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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mornings are tough – even on the Camino.

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

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

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

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

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Natalie and Terry, walking ahead of me.

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

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Mud. So much mud.

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

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

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

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

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

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Hopes crushed. *Sigh.*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just When You Thought You Knew It All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The baptismal font at Redecillo del Camino.

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

Click here to read about Day 15.

Anna’s Camino: Day 12 – Navarrete to Nájera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Walking into Nájera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read about Day 13.

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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My sweet horse companion.

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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.

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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.

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

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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 6 – Pamplona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cool event poster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read about Day 7.