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.

img_6847

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.

img_6845

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.

img_6842

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.

img_6857

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…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

img_6851

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 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 8 – Villatuerta

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

IMG_6556

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

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

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

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

IMG_6554

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

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

IMG_6557

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

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

 

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

IMG_6569

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

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

 

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

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

la-casa-magica-foyer

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

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

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

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

IMG_6571

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

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

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

Click here to read about Day 9.

Anna’s Camino: Day 6 – Pamplona

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

IMG_6467

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.

IMG_6431

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.

IMG_6434

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:

spanishwaterdog

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!

IMG_6443

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!

IMG_6453

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.

IMG_6477

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.

IMG_6476

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

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

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

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

Click here to read about Day 7.

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

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

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.

Anna’s Camino: Day 4 – Roncesvalles to Zubiri

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

IMG_6359

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read about Day 5.

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

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

IMG_6295

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_6298

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

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

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

IMG_6299

View from the roadside during one of my breaks.

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

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

IMG_6301

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

refuge-orisson

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_6307

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

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

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

IMG_6310

My first Camino sunrise 🙂

Click here to read about Day 3.