Reflections of a (former) pilgrim

I’ve been home from the Camino for over a month now and I have some final thoughts to share. In case people are interested in doing something like this on their own, I have just a few pieces of advice to pass along. Everyone’s camino is different, and for me, when my experience was great, it was really great, but when it wasn’t good, it really wasn’t good. My camino was a struggle (although, everyone’s is in someway, I believe. We all have our own struggles and part of being a pilgrim and putting yourself willfully through something as challenging as walking across a country is going to be a struggle, no matter how prepared or experienced you think you are.)

But if I were to go again (which I am still not inclined to do yet), I would keep these ten things in mind:

  1. The best item I had was a pair of wool gloves. They had half-fingers that could be turned into mittens. They were perfect protection from the rain, cold, and blisters from the rubber hiking pole handle. It was a late addition to my pack from my Dad, who picked them up on a whim for me at a global market fest in Albuquerque.
  2. Take a sleeping bag. I was so cold many nights because I only had a sleep sack (like a liner). The extra weight could be an issue, but I think it’s really worth it. I thought that places would be heated and I was wrong. A couple of albergues provided some woolen blankets, which I had no qualms about using (although other pilgrims refused to use them because they didn’t believe they were ever washed). But, I only really had one or two nights (not in a hotel) where there was a radiator that actually worked in the dormitory room. Mostly, I was cold a lot.
  3. Go at your own pace. There is nothing wrong with walking slowly or walking quickly. If you find that your pace is too different to allow you to walk with others, just stop and have breaks; eat lunch with other pilgrims; chat; go to mass; hang out in the albergues. While walking with people is nice — the most social part of the camino is the albergues and your pace (no matter what it might be) will allow you to take part in the albergue experience.
  4. Take a break from the albergues sometimes. We all need space.
  5. Listen to your body. (This seems to really go well with tip #3). Stop and rest when you need to. Don’t let others determine where you need to walk to each day. Nobody knows your limits but you. Listen to your body if you want to walk into Santiago de Compostela. If you want to arrive in Santiago by train, bus, or taxi, feel free to ignore your body’s warnings. It will force you to stop if you refuse to listen.
  6. Do stay connected to family and friends back home, but don’t let that connection control your pilgrimage. Having a line of communication available is good — but not to the point of distraction. Family need to know you’re okay. The camino is hard and can bring up all sorts of emotions and it’s good for you to have the option of a text to a parent or sibling or child when you could really use the support. And vice versa. You’re wandering alone through a foreign country and it’s bound to make people who love you anxious for your safety. Give them a break and allow them to check in with you now and again.
  7. The synthetic exercise clothing reeks of sweat after just 1-2 days of walking. It’s awful. Cotton and wool clothing are best. Don’t buy that high priced sweat-wicking stuff. It might be great for quick runs in the suburbs when you can go home and wash it immediately after you’re done, but it’s not good for weeks out on a trail with few laundry options. All pilgrims smell, but when other pilgrims are commenting on how much your clothes stink, believe me, you reek. I met two pilgrims from Australia who stocked up on these types of clothes and only brought them, thinking it was the best way to go and they were so frustrated at how much they smelled and how difficult it was to get their clothes clean. Avoid their mistake.
  8. Don’t expect this to change your life. Don’t put so many expectations on this single experience. Really. It’s a walk. It may impact you enormously and it may not. It is what it is. Just try to enjoy it as much as you can. The peace of walking through nature is nice in itself, whether you end your pilgrimage with some monumental decisions made or not. Enjoy the walk.
  9. There will be moments/hours/days that will make you think this was a terrible mistake. You will think this was the worst idea you’ve ever had and ask how could you do this to yourself but remember: you chose this. Try to remember, when you are miserable and full of doubt, what made you want to do this Camino. Focus on that and it will help to get you through. When the whole thing is over, you will be amazed at what you’ve accomplished. It’s a big deal to walk far enough to get a Compostela. Each pilgrim earns that, whether they walked fast or slowly, from France or from Sarria. Each step is an achievement in itself and the self-doubt you feel during your Way is yet another shared experience with other pilgrims.
  10. People at home will not –on the whole– care to hear much about your Camino. This experience is personal to you and surreal to others. It is difficult to explain and not of interest to most of the folks who ask you politely how it went. It’s best to come up with a quick one sentence answer, usually a positive thing, and just stick with that.

I think those ten things cover most of the advice I feel qualified to give if anybody who actually wants to do this asks me about it, or reads this blog. Most people are impressed with the idea of walking so far, but don’t really care to delve too deeply into the particulars. And I’m okay with that. I don’t really want to re-live the Camino just yet. I’m still happy with being home, although I have begun to notice the peace of mind that I had in Spain during the walk is fading away back here in the busy everyday world of mine. I initially felt very settled back here in in Albuquerque. Moreso than I was before I went. I was restless before I left for Spain and I was happy to be home afterward. Happy to be back in my little apartment and back at work doing storytimes and helping kids find books. I felt like I was where I should be. I still feel that a bit, but I can tell it’s fading already. I’m not ready to go on a vacation again, but the peace of mind I had has been sort of chipped away at in the month I’ve been home. I think partly it is to do with the general hectic nature of the holidays. But, I hope to find that sense of calm again. At least I know now that a good long walk outside, away from the streets and honking horns of the city will do me good. I don’t feel like I personally did much soul-searching on the Camino. I don’t really think I had much in the way of huge dilemmas to focus on, no life-altering decisions to be made, no major upheavals to think about… but I did find an inner sense of peace and I did return with a less restless soul than I went out there with. So, I’m grateful for that.

I guess my final thought on this whole thing would be about the feeling that people need to make life-long connections on the Way. I met a lot of pilgrims who were almost obsessed with getting the contact information of every pilgrim they met. They wanted to connect on social  media, they wanted to text by phone, they wanted e-mail addresses. They wanted to stay in touch after the pilgrimage was completed. I was strongly adverse to this mindset.

I don’t think it’s necessary to stay connected to people you meet along the Camino. I think the interactions you have with other pilgrims is genuine and sincere and can be very deep and you will remember them for a long time, but you don’t need to carry the specific connections away from that pilgrim world into the everyday world of your separate lives. I still feel very strongly that, for me at least, it was important that I not know too much about these people’s lives back home. I deliberately didn’t learn last names or whether people were married or had children or anything. This doesn’t mean we only had superficial conversations. On the contrary, it was almost like you could speak more freely and sincerely due to the fact that these were people you would never see again. Every conversation was a chance to spill out your feelings to someone who was going to listen and respond in a way that they might not listen or respond to someone who they knew they’d be dealing with again for months and years to come. The camino allows for very deep conversations and arguments and real interactions with people for a very short time. Just a conversation over tea or over dinner or over a snack while sitting on the edge of a public fountain. That is what makes the camino special, to me. The fact that you have these face-to-face conversations with strangers that might only last a brief time, but which will stick with you for a long time to come. But you don’t know their names. This is why I think people say that there are angels on the Camino. I think there truly are, but I also came to believe that every pilgrim and every person you meet on the camino is angelic. They have a lasting impact, but are only with you for a moment. It’s really something. I don’t think I would treasure it as much as I do if I came home and saw on social media that these people I had wonderful conversations with over dinner are complaining about the refugees, or going through a bitter divorce, or are whining about their work life, etc. For me, I don’t want to know that stuff. I honestly don’t think I’d like some of the people I met along the Camino very much if I knew them very well. But, because I didn’t want to know too much about their personal lives, I feel like I can remember them with some sort of fondness. At least as part of a moment during a special experience in my life. So, I didn’t come home from this whole experience with life-long friends who I will send Christmas cards to and share inside jokes with about a pilgrim’s life on the Way of St. James, but some people do. Some people choose to “collect” other pilgrims as they go and make a strong effort to stay connected, as if the experience doesn’t mean as much unless they can have people to talk to who were part of it once it’s over. And I can understand that, too. Especially when you come home and realize that most people don’t want to hear much about what you’ve done. But, I think it’s just another personal decision that each pilgrim has to make on their own.

 

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Hello from the other side.

Today was my first full day in Santiago de Compostela and I abandoned my hiking shoes and hiking pole at the pension this morning. I already feel less burdened and lighter. I’m stuck between a pilgrim and a tourist today. I went to the noon Pilgrim mass and also to the mass tonight at 7:30pm. Both were beautiful.

I’ve been surprised a bit by the lack of religion I encountered on this pilgrimage. I’m not Catholic, but I expected to see more religious symbolism along the way. There weren’t even very many churches open during the days when I would be walking. Maybe they mostly opened in the evenings for masses. Thinking back over the people I met along the way, I think maybe half are probably practicing Catholics. Even in the masses today, I saw many pilgrims I met along the Camino and maybe only 40% took the sacrament and were speaking along with the responses in the mass. But everyone that I saw, those I recognized and those that I didn’t, all seemed to be in a state of awe at this place. There is something really special about this place. It’s not just that people walk hundreds of miles to come here, or that I’m positive that St. James is buried here, or anything. It’s just a powerful place. I like churches, anyway. I don’t practice organized religion, but I always find a sense of peace inside a church and today was no exception.

At the noon mass, I was sitting in front of a group of pilgrims who must have been several days ahead of me, but one of them was American and he was excited to see the botafumiero hanging at the altar. He said he’d been in Santiago since Wednesday and had come to the masses each day hoping to see the botafumiero swing and this was the first time he’d seen it. Someone else said that you have to pay a hefty sum to have the botafumiero swing at the masses, so often the pilgrims will pass the hat and try to come up with the money to pay the church so they can have the incense at their mass. But, apparently, every Friday they will swing the botafumiero. No payment needed from the pilgrims. So, I actually saw it at noon and again tonight at the 7:30 mass. The noon mass was full of people, but not stuffed. I had a seat close to the altar and was able to sing when I knew the responses during the service. There was a really adorable nun who came out at the beginning of each mass and tried to teach the pilgrims the responses. She would sing in her absolutely beautiful voice and then we were supposed to repeat what she said. She was funny. She would sing and have us repeat and then she’d be like, “Great! Now, just the men!….Okay, women!…Everybody sing!” It was funny and added a good laugh to the service. They also announced the pilgrims who had arrived, but I didn’t hear any pilgrims from New Zealand, and that was what I was listening for because if I heard Lucy, I would know that they would have announced me as well, but I didn’t hear any pilgrim from New Zealand arriving, so I believe we were announced last night instead. We were eating our victory ice cream when they announced our arrival in the church, probably. But, it was cool to hear how many pilgrims arrived today. It’s a wonderful feeling to see all the pilgrims at the church and to hear the priests praying for the safety of those on the Camino now and for our safety when we return home.

I didn’t cry at all, except at the noon mass, I teared up a bit when the organ played at the start of the service. It all sort of hit me at once that I finished this and seeing some of the other pilgrims brought home what we’ve all done and all the wonderful people I met, albeit very briefly, but seeing them all in the church was sort of like a huge burst of pride that we all did this and we’re here and still standing and it’s an amazing thing. I saw David from Italy, who is in large part the reason I could figure out how to continue from Ponferrada when I had no cash. I saw Lucy. I saw Alex from Denmark. I saw a pilgrim I met from England who was a nurse. I saw the pilgrim who had told me her ankle hurt so bad after running up the mountain that if she was a horse, they’d shoot her. I saw two of the German pilgrims. I saw Jay and Choi from South Korea, who I just met for the first time at the albergue in Santa Irene on my last night on the Camino. I saw so many familiar faces and all of them smiled.

I didn’t see Lupe and I haven’t seen Pedro from Las Vegas since I met him on the Camino carrying his stool. Those are the two people I’ve been looking for today. I know Lupe is here because Lucy said at dinner that she saw him earlier today and he was worried about how he was going to meet up with us at the evening mass because he didn’t have the contact info and he didn’t seem to have any faith that we’d just bump into each other at the church. Although, that’s exactly how Lucy and I found each other. I just walked into the church, said hi to a couple of pilgrims and walked toward the pews and there was Lucy, hobbling down the aisle looking for a seat. It was that simple, but we never found Lupe, so maybe he was right to be concerned. Lucy felt especially bad about not finding him because when she saw him around noon she had said she would meet up with him for lunch a bit later in the afternoon and then she went back to her albergue and accidentally fell asleep and missed meeting him. Lupe leaves tomorrow and so I think probably we’re going to miss each other.

As for Pedro, I have no idea if he’s even made it to Santiago yet. I saw someone walking through the plaza carrying a stool just like Pedro’s, but it was a young guy and I looked to where he was going to see if he was taking a stool like that to Pedro, but he wasn’t. And the stool is just a generic plastic stool that you can find all over the country. I hope he makes it. I think a lot of people are rooting for him. He’s like Lucy, in that people remember meeting them because they have a physical struggle that they’re overcoming, and those people stick with you because you’re in awe of their determination.

The masses were moving and it really brought home why we walked so far. The botafumiero was definitely the highlight and it is so nice to smell like incense instead of car exhaust. I feel like everything I have smells like disgusting car exhaust and has smelled like that since Bilbao. So, to smell like incense for a bit is such a nice change. It was started to help cover the stench of the pilgrims in the church centuries ago, and I think it’s still technically working in that same capacity, despite the frequency of showers on the Camino now. It feels really right to spend time in the church and I plan to go back tomorrow too because the lines to go down below the altar to see where St. James is buried were long and I want to just look around the church at the little chapels and things that I haven’t seen just yet.

Oh, I’m checked into my fancy-pants hotel! The parador is beautiful. It’s a converted pilgrim hospital and orphanage. It’s wonderful. My room is so great and they have a laundry service and so I got lots of my clothing washed. When the wonderful chambermaid brought the laundry back this evening, I couldn’t stop sniffing the basket she delivered my clothing in. It smells so nice. I hate to put them back into my smelly backpack, actually. I just want to keep sniffing my clean clothes. I really don’t know if I’ve smelled anything nicer in my life.

After the mass tonight, Lucy and I looked for Lupe and, when we couldn’t find him, we just went off to dinner. We found a bar with a good menu of the day and ate well. While we were in there three men in dark black cloaks with badges sewn on them came in to get a coffee at the bar. One of them had a guitar and Lucy told me they were musicians known as La Tuna. It’s a tradition in Spain and Portugal to have these musicians playing in the streets and plazas. Lucy said sometimes they will even parade through the cafes and bars. They wear traditional clothing, play many instruments and sing. We walked around after dinner and came across a bigger La Tuna at the plaza near the church. There were about six men playing and singing and it was really cool. I was glad to get to see this sort of musical tradition. After that, I said goodbye to Lucy and wished her well on her continued trip. She’s staying in Spain for several weeks before heading back to New Zealand before Christmas. Many people are going to become tourists now that the pilgrimage is over. A lot of people have tickets home in mid-December, so there’s still a lot of travel in store for some of these people.

My television in this fancy hotel wasn’t working at first and I asked if someone could come and look at it and someone did and now it works. There is something happening in Paris. It’s going on right now and seems like some sort of terrorist attack, but it’s all confusing. Nobody really seems to know how many places are under attack right now. They are saying there are explosions at some places and gunmen at others, but nobody seems sure of what’s actually going on. It’s still going on. Paris is in the same time zone as here, and it looks like it started about thirty minutes ago, but the reports are just coming in. It doesn’t seem like anybody has a clear understanding of what’s happening right now. I got all my Dad’s texts today at once and I’m able to be in contact with him again. I texted him earlier when I first saw the breaking report about the attacks in Paris but he said he hasn’t heard anything about it yet in the States. But I think he’s seen some reports now. Now it says there’s a hostage situation in a concert hall, but even the reporters are confused about how many locations are under attack.

Mission: Accomplished!

Man, my feet, knees, ankles, hips, and shoulders ache but I feel so happy! I’m in Santiago de Compostela!

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I can hardly believe it’s done! My feet are still attached and I still have all ten toes! They may never work the same, but they all made the walk. Lucy and I ended up walking the whole way together today. I don’t think either of us would have made it here today without the other one walking beside us. I would probably have stopped short of Santiago if I had walked alone. On the map, the path looked to be about 21km, but it was closer to 24 because you have to walk quite a way once you reach the city of Santiago de Compostela. It was very hard. The last 5k felt like the longest stretch of the entire Camino. Lucy and I took so many rest breaks today, but we have made it and it feels so good to be here. We had more frustration with some locals as we were trying to walk in from the outskirts of the c. Lucy (who has family who live in Spain and has spent much time here and speaks Spanish very well) was asking people how far it was to the cathedral. We asked four people, three of whom had on official government vests, and none of them would tell her. None! Isn’t that crazy? How do you live in that city, with so many pilgrims coming by each day and not be able or willing to help them if they happen to ask you directions? She was astounded at the lack of knowledge of their own city. I’m not sure what the deal is. I don’t know if they’re always this unhelpful, if they really know so little about the place they live (seems unlikely, right?), or if they’re just sick and tired of living along a pilgrim route and dealing with pilgrims. Whatever it is, the lack of consideration that I’ve encountered here has been pretty astounding at times. By this point, we were both so tired and Lucy was having such a hard time walking on her ankle and so we were taking lots of little breaks and just trying to keep each other’s spirits up and hoping that the cathedral would be just around the next corner. And, finally, it was and it was wonderful.

We made sure to get our stamps before we arrived in Santiago so we could go straight to the pilgrim’s office and get our Compostelas. It’s cool. It’s all in Latin, even my name, and includes the day that I finished the pilgrimage. The pilgrim’s office has you write down your information on a piece of paper and they use these lists to announce the arrivals of the pilgrims at the pilgrim’s mass each day. They announce how many pilgrims have arrived from each country and where the people began their Camino. I’m not sure if we will be announced tonight or tomorrow.

Lucy and I ended up at the church around sunset. It’s very interesting to walk in to a city you’ve never been to before and seeing people you know. That was really cool. Lucy is very recognizable with her ankle brace and so many people were excited to see her in Santiago and know that she finished. I’ve seen several of the pilgrims I met along the way and there’s so much hugging and smiling that it feels like you’re part of a big reunion, but it’s in a place none of you have ever been before. None of us know how to navigate this town away from the Camino, but we all walk this same way and so we see each other as we arrive and stay in this city.

After Lucy and I got our certificates, we just sat down in the plaza in front of the cathedral for a bit and then went off and had some victory ice cream. I got mint chocolate chip and stracciatella. Lucy chose strawberry and coffee, which she said was better than she expected together. I’m so exhausted of wearing these shoes and carrying this walking stick everywhere. I’m thinking of abandoning them here when I leave in the morning. I’m actually staying in a pension above the ice cream shop. Since I didn’t expect to arrive until tomorrow, my fancy hotel reservation begins tomorrow night. Lucy walked back away from the historic part back toward where we were coming in to town. She had an albergue she wanted to stay in, so we parted ways and will hopefully meet at the Pilgrim’s Mass tomorrow evening. I haven’t seen Lupe. I did see Alex from Denmark. I met him way back on my second day on the Camino. He said he arrived yesterday and is heading off to Finisterre on Saturday. I think most of the group from those first couple of nights arrived here yesterday. There’s a German couple who I’ve been seeing at the albergues the last few nights and they arrived here tonight, too. They arrived in the plaza as Lucy and I were sitting on the ground in front of the church. They came and sat near us and we all just looked at the church. It’s a mix of happiness and relief. I think most people are glad to stop walking. Glad to arrive. Even those who have not much idea what they’re going to do after this is over seem  happy to be here and not have to get up and walk all day tomorrow. We can all relax and enjoy our accomplishments!

I haven’t been inside the church yet, but I think I will go to the noon mass tomorrow. I feel so happy! I haven’t been able to text my Dad, though. Something is wrong with my phone, I guess. It seems like the texts go through but I never receive anything back. I haven’t been able to get texts for a couple of days. I’m hoping it’s just a service gap and will clear up soon.

Tonight is my last night as a pilgrim. Tomorrow I become a tourist more than a pilgrim. I’m glad to have had the experience of this entire pilgrimage. It was very difficult, and my feet and legs are so exhausted, and I’m hungry and ready to find real food and stop carrying this pack so far every day and allow my hips to stop having to go numb from the weight. I look forward to no longer being a pilgrim, but I’m glad that I had this experience.

Hello, friend.

Today was my first day of being part of a little Camino group. I saw how spontaneously this can happen. It was really interesting. I’m in Santa Irene with my two new Camino friends, Lupe from Mexico (who lives in San Francisco) and Lucy from New Zealand. I met them both early this morning in Arzua. I had stopped to get some breakfast at a bar (more on this awful experience later) and then was walking out of town and met Lucy while I crossed a street and we met Lupe about 200 meters later while he was taking a picture of a church and the three of us are still together, hanging out here at the albergue in Santa Irene.

I passed through some cute little villages outside of Boente this morning on my way to Arzua for breakfast and saw some really neat houses. There are getting to be more houses and larger houses as I’ve gotten closer to Santiago de Compostela. Still farmland, but less rustic, I guess. Also  today, we’ve begun to pass memorials of pilgrims who died along the way. There’s a big one of a pilgrim who died in the 1990s named Guillermo Watt, but there are others of pilgrims who died in their sleep more recently. It’s very sad, because at this point, we’re all so close to making it to Santiago. Less than 25km, and to see these memorials is sort of heart-breaking, knowing how difficult it is out here and that they came so far. We walked through some farmland still today and got to see lots of dogs and cats. I still have the feeling of being guided through towns and villages by the local dogs and cats. They seem to show up at forks in roads and lead me down the way to find the yellow arrows. It always makes me smile to see the cats and dogs out here. I haven’t heard of any bad encounters with dogs and pilgrims out here. I’m sure it can happen, but I haven’t heard of anything yet.

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Guillermo Watt memorial. He died here on this spot in 1993, at the age of 69. The memorial includes his bronze walking shoes.

 

Lupe told me he had seen me earlier, just a moment or two before Lucy and I met him, and that he didn’t think I looked like I wanted to talk to anybody. I looked mad. I laughed when he told me, but it’s true. I was livid. I had stopped at the bar for breakfast and was happy because the bar had hot chocolate, and I haven’t found it anywhere else yet. So, I ordered a hot chocolate and got a little croissant and settled down at a table. The woman was, as seems to be usual here, unfriendly but I wasn’t really looking to make buddies with anybody there, just to eat. So, I ate and there were several other pilgrims in the bar and we exchanged hellos and buen caminos and things. As I was packing up my pack again to leave, the bar owner came over and was wiping down the table (an older local woman had come and sat down at my table with me. She never said anything to me, just smiled and seemed like she was waiting for someone to show up). So, the bar owner is wiping down the table and shoves the ceramic jar for trash off the table at me, and it falls at my feet and breaks all over my feet and my pack. It shattered and I sort of jumped back and went “Oh!” and looked up at her and the woman just smirked at me and walked away. Never said anything. Never said Sorry. Never asked if I was okay. Never said a word. Just a smirk and walked off. It was seriously the rudest thing I’ve had happen to me so far out here. Who does that? It’s fine if it was an accident, but you’re a business owner, and yes I’m a pilgrim, but I paid and your bar is on the Camino! If you don’t approve of serving pilgrims for whatever reason, you’ve chosen your location horribly. I was so pissed off. I never saw Lupe pass me, although he said I did look up and say Buen Camino, so I guess I was on some sort of pilgrim autopilot response system even when I was so mad.

Anyway, everything got better shortly after that because I met Lucy and Lupe. Lucy is really easy to spot because she’s wearing an ankle boot. She hurt her ankle five weeks ago playing tennis in New Zealand and had to postpone her trip out here until the doctor gave her the okay to walk so far. So, she started in Sarria almost a week ago and she’s made it this far with a rest day in between. She goes slowly, of course, but her injured pace is my healthy pace, so we are good walking buddies. We’d barely exchanged names and where we are from before meeting Lupe. He set out from St. Jean Pied du Port in Mid-October and has never taken a rest day. He’s the first pilgrim I’ve met out here who seems to be on a mission. He’s proud of the fact that he believes he’ll be the third one of his initial group from St. Jean to finish the Camino. He’s planning to continue to walk to Finisterre on the Western coast of Spain and burn everything he brought with him. He seems very focused on this being the end of his old life and the start of whatever his new one will be. Today is the first day I’ve become part of a group. It’s a very spontaneous thing. You get into a conversation and, for whatever reason, you all just walk together. Lupe is much faster than Lucy or I , but he choose to stay with us all day and walk along with us for the day. It seemed like a longer day than I normally walk, and it was. We didn’t get to this albergue until nearly 6 pm, by far the latest day I’ve had so far. We stopped and ate a late lunch though because we kept being turned away from places along the way. We ended up at a real restaurant with real food and that was so good. I’m so sick of ham sandwiches and really don’t think I want a ham sandwich ever again in my life, at this point. We were getting really hungry and there was a sign for an albergue and a restaurant about 400 meters off the camino and Lucy and I wanted to go. Lupe was lecturing us, telling us how “you never leave the Camino! It’s never a good idea!”, but we were both hungry and he grudgingly came along with us. We found the place and it looked really great, but we walked in and the manager at first said he would serve us lunch, and then the cook came out and mumbled about us being there, and then they showed us into the bar area, and then we were told we needed to leave our packs at the front door, and then when we got to the front door they told us they weren’t going to serve us. Despite the fact that, in the bar, we saw three pilgrims being served. It was weird. We were sort of offended by that. People have the right to not serve whoever they want, but we couldn’t figure out why the three of us in particular weren’t welcome. Lupe got his “I told you to never leave the Camino. It’s never good.” out of the way early and we walked another few kilometers to a smaller town where there was a café with tables outside and several pilgrims having a rest. The woman who ran the café came out when we arrived and were putting our packs down and told us she was sorry but she had no more food. She’d just sold the last two ham sandwiches. She pointed out the restaurant up the road as a place we could get food. We were tired, Lucy’s ankle was bothering her, but I was secretly glad to continue on and not have to eat a ham sandwich. It was worth it in the end, I think. We got real food at the restaurant. Real bread. Real juice. Real salad. Real pork roast. I got some pizza. And we all got a some dessert. We knew we were going to have to get to Santa Irene pretty quickly before the sun went down and I knew there wasn’t any food there, so we ate a lot. It took us about another hour or so to get here to the albergue, where we were the only ones, even arriving so late. The albergue worker was a sourpuss, of course. Just the norm, here, it seems. My feet and knees hurt a lot, but walking with Lucy puts a lot of things into perspective. If she can do this, there’s very little to complain about. So, the three of us are here at the albergue tonight just hanging out and laughing and talking and it’s been so lovely! Despite the long day, we’re still happy to be together and have made some progress.

Lupe won’t walk with us tomorrow. He’s determined to make it to Santiago tomorrow. Lucy and I are both thinking it will take us until Friday, not tomorrow, to get to Santiago. I think I’ll stay about 10km from Santiago, but Lucy is planning to walk a bit closer to town tomorrow. We’ve agreed to leave here together and get breakfast in Arca and then probably each walk our own way. Still, the three of us have planned to meet up at the Pilgrim’s Mass on Friday the 13th at 7:30pm at the cathedral so we can all celebrate and go out to dinner together. We’re only about 21km from Santiago, so the feeling in the air is one of relief, mostly. Everyone knows that we’re nearly done. I think that’s why Lupe was okay with walking so slowly with us today. His Camino is coming to an end and I think he was okay with just meandering today rather than rushing from one place to the next. I think walking with people is good because it can make the difficult parts easier — you might lost time if you’re a fast walker like Lupe– and it’s nice to chat and laugh and make friends, even for just a day, as you go.

Bring it down a notch.

When I left Palas de Rei this morning, I saw this rock and it was so encouraging. The graffiti along the way is usually inspiring more than off-putting. Pilgrims along this Camino Frances seem to be a mostly cheerful bunch as far as their graffiti goes. There’s a lot of encouraging quotes and messages on the bridges, signs, rocks, trash cans, waymarkers, everything. It helps keep you moving when you’re hurting so bad. It also helps to bring you out of yourself and look around at where you are. Several days ago, on one of the many downhills, somebody had taken a large stone and propped it up on the side of the path and wrote “Nice View. Look up.” on it because they knew that pilgrims are mostly walking and staring at the ground as they are trying to get down the hill. I laughed and stopped and looked up, and it was a great view of the mountains. It’s those sort of thoughtful and happy things that make for good moments out here.

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I prefer these rural woodsy parts of the Camino to the urban areas.

 

I’m in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Boente. I was going to stay in a larger town called Melide tonight, but I got turned around and before I knew it, I was through the town and didn’t want to go back. It’s a little weird to be in a larger town or tiny city after walking through the countryside for so many days. Stoplights and crosswalks and roundabouts completely threw me for a loop. The four Spaniards that I met back in Portomarin caught up with me again in Melide and we were all waiting to cross the street and one of them asked me if I thought the Camino went down this way and I said that I did. So we all walked across and they walk so quickly that they were several blocks ahead when I realized that we went the wrong way. I couldn’t catch up to them to tell them and they just kept walking. I hope they figured it out before they got really really far. Three of them have done this at least once before, so I would hope they’d start to realize this wasn’t looking familiar? I hope so. Anyway, I turned around and went back to the big intersection in Melide where I took the wrong way and got back on the correct way and by then I just kept walking and was out of town before finding a hotel. Melide is famous for octopus. It’s the place to get it when you’re in Galicia. I saw many pulperias, but didn’t go in to any of them. There are plenty of places to eat octopus. People say it’s really heavy. One of the Spaniards last night at the albergue was talking about eating octopus and that it just feels like a big heavy blob in your stomach. He pushed his belly out (which was already fairly ‘out’ anyway), and he rubbed it saying that it was “the mound of joy” after eating pulpo. It was funny.

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Melide

 

Boente is about five kilometers past Melide. Most people are walking on to the next big town because once you reach the next big town, you’re really only two days from Santiago. I think I’m about three days away, at my pace. I’m starting to make plans for when I arrive. It’s beginning to sink in that I’m actually going to finish this thing. So, I booked two nights at the Parador in Santiago, a really fancy hotel next to the cathedral. It’s really expensive, but all the food is included and its so convenient and all I really want right now is a giant tub and a super comfy bed all to myself.

But, to not get ahead of myself, here in Boente there’s not much in the way of food. There’s not much of anything here. There’s a bar below this albergue. There are few other pilgrims here now, but when I decided to stop, I was the only one. Frank from Belgium is here, again! He was the second one to arrive and I laughed thinking he and I were going to get the albergue to ourselves sort of like we had in Triacastela. A guy from Poland who just joined the Camino Frances from the Camino del Norte is here, too. He said so many places were closed that he had to walk more than 30km each day to find shelter and further to find food some days, but that the walk is so beautiful along the northern coast of Spain that he still recommends it more than he would recommend the Camino Frances. I think seeing some of the towns he saw on the coast would be wonderful. He said at some points you walk along the beach, which makes you more tired, but it’s so pretty that you just soak it all up. But there aren’t very many pilgrims up there at this time of year and the signage is worse so you need a guidebook. I think I’d like to just travel along the coast and stay in the towns, not do the Camino. Just stay there and see some things more than for just one evening when I’m too tired to actually go back out once I find an albergue. Anyway, he’s interesting to talk to and the Camino del Norte sounds really pretty.

The lady who runs the albergue is downstairs yelling at someone, again. There’s a lot of yelling here, it seems. I’ve had some run-ins with locals as far as them being rather unfriendly and unwelcoming at times. Some people have been really nice, but they were mostly early on in my Camino. More recently, the locals seem rather rude. I ate dinner down in the bar with Frank from Belgium. None of the other pilgrims here wanted to eat dinner, so we just ate in the café and you couldn’t hardly hear anything but the screaming going on at the bar between the manager and two younger guys who were at the bar. It was sort of ridiculous. It didn’t seem like she was angry enough to make them leave, clearly, but she just kept screaming at them and they’d scream back. Pilgrims can’t be choosy about where we eat, especially in a tiny town like this, so we just tried our best to eat and get out of the café.

They call me the breeze.

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Misty woods outside Portomarin

 

The woods outside of Portomarin this morning reminded me of Sleepy Hollow! Some of these woods here in Galicia are so perfect for the settings of scary stories, or even some of Grimm’s fairy tales. It’s both creepy and funny at the same time.

But today, I hurt. Today was about 25km to Palas de Rei. This was too much for my body to take. Somewhere around 21km, my hips went numb from the weight of the pack and it became really difficult to walk, but Palas de Rei was the nearest town with shelter. My knees ache, my feet hurt, and my pack actually broke skin on my hips today from the weight of it and its constant jostling around on me. I really can’t wait to be done walking. I’m so ready to be in Santiago de Compostela.

Last night with the four Spaniards as my roommates wasn’t too bad. They did come back later from the bar and tried to be as quiet as they could, but that was never going to work. They’d all had a few drinks and weren’t drunk, but were at the point where everything was hilarious to them. They spent about 45 minutes making fart jokes at each other before they all wore out and went to sleep. I left this morning before sunrise and later, when the Spaniards caught up with me, they delivered a shirt that I left on accident! How kind is that! I was so appreciative because it was a favorite shirt and I had no plans to leave it behind. I thought that was really so nice of them.

A lot of the path these last few days has been going through farm land and small villages and hamlets. Galicia has these interesting crop storage buildings called horreos. They are like raised corn cribs. Some appear to be used and some appear to be neglected, but most houses have them in the backyards. It’s a very interesting feature of these homes. I saw a pretty big one today:

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Horreo in Galicia.

 

My cold is not feeling better. I’m sniffling across Spain. I tried to go a farmacia, but it was closed by the time I reached this town. I’m going to start assuming everything is closed, that way when I stop and it’s open, I will be happily surprised, no longer disappointed. I’ve met several other pilgrims here at Palas de Rei. There are a couple of Americans, one whose name is Jill! While I’m here with them, we’re calling her Jill Baja and me Jill Alta since I’m taller than she is. She and her husband are walking from Sarria with three locals who they’ve been friends with for years. There’s another American who joined their group yesterday and has walked with them for a bit. Her name is Patricia and she’s from Seattle. They’re a very fun group. They passed me today and were really walking at a fast fast pace. I’m surprised they didn’t get further ahead, but I think they probably know there’s not a place to stay for a while after this. Plus, one of the Spanish men has a medical problem. He went to the doctor tonight and he’s been advised to stop walking because of his feet. He has such terrible blisters after just two days, that the doctor said it will be a severe health risk if he continues to walk and one of the blisters should pop and get infected. Almost a whole toe is one giant blister. The doctor drained a bit of it, but it’s still so bad, he couldn’t wear his shoes. He’s in a lot of pain and is so very sad right now. He was on the phone earlier to his wife and sons, trying to explain what was happening and he was so upset and crying he couldn’t talk to them. It was heart-breaking to see. His friends are really sad about it, but are making plans for him to go by taxi to the next town and they will continue to walk tomorrow morning. Melide is the next large town and it is the center for eating pulpo (octopus) in Galicia. The group is all looking really forward to it.

The man here is a good example of why walking in a group is sometimes a problem. He doesn’t walk as quickly as the rest of the group, but felt the need to push himself so hard to stay up with them, that it only took two days for his body to turn on him and force him to quit walking. It’s a double-edged sword because walking in a group can be a help in making the kilometers go by faster because you’re chatting and laughing, but it can be the death of you on this trail as well if you aren’t able to slow down and walk alone when you need to take a rest.

The weather is holding! I’m taking this as such a huge blessing. I do miss home. I can’t see myself ever doing this camino again. I’ve met so many people on their second or third walk but I feel like this will be enough for me. Once i finish, I think I will be done for good, but be happy I’ve accomplished this and supportive of all those who want to come over here and do this.

Peace and sniffles.

Tonight I’m in Portomarin. I arrived hobbling and sniffling. I’m afraid I’m getting a cold. I woke up this morning with a sore throat and a stuffy nose. The next several days will be long with over 20km each day. That’s a long day for me, at my pace. Most pilgrims seem to walk about 25km each day. That seems to be about the average, but I am much slower. I’m hoping to make it to Santiago de Compostela by Friday the 13th. I think I’m on track, as long as I don’t get too sick and have to take a day off.

Right now I’m in an albergue below a bar in Portomarin. This city has a very long bridge that you walk across to arrive in town and then they make you walk up a big staircase! Such cruelty.

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Portomarin

 

In my little dorm room there are three bunk beds and I’m in this room with four guys from the South of Spain. They are all on vacation together and just set out from Sarria today. They all know of Albuquerque because of the show “Breaking Bad”. It’s the favorite tv show of two of them, apparently. It made me laugh. They’re a funny group. They are from Andalusia, which they say is the “True Spain”. There are 17 provinces in Spain and each are very different from each other. I have a feeling these four work in the tourism industry because they said they couldn’t come on vacation until now. They had to wait for the tourist season to be over. I can tell they’ve been friends for a really long time. I just had to referee an argument between two of them about which one is taller. It seems that these two have this argument every day, for the last twenty years. I believe one looked just ever so slightly taller than the other, but it was hardly anything. It might even be the hair of one that just sticks up a bit more. They are basically the same height, but it seems that they can’t accept that. This is definitely one of the liveliest albergues I’ve been in on my trip. I think it might have to do with the bar being upstairs, but also there are a lot of new pilgrims who have the excitement of starting their Camino today. Lots of new blistered feet and aches and pains around here. I thought by Day 6 on the Camino I would start to feel better and be doing this easier than I am, but I’m finding it to be tougher and tougher. Not just physically, with my feet and my shoulders hurting and losing weight, but also mentally with the constantly walking longer distances and all the things that are closed along the way. It’s just difficult.

Today when I left Sarria, there was a small stretch of the Camino that was absolutely perfect. It was so beautiful and serene and the sun was rising and there was a little fog in the valley and a chill in the air. It was so lovely. If I could have bottled those few minutes of walking through that place this morning, I would have. It was so peaceful and it made me so glad to be here, doing this, right now. Despite feeling poorly, there are these moments each day that make it worthwhile. There are the best moments and the worst moments of each day. Every day is like this. You want to quit and then you feel elated that you’re here and you’re able to do this right now. It’s a constant rollercoaster ride. I don’t know how many times I’ve caught myself, at random points in the day, wishing I were at home, sitting on my little purple couch, watching Inspector Lewis mysteries. And then I have to shake myself out of that funk, knowing that this is where I dreamed to be. Don’t wish yourself out of this moment. Try to enjoy it. That’s what I’m trying to do here.

After my wonderful stretch, I had a weird and uncomfortable stretch. It reminds me of what happened at the park in Bilbao with the man who made me really uncomfortable. This time it was a younger man, a pilgrim, who was walking at my same pace. I had stopped to go into a church and look around and when I came out, this fellow was walking by. I said Buen Camino as usual and walked on, but since we were at rather the same pace, he was walking with me. My internal ‘stranger danger’ alarm was sounding after just being around him for a minute or so. I started stopping a lot to take photos of random things to allow him to get further on up the road. He would do the same as the man in Bilbao. He would walk ahead and then stop and turn around and look at me before continuing on. He wasn’t waiting for me to catch up, he was just stopping every so often to turn around and look at me. I don’t know his name or where he was from because when he talked to me, he spoke not in Spanish, but I couldn’t actually tell what language he spoke. It didn’t sound like Italian or Portuguese, but I just couldn’t make out what it was. Maybe it was Spanish, but a very different dialect I haven’t heard yet? I really couldn’t make out a word he said, but he kept insisting on talking to me and walking closer to me. I tried to get him to understand that I preferred to walk alone. Eventually, he was ahead of me, but he would stop at each way marker, turn around, and shout at me. I mean, scream something at me that I could never make out. This continued for about 3km, until I had slowed enough for another group of pilgrims to catch up and get between he and I. It was as if he didn’t think I could follow the arrows and find my way down the Camino by myself or something. I have no idea. I’m in dairy country now and at one point while stalling for time, I spotted this cow and I took this picture because she was making the exact face that I wanted to make at that moment:

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He was strange and I really hope I never see him again. I don’t know what his deal was, but it was really uncomfortable. This is the only really weird encounter I’ve had with another pilgrim. Far and away, the pilgrims on the Camino have been wonderful companions to walk with for a while. I’ve met so many lovely people that I wouldn’t have met any other way.

I feel pretty rotten right now, but I passed the 100km mark today, and that was a highlight. I actually got a little ahead of myself and celebrated at wrong way marker. So, I had to celebrate twice! I wasn’t the only one to do this, as somebody left their walking stick at the first 100km sign, I’m assuming as a signal that they didn’t need it any longer. Or maybe they left it on accident after celebrating at it.

I’ve walked something like 110km now from Ponferrada, so I’m over halfway to my goal. I will just get up in the morning and see how it goes. My roommates have all gone upstairs to party hearty at the bar. They only have a week’s vacation, so I know they’re pretty jazzed about being here. Three of the four have all done this Camino before. I’m hoping to get a little sleep before they leave the bar and come back down here, because once they are back in this room, I know I’m going to be woken up. I hope I don’t sniffle all night and I hope I don’t really have a cold, but maybe just some allergies from the stale smoke in the hotel last night. Maybe it just irritated my sinuses or something. Off to sleep!