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?

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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!

Consequences of Sharing a Room with a Stranger – Day 22 – Carrion de los Condes to Terradillos

The meseta. Ah, the meseta.

Long, straight, flat.

Boring.

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Can any good come from walking this long, unwavering line?

My friends, the Camino is full of surprises. Expect the unexpected and be open to unanticipated consequences.

It took a good seven hours to get to the next town. It was sunny, hot and dry.

Leave it to St. Philip, the “humorous” saint, to put me in a situation in which I WANTED a bit of water from the sky. Ha, ha, if you’ve been following my tale from the soggy beginning.

I arrived at the albergue late in the day but was not happy to find that there was no more room in the bunk bed (cheap) side of the building. If I wanted to stay at this albergue, I would have to stay in the hotel side in either a double (I was solo) or in a single.

As I dug through my meager assortment of euros, I sadly faced the fact that this night was going to blow my budget big time. I considered the idea of walking to the next albergue, although chances that there would be room were slipping away with every minute of hesitation. Plus, I would face at least three and a half more kilometers of walking in the heat.

I must have looked pretty distressed because the hospitalero decided to give me a break on the price of the single and I decided to take it.

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I had my own bathroom and took a leisurely shower. I dried myself with their towels! Yay for me!!  I hand washed my clothes in the horse-trough looking tub they had out back and hung them up – they would be dry within an hour. My sleeping bag would stay in my pack tonight – I was going to sleep on clean, white sheets tonight, baby!!

I ambled over to the dining room/bar in the front of the albergue, bought a glass of cold white wine,  sat at a table on the grass, and took off my sandals. I could begin to write in my journal. The sun would set in a few hours and I officially considered this day over.

My friends, Carlos and Andres, came up the Camino hoping for a room. I told them I thought the albergue was full but told them to give it a try. Sadly, they had to move on to the next town before they would be able to stop for the night.

Sipping, writing, I met a New York Puerto Rican, Damian.  A fellow pilgrim, we instantly became friends.

I’m Puerto Rican. Rather, New Yor-Rican. Second generation, my Spanish language skills were basically non-existent at the start of my trip but my Spanish cultural skills are pretty good.  And, although I’ve lived in many, many countries, I think New York City is the Capital of the World (sorry, rest of the world). I hope you can see why Damian and I would get along.

Damian and I sat outside in the sun and talked. He translated when a fellow pilgrim had a really nasty blister crisis and needed to get to a hospital. We talked about why we were each on the Camino. We had another wine, then went inside and had a forgettable Pilgrim menu dinner.

Ah, Camino, you work in mysterious ways.

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Damian had done a good thing. He had shown up at the albergue shortly after me. Remember that there was only a single and a double available when I arrived? I took the single. He could take the double or keep on walking. He had taken the double.

Along came a pilgrim, looking for a bed. Sadly, the albergue was full.

But Damian did what any pilgrim would have done. He offered the pilgrim, whose name was “C,” the other bed in his double, if she wouldn’t mind sharing a room with a stranger and splitting the cost.

Sharing a room with a stranger is not as unusual as you may think, dear reader. Every night on the Camino has been spent sharing a room with strangers, men and women, young and old, snoring, scratching, farting, laughing, coughing, packing, in various stages of dress and undress. Nothing means anything anymore. It’s all about helping each other, being considerate of each other, and getting a good night’s sleep.

So Damian and C shared a room that night. The room next door to mine, in fact. And those walls were gossamer thin.

They talked well into the night.

About what, you are indelicately wondering? Strangers, brought together by the Camino? A charming, good-looking, single man from New York and an exhilarating, likeable, single woman from Germany? Both having been through the good and bad of life and now walking the Camino looking for . . . what?

What could they talk about until falling asleep?

Blisters, my friend. Blisters.

Who has how many where. What caused them. What remedies they’ve heard of. What worked. What didn’t. What they might try. What they hadn’t tried yet. Socks. How many layers of socks. Shoes. Boots. Sandals. Powders. Creams. Wraps.

I fell asleep to the sound of them discussing their blisters.

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They left early the next morning.

Although I never saw either of them again, I have it on very good authority that they walked the rest of the Camino together.

And that, my dear reader, is the endearingly sweet and mysterious way in which the Camino occasionally brings people together and brings them what they didn’t know they were looking for.