Elisa’s Precio – Leon

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The magnificent Cathedral in Leon.

I planned a two-day stay in Leon. I wanted to see the sights of this great city. I wanted to get my cell phone taken care of. I wanted to walk for a day without my pack and a sense of urgency. I wanted to play tourist for 24 hours.

But instead of going all tourist-y on you, Dear Reader,  I’m going to take you down a different path.

My plan was not falling into place. I had gone to the tourist office to find a hostel and had gotten a short list of places what might fit my budget. The old section of the city was packed with short, winding streets full of people and lacked obvious street signs.

In other words, I spent alot of time trying to un-lost myself.

I went from hostel to hostel but they offered no prospect of success – “We’re all full, every place is full today!”

I decided that I would try one last spot and, if I couldn’t find a bed there, I would go to the municipal albergue, spend the night, and leave Leon in the morning.

I found the building, and buzzed. No response. I buzzed again, preparing for a walk to the muni. Suddenly, there was a voice on the intercom – “Hola!”

I said I was a peregrina and looking for a bed for two nights. The door buzzed to let me in. However, it was too short a buzz for me to get the door open and before I could turn the knob, it was locked again.

Did I really want to stay here?

I rang again and, after another long pause, the door buzzed. This time I was prepared and went inside.

I looked at the mailboxes in the darkened lobby and found the name of the hostel. Second floor. The elevator looked iffy and so small that I took the stairs. The building was really quiet. No voices from inside the apartments. No sound of traffic. Somber and breezeless, more than a little discomforting.

I knocked on the door of the hostel. I waited and waited and, just as I was about to give up, the door opened and a frazzled yet friendly looking woman welcomed me in. I must have looked a sight, tired, sweaty, leaning on my hiking poles. She motioned me to sit and wait and she disappeared down the hall of the apartment.

Five, maybe ten minutes later she returned, wiping her hands on her apron. She grabbed some keys and I followed her out of the apartment, across the landing, and into another apartment.

She explained to me that she took care of the residents, making their meals and cleaning up after them. I had never heard of peregrinos being called residents but figured it was a local thing and if there was a bed, I didn’t care what I was called.

She showed me a simple, clean room, much less expensive and much larger than other singles I had stayed in so far. There was a pleasant amount of light coming in and the street outside was quiet.

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Clean, neat, large and bright.

She showed me the tiny kitchen and the bathroom down the hall.

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The kitchen and bathroom had a surprisingly large amount of people’s stuff in them – towels, toothbrushes, plates, mugs, shampoo, a bar of soap, a half used box of laundry detergent. It looked like people lived there.

Whatever. The room would be mine for the next two nights. I didn’t ask about communal meals.

And now, Dear Reader, I’m going to do something I haven’t done before. I’m going to simply quote what I’ve written in my journal. I hope it isn’t too choppy:

I thought I was staying in a weird place, instead I was blessed – old people live in this hostel, hospitalera makes dinner, takes care of them – Great! surrounded by old people! – after shower in less than pristine bathroom (I doubt I’ll get diseases), I headed out to 1100 Mass at Cathedral – as I was leaving room, I ran into one of the residents, Elisa – at least 90, using her walker, she greeted me as she was also on her way out – I told her I was a peregrina, she began asking questions, asking if I had a “precio” – I had just told her I was on way to Mass so didn’t know if precio was something for Church? price? what? – she told me to wait – I did although it might make me late & I didn’t know what I was waiting for – she slowly returned with a picture she had made of the Cathedral! She gave it to me as a gift! – she asked me to ride the elevator down with her – how could I say no? – I squeezed in & she started telling me about all the sights I needed to see in Leon – a few minutes later we parted ways, me towards the Cathedral, she towards the park – what a blessing I had been given from a place I expected to receive bedbugs from.

I spent the rest of that day, and all of the next, wandering around Leon, visiting the park, the Cathedral, San Isodoro, San Marcos, Gaudi’s Casa de Botines, the Pantheon.

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A beautiful park.

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I’d been walking through gates on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for decades. Now, seeing these in the Cathedral, I understood.

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Gaudi’s Casa de Botines on the left, Town Hall on the right.

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Superb frescos honor the final resting place of 11 Kings, 12 Queens, and 23 Princes!

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Medallions in the historic Plaza San Marcos mark each of the major cities one goes through on the Camino de Santiago de Campostella, from Roncevalles to Santiago.

I ate good food . . .

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Can you imagine a more satisfying lunch?

. . . and met nice people, even some pilgrims I knew from previous encounters.

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Sabine and Markus.

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A Leon native and I share a photo-op with the statue of Gaudi, sketching away.

The rains came and went and the city folk paraded up and down the main thoroughfare, elegant, happy and comfortable, stylish yet open and friendly.

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A few tourists, also.

That night, I was comfortable in my room. The t.v. didn’t work so I prepared to catch up with YouTube on my iPad but Oops, no wi-fi.  It turned out that the window that let in all that lovely bright light didn’t have a shade or shutters. So all that lovely bright light came into the room at zero-dark-thirty in the morning. Oh, well.

It took me 24 hours to realize that I didn’t have to lock my door in a hostel I was sharing with a bunch of 80 and 90 year olds. What were they going to do? Sneak in while I was in the shower and take my iPad?  There’s no wi-fi. Take my phone? I couldn’t even figure the phone out and I had already had it for a month!

And I felt badly that I had only had the one encounter with Elisa, who had been so kind and seemed so happy to have someone new to talk to. I wanted to see her again. I wanted to talk with her. I hadn’t even gotten a photo of her to remind me of her face, her voice, her kindness.

Then, serendipity. She was coming in as I was going out the next afternoon and I got her photo.

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My dear Elisa.

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Elisa’s Precio

Thank you St. Julian. You done good. To quote my journal again, “On Camino, I am recipient of much more kindness than I deserve.”

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Mr. Coffee, Meet Mr. Taxi – Day 28 – Leon

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La Torre is slightly off the beaten path in Arcahueja.

Continuing into Leon, I stopped at a small but well-known bar and albergue, “La Torre,” to get some food and drink. It was the middle of the day and it was hot and dry. I was the only person in the small bar, which suited me fine. The hospitalero was friendly and welcoming and there was toilet paper in the WC.

Life is good.

I had already had several friendly encounters that day.

First thing that morning, I had come to a bar for my morning coffee and croissant only to discover that the bar was in crisis. Their coffee maker, the big gleaming metal machine found in every cafe, capable of spurting individual cups of foamy cafe con leche in under a minute, was broken. This was a major problem because the line of pilgrims looking for their morning “cuppa joe” was just beginning.

But the machine was broken. Fini. Kaput. Nada. No coffee, no milk, No happy pilgrims.

The owners came up with the best solution they could on short notice on a Saturday.

They had a small Mr. Coffee and a carton of milk and they apologetically splashed hot coffee into cup after cup as pilgrims came into the bar in a steady stream.

A month ago, I wouldn’t even have noticed. Now, after almost a month on the road, Mr. Coffee seemed completely out of place. I knew, in my heart, that there was no way this would be an “authentic” cup of cafe, but I felt the pain of the hospitaleros as they made pot after pot of coffee, running out and then having to wait while the next pot brewed. At least the coffee wasn’t sitting on the hot plate for long.

I had my coffee (coffee, not cafe, it made a difference to me), wished them luck, and continued walking.

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Tiny raneros

Shortly after, I met a local man who was out for his morning stroll. He stopped and wished me a very fine morning. It had been a long time since a local had given a greeting that was more than just a smile and a nod. We had a short conversation in my very halting Spanish and I felt good as I continued walking.

Walking along a stream, I heard a familiar sound. This time, I stopped and really looked. Yes, there! I finally saw one of those elusive raneros I had heard about from Carlos days earlier when we left El Burgo Ranero. So small but such a big sound!

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I encounter a local eager to chat even if we didn’t speak the same language.

Continuing, I met another local women out for a walk. Her friendly greeting and smile warmed me like the sun and we began to chat. She asked questions about where I was from, how long I had walked, where I was going? She asked if my clothes were comfortable, was everything in my backpack, was it heavy?

I learned that most of the pilgrims she ran into on this part of the Camino, which ran through her neighborhood, didn’t look approachable. Their heads were down, their eyes shaded, they determinedly planted their hiking poles with each step, They all seemed focused on getting one foot in front of the other and she never felt comfortable interrupting them with conversation.

But, oh, the questions she wanted to ask. Why are you walking? What have you seen so far? What are the people like? Where do you sleep? My answers were as complete as I could make them. I asked how long had she lived here? Had she ever walked the Camino? What is Leon like?  She herself had never walked the Camino and now she felt she was too old.

Other pilgrims passed us as we talked. Our chat lasted for at least 30 minutes. We laughed, noting our similarities and differences. Eventually, we went our separate ways, wishing each other a “Buen Camino.”

Now it was lunch time (OK, early lunch, I still needed a real cafe fix) and I was at La Torre. The simple menu appealed to me. I decided it was too hot and late in the day for coffee and went the beer route. The hospitalero saw me wipe sweat from my forehead as I dropped my pack outside and he asked whether I would like an ice-cold frosty glass for my beer. My eyes teared up in joy.

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The hospitalero at La Torre was ready with a fast taxi, a cold beer, whatever.

Bliss was mine as I sat outside in the shade and ate a tortilla (not as good as Sinin’s, whose I mentioned in an earlier post, but not bad) and washed it down with the iciest beer I’d had in a loooong while.

Karen, a nurse from Australia, and another pilgrim, a young woman from Germany, arrived at the bar. They were tired and thirsty. Karen was limping heavily and as soon as she sat down she began massaging ointment onto her knees.

It was at least another eight kilometers to Leon. They considered their limited options and finally decided to try to find a ride into the city.

They didn’t speak any Spanish so I offered to try to arrange transportation. I haltingly asked the hospitalero if there was a taxi available (I hadn’t seen any cars in the village) and he told me that he had a relative who had a taxi and could take us into Leon.

I hadn’t thought of going along for the ride.

I told Karen that a taxi would be available and the cost would be reasonable if it was split. After some back and forth – did they want to take this taxi, how much would it cost, when could it come to pick them up – business was settled and soon a clean, new van parked in front of the bar. I used my “Espanol muy primitivo” to check the arrangements for the women.

They asked me to ride along. They even offered to pay in return for my helping them.

I thought about it. There was not a cloud in the sky, which meant that the sun was really burning down. Siesta time was approaching and the roads would be devoid of people. Taking the taxi would get me to Leon in 20 minutes instead of 3 hours. Having walked about 430 kilometers straight, there would be no shame in taking a 20 minute taxi ride.

Yet, I declined their offer, breaking my new rule of always accepting what is offered. Getting into a vehicle at that point seemed as out of place as, well, drinking a cup of Mr. Coffee. My mind was on walking, slowly, carefully, strongly. Let the adventures find me along the road as planned.

I saw them drive away, slightly regretting my choice as I thought about how quickly they would be in the city and how much trudging l had ahead of me.

The beer was no longer cold, the tortilla was finished. I said “adios” to my hospitalero friend, hoisted up my backpack, and headed out.

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Approaching the suburbs of Leon

Contact – Day 27 – To Leon

IMGP3806The albergue had a nice courtyard. There were picnic tables and benches and shade provided by the surrounding building. The clothes lines, sinks for hand washing, and showers were downstairs and the water was warm and plentiful.

Sadly, the beds were upstairs and every step up felt like I had giant rocks tied to my boots.

But I found a lower bunk away from the door in the first room and claimed it for my own. It was near the window overlooking the courtyard. I learned how to spot the optimal bed for me.

  • Lower bunks are easier to get into and out of than upper ones. Upper ones, however, offer more space. For me, I go for a lower bunk simply because I don’t want to have to climb down when I’m still half asleep in the morning.
  • A bed away from the door means I’ll be away from the noise in the morning as the early risers leave.
  • Windows allow me to control the light coming into the room (I usually leave the shade up and let natural light put me to sleep and wake me up) and the air circulation

I had to wait for siesta time to finish before the local tienda opened and I could buy some food for dinner. The kitchen in the albergue was crowded – this was the municipal albergue so it was cheap and it was nice, so it was crowded.

The albergue had wi-fi.  I got my iPad and went through my e-mail. Some bad news caught my eye. I realized I really needed to talk to my children back in the States (remember, DH and I live in Germany). The albergue was noisy – groups were cooking together. I went outside to the street in front of the albergue and sat on the sidewalk. I pulled up Skype and connected. This was the first time I had been able to contact the U.S. since the start of my Camino.

DS1 and I had a long conversation. Using my iPad, I showed him where I was, the narrow street where I sat, the bistros nearby where I could have gotten a pilgrim menu if I had wanted. Seeing pilgrims sitting on the sidewalk, back against a building, was not an unusual sight on the Camino. Things can be very basic around here.

I knew I missed my children, but now I realized that I couldn’t help them. I was too far away, too invested in my journey. I couldn’t even keep up with the situation because I couldn’t get wi-fi every day, not even every hour.

But as long as I could get wi-fi then and there, I stayed and we spoke. I brought the iPad inside and panned around the dining room, where a roomful of Spanish,  French, Brazilian, and German pilgrims were sharing a meal. When they saw the screen, they waved, cheered, toasted, and send jolly greetings to America from this little town in Spain.

The pilgrims who cheered didn’t know me or my family. Yet, because of the Camino, we all felt connected when one of us, in the middle of this crazy journey, had contact with loved ones far away.  In a way, that person represented all of us who are far from home;  the further, the more heartfelt the cheering.

That night, Andres and Carlos were bunking in the same room as I, along with 20 other pilgrims. My Skype call had left me feeling sad and useless. There was so much I wanted to do to fix things but couldn’t because . . . I was walking the Camino. There was no one I could talk to.

But, wait, there was.

I shared my bad news with “the boys,” Carlos and Andres. They have children the same age as me and they understood. We talked, our first serious conversation, maybe the only serious conversation we had in the whole trip. The language barrier was significant, but they understood my distress and were cheerful, kind and supportive.

I fell asleep that night, comforted by my talks with my family and with my Camino family. We were in an albergue that allowed pilgrims to stay until 0830. Blessings! It would feel like a hotel! The sun slowly set as I listened to the last few pilgrims in the courtyard quietly laughing and talking, sharing wine and conversation.

The next morning, the people on the other side of the room couldn’t find the light switch on their side as they prepared to leave at 0545. Yes, 0545. So, they turned on the lights on our side of the room.

Most of us were fast asleep. Their noise woke me up, but I understood that they were trying to get out.

But the lights on! No, no, no!  Couldn’t they see we were asleep?? Did they think we wouldn’t mind being awakened at that hour? Did they think we would appreciate their “wake up call?” Did they think I secretly wanted to see the stars disappear and the sun rise on the Camino?

If so, they were greatly mistaken.

I tried, oh how I tried, to ignore them. But, Big Tess suddenly took hold of me. Was it the conversations last night? Was it my feeling of helplessness?

I crawled out of my sleeping bag. I walked over to the light switch. I gave a very dirty look to the pilgrim who had turned the light on. Making sure I could be seen by all, I indignantly flipped off the light switch with a scowl and strode back to my bed and my nice, warm, sleeping bag. I was going to get that hour of sleep, even if I had to punch somebody to get it.

And then, I turned, went back, and also closed the door to the noisy hallway.

From inside his sleeping bag, a hand poked out and Andres gave me a sleepy thumbs up.

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A Kick in the Heart and a Very Short Post – Day 26 – Mansilla to Leon

How do I write about this day?

This was a day that would take me from the tiniest and emptiest of villages to the huge city of Leon. I would walk solo for the longest stretches, and also have some of the most meaningful conversations with strangers I’d had yet. I would wind up staying in the oddest pension I’ve ever stayed in, and walk away with a lump in my throat and a souvenir that I will always treasure.  Family would join me with an unexpected kick in the heart.

My saints would be with me, and I would need them.

Looking over my journal for this day, I realize it would make several chapters of a book. How to condense it for a blog?? What do I cut out? What person do I shortchange?

I planned to stay in Leon for two days because I had heard about the Cathedral, because most pilgrims stayed in Leon for two days, and because I wanted to take a rest. But this day alone covers six pages in my journal even though my notes and photos are only designed to jog my memory.

  • Unexpected news from home, which I share with my new family
  • Theresa gives me the guts and I earn a thumbs up
  • I stop carrying around other people’s fears
  • Mr. Coffee rescues a bar
  • My “language skills” help an Australian get a ride to Leon
  • I have an unforgettable talk with a local
  • Raneros, in the flesh
  • Irony at a bus stop in the city
  • Many unnecessary kilometers of walking in the city, searching for necessities
  • I expire on the road
  • Dad sends me a message, although he passed away two years ago

Seeing the Cathedral is the least important thing that happens this day. And day 2 in Leon is another 7 pages.

I am daunted as I try to write. I’m not blocked. I’m overwhelmed.

Any suggestions??

Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt – Day 25 – El Burgo Ranero to Mansilla

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Profound and human messages on the ceiling.

As I gazed up at the rafters of the restaurant/cafe/bar, I closed my eyes and slipped into a sensual appreciation of all that was happening at the moment.

The coolness of the air on my sweaty clothes and skin.

The notes of rock and roll drifting into my ears.

The aroma of food cooking in a back room.

The sight of every flat surface, except for the countertop and the seats, covered with colorful notes, drawings, quotes, and messages.

And, especially, the amazing assault on my tongue as I sampled the most perfect food I had  yet tasted on the Camino.

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The town government has set up a gathering place in town.

I was still traveling along a flat, dry and mostly treeless section of the Camino. The few buildings were whitewashed and the Camino  was dry stone, so the light reflected made sunglasses a necessity. I didn’t trust my intuition that my wet Camino was finally coming to an end and so I still had not unzipped my pant legs down to shorts.

My decision two days earlier to not take the recommended route meant that it would be about 18 kilometers to the next albergue. Nevertheless, it was shorter than the other route and I was happy with my choice.

As usual, I had been among the last to leave the albergue, although there had been people still eating breakfast when I left. I had decided to leave the sandwiches given to me at the convent for the next hungry and penniless pilgrim .

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The marsh becomes more silent every year.

Andres and Carlos had been in the albergue with me the night before, so we were all heading in the same direction. I asked what a “Burgo Ranero”  – the name of the village – was and they explained. “Burgo” was basically just a word for village, hamlet.

“Ranero,” however, was the name of the tiny little frog that we had been hearing all along our walk as we passed the canals and causeways. They were becoming rarer and the marshy lands were becoming quieter. I remembered the sounds that had enchanted me as I had walked along the canal on the way to Fromista and realized I had been hearing these tiny native frogs.

The boys (Carlos and Andres) caught up with me kilometers later as I walked into the village of Reliegos. They had fallen in with one of their friends, a college student named Lizzie, and they were carrying on a conversation in Spanish about the conquest of South America.

Carlos suddenly stopped our little troop and insisted that we zig where we had planned to zag. He wanted to take us to a bar he remembered. The town looked dead to me, no people, no dogs, no cars, no nothing except white heat, but I was game for his suggestion.

We turned a corner and WOW! Who had the vision to put this . . . vision . . . in the middle of this town? Not graffiti, this place had been planned like this. A personal statement of the owner’s take on life, family, humanity, it was there for all to see. Of course, it was an irresistible invitation to enter. I didn’t know it, but the best was awaiting me inside.

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Too late and too sweaty for coffee, my breakfast that day would be ice-cold beer and a croissant. But Carlos suggested I try a piece of Sinin’s tortilla, instead.

Tortilla had become my go-to lunch. Tasty, cheap and always present, it had become a no brainer.

For those “NorteAmericanos” who may not be familiar with the difference between a Spanish tortilla and a Mexican tortilla, let me explain. They are as different as chocolate cake is from meatballs. The only thing they have in common is that they are round.

A Mexican tortilla is a type of flatbread made from water and flour (basically), flattened, baked or pan-fried, and then used like a piece of bread to hold tacos, tostados,  etc.

A Spanish tortilla is like an omlette. If you have ever made a Bisquik impossible pie (do I need a copyright symbol?) you have the idea. It’s simple ingredients are potatoes, onions, and eggs. It is cooked in a skillet on the stove and flipped when it is done on one side.

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Sinin and a tortilla fresh from the back room.

I wasn’t crazy about getting as huge a piece of  Sinin’s tortilla as Carlos had gotten for himself, but my stomach drove me to try a bite as he insisted.

That’s when I had the out-of-body experience.

I went through the forkful I had of Carlos’ tortilla, then another. I ate, trying to decipher what the secret technique or ingredient was that made this tortilla far above all I had eaten  on the Camino. Lizzie and Andres joined Carlos and myself in trying to break down what we were enjoying and we came up with many ideas but none that stood the test of time.

I ordered my own piece of tortilla.

I was like an alcoholic at a wine tasting.

IMGP3792I gazed around the room. There were messages in many languages on the walls, the ceiling, behind the counter. The rafters – how did the writers get up there? All with different dates, handwriting, pens. It was surprising how profound people were, especially when seen through the lens of someone just coming off the road after days of journeying. There were flags from many countries. Had people thought of bringing flags with them? Who? Why? The music on the radio changed from Elvis rock-a-billy to Mexican Mariachi.

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Stills from the movie, The Way, posted on the wall in a place of honor.

This place, the Bar La Torre, is proud that it was used in the movie, The Way, and Sinin cheerfully displays photos from the scenes it is in. But nowhere does he mention that he makes the finest  tortilla on the Camino.

Did he add cheese? Was he shredding the potato? What was giving the tortilla height without making it heavy like a doorstop?

I couldn’t answer these questions as I devoured the food and drank the cold beer, and still cannot. But this tortilla became my gold standard. It became the tortilla to which all other tortillas would forever be measured against. And my quest to discover the secret ingredient or technique would begin that day.

My family will have to endure many tortillas in the coming days, months, maybe years, until I discover Sinan’s secret. I am a woman obsessed.

I will not rest until I have cracked the code.

And lots of eggs.

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Brunch?

I Get a Camino Family – Day 24 – Sahagun to El Burgo Ranero

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I had cancelled my reservation for the community dinner at the convent the evening before so I could go to the bullfight. In return, I made a reservation for breakfast in the morning.

I arrived with the last wave for breakfast and enjoyed the food and conversation.  When the last hospitalero (I’m not sure if she was a nun or not) came into the breakfast room and saw that I didn’t have breakfast in front of me (it had already been cleared away), she insisted upon getting me breakfast. No amount of Spanish on my part could convince her – I knew she understood what I was saying  – that I had already eaten.

In case you’re wondering, breakfast consisted of cafe con leche, some cellophaned croissants, butter, jam, a juice box, and a sandwich to take on the road. If this sounds spartan, please don’t think so. The breakfast was fine and I was grateful for anything offered with a glad heart. All I really ate in the mornings was coffee and maybe a croissant anyway, so this was more than I usually had before getting on the road.

Understand my predicament, then, when the woman in the convent made me sit and have a second breakfast. Coffee, I would drink, no problem. juice, OK, I’m always thirsty. But I already had the first sandwich tucked into my backpack, knowing in my heart that I would not eat it.

And yet, refusing food, in a convent, would probably upset the mojo of the Camino big time.

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Breakfast number two just for me.

So I ate another croissant, drank more coffee and juice, and tucked sandwich number two next to its brother in my pack and set out.

I soon had to decide which path to take.

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Why all the graffiti?

The guidebook listed two choices on this relentlessly hot day. Option one, recommended,  would take me along the ancient Roman road. Historic, yes, but flat, shadeless, and with only one water stop. The other, the Real Camino Frances (that is, Real as in “Royal,” not as in “not fake”) would follow a road.

I decided that I had had enough of ancient roads, historic bridges, and centuries-old churches for a while. The path along the road, which is called a senda, looked straight and well maintained. I decided to take the way that offered a stop (and a bathroom) about halfway.

I took the not-recommended route.

Dear reader, you expect this to turn out badly, but it turned out well in every way. The road had very few cars. The senda was tree-lined and brush free, making it comfortable to walk.

I walked under a little metal archway, an art installation by the local government. It made me think of all the people whom I had not met and would never meet, but who had thought about me, walking the Camino in their town, and who wanted to show that they were aware of my travel. They wanted to give me a sign that I was not forgotten and was well thought of. They wanted to give me a work of art. I cherished that little archway as I passed under it and said thanks to the artist and the people who approved it.

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IMGP3779 At the halfway point, Bercianos del Real Camino, I ran into a home of one of my saints who I have not mentioned in a while. St. Roque (“row-KAY” in Spanish, “Rocky” to his friends) had an inauspicious little “ermitage” next to the bar where I  stopped for a drink. This bar was one of only two places on the Camino where I thirstily downed two sodas in the middle of the morning.

I was very surprised to find Rocky in this most unexpected place. Once again, this ermitage (hermitage) was not on the map.  St. Christopher was apparently guiding my steps. IMGP3780

The ermitage was locked so I couldn’t go in. It probably would not have been much to see anyway.

No great altar, no gold statues, no ceiling up to heaven. Just a simple hermitage, a place of solitude, introspection, and local devotion. It would be meaningful for me only because these weird encounters with my saints  kept happening.

When I settled in at the municipal albergue in El Burgo Ranero at the end of the day, I met Otto, who was Austrian and ran a ski resort and hotel. I also ran into  M.L, whom you may remember had called the albergue at San Juan de Ortega a “hell hole” and was complaining about the conditions in this town now. I had walked part of that day with a woman named Deana, who was English but lived in Germany. And I was happy to meet up again with  Dave and Rena, the newly weds from my first day on the Camino – we had been passing each other for weeks.

But I was happiest to catch up with my two Spanish friends, Andres and Juan Carlos. Our language skills were terrible – my Spanish, their English – but they were funny, they were sweet and they were helpful.  We were similar ages, and similarly enjoyed being among the last to fall asleep and the last to get out in the morning.  They had both been on the Camino before and were enjoying themselves immensely, each for wildly different reasons. Our conversations struck a chord and we became Camino family members.

I, who had decided to travel solo, discovered that just knowing that friends were up ahead or just behind added pleasure to my journey. I liked knowing that there could be familiar faces at the end of the day to share stories with.

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Carlos, me and Andres at Bercianos del Real Camino.

Ole! Or How I Became a (Gulp) Kind of Fan of Bullfighting – Day 23 – Terradillos to Sahagun

Dear Reader, please don’t get your panties in a knot.

There are two things I know to be true about bullfighting:

a.) Bullfighting is growing in unpopularity in those countries where it is most popular – Spain, Mexico, some Central and South American countries.

b.) It is firmly planted in Spanish culture.

And I suddenly had the chance to see a bullfight in Sahagun.

I had arrived in Sahagun early. I had been hearing about the festival of San Juan de Sahagun and seeing posters about the bullfight for several days. In Fromista, a local resident had thrust a flyer in my hand, urging me to see the bullfight since I was heading for Sahagun.

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Poster along the Way.

My initial reaction was – Ugh! Bullfighting is a blood sport. The bull doesn’t stand a chance, doomed the moment it sets hoof in the ring.  Why would I want to watch someone put an animal to death and see a crowd cheer about it? Sounds like dogfighting or bear-baiting. Sounds like boxing. Bloody.  Or hunting.

However, as I neared Sahagun, I thought about contradictions.

The local people I had met along the way were extremely kind and benevolent towards their children, their gardens, and their pets. Many of them spoke out against bullfighting with passion. The person who had put the flyer in my hand was the only person who seemed to actively advocate seeing a bullfight.

On the other hand, many towns along the Camino have bullrings. And the feast of San Fermin, featuring the “running of the bulls,” is known around the world, in spite of the many tales of unhappy endings,

I try not to judge a book without reading it and a movie without viewing it. How could I judge a cultural icon without seeing it.

I found a bed in a convent in Sahagun, had dinner (“. . . algo para comer con mi cerveza??”) and walked to the bullring.

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The entrance

The ticket was surprisingly inexpensive. I was one of the first to arrive. The ring was dry and hot, with concrete seats all around.

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Water would keep the dust down

The shady side of the ring filled up first. The crowd was made up of people of all ages – young people on dates, old men with their cronies, teenagers goofing together, moms with strollers and toddlers,

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All sitting in the shade

Local organizations each had their own marching bands and each sat in a different section of the stadium, wearing the group’s color.

The parade began, Not the dramatic parade I expected. No, these were just local people, representing their local organizations, wearing the color of their organization – red, blue, green, yellow –  and jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts. Nothing fancy, although the clowns were dressed elaborately. But these simple, local people would fight the bulls.

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The crowd cheered as the parade began with the organization whose color was pink.

They all bowed to the center box, where the mayor sat. Each group went to a section nearest their group and casually waited. They shared stories and drinks with the spectators who were within a foot of where they stood. They joked with each other and with the crowd, their fans chanting and playing songs.

Finally, the bull entered. I got nervous. These guys seemed totally unprepared to do anything except run. They did not seem prepared to challenge a bull, even a  young ones. This bull was big and fast.

Then, the first fighter strode to the center of the ring and began to provoke the bull. He got closer and closer to the bull, waving his cape, daring him to charge. The young man had polish and courage, which made his encounter with the bull mesmerizing. The bull was unpredictable.

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As I watched the two in the ring, I was drawn in and began to feel the excitement that the town had come for. This wasn’t about blood. It was about style and fearlessness in the face of breathtaking odds. It was about physical and mental agility.  It was about valor and danger. The bull would act. The man would react. Finally, the bull charged. The man pirouetted out of the way, cape fluttering over the bull’s head. OLE!

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Again and again, closer and closer, the young man teased and taunted.  He stared at the bull with an intensity that silenced the crowd. He moved out of the way just enough to brush the sleek black hair of the passing bull.

The young man stayed in the ring for a long time,  gracefully moving aside, sweeping the cape over the bull’s back. When his time was up, he accepted the applause of the spectators. No killing, no poking. No gory ending.

And so it went. Old men showed that they, too, had style and courage.

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Young women – didn’t I mention women? –  showed their exuberance and daring.

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And, although there were some close encounters . . .

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. . . everyone walked away to the sounds of cheering crowds made up of friends, family and neighbors (and pilgrims). There were no attempts to harm the bull in any way, And people cheered the bull, also.

Here is what I learned. I learned that there are more ways to “fight” bulls than I had suspected. What I thought of as bull fighting is more like a game of “chicken” played with a bull instead of a car and with flair and panache.

I still do not want to see a bull getting killed. I do not like to watch boxing. And I understand hunting, but I wouldn’t enjoy it.

But I learned to not be so quick to judge the cultural norms of others. Between black and white, there are many shades of gray.

OLE!