had a video of the bells chiming, I must have erased it on accident, but I did manage to get a couple of photos.

img_6830

Steps leading up to the bells.

img_6834

When I got to the restaurant, Australian Mark and Natalie were having a cocktail in the front of the cafe, waiting for dinner service to start in the dining room. They invited me to pull up a chair, and I gladly joined them. I didn’t remember this Mark, but we’d actually met days before, back at Zabaldika. He and Natalie had been sitting across from each other that night at dinner, and had gotten to know each other then and during the meditation circle that I’d skipped in favor of going to sleep early. Mark had been walking more quickly than we, but had had a brush with death the night before. He’d tripped and fallen in the shower, and busted his head open. He was bleeding and in shock, but luckily, another peregrino came to his rescue and called the hospitalero. The hospitalero happened to be a Reiki healer. He called the paramedics, but in the mean time sat with Mark and helped draw away the pain and fright using Reiki techniques.

As Mark recounted the story of the injury and his thankfulness for those who had come to his aid, I was quite taken with the sincerity and emotion of the moment. As he continued talking through dinner, it was clear that he was suffering emotionally from other issues in his life, and really needed to get some things off his chest. So I ended up crying at dinner for the second night in a row, but this time over something a little more important than a beautiful meal. Every now and then through dinner, I recall looking over at Natalie and getting the feeling that there was something more here than she’d expressed to me yet. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it that night, but it would soon be pretty obvious that I was witnessing the sweet opening notes of a Camino romance.

img_6840

Delicious paella.

At dinner that night, I realized yet again that I was familiar with Rioja-style food, when I ordered paella for what I thought was the first time. The dish that was delivered to me was savory, flavorful, a little greasy and soft, and kept reminding me of something that I couldn’t quite grasp. Eventually it hit me – my great-grandmother on my father’s side made a dish she called Spanish Rice, made of rice, ground meat, and tomato sauce, with a few spices thrown in. Nothing to write home about, but one of my dad’s favorite meals, and something I grew up eating very often as a kid. I ended up hating it – had to melt slices of cheese over it to be able to force myself to eat it. Probably the only ingredient that Spanish Rice and paella had in common was rice, but somehow the paella here at this restaurant tasted like the Spanish Rice I’d grown up eating as a kid, except that now, the nostalgia (and better ingredients, most likely) made me love the dish. It was a very weird thing to realize, since now I’m wondering where in hell my great-grandmother, who grew up on the coast of NC in a very insular area, got a recipe for bastardized paella?

Back in the albergue that night, things were a little wild. The common area for pilgrims to hang out was very large, and a few groups of pilgrims had gotten together to cook big communal dinners. After the plates were cleared away, they got to singing and making music, and it got rowdy in the way that only happy pilgrims can make happen – around 30 or 40 people were playing spoons, banging pots, and singing at the top of their lungs in various languages. All amazing, but not if you’re tired and want to sleep. At 10pm on the nose, that same Reiki-healing hospitalero rolled through wearing a red clown nose and striking a miniature gong, making it clear in a kind way that everyone needed to go to bed immediately.

There were around 20 beds in my dorm room, maybe more. That night, my unfriendly bunkmate kept most of those 20 people awake with ungodly snores that physically shook our rickety bunkbed all night. I was a little better-rested than the others, since I’d had a chance to sleep most of the day AND I had some great ear plugs that blocked a portion of the noise (not all, by any means), but when the lights came on in the morning and everyone started packing up, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how many people were shooting dirty looks at the only guy in the room who’d gotten a good night’s sleep. At breakfast, I saw him meet up with his friends at one of the communal tables, and get more angry stares from other peregrinos. I wondered if his friends had discovered his snoring problem and decided to stay in another room to get more rest. I had been in that same position before the Camino with a family member with whom I’d (in retrospect, unwisely, since I knew her propensity for snoring) shared a hotel room, and how much I hated her chipper little “Good Morning!” after keeping me awake all night with her foghorn snores. I will never, ever share a room with her again, and I don’t care how much I have to pay. Sometimes, when you love someone, you need to take measures to protect your own sanity in order to save the relationship. I never ran into the unfriendly, snoring peregrino again, but often wondered what became of him.

Click here to read about Day 14.

Anna’s Camino: Day 12 – Navarrete to Nájera

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

img_6736

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_6738

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

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

img_6739

Walking into Nájera

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

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

img_6777

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

img_6778

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_6782

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

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

Click here to read about Day 13.

Anna’s Camino: Day 10 – Viana & Goodbye, Darling Claire

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.

img_6709

We had been walking the Camino Frances for ten days when Claire announced that it was time for her to go on ahead. She’d been dropping hints for a couple of days, at least, but none of us wanted to spend much time thinking about it. It was just too difficult of a concept, and I get the feeling that we were all pretty much in the same boat, thinking we should ignore it until it happened, keep on living every moment for the moment, just as we had for the last week and a half.

From the outside, looking in, it probably seems silly to you that it was even that big of a deal. After all, we’d only all met each other ten days earlier. It’s not like we were old friends; how much could you get to know someone in such a short period of time? But the Camino does something to you. Bonds are formed very quickly. You meet a person on the road, and within an hour you’re sharing your deepest thoughts. You’ve got all the time in the world, but no time for pointless bullshit. There was very little small talk on my Camino, and no wasted interactions. In short, we were family, and no one wants to say goodbye to a loved one when there’s a good chance you might never meet again.

So Claire would gently bring up the fact that her flight out of Spain was getting closer, and she was behind her intended schedule. She’d remark that one of these days, she’d need to walk faster, maybe even catch a bus and skip a stage. And every day, we’d all sit down at some cafe or on the side of the road, look over the maps, pick a town for which to aim, decide on an albergue that met all of our needs and budgets, and try to ignore the fact that this might be the last day we got to make plans together. In the afternoons, we’d arrive at our albergue, get our assigned bunks from the hospitaleros, and decide who’d get the top bunk this time, me or Claire. (Natalie had a bum knee, so she tended to get the hook-up with a nice bottom bunk when we checked in. Have I ever mentioned to you guys just how much I began to covet that bottom bunk?) The unspoken knowledge that Claire would be leaving us grew heavier. She had to go on. There was life to get back to, and some of this journey needed to be solo, to give her a chance to mull things over in blessed silence.

I don’t now how she felt about those early days shared as an impromptu sisterhood, but after it was all over, I looked back at that time spent with two strangers from across the globe, and saw that they’d given me a great gift. I was frightened and small, and they allowed me to delicately unfurl from my protective layers, no pressure, no pretense, just the comforting sound of crunching gravel, a shared slice of tortilla, a swig from the omnipresent tea canteen. Ten days can be a lifetime when you’re in the midst of becoming something new.

img_6652

The walk from Los Arcos to Viana wasn’t that exciting, but a few things happened. I got to pet my first donkey; I’d never realized how soft they are. We also paid an entrance fee to get into a rather small medieval church and have our credencials stamped. I remember realizing that the historical society must depend on our donations, but also being a tad disappointed at having to pay to tour a single room. It was also a day of many, many roadside offerings. Along the Camino, one sees all types of road markers, official and unofficial. There are gravestones, and memorials, little piles of rocks, old boots, rocks with notes written on them, notes pinned down by rocks, small trinkets of all sorts. Most days there would be a few standout sights that really caught my attention. Most of the time, they’d be alone, or in little groups. But today, the roadside tributes were thick, like a little forest of pilgrim thoughts. I found it sad, rather than inspiring. I only left a few things behind, over the course of the Camino. I was already shedding my skin; what difference would a rock or two make?

In Viana, we checked into the municipal albergue, Albergue Andres Munoz, where we claimed the first open washing machine to do our laundry as a group one last time, then hopped in the showers. The girls went out sightseeing that afternoon, but I was exhausted, with a terrible case of heartburn from that wine the day before. I had a bowl of soup in the kitchen (why is it so damn hard to find Knorr cream soups in the states? They’re wonderful!), then took a little nap. When I woke up, Natalie offered me a swig of her leftover wine from the Irache wine fountain. Like an idiot, I had some more. I had been having some intestinal distress on account of the original dose of that wine, plus this dose of afternoon heartburn, but like a true pilgrim, I figured I’d give it another shot and see what happened. Hey, I never claimed to be the brightest bulb.

There ruins of a beautiful old church stand beside the albergue, and if you walk down the street between the two, all the way to the end, you get to little public green space that overlooks the town, and faces almost due west. We stood together, all three of us, to watch the sun go down together, and took one last group photo. Afterwards, we went in search of dinner. The albergue had very strict rules about when the doors would be locked that night, and we were all a little nervous about finding a dining option that would allow us to get back before they locked us out for the evening. Of course, things never go as planned when there’s a schedule to be met…

img_6667

img_6670

We’d walked into town about the same time as Tom and Mark, and they were also staying at our albergue. Earlier in the day, Natalie mentioned that there was a world-famous hotel restaurant just down the street with affordable pilgrim meal prices, slightly above what we normally paid, but perfect for the occasion of Claire’s last night with us. That evening, when we went to check out the restaurant, they hadn’t started serving just yet, but the bar was hopping. There at the bar were Mark and Tom, tossing back drinks. I made a beeline to Mark to pick on him good-naturedly, as was our relationship, and Tom invited us to pull up a chair.

img_6676

The peregrino’s version of “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”

We all grabbed a drink, chatted for a little about the predicament of needing a meal before 10pm in a town where no one started serving dinner until at least 8pm. Spaniards don’t eat early dinners, and they certainly don’t bolt their dinners down and run home. A good meal might take two or three hours, but for folks who wanted a fine meal, and were about to get locked out of their rooms for the night, there were important choices to be made. Finally, we decided to give up on this very nice restaurant and go down the street to find any old place that would serve us a pilgrim dinner in the time we had allotted.

It must have been a funny sight, the three ladies leading the search for food, with two inebriated and jovial gents trailing behind. It took us at least another half an hour of wandering around to different restaurants, asking about wait times, until we finally decided that we weren’t getting served early anywhere, and we might as well go back to the first restaurant and try our luck. At some point in the process, Tom announced that wherever we chose to eat, dinner was on him. I definitely perked up at the offer, since I’d been a little apprehensive about what it would cost to have a somewhat fancy meal out that night.

Back in one of the fanciest dining rooms of my Camino, we sat at a table strewn with linen, silver, china and crystal, and had an amazing meal together (though, for the life of me, I can’t remember anything we had to eat, other than my first course of spaghetti). I seem to remember getting a very thinly cut piece of veal, maybe? I remember Mark and I did have a great bitch session about the lack of decent steak thus far along our Camino. Conversation felt a little tense between Tom and Natalie, which I secretly found entertaining. Who would ever imagine putting a straight-laced, retired U.S. military member and an off-grid, liberal Canadian musician at the same table together, and not having some sort of tension? Add in an English tour bus driver, a South African movie industry professional, and a vagabond New Orleanian in the midst of a mental breakdown, and you’ve got some interesting spices flavoring that evening meal 🙂

We ended up having to ask the waiter to speed up our desserts, then paying and dashing out to catch the albergue before they locked the main doors. Even so, Tom decided to stay out for one last drink, with instructions to Mark to fight the hospitalero if necessary to keep the doors open. Mark seemed almost gleeful to be charged with the task, but I don’t think he actually had to do anything. In the end, Tom slid in with seconds to spare, then came to sit with the rest of us in the communal kitchen. We five were the last people awake in the entire house, emailing and chatting with our loved ones back home.

img_6679

Fabulous wine.

Mark and I shared a moment that night, talking about something family-related, but I sadly can’t remember exactly what it was that we talked about. I just remember talking to him about how I was keeping in touch with my boyfriend, and mother and father, and at some point I looked up to see him looking at me with this very open, wise expression. I knew the look. He’d understood whatever point it was that I’d been trying to make, and had decided that he thought I was interesting. We’d been gently goading each other since meeting on that second day, but this was the first moment that I recall seeing through the guard that he’d put up, and realizing that there were some complex and interesting layers there, were one interested enough to go exploring. I already liked him, but for me it was validation that I’d made the right choice in doing so. Maybe it’s a Scorpio thing; I don’t know. I do know that I’ve had this same exchange a handful of times with other Scorpios over my lifetime, so maybe there’s a similarity in the way we let people in? Either way, there was a deal struck at that table, and I’m very sad that we didn’t get nearly enough time to see it through.

Turns out that Day 10 was a bit of a heartbreaker for multiple reasons. What about that?

Click here to read about Day 11. 

Anna’s Camino: Day 9 – Los Arcos

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.

IMG_6627

You may know this, and you may not, but we were running behind (much like me with these blog posts, lol). The fact that it took us nine days to get to Los Arcos means that, by Camino standards, we were walking a little slow. In the Brierley handbook that many Western pilgrims treat as gospel, you’re supposed to get to Los Arcos on Day 6. However, now that I’ve been there, done that, I can honestly say that unless you’re on a strict timeline, there’s really no need to push yourself that much.

I can’t imagine having walked any faster than I did, for many reasons. First off, I was in so much pain, even though I was pretty fit when I started. I never got a blister, but my muscles felt mangled by the end of each day, and my feet never really got used to all that walking. Secondly, there’s so much to see, and why not take the time to see it all? Granted, our pace was still too fast to get to see everything, but at least we had the time to visit the sites that caught our fancy along the way. For instance, this morning we happened upon a sweet little chapel about five minutes’ walk off of the Camino, and we gave ourselves time to take a little detour:

Last, and most important to me, a huge highlight of my walk was giving myself the luxury of sitting to have coffee and eat a snack whenever and wherever I pleased, and most days I stopped to eat three or four times during the course of the day’s walk, not counting breakfast and dinner. (No regrets – still lost 20 lbs and got to try every delicious morsel that struck my fancy.) Day 9 stands out to me for this, in fact, as it’s the day when I tried my first (and definitely not my last) real Spanish hot chocolate, during a long morning break in Estella.

Of all the towns that I walked through along the Camino Frances, Estella is the only one in which I truly regretted not getting to spend more time. Next time, I think I’ll plan to stay an extra day to check out the town’s architecture, museums, and shopping more thoroughly. We left Villatuerta just before dawn, with our new friend in tow. I feel awful, but I can’t remember her name at all, but I feel like it was Emily or Erica, something starting with an “E.” (Mind you, I’m probably completely off-base, but hey, I’m trying!) It turned out that the pilgrim she had been walking with the night before had been a little too cosy and assumed too much of their friendship, and she’d wanted to put some space between them, while walking with other women. We all walked together through the morning, chatting and laughing, and even though it was less than 5k to Estella, it seemed like we were all rather tired already by the time we arrived.

We spent awhile walking around; a couple of us were looking for an ATM, and I was desperate to find somewhere selling hats, gloves, and scarves, none of which I’d brought. Luckily, a few days earlier, Natalie had gifted me her extra scarf, which I still have hanging in my closet – a beautiful reminder of a beautiful friend. It was warm enough, but I’d started getting seriously chilly in the mornings, and couldn’t imagine many more days without a proper hat and gloves, and maybe even a thicker neck covering to keep me toasty. A lady in the tourist office told us that it was market day, and there would be lots of artists and farmers setting up stalls soon. I was interested in waiting around to see about finding the items, but also not that dedicated to the idea of wasting more time.

IMG_6597

What I *was* happy to waste more time on, however, was grabbing some coffee and something delicious for breakfast. Luckily, all of the ladies agreed, and we ducked into a lovely little cafe, not realizing that we had stumbled upon a proper little patisserie, complete with blue-haired matrons dressed to the nines, staring down their noses upon this rag-tag group of pilgrims! It was adorable in the shop, and the bakery case looked so inviting, so we did our best not to annoy the locals too much. I ordered a hot chocolate, thinking that it was going to be another one of those times where they give you steamed milk and a packet of hot cocoa mix, but to my surprise, I received the most beautiful cup of thick, traditional hot chocolate. It was a magical, life-changing moment for me. You probably think I’m joking, but I’m definitely not. Look at this thing of beauty:

IMG_6588

After dallying probably a little too long in Estella, we walked on towards Irache, home of the famous Bodegas Irache vineyards, and the even more famous (with pilgrims, anyway) wine fountain. That’s right – free wine! It took awhile to get there, and there was a bit of confusion just before we saw the fountain, and we somehow lost Claire. At the time, it sounded like she thought the winery was in a different direction, or perhaps we’d already passed it, so she went to check up on her hunch. I never did ask her what she found, but the fountain was up the road a little more, and eventually the rest of our group got there. (Claire did, too, just not with us. It’s so neat now, going back and thinking about how we could all be walking together, but experiencing such completely different adventures. It makes you think more about how much you think you know of your friends’ lives.)

IMG_6601

The new girl and I both had to use the bathroom, so we walked past the fountain and up the road a bit to the wine museum, where the shopkeeper was just closing up, but kindly let us in to use the bathroom. We bought little commemorative wine shot glasses while we were there, one for each woman, then went back to find Natalie by the fountain, where we each had a few shots of the very fresh (mouth-puckering, even) wine and took the requisite photographs. Nat filled up a little bottle with the wine, too. We had a little more from her bottle later, though I was pretty sure that wine was the reason for my intestinal unease over the next day or two. Claire still hadn’t shown up, though soon enough, the same busload of elderly tourists that we’d been dodging all morning along our walk appeared and descended upon the wine fountain. We decided to walk on, since we’d agreed in Estella on where we were bedding down for the night, and we were pretty sure she’d find us. As Natalie and I walked along the Camino a bit farther, we realized that not only had we lost Claire, we’d also lost the new girl. Knowing she’d catch up if she wanted, we walked on.

I remember three big things from that afternoon’s walk. First, I remember walking with Natalie, and coming upon this interesting structure that housed an old freshwater spring. I was intrigued by its location (seemingly the middle of nowhere) and the way the building was set up. I wondered briefly what it might look like inside the building during the summer, since it seemed like it would be easy for more adventurous peregrinos to climb down inside and enjoy the cool water.

The second thing that I remember is being behind Natalie and Claire a little later in the day, and hearing a sound coming from the ditch that ran alongside the road. There were farm fields on either side of the path we were walking, and they looked to have been recently harvested. The remaining vegetation lay flat around the sides of the field, and covered the ditch, so that you could tell there was a depression, but couldn’t tell what might be in it. From this cover of vegetation, I heard the most delicious crunching noises. The entire scene brought me back to my childhood. I grew up on a dirt road, and we had a large property, a few wild acres of forest, perfect for a little girl to explore on long summer days. It formed my appreciation for outdoors, and the wild things that inhabit it. I love animals, big and small, and as a child I spent many hours just studying how the wild things lived. That afternoon on the Camino, I took the time to be a little kid again, and stopped to sit and listen at the ditch bank for longer than most adults would deem prudent. Whatever the creature was (I didn’t brush up on Spanish wildlife, but I was guessing some sort of amphibious mammal), it was enjoying a leisurely lunch there under the ditch bank canopy, and I watched as one long piece of freshly mown vegetation after another was slowly drawn into the animal’s hiding spot. Eventually I gave up on seeing who was under there, and continued my peregrination.

The third, and final thing, that I remember from my afternoon was the distinct suspicion (as insane as it sounded) that Los Arcos was moving farther away from me as I walked. At one point in the late afternoon, I could see the town. But the next time I saw it, it seemed farther away. The next, it was even farther. The girls were way ahead of me, and there was no one to whom to voice my growing concern, but a day or two later, I was telling another pilgrim about how weird it had seemed that it felt like Los Arcos kept moving, and they said they had felt the same way! It was hot and sunny out that day, so who knows, maybe I was experiencing the onset of heat stroke. Either way, it was really strange.

I wasn’t as far behind Natalie and Claire as I’d thought, and they had just signed in at the albergue (Casa de la Abuela) when I arrived. We checked in, washed some laundry, took our showers, then went to see the Church of Santa Maria. English Mark and his walking buddy Tom (we’d all met on the way to Roncesvalles, and I talk more about Mark here) were in our room that night. It was the first time I remember Mark really complaining about his poor, battered feet. He was asking for advice on what to do about his blisters, which were to get worse over the next few days.

One thing that I particularly liked about La Casa de la Abuela was breakfast in the morning. Many albergues will feed you a simple breakfast for an extra couple of euros, and though we didn’t always sign up, for some reason it seemed like a good idea in Los Arcos. In the morning, one of the offerings was fresh baked bread and Nutella. The concept of Nutella as a breakfast food was mind-blowingly awesome for me, since at home, Nutella is firmly in the “junk food” list. They might as well have given me a bag of potato chips for breakfast. Note that I did not turn down that glorious chocolate hazelnut spread of the gods. A peregrina’s got to eat, right?

Click here to read about Day 10.

Anna’s Camino: Day 7 – Puente la Reina

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.

The walk from Pamplona to Puente la Reina was one of the most exhausting I’d yet to experience, but the road offered its own rewards that day. I’ve already mentioned my brightest memories from leaving Pamplona in my last Camino blog entry, but there’s one more I’d like to recount, just to keep it fresh. The night before we left, the three of us girls went upstairs to the albergue’s communal kitchen and pooled our resources to have wine and snacks. While we ate and chatted, I filled out 30 postcards to mail back home, and since Claire also had some things to mail, we decided to try to find the post office on the way out of town in the morning. In the morning, we wandered around a little bit as we tried to find the post office, and one of our wrong turns led us to a little square with a statue of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. I took it as a sign, and as it turned out, it was to be the first of many that day.

IMG_6482

After visiting the post office successfully, we followed the yellow arrows back to the Camino. On our way out of town, we made a brief stop at the Church of San Cernin (click to learn more), a lovely 13th-century church possibly built over an old Roman temple. I was particularly taken with the church’s wooden floors, but still haven’t done the research to find out the reasoning behind the numbers. At the time, I assumed that the numbers coincided with tombs, but perhaps an expert can enlighten me in the comments!

As I recounted in the last entry, we stopped for coffee and a quick trip to the farmicia, then finally headed out of town a little later than planned. From Pamplona, the Camino takes pilgrims through a number of small towns, including Cizur Menur, where Natalie had memories from her earlier Camino of a wonderful hospitalera who was a foot expert. We had tentative plans to try to find the lady, just to say hi, but it didn’t work out. Instead, we kept walking, following the road uphill to the famous Alto de Perdon, “The Mount of Forgiveness.”

As we neared Alto de Perdon, even though we were walking up into the hills again, the landscape sort of stretched out all around us. The city had fallen away, and again it was easy to get lost in the greens and grays of the surrounding landscape. There were windmills everywhere! There had been a little rain to begin with in the morning, but as we climbed uphill, the wind began to whip, and the day started to get a little more gray than before.

IMG_6503

Gorgeous flowers – including my favorites, poppies.

I pulled the hood of my rain jacket tighter around my ears, and kept a close eye on my footing as we climbed up toward the famous metal statue that crowned the highest elevation of the day’s walk. Natalie walked ahead, and Claire was quite some way behind, and for some reason, I decided to just stop and look around. Ever since seeing Francis that morning, I’d had this feeling that I was missing something, but I couldn’t quite figure out what. Then I saw something I’d been looking for for days – my first poppies of the Camino. Ever since starting out, I’d kept an eye out for my favorite flowers, hoping to catch at least a couple of them in bloom, even though it was late in the season. Up until this point, I’d seen tons of crocuses, but not a single gorgeous red bloom. They’ve been important to me ever since visiting Assisi, Francis’ birthplace, and seeing them here, on this day, seemed particularly important.

Ever since seeing Alto de Perdon in the movie The Way, I’d expected it to be a very special and inspiring place, but in reality, the popular site wasn’t everything that I’d expected. Even at the time, it took a distant backseat to the poppies I’d seen just a few minutes earlier, and the rest of my walk that day was so beautiful and weird that afterwards, the hilltop sculpture was just a blip on my mental screen.

Walking downhill was a huge challenge for me that day. The ground was a little slick, but even worse, this portion of the Camino was just loose rocks. My knees were protesting the downhill climb, and I slipped often enough to start to be very nervous about the rocks. Natalie was much faster at this than I, so there ended up being at least a half-mile between us, maybe more. Claire and I passed each other throughout the afternoon, but for a good portion of the rest of the walk, I felt pretty isolated by the landscape. There were other pilgrims, but I don’t remember them. Mostly, I remember relishing the freedom, and singing at the top of my lungs for much of the afternoon.

IMG_6514

I particularly loved this welcoming roadside Madonna.

In Uterga, I caught up with Natalie at a great little albergue called the Albergue Camino del Perdon, where we had a seat, took off our shoes, and shared some food. We had a beautiful bowl of soup, and I ate one of my favorite slices of tortilla along the entire Camino. A sweet, well-loved neighbor dog came over to see if we needed any help clearing our plates.

Eventually, Claire ambled up, and we enjoyed sitting a little while longer. It was getting late, though, and we still had a ways to walk to get to Puente la Reina. The rest of the afternoon passed in a bit of a blur; my legs and feet were really starting to feel the strain of the day, and I got slower and slower as we walked through Muruzabal, then Obanos. At one point, I was right behind the girls, walking a suburban neighborhood. As we walked by house after house, they chatted ahead of me, and I just walked with my thoughts about 10 feet behind.

Suddenly, I heard an insistent whinny come from over a fence, and a beautiful white horse stuck her head out in my path. My companions kept walking on, immersed in their conversation. This gorgeous horse and I spent a good ten minutes communing over the fence, putting our foreheads together, me giving her ear scratches, her giving me little snuffles along my forehead. It was a beautiful little stretch of time, and if I could have visited for longer, I surely would have. But I didn’t know where I was supposed to meet up with the girls, so it was important to hurry on after awhile. It felt like a magical moment, though, and just another sign that Francis was walking beside me that day. Later, I asked the girls why they hadn’t stopped to say hi to the horse. “What horse?” they asked. Weird.

IMG_6531 (1)

My sweet horse companion.

IMG_6527

Sidewalk Camino marker. In cities and heavily-populated towns, there would normally be something a little more permanent than a spray-painted yellow arrow, though the arrows were often there, too.

IMG_6525

Political graffiti, though sometimes crass, can play an important role for getting newbies up-to-speed.

By the time we made it to Puente la Reina, it was already late afternoon. Luckily, we were just ahead of the last wave of pilgrims for the day, so there were still some open beds at the municipal albergue. I was so worn out! I barely had the energy to shuffle in the front door, then let Natalie and Claire talk with the hospitalero to see if there was any more room. I didn’t want to sit, in case I couldn’t manage to stand back up again, so I leaned against my pack, against the wall, and half-heartedly struggled to untie my shoes until it was my turn to show my ID and pay the guy. I believe it was five euros for a bed.

The albergue was pretty bare bones, with the same crappy metal bunk beds that they’d had at Zubiri, except that this time, it seemed like the bunk beds had been made for little kids, since there was barely enough room to sit up when you were on the bottom bunk. I didn’t really care, though. I was excited to have a bottom bunk, and once the late pilgrims came in, I was even more excited to just have gotten a bed. A few people were given sleeping mats to crash on the floor. One of the funny things that I remember from that particular albergue is that there was a group of pilgrims from Israel, all old men who played in an orchestra together, and spent the night bantering and telling jokes. They ended up irritating Claire the next day with their insistence that she stop walking and take their picture, but for the time being, they were an entertaining bunch.

After we’d showered, washed clothes, and had everything hanging out to dry (with not much hope in that department, since it had been a humid day, and promised to drizzle overnight), we decided to explore the town a little, and find something to eat. I don’t remember if we found a decent pilgrim meal or not, but I do remember how family-oriented the town was. It was the first of many towns that would impress me with how beloved, well-dressed, and well-behaved the children were, and how the family units all came out to eat and socialize together, mother, father and kids, or grandparents and kids. I didn’t take any pictures of the little ones, since that would be creepy, but I did take a couple of shots of the girls and myself on our way into town.

IMG_6541

Natalie and Claire (of the gorgeous hair), walking through Puente la Reina.

IMG_6544

Sunset in Puente la Reina. This picture marks the day that I first realized that my depression and anxiety were beginning to wane.

Click here to read about Day 8.

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.

IMG_6392

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.

11226172_964163410308287_7163225099123817154_n

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.

IMG_6412

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

11080565_877869028937726_7207285662176635677_o

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.

IMG_6391

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.

IMG_6393

IMG_6394

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.

IMG_6411

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.

IMG_6413

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.