Greetings from Spain! I have three weeks off work and have come to Spain to walk a bit of the Camino de Santiago using the ancient pilgrimage route Camino Frances (The French Way). It’s a 700 km route that begins just east of the Pyrenees in France. People cross the mountains into Spain and then walk all the way across the northern part of Spain to arrive in the city of Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage began over a thousand years ago when it was decided that the remains of the apostle St. James were buried below the cathedral in Santiago. The pilgrimage is known by several names: Camino de Santiago, The Way, The Way of Saint James, etc. There are many different ways to get to Santiago and the Camino Frances is just the most ancient way and the most popular. Over 200,000 people walk the Camino each year and it’s been a dream of mine to try to walk it for a while now. All things came together to make right now the best time for me to come and try to make it through the last 25% of the Camino Frances.
I’m traveling alone and am both wary and excited about traveling in a foreign country for so long by myself. I’ve traveled alone before, but usually within the United States or, when I did go abroad, I met up with a group at the destination and so I wasn’t really alone. It didn’t feel as huge a leap of faith as this feels right now, and I didn’t make the same financial blunder as I have done this time: I mistook my bank credit card for my debit card and am therefore here with two credit cards and no way to get cash. The ATMs in Spain don’t accept credit cards without a PIN (most countries, especially in Europe assign PINs to credit cards, but the US has not progressed to this point quite yet. I hear it’s coming, though.) Of course, my credit cards don’t have a PIN and even if I called to get/reset a PIN, the bank/credit card company will only mail it to my house, not let me set it over the phone or online. So, this entire vacation has quickly become more challenging than I had anticipated. I hope I can stay at hotels along the Camino and can eat at restaurants and pay with the credit cards. It will be a more expensive way to do this than I had planned, but this appears to be the way I will have to do it. It is all a leap of faith! Just getting on the plane and leaving Albuquerque was a leap of faith, but what are we here for except to try to take chances and see what happens?
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. — Mark Twain
With that in mind, I have begun my journey by taking a bus from Madrid to the Basque Country. I’ve arrived in Bilbao after flying in to Madrid and taking a bus up to this Northern coastal city. What I’ve seen so far has been pretty. The bus trip in the latter part, as we drove closer to Bilbao, was especially pretty with mountains and beautifully green hills. I arrived at the bus station in Bilbao and needed to figure out how to walk across the city to the neighborhood of Casco Viejo (Old Town), where I’m staying for a few days. Casco Viejo is convenient to the tourist sites and is the historical center of town. My hotel is very near the train station, an easy walk along the river toward the Guggenheim Bilbao, and there are lots of places to walk around in the neighborhood just to see the area. Just a good central location for a newcomer. Also, it lies on the Camino del Norte, the Northern Way toward Santiago de Compostela, so I was wondering about seeing pilgrims in Bilbao. I haven’t really seen anyone I could definitely say was a pilgrim yet. I appear very obviously to be one, I gather, because on the flight over I had a couple of people ask me where I was going. My treking pole and pack were clearly giving me away as a hiker. One airline stewardess was particularly interested in my trip because she wants to do the Camino someday. And when I got off the plane in Madrid, a man ran up to me as we were leaving the plane and said he saw me in Albuquerque and he knew I was going to do the Camino. He gave me advice and said that I should buy another treking pole and he demonstrated how to walk with the poles. He had done the Camino and used two poles and said he never had trouble with his knees. And he wished me a Buen Camino! My first pilgrim greeting within 10 minutes of being in Spain!
One thing people will tell you about the Camino de Santiago is that there are angels on the Camino. I’ve found that there are already angels on my trip. I’ve met a couple of wonderful people who have helped me find my way, or put me at ease when I’ve had travel anxiety. One such person was a woman I met while waiting at a stoplight to cross the street near the Bilbao bus station. I just needed to know if I was heading the correct direction and I had a little sheet with google map directions, but they weren’t helpful. She made me laugh when she looked at the google map and rolled her eyes and said, “No. Goog-leh no good.” She didn’t speak much English, and I’m afraid my Spanish (what little I know) is of the Mexican variety, but we pressed on. One woman who was standing at the crosswalk told the lady that there was no way I was going to understand what she was telling me, but the wonderful lady defiantly told her that yes we would do this. We could communicate and she could help me. And, she did! She even walked with me for several blocks and told me that the location of my hotel was wonderful, but that my hotel itself was not. “Okay”, I thought, “I can handle a less-than-great hotel if it’s convenient…” So, off I went and found the hotel at a large intersection in Casco Viejo right near a huge pedestrian plaza and the river. Wonderful location.
I checked in to my single room and took a shower to wash off the airplane, bus, and car grime and unpacked a bit and settled in to just relax. Unfortunately, the plug-ins in this hotel aren’t compatible with the international charger I have and my cell phone is dying rapidly. So, I’m losing my ability to communicate back home. On top of that, I’m exhausted and trying not to think too much about my financial blunder nor worry about what I was going to do about the no-cash scenario for three weeks.
…And then it began to rain in my little room in the convenient but not-so-good hotel I had chosen (Hotel Arenal, for those interested readers).
The folks above me ran a shower or something and it all leaked down into my room near the entrance. So, after an inward whine, I packed all my stuff back up into my backpack and wearily headed down to reception to explain the problem and, after a bit, I’m now re-unpacked and settled into a bigger room! The hotel had no more single rooms available (although it doesn’t seem overly crowded here), so I’ve been put in a non-leaking double room. Which is much nicer! I have a little seating area now and two windows overlooking the plaza and the city. It’s nice. A good development brought on by an inconvenience. I’m try to look on the bright side of things considering (to re-cap) I have no cash, have lost communication with the U.S. until I can find a compatible power socket, and am trying to figure out how to do the Camino with only credit cards during the off-season. This is not how I hoped this trip would be starting. I’m really disappointed in myself about the credit card thing. I’m hoping I don’t get to feeling too downtrodden about this stuff and can take these mis-steps in stride. Maybe I’m just getting the awful stuff over with early and it will make the less terrible things easier to cope with later.
I think a decent night’s sleep will go a long way to curing some of this doubt about coming here and doubt about staying here as long as I had planned given the challenges I’ve created for myself. Things should look better in the light of day.