Back a few years, I was handed a book written by actress, Shirley MacLaine, “The Camino; A Journey of the Spirit.” It was the story of her personal “Camino De Santiago.” I’d heard of her, though not being a fan of television in general, I’d rarely seen her act. I’d never heard of the Camino. As I looked at the book’s cover and before I even opened it to start reading, I knew that this was a walk that I would be walking. As it turned out, it was a pilgrimage that I’d be making. It would be over 10 years, with the pilgrimage near completion, before I understood the impulse.
For the uninitiated, as I was, The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the reputed burial place of one of the apostles of Jesus Christ, Saint James the Great. Since the Early Middle Ages, the cathedral has been a place of pilgrimage on the “Way of St. James.” Camino is Spanish for ‘The Way,’ while Santiago is Spanish for ‘St. James.’
Initially, a couple of girlfriends and I speculated that we’d walk it together when I turned 50. As it turned out, life took a few turns for each of us and that didn’t happen. After more life changing events, the time seemed right for me and in 2009, at the age of 55, I started training to hike the Camino, solo. Understand here that I’ve never been athletic; not a hiker by any means; so this decision was mystifying, at the same time as it was clear that it was something that I was to do; maybe even something bigger than myself.
I trained and I researched and bought the plane ticket to Barcelona, for August 31st, 2010, a Jubilee (Holy) year on the Camino. People walk the Camino starting from places all over Europe, the most common being the French side of the Pyrenees, at St Jean Pied de Port. I opted for a train ticket from Barcelona to Pamplona, where I would begin the walk. I really didn’t feel that I needed trial by fire, after-all.
Preparation, among other things, included deciding what to buy in the way of walking poles. After much thought, for under $100, I purchased a set of Urban Poling’s Series 300 Nordic walking poles. The DVD, provided, gave good instruction, but getting some local training over several weeks proved invaluable. A decent rain proof (as opposed to rain resistant) jacket; good hiking boots (with time left to break them in); a super lightweight sleeping bag and a quality backpack, with water reservoir, rounded out the major purchases.
In time, I’d worked up to walking nine km several times a week. Late in the training, I started having what seemed, on the surface, to be symptoms of heart trouble, which I discounted in favour of continued training and getting on that plane. Two weeks before it was to take off, having left my car at my daughter’s rural home, I walked the 20 km home, since that was the average that I’d have to walk daily to complete the trek in the time I’d allotted. Arriving home, I felt done in, but none the worse for wear. The next day, I got up and walked back to retrieve my car. This would be my routine on the Camino for over a month and I wanted to know that I could do it. About 10 km in, however, my knee started giving me trouble. In tears, I stubbornly hobbled on, arriving exhausted and in severe pain, wondering at my decision to walk 750 km, over a period of six weeks and over three mountain ranges in the north of Spain.
Was I nuts? I didn’t know, but I was going. At that point, to give my knee a chance to heal, I decided to end training and to concentrate on packing as little as possible, to keep the load on my back under 20 lbs. I had, three years previous, camped on the side of the road and done a 68-day fast to highlight the issues around uranium drilling in rural Ontario, so had a good idea of how to pack light.
Four pairs of merino wool socks, worn two pair at a time; a pair of bright yellow (so I could easily spot them on the clothes line) shorts; two pairs of pants, one cargo and the other of a light polyester; one short sleeved, one long sleeved polyester and a fleece top, long-johns, two pairs of underwear, a sarong, a hat, along with a toque about rounded out the cloths packing effort.
Earplugs (to stave out the inevitable snoring); Vaseline; soap, shampoo; toothbrush and toothpaste; needle and thread (in case of blisters); natural pest spray (think bed bug precaution); a bandana (for dipping in cold water and wearing around my neck) and a small, quick-drying towel took care of personal care.
Although I had no intention of suffering from blisters, I got talked into taking along some compeed bandages, “just in case.” For extra sustenance, a case of Larabars and another of Emergen-C Vitamin C drink mix was included. In addition, a disposable camera, which took a couple dozen pics; a flashlight in the form of a miner’s light, so that I could keep my hands free to use my walking poles and see in the wee hours before the sun rose; a guidebook; three pairs of dollar store glasses (I arrived home with only one); two pens, both lost and a water bottle, filled the remaining space. My passport, converted cash, debit card, various tickets, confirmations and emergency contacts were stowed away in a money belt, which never left my body, day or night, except to shower.
Of equal importance, to my mind, is what I didn’t pack…no cell phone, no watch, no books and only the disposal camera. I wanted to be present on the walk and I’ve noted that each of these, in their own way, can detract, thereby preventing connections within and without.
With the preparations behind me, backpack and telescoping walking poles checked in, off I flew, Ottawa to Barcelona, then on to the train station for the trip north, up the eastern part of Spain to Pamplona. Who knew to expect the odd palm tree and temperatures of 35 degrees in the shade in early September.
Having met, Judith and her mother, Maria, and a few other “pilgrims” on the train, and even though I had booked lodging at Hostel Hemingway in advance, we decided to see if there was room at Albergue de Jesús y María. It turned out that having pre-booked was a good idea on two counts. Firstly, because the former austere, 17th century Jesuit church was full up with fellow pilgrims and, secondly, because we learned the next day that folks who had stayed there suffered, some more than others, from bed bug bites. Glad to have missed that my first day out. I was able to pick up my Pilgrim’s Passport and, as it turned out, they had extra bunks at my hostel, so my new friends landed there with me.
My Spanish was and is non-existent, even though I’d been working at some self-study over the previous year. Finding your way on the Camino, is not difficult, however, as almost everyone wants to, and goes out of their way to help, whether or not they speak your language. Instead of trying to deal with the language barrier, they would actually walk you to where they understood you wanted to go. Once, in a restaurant, I found myself doing a chicken imitation to ask for eggs. The light went on for the owner, she grabbed money from the till, and left, I presumed to buy the eggs. On her return, I was offered up the best omelet I have ever tasted.
As well, in order to guide pilgrims along the way, the symbol of the Camino de Santiago, the scallop shell, is seen very frequently on posts and signs along the Camino. And, you are on the Camino so all you really have to do is ‘ask’ for a sign and one will appear. It did for me!
Leaving Hemingway Hostel in Pamplona bright and early on Sept 1st, 2010 – actually the sun was still dawning as I stepped out onto the Camino, we walked past the town hall, through the marvelous old town and out into the country side. Sad to say, my knee flared up within the first hour. It seemed like it was going to be a very long 750+ km.
Even so, I covered about 20 km, over half of it a very steep incline, followed by an even steeper decline, before overnighting in the village of Obanos.
Hiking into the second day, I’d gone less than 10 very hilly km, and, wondering about the possibility of crutches, I thought I might be able to access a bathroom before going further and, so, made inquiries in the village of Cirauqui. The only possibility was up, way up, several flights of stairs. It seemed there were stairs everywhere on the Camino.
Going up stairs was very hard on my very sore knee; coming back down was harder, but up I went, as if led. At the top, I found that the facility was closed for cleaning, meaning I’d have to find the nearest field after all, but my trek up was not for not, as it was here that I “happened on” the first of many churches along the way. Outside, a table had been placed with an offering of sausage, cheese, wine and crusty bread; the staples. (To get my attention, I surmised, somewhat down the road.)
The churches along the Camino run the gamut from being basic stone structures to amazing works of art and architecture. This one was 12th century and, at least in the area I accessed, about as basic as they came. I am not typically a church goer and consider myself spiritual, as opposed to religious. I’ve sat through a few Masses with friends and extended family, but there was no resistance in me, as I took a seat this day. I was not in a hurry to walk back down those steps; my knee was throbbing. I’m not a pain killer kind of gal, but I’d have taken some then, had I had any on me. Instead, I went inside the church and rested. While I hadn’t practiced in recent years, I am a Reiki Master and decided some Reiki on that knee was called for. So I called in the symbols and whatever healing spirits were about. And the strangest thing happened. Suddenly, sitting in my place on that hard church pew was this decrepit old man in filthy worn garb. Shades of Shirley MacLaine; though that didn’t strike me at the time. Then, I only found it interesting… and well, a bit weird, though I wasn’t in any kind of resistance about that, either.
As I left the church, having helped myself to some of the food offering and thinking what a lovely gift to church goers, I was on my way. Half way down the steps I realized that the pain was 90 percent gone. I was one happy camper, seeing that I’d been considering that it was just possible that I’d have to do the pilgrimage on crutches, after all. Funny I thought, how now I was thinking of it as a pilgrimage. I found it curious to note that at no other time did I come across food being offered outside a church, or elsewhere, and I had lots of opportunity to check that out. Leaving the hilltop village through a beautiful stone archway, it was downhill for a bit then straight uphill. At the top, in the village of Lorca, I called it a day with only 14.5 km under my belt.
Finding lodging before siesta time meant being able to access a village store to buy lunch. The option was to buy it in advance and have it add to the weight being carried. For this reason and because mornings were cooler, my walking was usually done by early afternoon. The rest of the day was for silent reflection, exploring the surroundings, eating and enjoying the company of others, but before any of that, washing clothes and hanging them out to dry was paramount. My quick drying towel was slung to the outside of my backpack as I set out early each morning.
So much could be said about the time on the trail. While preparation seemed to me to be key, a very low percentage of pilgrims did any kind of training at all. While a very good percentage used a walking stick or poles, very few used them efficiently for proper support and even fewer had anything of any quality. From early on, I was seeing tractions tips worn right through.
I found my Nordic walking poles invaluable on numerous occasions, perhaps most especially on the steep hills/mountains sides, both up and down. The quality of the locking system was unbeatable and the sturdy rubber booties (otherwise known as traction tips) made them reliable and easy to use, regardless of whether I was walking on pavement, up or down steep grades, on gravel, dirt or through mud, and trust me…. the Camino offered up all of it at one point or another. I loved that much of the shock and vibration was absorbed in the ergo-dynamic handle and that there were no straps to get in the way. And they even looked good. I am convinced that I’d not have gotten as far as I did on that bum knee without them and the support for my other joints was appreciated day in and day out.
It is not possible to reserve pilgrim lodgings, typically called ‘refugios,’ ‘pensions’ or ‘albergues,’ahead on the trail and, unless you are ill, you can only stay one night at each. The lodging might be a mat on the floor or a single bed, but, more commonly, it was a bunk bed, often many dozen to a room. At each, pilgrims were provided with a sheet and a pillow. It was rare that men and women were segregated, but it did happen. Most accepted cash only and were run by volunteers, whether in churches, monasteries, municipal or private establishments and were first come, first serve. While most had kitchens, some did not. Some, usually church affiliated, served group meals for a donation. There was almost always a restaurant or a bar nearby and villages of any size had shops with fresh fruit, cheeses and baked goods available. The volunteers were often people who had walked the Camino, themselves.
On booking in, your Camino ‘passport’ was stamped, which proved you’d been there. These stamps were also available at designated spots along the way, usually, but not exclusively at churches, cathedrals and town halls. Your passport would be examined in Santiago before you were issued a certificate of completion. Camping out was doable, but if you wanted a bed you had to plan your day’s pilgrimage to end where you had a chance to find one, so a guidebook was a good idea. I used one by John Brierley, which I highly recommend, as he updates them regularly.
I accidentally got off the trail exactly twice. The first time, I misunderstood the direction given in said guide book and was a couple of km out of my way when a local woman stopped her car and insisted I get in. I’d begun to suspect that I had gotten off the Camino and had ‘asked for a sign.’ Realizing that she did not intend to kidnap me, I slipped into the passenger seat with my backpack stowed behind. She chatted to me non-stop in Spanish and returned me to the point where I’d gone off the trail and left me with a hug. I think of her as my Camino Angel. The other time, I was just outside a village when a man shouted down to me from his shop a distance away….pointing and becoming quite insistent. I eventually realized that the sign was turned a bit and had he not come out when he did, I might have been a long way off track before realizing it.
On Day 3, climbing 300 vertical feet over three km took us into Villamayor de Monjardin. As I climbed, I enjoyed a lovely distraction walking alongside a Spanish fellow who told me the name of various things that we were seeing in Spanish as I informed him in English. It helped. As I clocked the kilometers, I eventually came to notice that I was constantly arriving in villages where Masses were taking place and this day was one of many. That I was drawn to them, including to communion was not yet confusing, but it became so.
On Day 4, still travelling solo, as was to be the case, by choice, most of the time; I attended a service and spent the night in Torres del Rio. On Day 5, starting out with a climb followed by an extremely sharp and dangerous descent, the day ended in Logrono, where I again caught the evening service. Over the weeks I was to take communion probably 20 times. I did not understand the language and on the surface found them somewhat “boring.” With apologies, particularly to Catholics who might be reading this, I had no idea that as a non-Catholic I should not have been lining up for communion, but well, there “I” was. And, like with that first instance, time and again sitting in the pew of the oldest, most basic of churches, it was not me sitting there, but instead this old fellow who seemed much the worse for wear and getting rougher each time, ‘emerged.’
Interestingly, when I would visit and sit in some of the more ornate churches and cathedrals, the same thing did not happen. In those churches, I remained “me” and never caught a Mass at any one of them, until Santiago. Curious and curiouser… Unlike me, “he” seemed to be an enthusiastic Catholic.
At the outset, I’d set a budget for myself. I intended to spend no more than one Euro per km walked, daily. The trip was intended to be a spiritual journey and I aimed to keep it simple. This might seem a bit crazy to some, but it was doable.
Accommodation ranged from ‘by donation’ to something between five and seven Euros at the albergues and, if you wanted a semi private or private hostel, the prices were still pretty reasonable. I spent the extra twice; both when the albergues were full up and, in the case of the second, because I was drawn to a particular place – I actually walked back and forth past it twice as I felt the pull. Pilgrim meals were affordable, too, at from nine to twelve euros. So, if I walked 20 km, my allotment was well within range. When I shared with fellow pilgrims what I was doing, they sometimes insisted on buying me meals. Life is funny and I learned a lot about the generosity of others and, needless to say, about myself.
After a steady uphill walk and a service in Navarette at the imposing 16th Century Church of Assumption, which overlooked the square, Day 6 found me enjoying dinner with Don and Bruce from New Zealand. The two of them had walked 40 km that day.
I’d be remiss to not mention the beauty that was everywhere. From the lavender fields to the grape orchards and from the quaint, barely populated villages to the diversity of the big cities, from the Roman Road and bridges to the lush meadows of Galicia and from desert like areas to walking through and above the clouds in the mountains, the trip was something special. Eating grapes off the vine for breakfast as I walked, figs straight from the tree, not to mention apples and pears and berries, late Summer/early Fall was a great time of the year to be on the Camino.
And the history… I didn’t expect to be so fascinated by everything I saw. Just imagining something still standing from as far back as the 9th century was awe-inspiring and structures that were many hundreds of years old and even 1000 years were not at all uncommon.
While it was an intentional solo journey, some of the lasting memories were of those made with others along the way. Jessica from Australia who, looking out for someone from Canada because she’d found a Canadian $10 bill and, wanting to pass it along, spotted me with an imprint of a Canadian flag on my socks.
Jessica and I and her friend, Randall, along with Ottilia, from Romania, spent many happy hours together along the way, when we would meet up from time to time. We shared a good bit of wine, which flowed freely, (literally, at one point) much good food and good conversation and connection.
The mother and daughter, who I’d met on the train from Barcelona and who I’d meet up with again and again, were the pleased recipients of the compeed bandages that I, indeed, had little need for, but was happy to pass along. These, by the way, come highly recommended and the blisters were many – mostly on people who had not prepared and who did not have proper footwear, including the use of two pairs of socks (to reduce the rubbing) and with the liberal use of Vaseline smeared on the entire foot, including between the toes.
Then there was the woman my age, Leone, who shared my lunch one day in the desert heat and who advised me to not fall for a favourite trick of those who would like to steal your back pack. Supposedly, they would push a baby carriage toward you and scream for you to “save their baby.” As you dropped your backpack to help, their partner in crime would grab it and they would both run. When we met again, unexpectedly, on Las Ramblas back in Barcelona, she and her husband bought me dinner. She also kindly took a picture of me with my feet in the Mediterranean. Others, whose feet I Reikied and, of course, Canadians I met along the way. Some who live fairly close by, like Cathy and Sandy, and with whom I am in contact with still and some who knew people I knew. It truly is a small world. There was one American woman, Barbara, if memory serves, well over 80, whom I admired greatly and several who had cancer or other illnesses. Everyone had their reason for walking.
One Canadian couple I met early on had lost their son to suicide and, because his name was James, they felt an affinity for the walk. You’ll recall that El Camino de Santiago translates to ‘The Way of St. James.’ Because they did not have time to do the walk all at once, they returned year after year to pick up where they left off. This was not uncommon. The direction doesn’t matter, but in order to get the certificate you must walk or horseback the last 100 km or bike the last 200 km to Santiago.
Peter from the UK, who I met nearing the end of the walk, shared about his son who was depressed and his fear that he would take his life. An Austrian gentleman, in his late 70’s, in the bed next to me told me, among other things, of how he’d been complicit when still a child in stabbing a man to death, in order to get something to eat just after the war ended; how he’d never told any of what he was telling me to his former wife or two adult children and that he’d been disconnected from them both all of their lives. I suggested that it wasn’t too late. He cried beautiful tears as his heart opened.
It seemed that most were looking for resolution of one sort or another.
In Sarria, I met, Christine, a young girl of about 8, watching over her two little brothers, the youngest barely walking. Mom and Dad and kids were bicycling the Camino on two tandem bikes, one of them hauling a little trailer for the toddler. It was lovely to see and I noted that many family combinations were making the trek together. Over ice cream cones, I shared some time with them. The Dad had family in a town near me back home in Canada. Perhaps you can imagine my shock when, a while after I was back home, I read in the local newspaper that he’d been killed in an accident, while volunteering in Africa where they’d gone after leaving the Camino. So very, very sad. You just never know!
Having been advised that the only albergue in Cerunea was closed, on Day 7 my choices were to walk only 15 km or continue on and do 30. The 20 or so I was doing was still leaving me pretty achy, but I decided to push on as there were many more miles to go before reaching Santiago. Fortunately, I’d filled my back pack reservoir with water at one of the fountains to be found all along the Camino. As well, I was glad to have my bandana and hat to soak to keep me a degree or two cooler in the 35 degree heat. At Santo Domingo de Calzada, I booked in at Casa del Santo, with its 83 beds, plus overflow in a ground floor dormitory, where I would be resting my tired body on a mat for a donation of my choosing. It wasn’t the most comfortable night, but the chickens in the shaded garden and the myth (or miracle) associated with the chicken and rooster, housed in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, made it memorable. For more detail on the Miracle of the Cock and Hen check out: http://worldsvet.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/camino-de-santiago-and-the-miracle-of-the-chickens/ In memory of Dominic’s miracle, a rooster and chicken, with white feathers, are kept alive at the cathedral all year round. A different rooster and chicken are switched each month, said to be descendants of the original birds that had miraculously danced after having been roasted.
In passing, over and over again, I came in contact with a 40 something year old actor from France, who’d met up with bed bugs back in the alberque in Pamplona that fateful night when there was no room in the inn for me, and who’d suffered an allergic reaction. Throughout the pilgrimage, he could not hide his raging rash and was refused accommodation more than once. Imagine for a moment, going from a somewhat privileged handsome and popular actor to being treated like a leper. That’s gotta be tough.
I’d heard it said that on the Camino no matter how far you walk, the pilgrimage represents the three stages of your life. The first third, your youth; the second, middle age and the last, your latter years.
That held true for me. The first third was grueling, as had been my young life. I didn’t sleep, hardly at all for the first 10 days. Aside from the initial knee pain and ongoing exhaustion, to interfere with sleep, there was jet lag, the snorers and the church bells that rang, on the hour, all night long. I’d sat on the plane over the Atlantic with a doctor from Barcelona who told me to expect that it would take around ten days to acclimatize, but I hadn’t believed him at the time. He gave me his card and made me promise to call him at the hospital if I had any difficulty while in his country. But I digress. It didn’t help my sleep that I ached from walking an average of about 20 km daily at that point, either, even though my knee had been healed, the aching went unabated.
The walking became easier the second third of the way after I was ‘forced’ to walk over 30 km one day because the only accommodation available had been closed and the next village was much further on. The up side of that, however, was that 20 km, literally, became easy. Throughout that period, most days I walked at least 25 km, with mild aches and no pain. During the middle third of the walk, I formed friendships and connected deeply with people, again just as in my life.
Day 8 found me in Belorado, Day 9 was an easy 25 km walk up, up, up through beautiful shade trees to San Juan and spartan accommodation, but with church service at the ancient and peaceful, San Juan de Ortego; Day 10 featured another 25 km under my belt and all the way to Burgos where I was just in time for pilgrim Mass. After only 20 km, I passed by a lovely picnic spot on Day 11 and arrived in the Hornillos del Camino, a one street village, but not without a church and a bed. I enjoyed lunch by the river, with my feet happily immersed. The following day was an easy walk, stopping for a visit at the Gothic ruins in Arco San Anton. It was the ancient monastery and hospice of the Antonine order, founded in France in the 11th century. Pilgrims of old would put their arm through the thick stone wall and be given bread to feed both their tummies and their hungry souls. I was drawn to put my arm through but, alas, there was nothing on the other side amid the current ruins. What there was, though, was a small outlet where you could get souvenirs and the like. From there a scallop shell decorated my backpack, along with the Canadian Flag pin that already adorned it.
Then it was on to Castrojeriz, followed by an overnight in Fromist, with the next in Carrion, all very, very easy walks. Night 14 was a ‘thank goodness for earplugs’ night, with a loud snorer sleeping just above me. In Terradillos, the next night I shared a meal with Jessica and crew. Calzadilla, which was ‘only’ another 25 km on, seemed much further on the original Roman Road. I saw no one for a 12 km stretch of scrubland and was grateful for the odd Camino sign along the way. When I finally rounded a corner and saw the village, it was with great relief. I shared a room and dined with Diane from Vancouver.
The topography had been all but flat for over 100 km; such a difference from the first third and what was to come. In Reliegoa, I came over a hill to a ‘Spanish rock star’ singing Elvis tunes…so cool and worthy of an extended break. The night was spent in Mansilla de las Mullas. The next a.m., I walked through Leon, a bustling city of 140,000, guided by scallop shells embedded in the pavement and on to La Virgin del Camino for the night. At this point I had been walking for three weeks. Finally the 35 degree temperatures had moderated and this day was the first day that I had not roasted in the sun. A beautiful day. Two thirds of the walk was now behind me.
The Camino has it that the last part of the walk represents the later part of life; a time where meaning is made.
Week three started in Astorga, where I had the immense pleasure of a massage for an outrageously reasonable price, still keeping within the budget. Staying where we did entitled us to a coupon for two Euros off of a pilgrim meal at Hotel Gaudi… wouldn’t want to miss that! So Jessica, Randal and I enjoyed trout, octopus soup and other goodies for the princely price of 12 Euro. It was a wonderfully delectable meal with great company and quality wine (for a change, not that I was complaining) in amazing surroundings. I was impressed that they encouraged pilgrims dressed for the road to dine in such luxury.
On the down side, I was awakened early by bed bugs. I showered well and headed out early, packing up very carefully.
A note on bed bugs. I used my natural pest spray each night and ran into them only two or three times. They could hit anywhere. The Albergues took extreme care and, as soon as they found them, closed for fumigation. We were often asked if we’d been in contact and they would fumigate our stuff in garbage bags, if there was concern. For my part, if I suspected they’d been about, I would shop for new basic wear (all within my self-imposed budget, of course), stay at a lodging with a washer and dryer and throw everything in. The heat from the dryer would kill them. On my return home, even though I was quite certain that I hadn’t brought any back, I placed everything, back pack included, in the freezer. Then, after a few weeks, took them out to thaw and put the clothes through the washer and dryer.
After spending much of the day walking in deep conversation with Jessica, the next evening’s abergue was in Rabanel, at Gaucelimo de Camino and was ‘by donation,’ breakfast included. One of the many rituals along the Camino is to leave a stone at the base of Cruz de Ferro. I had brought two stones from home, both gifted to me by dear friends, a couple of adopted ‘sisters.’ One, a heart shaped Amethyst, which I imagined I’d carry and bring back home, representing her love and the love of friends and family; the other, a moss agate, which I expected to leave at Cruz de Ferro. As it happened, with my lessons in letting go, it was that Amethyst that I added to the huge mound of stones there.
I stopped for an extended break at Manjarin, (pop. 1), where Tomas offered up hot tea, taped chants and pilgrim blessings. Walking on, the mist gave way to sunshine as I approached Riego de Ambros, my stop for the night. A most interesting day.
By this time, I began to experience chest pain similar to that that I’d felt while in training before leaving home. Nothing terrible, but, as then, noticeable. Next stop, Cacabelos and a night in a municipal hostel built in a semi circle around the church and, yes, another service. The next afternoon found me at Vacarce in ‘Do Brazil,” where bed and group dinner cost 20 Euro. The next day, as I continued my solo walk from about 600 meters steadily up to almost 1300 meters over about 10 of km., I felt like I was being carried; it was a spiritual moment; my legs were moving, but that that was not what was moving me forward. As I entered O’Cebriero, at the peak, I was cheered. Truly! There were people there clapping and cheering me on.
The day’s walk ended a few km on in Hospital. And, there was Jessica and Randall subtly looking out for me and suggesting a group meal. It struck me then that they’d been “looking out for me” for some time. I likely had a quarter century on each of them and it seemed that I reminded each of them of their mothers. Jessica in particular. I speculated on what parts of myself they represented and concluded that one represented the controlled, fearful, in charge part of me that was also generous, loving and helpful; another, those plus a degree of thoughtfulness and the third, the part of me that is ‘in my head’ and, at the same time, faithfully looking out for others. I loved that, finally, in the later part of my life, people wanted to look out after me and that I could allow it.
I found meaning in that, which brings us back to the decrepit old guy who kept appearing to me. From Hospital, I was again drawn, this time to a monastery in Samos.
It was at one of those forks in the road, where you could continue on or take a side path and, either way, be ‘on the Camino.’ I decided to take the detour even while my chest pain persisted. A massive structure, the monastery of San Julián de Samos, founded in the 6th century, belongs to the order of the Benedictines. It was an incredible place. http://www.abadiadesamos.com/
You guessed it! I arrived just in time for Mass and just before taking communion my right eye began to leak tears. I was not crying, but my eye was, and, for the life of me, I did not know why, as I didn’t really think it was from the boredom of the service. J I wasn’t that sad, but these clearly were tears of sadness that quickly soaked my upper chest as I sat there. I was baffled as to what that might be about.
From this point the pain in my chest became severe. It got bad enough that I began making myself aware of medical possibilities in the villages I was passing through. As well, I started dispensing with various items I was carrying, even though there was very little to dispense with. Walking with only one Nordic pole and using my sarong to form a sling, lessoned the pain a bit. My concern for my heart was such that I was not sure what to say to my daughter, who I’d been in touch with on and off via email. I decided to send her a snail mail post card, which, I assumed, would take a while to get to her, but it would inform her of what I was experiencing in case it turned serious or even fatal. I would not have been the first to have lost my life on the Camino.
While the three muskateers wanted to walk with me, I chose to leave Samos on my own, so as to not slow them down. I’d decided to refrain from filling my water reservoir and to, instead, since it was now cooler, rely on there being water when I needed it. The fountains had been ubiquitous to this point; there was no reason to believe that would change. The walk to Sarria was slowly downhill, which was a relief. The 1000 year old Cypress trees standing tall, were a sight to behold along the way. It was an emotional day for me dealing with the pain and what it meant as far as the continuation of the trip was concerned. Even so, I found the terrain to be lush and bountiful, with farmers out harvesting their ever so tasty grapes. Later in the day, I walked part of the way with Jesus, (that’s really his name) whom I’d met in Samos. While I said nothing, at one point he reached out and held my hand. In tremendous pain, I stopped in Sarria, after walking only 14 km. Jesus walked on. It was here that I met with the children who would lose their Dad before the year was out.
It didn’t help my chest pain at that point that the highest mountain range on the Camino (higher even than the Pyrenees, in fact), was before me. As I walked, stopping often to catch my breath, the lessons in letting go continued. Truly letting go; including of life, if that was to be the outcome. Tears flowed, along with emotional release. I slowed my walk and struggled for breath in the higher altitudes, literally, above the clouds.
While there were no easily accessible facilities, I did think that maybe calling on the doctor whom I’d met on the plane and whose card I still carried might be a smart move. Another day out, after only 17, or so, km, I happened on what might have been the most relaxing albergue I visited on the Camino. At nine Euro it was a steal. For the first time, it seemed like I was on holiday. This place even boasted a palm tree, unusual in that part of Spain. There was a great vista, lovely, just right sunshine and not a thing in the world to ‘do,’ but enjoy. After doing the usual wash up and with no church in this spot, another which boasted a population of only one resident, it was an afternoon of contemplation. Faith and arrogance were on my mind.
As I walked, I’d been considering how my death in Spain, if that was to happen, would affect each of my four adult children. In contemplation, I realized that if death was to take me there on the Camino, I trusted that that was as it should be and that it was arrogant of me to assume to know how each of my children would handle it. At dinner I enjoyed Paella (a traditional rice dish, made differently in different parts of the country) and beer with Maria, from Italy, who shared my exact birthday. I’d never met anyone with the same birth day and month, never mind year, before.
My only roommate was a gentleman from Austria. I slept well, sleeping in til 8:00 a.m., relative to the usual 5 or 6 a.m. It might have been later, but that we heard the birds singing. As I left, after a hearty omelette for breakfast, again highly unusual, as most breakfasts are light to the extreme, I asked for a sign to guide me as to whether I should be seeking medical help and, for the time being, increased the Vitamin C and magnesium that I’d picked up along the way.
After another ‘short’ day, km. wise, slowly climbing Sierra Ligonde and making many stops along the way, I hobbled into Ventas de Naron and my resting place for the evening. After a badly needed night’s rest, I peaked the mountain in the wee hours and, while still considering the possibility of reaching out to the Barcelona doctor, I passed by a place that had obvious religious significance. It turned out to be a 17th century “cruceiro,” said to be the most famous cross on the Camino. Just before entering Ligonde, another stone cross appeared in my path. Thinking back to the knee that had spontaneously healed in the 12th century church early on and wondering why I had not thought of it before, I knelt and asked the spirits that be to do something with my heart pain and gave myself a bit of Reiki while kneeling there. Unlike back on Day 2, I felt no difference as I walked on.
Entering into Ligonde on Day 26, I noted a sign in English that spoke of the significance of the place that I’d stopped at. The Stone cross marked the location of an ancient pilgrim cemetery, all that remains of a former pilgrim hospital. When they died before arriving at the end, Pilgrims were buried here.
As I looked up at the sign, the old man who’d sat in my place in so many of the churches along the way, stood before me and, for the first time, spoke. To say I was stunned would be an understatement. He told me a bit of his story: He was a Catholic (one mystery solved) pilgrim from a long time past. In desperate need of absolution, he hadn’t been well and had spent months walking, only to have his heart give out before he made it all the way. He’d come to the realization that he was not going to make it while he was at the Samos monastery and was buried in the cemetery that I’d just passed. It was important to him, all these many centuries later, to finish what he started. He said that he “never finished anything and wanted to change that; that he was still looking to be absolved and needed help.” He asked that I walk on to Santiago for him.
It seemed that I’d been grooming for the possibility for years; likely even before I’d seen Shirley MacLaine’s book. Of course I’d walk for him, I was going that way anyway, wasn’t I? J
I asked him his name. It was Andrew. I realized then that wanting absolution as badly as he did, he had done his pilgrimage on crutches and I felt grateful that I’d been spared that piece. I also realized, in the moment, that it was his grieving his impending death that brought forth the tears in my right eye while at Samos.
Maybe not so surprisingly, the heart pain all but let up. For a while, there was a lingering feeling, but no real pain. It almost felt like an echo. My backpack was noticeably lighter and I left my sarong out for someone else’s use.
That day I considered stopping in CasaNova, but didn’t like the vibes on arrival. Instead, I did over 27 km, amid some serious feelings of relief and landed in Melide, only to find that, what had been my first choice of accommodation, the municipal shelter, was full.
While there were other possibilities, I was drawn, then, to an expensive private hostel. A woman I’d met earlier on the trail, Agnes and I arranged to share a room, each paying 20 Euro. After I’d arranged for my semi-private room, still wondering why I was there, the Parisian actor I’d met previously came down the stairs and, seeing me, asked if we could talk. He shared that, having by then developed shin splints, he had taken nine hours to walk only three km, two days previous and was now spending his second night at the hostel, healing. A fighter, with no intention of giving in or up, he spent the next hours crying in my arms as he released old pain, letting go of heartache that he’d been carrying for too long. Such a beautiful man, he was humbled by the experience and was learning some very important life lessons along the way, for which he was very grateful. This was not to be our last meeting, but we didn’t know it then.
Day 30 dawned with a steady cool rain, as I walked solo the entire day. That evening’s hostel was a recurrence of the bed bug incident and I was up, showered and out early, off to find a new change of clothes and a washer and dryer. After I confessed that I was following him somewhat closely because my miner’s light batteries were worn down and it was difficult to see predawn in some areas with some pretty iffy footing, Peter bought me breakfast and later in the a.m. a hot chocolate, which had been my drink of choice throughout, as he shared his story with me.
The last full day on the Camino, before reaching Santiago on Day 32, was one of my longer ones kilometer wise, at 31 km on Day 31. Porta de Santiago hosted me for the grand sum of 10 Euro and it was a nice spot to land into as I anticipated the coming of the end of the trail. I took time to shop for a Camino T-shirt and a pair of pants to wear while my clothes were machine washing and drying. Not being able to get my head around not walking another day after tomorrow, I considered the possibility of going on to Finisterre.
The last few days were relatively uneventful except for meeting again with various old/new friends along the way. While there was beauty most everywhere along the Camino, the mountains I’d just crossed through were hard to beat and the weather had finally turned cool to the point that I wore my various layers rather than carrying them on my back.
Walking into Santiago on a brutal, cold windy October 2nd, I marveled that there’d been so little rain during the trip. Just two days, aside from a lovely sprinkling one day about midway. I was ever so grateful for my rainproof jacket. With the rain and the wind, I found the day grueling, but I pressed onward, as pilgrims did and do.
On arrival in at Santiago, I first booked an albergue where I would stay for 5 nights. I knew I was in the right place when I was greeted with “Hi Lady,” with an emphasis on ‘lady,’ as I stepped in. Donna means “Lady” in Spanish and she had no way of knowing that that was my name. Next, I presented myself at the appropriate office and, after waiting a couple of hours in line, showed my passport and picked up my certificate of completion. Because I said that I’d walked the Camino for spiritual reasons, rather than religious, I was presented with a simpler certificate than had I walked for religious reasons. I didn’t think of it at the time, but I’m sure that Pilgrim Andrew would have had me choose the later, not that he was concerned about such things, I felt sure.
After receiving my certificate, I went directly to the Cathedral, where I, wait for it….took communion, during which I did NOT see or even feel his presence. Where was that old guy? At this point, with the pilgrimage complete for both of us, it was definitely anticlimactic and I strolled back to the albergue for some well needed rest.
On arrival, the first person I saw was the French actor, looking none the worse for wear. Quite handsome and fit, actually. He’d arrived in Santiago the day before and gone on to Finisterre. Of all the many options, it interested me that we’d run into each other one more time having booked at the same albergue with several to pick among. He asked if I’d done the rituals associated with the completion of the walk and, since I had not, we agreed to go together the next day.
A little background and history will be useful here. At the Cathedral incense is burned in a swinging metal container, or “incensory“, called a “Botafumeiro,” which means “smoke expeller” in Galician. The Botafumeiro is suspended from a pulley mechanism in the dome on the roof of the church. The current pulley mechanism was installed in 1604. One tradition has it that the use of a swinging censer in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral began in the 11th century. Arriving pilgrims were tired and unwashed (that’s an understatement) and smelled ‘strongly.’ It was also believed that incense smoke had a prophylactic effect in the time of plagues and epidemics. Of course, incense burning is also an important part of the liturgy, being an “oration to God”, or form of prayer. Weighing 80 kg and measuring 1.60 m in height the Botafumeiro, nowadays, is normally on exhibition in the library of the cathedral, but during certain important religious high days it is attached to the pulley mechanism and filled with 40 kg of charcoal and incense.
Being so far back in line, we were among the last to gain entry into the Cathedral for Mass. With standing room only, in a crowd of 1,200 pilgrims, tourists and locals, we stood before a yellow caution ribbon separating us from those seated. As the service progressed, a young man approached and removed the ribbon and let just three of us in before replacing the ribbon. French actor and I looked at each other in disbelief at our good fortune, because, unbenownst to us, in the Jubilee Years – those when St James’s Day falls on a Sunday – the Botafumeiro is attached in the Sunday Pilgrims’ Masses. Eight red-robed men began pulling the ropes and brought it into a swinging motion almost to the roof of the transept, reaching speeds of 80 km/h, while dispensing thick clouds of incense.
This is incredible to watch and we now had pretty much a front row seat. As it was happening, the tears start flowing out my right eye and I am immediately drenched, yet again. I immediately realize that my anti-climactic arrival yesterday stemmed from the fact that there had been no swinging Botafumeiro at that Mass and that, because of that, Pilgrim Andrew did not recognize that we’d arrived. Now he did, in spades, and the tears were tears of gratitude and of relief, pure and unadulterated.
He had finished his pilgrimage and had his absolution. For my part, I was delighted. It struck me that when I initially thought of doing the walk in my 50th year, that would not have been a Jubilee year and the Botafumeiro would not necessarily have been used during the service.
After many steps in the footprints of so many pilgrims before us, both of us humbled, French guy and I explored the town and talked some more. He’d decided to give his marriage another chance to see if the Camino had changed him, perhaps humbled him, enough to make a go of it. I was glad and hoped his wife would be too. We said our goodbyes.
The next day I travelled on to Finisterre. Initially, I thought I’d walk the 80 or so km, but thought better of it with the weather having turned even colder and wetter. It seemed surreal to be on a bus after walking so far, but, after orienting myself, the bus ride through the northwest region of Spain was lovely.
Finisterre, means, ‘the end of the earth,’ and ancient pilgrims, believing that it truly was the end of the earth, sometimes carried their pilgrimage on to that point, in order to purge. They would burn the clothing they’d worn on the pilgrimage and prepare to start life anew.
The Moss Agate stone that had been gifted to me by another dear friend back home had some interesting uses as relates to my time on the Camino, although I was not aware of them at the time. Moss Agage is said to enhance mental concentration, persistence and endurance, making it useful as an aid in physical exercise. As well Agate raises awareness and links into the collective consciousness of the oneness of life. It encourages quiet contemplation of one’s life experiences that lead to spiritual growth and inner stability. I tossed the stone into the North Atlantic on a day where the wind howled and, at one point, literally lifted me off my feet. More letting go. I was born very near the coast of Nova Scotia, on the other side of that very same ocean. Somehow life seemed to have come full circle.
The next few days were spent quietly exploring Santiago – a city teaming with colour and vibrancy – including enjoying a free meal offered to the first ten pilgrims who lined up each day at the Parador. In times past, the Parador served as a hostel for pilgrims who’d reached the shrine to St. James in the adjacent cathedral. It’s medieval and monastery tranquility is obvious in the galleries, the cloisters and in the passageways, all contained by vast granite walls. The free meals serve to honour the hotel’s past and it was fun walking through the bowels of the structure to share a meal with other Pilgrims, each with their own Camino story.
Go there…I promise you will love it. Stroll Las Ramblas, visit the cathedrals, take in the history of Europe’s best preserved Gothic Quarter, put your feet in the Mediterranean, enjoy the lively night life, stand in awe of the architecture, including the work of Gaudi and La Sagrada Familia, which is still under construction, even today; it’s a long list. Just keep an eye out for pick pockets.
I found myself walking everywhere still, not yet acclimatized to motorized vehicles. The first time I got on an escalator (at the airport for the return trip) a part of my brain couldn’t figure out why, when I tried to walk up the stairs, I kept stumbling backwards. You may laugh, but I was a while figuring out that I was trying to go up the operational ‘down.’
I am always honoured when people share their personal tragedies and triumphs with me, but Pilgrim Andrew took that to a whole new level. People ask if I would go again and I would, but I am not drawn to it, for now!
As to my Nordic poles, there was almost no wear on the little booer than I expected and, by this time, was none too happy that I had not let her know of the concern earlier and had it checked. But, since she gets this stuff, was relieved that the pain had not, in the end, been mine.
On my return, I had a stress test done, which showed no heart problem, befuddling the doctor, since I’d outlined the symptoms that I’d experienced. He wanted to send me on to a specialist, but I declined. While I considered it, I could not bring myself to tell the good doctor Pilgrim Andrew’s story.
I am always honoured when people share their personal tragedies and triumphs with me, but Pilgrim Andrew took that to a whole new level. People ask if I would go again and I would, but I am not drawn to it, for now!