Christina Has a Meltdown – Just One More Day Until Santiago

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In my mind’s eye, Dear Reader, I see Christina leaping across the  desk, grabbing the clerk by his t-shirt, and giving him a slight, yet intense, shake, as she says, between gritted teeth:

“I. Need. A Bed. And I Need. One. Now.”

She gives me a look out of the corner of her eye, looks back at the clerk, her eyes narrowing, and adds,”

“No. I Need Two. Two Beds.  PRONTO!”

How had we come to this uncharacteristic turn of events? We would be in Santiago the next day. What was happening???

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This crisis had begun earlier in the day. Christina and I had separated during our walk, as usual. We knew we would run into each other later in the day. I was the faster walker and prone to long, leisurely stops for bocadillos and beer,  she was slow and steady.

We were Camino family.

As we got closer to Santiago, there were fewer and fewer beds available. The crush of pilgrims who began their Camino in the city of Sarria was surprising and overwhelming. There were the same number of albergues, but there were more pilgrims to accommodate. Survival belonged to the fittest. And the fastest.

Christina and I were neither.IMGP4520

At lunch time, I had pondered (over my bocadillo and beer) the real possibility that there might not be any beds available for many kilometers. The weather was blisteringly hot and sunny.

Christina came along as I sat there eating and drinking. We considered our options.

I had noticed the warning signs of no room ahead and was thinking about getting a taxi to take us to the nearest available albergue. Christina would have none of it.

She reminded me that catching a ride at this point would betray weeks of  decisions to walk rather that catch cabs, buses, vans, etc., as so many other pilgrims had done.  Walking had made us a family.

She was right. I could not give in this close to the end.

(blubbering like a baby) “I can’t do it, Sarge! I just can’t do it (sniveling). I wasn’t cut out for this (wailing, moaning)!!”

(slap) “Snap out of it,  Private! (slap) You’ll do it ’cause it’s your mission!! (slap, slap) It’s what you came here to do!! Now get back in there!! (slap).”

I snapped out of it.

By hook or by crook, we would continue walking and, somehow, we would find an open albergue for our last night on the Camino.

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We set out in the hot midday sun. This was why people got up at 0430 and left before dawn – so that they would not have to walk in the middle of the afternoon.

But, you, know, it just wasn’t our style.

So we walked.

As always, we split, me ahead, her behind.

I walked along highways and villages, beginning to see more and more of the trappings of suburbs and not of abandoned villages. More stores, fewer dogs lying in the sun.

I passed an albergue which looked inviting. There were young people lying on the nicely mowed grass as their clothes dried on the nearby clothes lines. I heard music. There was  gentle conversation and laughter. I think I hallucinated people playing badminton in the backyard while a little white dog got a belly rub.

I approached the door and saw the dreaded sign which filled me with a sadness that I was becoming accustomed to – “Completo.”

Full.

I trudged on.

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It was later in the day than I had ever been walking. There were few pilgrims on the Camino now. Most had stopped for the day. But I, and I knew Christina, still hadn’t found a place for the night.

I came to a small town with a tourist information booth. It was a small log cabin with a bulletin board outside, brochures, postcards, and a friendly young man getting ready to close for the day.

I asked him if there were any albergues in the area that might have beds available. He didn’t know but there was an albergue a few kilometers down the road. If that one was full, there was another a few kilometers from that.

I began to consider the possibility that I might be spending the night under the stars, in the suburbs of Santiago.

As I looked at maps and brochures, in walked a very exhausted Christina. We were happy to see each other but we looked bedraggled and faced a serious problem.

I told her that there were no albergues in the area and no guarantee that there were any beds available down the road for many kilometers. It was so late in the day, you see, Dear Reader, that most beds were already taken.

This is when Christine had her virtual meltdown.

This is what I saw in my mind’s eye. Nostrils flaring. Eyes widening. I saw Christina’s spirit reach across the counter and grab the innocent tourist information clerk.

What Christina actually did was politely ask if there were any places in the area which might have space.

I heard the tiny twinge of desperation in her voice (she kept her hands to herself).

The clerk must have heard something and seen the “Don’t-you-DARE-give-me-an-answer-I-don’t-want-to-hear” look in her eyes.

Uhm, yes, the clerk replied, there was a hotel up the road.

She looked at me. I had been standing at the other end of the counter, flipping through brochures but mentally weighing my options.

She and I were both on a strict pilgrim budget. We could not afford to spend more than the usual 5 or six euro for beds, especially this close to the end. She had a plane to catch so she had time constraints. I would soon have to pay some to-be-determined dollars for a t0-be-determined way to get home.

We both knew we couldn’t afford to spend a night in a hotel.  And we couldn’t afford to waste time.

And then, Christine pulled a silver bullet out of her wallet.

“My Dad,” She explained to me, “gave me a credit card to use in emergencies. I haven’t used it yet. This is an emergency.”

I explained that I didn’t have enough money to split the cost.

“My Dad won’t mind,” she said.

The tourist office was closing in five minutes.

I said, sure.

She made the transaction, I thanked her, and said a big prayer of gratitude to my Saints. I also added Christina’s Dad to my list of people I say a rosary for.

She headed towards the hotel, and I stayed back to make a reservation for my time in Santiago. Christine and I would arrive at the Cathedral in Santiago the next evening, after dinner and I did not want to wander around without a place to stay,

I left the tourist information booth, having made a reservation in Santiago.  I followed the clerk’s directions to get to the hotel – go up, turn left  at the corner, and it would be less than five minutes away.

I misunderstood.

I walked out of the booth, the clerk locked the door behind me and took off in his car. There were no people in the narrow street, no voices, and no sign that said “Hotel this way, you idiot,” which was what I needed.

I walked to the corner, turned left and went straight ahead to a house with an open door.

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It was very quiet.

Too quiet.

I hesitated at the door.

“Hello??” I called from outside the doorway.

There was a bucket just inside the door with some cleaning tools, as if someone was in the middle of washing the floor and had left the door open.

This didn’t feel like a hotel. It felt like someone’s home.

“Hello? Christine?” I called again, still not entering the building. These were the directions, but this didn’t seem like a hotel. And Christine had only been about ten minutes ahead of me. Surely she would be on the lookout for me. I heard conversation in a back room.

Should I walk in? What kind of low-key hotel is this?

I slowly realized that this wasn’t a hotel but someone’s house, someone who probably did not speak English. Sweaty, smelly, dusty, with hat and sunglasses, I stood a very good chance of scaring the crap out of a family watching t.v. and eating dinner.

Imagine as I walk in, drop my backpack and say, in my faltering Spanish, “Hola! The gentleman said you have a room for me and my friend??” Imagine as their forks fall from their hands, mid-bite, dropping paella all over the just washed tile floor.

I decided to quietly back away from the door and look around town a little more.

I went back to the main road, went up a few more blocks and found the hotel. I went to the reception desk (real hotels have one) and told them my friend had just come in. They directed me to the room and there was Christina, stuff already spread out around the room.

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Within minutes it looked like our backpacks had exploded. Stuff was everywhere, airing out. Girls gone wild. We each crashed on our very own twin beds. No sleeping bags tonight!! Nice clean sheets, soft mattresses, and a bathroom we only needed to share with one other person. We didn’t even worry about leaving our stuff out while we each took turns in the shower.

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After washing clothes in the sink (yes, we still had to do that), we headed down to the bar.

We were handed a drink menu. It had been many weeks since I had seen one of those.

The day called for one particular drink.

Not beer.

Not wine.

The perfect drink for this most interesting day?

An icy gin and tonic.

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Dads and Oranges – Day 38 – Eirexe to Melide, part two

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I’m a sucker for cute old men with something to show me.

I was enjoying my last days on the Camino. I had left my Camino family member, Christina, back in the albergue about an hour earlier, since she was just getting packed as I was heading out the door.

A very unusual situation for us.

But I knew we would catch up with each other before our travels ended. She had a ticket to fly back to the States in about a week and, once out of the albergue, she would be focused.

I, however,  was free to dawdle.

My daily routine had settled into enjoying a steaming, sweet, cafe con leche and a croissant about an hour after I started walking every morning. That way, I could get the cobwebs out of my eyes, get all the joints working, and get some distance before my first stop of the day.

But there were not many cafes on this part of the Camino. I had walked for 7 kilometers and was anxious to find a place for breakfast.

I approached the town of Palas de Rei, which seemed especially white and gleaming. The streets were empty because I had missed the early morning rush hour and the pilgrims who had stayed in the albergues in town had already left.

As I walked along, lost in thought and on the lookout for a cafe, a gentleman came up to me on the right. He began talking to me in Spanish and, though my language skills had improved over the weeks, I clearly needed coffee to kick those skills into high gear because I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

But it may have been that he was speaking Galician, a Spanish dialect that is different from Castilian, the Spanish taught in American schools and spoken around my grandparents’ houses.

Eventually I caught what he was saying. “Are you hungry? Would you like coffee?”

The last time an old man had approached me and offered something, it had turned out well. It had been a few weeks earlier and I had been able to fill my pockets with cherries, my mouth with cookies, and my camera with photos.

It had taught me a Camino lesson – keep your guard up but take a chance when something is offered on the Camino. The benefits usually outweigh the risks.

Remember, this is a pilgrimage. The Saints have your back.

I looked the gentleman in the eye and saw earnestness and honesty. I couldn’t imagine where this would lead but sensed benefit, not disaster.

I followed him down the street. We walked about a block (downhill and I realized I’d have to trudge back uphill to return to the Camino) and then turned into a pristine, but empty, cafe.

In the front window was a pool table, then a folding screen, then the bar area. The room was sparsely decorated, as if still in the setting-up phase. The walls were white and the ceiling was high, which increased the spacious feeling. There were half as many tables and chairs as could easily have filled the space.

The impression was of a clean and well cared for cafe, waiting for customers to arrive.

I was the only customer there, but not the only person. Behind the counter was a young woman who smiled. I heard activity in the kitchen.

I asked for a cafe con leche, which can be found everywhere on the Camino, but didn’t see any bread. I asked if they had a croissant or something similar. “Tiene usted un croissant o pan como algo?” I sputtered. The woman replied that they didn’t have croissants but they had toast.

On the Camino, many cafes and bars offer toast and coffee as a standard breakfast menu, so this was very fine for me. Picture a toasted baguette, not a toasted  slice of white sandwich bread, with lots of butter, jelly, and sometimes honey. I ordered coffee, toast, and orange juice. I took off my backpack and took out my phone and guidebook.

The juice was fresh squeezed, as was all the orange juice I bought in bars on the Camino.

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I had lingered in many bars in the mornings, watching automatic juicers squeeze orange juice out of freshly cut oranges.

The barman or woman would open a mesh bag of oranges, slice two or more in half, and drop each half down a chute in the top. The halves would be pressed between two rollers and a waterfall of  juice would come out the bottom and go directly into the glass, the peel falling into a container.

The barkeepers always used enough oranges to fill a good-sized glass. These oranges were bred for juicing – they were 99% liquid.

This orange juice was cold and just sweet enough to stick in my mind forever as the gold standard for orange juice.

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I ate before I realized I wanted to take a photo. Sorry. The orange juice was delicious.

This cafe/bar was, in fact, relatively new – it had just opened the November before. The daughter, who was the woman behind the counter, had recently opened it as an albergue and cafe for pilgrims on the Camino. There were beds upstairs, although by that hour all the pilgrims had left.

She was making a go of this new business and her mother, who had made my toast in the kitchen, and her father, who had snagged me on the road, were helping her. Her parents owned another place on the other side of town. I imagine that they helped her out financially, also, which perhaps was why they were there.

The daughter told me that, like many bars on the Camino, they would be open until the late hours of the evening. This explained the pool table in the front.

I gained a new appreciation for the father standing on the corner, selling pilgrims on the idea of stopping for a bite to eat. The location of this bar, just off the beaten path, did not work in their favor.  But the food was very good, the service warm and friendly, and the prices perfect.

I left about an hour later, having eaten and rested, and another pilgrim having arrived (Dad had been pounding the pavement again). This place, Cafe Bar Santirso,  deserved more traffic and I would be happy to stop there again on my next Camino Frances.

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http://cafesantirso.wix.com/cafebarsantirso

To put icing on the cake, Dad showed me a shortcut back to the Camino, no hill climbing needed.  Maravilloso!

Back on the road, I continued towards Melide. Had Christina passed me? Probably. Would I find her in Melide? Probably not, it is a city with many albergues.

But I knew I would see her and Andres and Juan Carlos, my Camino family, soon, although I didn’t know where or how.

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A Time to Rap – Day 38 – Eirexe to Melide, part one

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Is it excitement? Anxiety?

For whatever reason, I wake up early, pack up, and leave the albergue as Christina is waking up. I can’t wait. I need to get on the road.

You know by now that Christina, the boys, and I – my Camino family – share our fondness, no, our need, to sleep late on the Camino. So this is very unusual for me.

But the sun is shining, the mist is disappearing off the fields, and I can’t stay in bed any longer. By now it takes me only about 15 minutes to go from bed to packed and out the door. Quite an achievement.

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The municipal albergue looks basic on the outside but was very clean and modern on the inside. The hospitaleros were friendly and we talked for at least an hour the night before.

The Saints have me covered. The Camino consistently provides what, and who, I need. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Every day is filled with more joy and adventure than I could ever have expected.

I would meet Christina later today, somewhere, somehow. We hadn’t spoken about meeting up but I know we will.

I walk through tiny, rural towns, with chickens nonchalantly crossing the road to get to the other side. Horses lazily swish their tails as they watch me follow the yellow arrows down the lane between houses.

Dogs bark in the distance and I pass new cars parked in old converted stone stables next to quiet stone houses.

I am invisible and I don’t disturb these scenes. I photograph them in my mind and will remember them forever.

I pass small village parks and picnic areas made  ready for the passing pilgrims, with fresh, cold running water and well-trimmed lawns and hedges. Rustic towns and villages show their surprisingly cosmopolitan edges.

Local people might seem to be of another world but they are surely part of mine and I am the newcomer. Their worldliness makes me smile and I shake my head at my own biases and incorrect assumptions.

I wasn't expecting to seee this in a rural park along the Camino.

I wasn’t expecting to see these sculptures in a rural park along the Camino. This picnicker is enjoying an early breakfast surrounded by . . . nature.

I walk past an encampment of tents, the first time I’ve seen tents on the Camino.

I will later learn that they belong to an Irish Church youth group whose leaders take about 20 young people on this section of the Camino every year. They arrange with a local tour guide who sets up their daily camping spots and who goes ahead with the van carrying packs and food.

The young people walk from camp site to camp site and set up when they meet the van. They have dinner, talk, sleep, and breakfast and breakdown the site each morning. It explains all the young people racing up the hillsides laughing and singing. I thoroughly enjoy their exuberance and energy and absorb their excitement.

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I hear two of them coming up behind me on a rocky, narrow wooded path. They are singing rap songs at the top of their lungs. There are other pilgrims going uphill and they are passing them all.

Dappled shades of green color the rocks as the sun shines through the new leaves. Birds are singing and there may even be a stream nearby. But the rappers closing in on me from behind present me with a dilemma.

Can I ask them to stop singing?

I don’t mind singing, I don’t mind rapping. But here, in this setting, it seems inappropriate. If I ask them to quiet down, will I just be an old fogey? Will they ignore me and keep on doing what they’re doing? Will they give me a hard time? Do I just forget it and let them sing their way into the future? Am I asking for trouble?

Their fast approach demands a decision on my part.

They climb on the rocks next to me, rapping away (I don’t think they understand the lyrics, either). They clearly have no clue that they are being so loud. I smile and nod.

Then I say, smiling, “Por favor, como un iglesia (Please, like a Church),” as I indicate the surrounding woods with a nod. I don’t know what language they speak so I go with Spanish. With my clothes and my pack, they can clearly see that I am a pilgrim who has been in it for the long haul.

They look at me, look at each other, and continue walking and singing.

Then, within 10 steps, they stop singing as if on cue. They don’t say a word as they silently hop from rock outcropping to outcropping on the trail. The birds and, yes, a stream, become the music of the Camino once more.

I thank Big Tess for giving me the guts to ask for quiet and risk being seen as a cranky old person who doesn’t like new music.

I also silently thank the adult leaders of this youth group who have created a considerate, friendly and cheerful group of young pilgrims. In a few hours I will meet up with one of the leaders and I will tell him of the incident and will point out the boys involved. I will tell him how impressed I was with the consideration and respect the boys had for the Camino and for me!

He gives me a little of their background, where I learn they’re Irish, they camp, etc. I again tell him that the boys are a credit to the group and to their leaders and they should be proud. I want to make sure the leader understands that the boys behaved well.

He does and is happy.

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I’m An Idiot But it Turns Out OK – Day 37 – San Mahmed to Ferreiros

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The albergue was deserted by the time I left.

My hand-washed clothes from the night before were still damp so I used the dryer for 20 minutes before I packed out. Most of the people had sent their bags ahead (yes, they transported their bags). A few were waiting for vans to get their bags before they headed out.

The dining room was empty – the hospitaleros were not there. But they left hot pots, toasters and coolers with items for breakfast such as cereal, coffee, and  pastry and pilgrims simply helped themselves. I had a simple breakfast while waiting for my clothes to dry and charging my phone and iPad.

The road was easy and flat and a short 3 kilometers to that final landmark city before the end, Sarria.

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Sarria is a little more than 100 kilometers from Santiago. Since one must have walked at least 100 kilometers from Santiago in order to earn a Campostella, Sarria is the place where you find an influx of pilgrims whose goal it is to get the piece of paper that proves they’ve been on a “pilgrimage.”   They start their Camino in Sarria, getting two stamps each day, and present it to the Pilgrim Office at the Cathedral in Santiago. Then they get their Campostella.

I have my guidebook with me and re-read the words of the author – “. . . remember that many of the new arrivals may be nervous starting out and the last thing such a person needs is aloofness built on a false sense of superiority. A loving pilgrim welcomes all they meet along the path – without judgement.”

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It is early morning and Sarria is just waking up. It is too early for me to stop for breakfast so I easily climb up, up, up, past the mural near the castle at the top. I drink in the sunshine and wish a sincere “Buen Camino” to the new pilgrims huffing their way up to the top of the hill.

And, then, as I gaze down at the city I have just passed through, relishing the view and the early start I had on the day, I get a sick, sinking feeling in my stomach.

I still have no cash. I had to use plastic the night before in order to stay at the albergue. I need to find a cash machine.

I ask a few locals briskly trotting to work where the nearest cash machine is and they point back down into the city.  Down, down.

Which Saint shall I thank for keeping me humble? I want to blame all of them. Couldn’t they have made me think of this 15 minutes earlier? This is going to cost me alot of time.

I have no choice but to head back down into the city. I run into many pilgrims heading up as I head down, some of them people I had briskly passed an hour earlier on the Camino. I have to keep asking locals for the nearest ATM. I feel like an idiot when the cab drivers point across the narrow street we are standing on and the bank is right in front of me. I am one of the first on line. But I am the only one with a backpack and hiking poles.

I fill up with enough cash to last to the next large town and retrace my steps up. This time I pass no one. All the morning pilgrims have gone. I am the last one.

However, I am jubilant to see my Camino companion, Christine, when I stop to get breakfast. She had gone the other way with the boys up the ridge. She said the views were great but the route was challenging. It was shorter than the way I had gone through Samos so they were quite a distance ahead of us, close to a day. The two routes had joined again at San Mahmed. She had slowed down and was now with me.

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If I hadn’t gone back for cash, I wouldn’t have run into her.

Sorry, saints. I should have trusted you.

We walk together the rest of the day. We pass the 100 kilometer marker, an important photo-op for pilgrims.

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A group of new pilgrims pass us as we walk up a wooded trail. They are family and friends from the U.S, Canada and Australia who are doing this as a reunion. They are chatting happily and loudly and rambling up the trail, toting tiny packs with just enough room for the paper map given them by their tour arranger. They carry bottles of water in their hands.

I am slowly going up the trail, which is much steeper to me than to them. I smile and wish them a “Buen Camino.” I realize I may be the first person to give them that particular Camino experience.

“Where did you start?” “How long have you been walking?” “Did you walk the whole way?” I don’t have to ask them these questions because I know what their answers would be. But they ask me and I answer amiably, remembering the author’s words. Their joy at being on the Camino is infectious.

However, they do catch me off guard when they ask, “Wow. Are you carrying everything in your backpack?”

Dear Reader, you have seen the photos. Does this look like a daypack to you?

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God bless them. They sent their “luggage” ahead because, they explained, they “didn’t have time.”

Christine and I get to the albergue, only to find it full. This is not good. We had forgotten that we would be meeting this problem from now on because of all the new pilgrims joining at Sarria.

Fortunately, we are among the first to arrive at the next albergue, which is clean, quiet and one of the ones operated by the municipality. There is no store to buy food, the only store in town having turned itself into a private albergue (the one that was already full). So we go to the bar next door and have a great meal. We catch up on e-mail, I catch up on blogging, and we have a quiet, restful night.

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Day 35 – Vega de Valcarce to Fonfria

Since Juan Carlos, Andres and I had spent the night in our own house, we slept as late as we wanted and were out on the road when we felt like it – 0830.

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We hung around the village to return the landlady’s house key and thank her for a great stay in a nice home. As we lingered over breakfast, who should wander up but Christine, our Camino family member who had decided to stay someplace else the night before (missed out on those Spanish movie musicals, tsk, tsk).

Then, we were off. Up, up and away.

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The walk to O’Cebreiro was challenging but not impossible. The weather was great – I began to wonder if I had seen the last of my wet Camino and should consider zipping the bottoms off my pants. But I also knew we were entering one of the wettest regions of Spain, so, no.

Juan Carlos kept me laughing as he continually underestimated the distance we had to walk – two kilometers when it was actually four, four kilometers when it was ten!!

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Welcome to Galicia.

The countryside reminded me of weeks earlier when I had been a novice pilgrim, making my way through the rolling hills of Navarra.  Alone, alert to the yellow arrows  along the way, I remembered the vineyards I walked through and the mud.

I remembered looking through rain dripping off the brim of the baseball cap I wore under my rain jacket hood as I tried to keep my glasses dry and fog free.

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I remembered the determination as pilgrims, strangers to each other, encouraged each other to the top of the hill which we promised was just around the bend up ahead, and which never was.

Now I was dry and following the arrows was second nature.

I no longer noticed my backpack anymore than you, dear reader, notice the shirt you are wearing right now.

These strangers whom I was walking with could crack the right jokes to make me laugh out loud. I knew I would be missing them all too soon.

We crossed into Galicia and found the stone markers that would lead us the final kilometers to Santiago. Was it possible? Were there really only that many kilometers to go?? Had I really walked all that distance? I still felt so good!

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O’Cebreiro was beautiful, an unexpectedly active village on the top of a mountain, full of pilgrims and souvenir shops.

I was told that the church, Santa Maria la Real, was said to have held a relic of the original Crucifix. I prayed accordingly, wondering if my Saints had traveled with me all this distance so they could get to this place. I told them I was grateful for all the help they had given me on this journey.

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About 15 minutes later I learned that, um, no, there weren’t any cross relics here.

Wrong legend.

It was the resting place for Don Elias Valina Sampedro, (1929 – 1989). He was the parish priest who gave birth to the modern Camino, as a way to help his tiny little parish.

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He knew his village was on the route of the ancient Camino and wanted to try to bring people back to, or at least through, the village. He brought his idea to the local leaders and they said OK, but you’re on your own. So, he went to the public works guys who were working on the roads and got their leftover paint.

That ubiquitous yellow paint.

With permission, of course, he painted arrows along the way to help pilgrims find their way from one end  of the village to the other. Slowly, the arrows extended to the other towns along the way and, well, here we are today, more than  200,000 pilgrims this year alone.

I was ready to call it a day at O’Cebreiro but the family insisted that we continue so on we went.

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I hadn’t expected Alto de Poio to be the highest point on the Camino Frances – I had thought that was O’Cebreiro. But it is, with 1,330 meters compared to O’Cebreiro puny 1,300 meters. Done on the same day at O’C, it is just as challenging.

We stopped for drinks but all we could find were sodas from vending machines. But where was Juan Carlos? We couldn’t find him anywhere. Christine and I waited outside, cooling off, while Andres went to find his wayward brother. Finally, he found him and ushered us inside the local pilgrim office.

There was Juan Carlos, happily surrounded by dozens of old ledgers. He had looked through many, many of them to find one particular one. Years earlier, on another Camino, he had signed his name in the books kept by many places, and this was one of the few places where he could find that book again if he was lucky. He was, and we gazed at his signature and notes from way back then, his past self giving a note of encouragement to this, his future self.

We found the new book and added our names and notes. Maybe one day our future selves will climb this mountain again and remember this moment in time.

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That day, we didn’t arrive at the albergue until after 7 p.m. We each fended for ourselves for dinner and I ate something at the albergue’s  bar while I blogged.

Our big break, however, was in our accommodations.

Because we had gotten there so late and there were four of us, the bunk beds in the main bunk-bed room were taken. The hospitaleros generously opened the overflow room for us and gave us the pick of the beds. But these were not ordinary beds.

Now, class, if you open you IKEA catalogs to the teenagers’ rooms section, you will see those lovely bunk beds that are double beds on the bottom and twin beds up top. Since the four of us were expected to be  among the last to arrive, we were invited to each have a bottom, double bed, to ourselves!

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My bed is last on the left row, closest to the back wall. Christine has the bed across from me, the boys closer to the camera. One purple mat is in front of the shower, the other in front of the bathroom.

We had our own bathroom and shower in the room. This was lucky because I had gone to the crowded bunk-bed room to take a shower and went to the men’s shower room by mistake. You may use your imagination to figure out how I realized it was the men’s shower room (not by the tiny little man stick figure sign practically hidden away not in the center of the door).

The community room had comfortable chairs and a fireplace. Pilgrims shared a few bottles of wine. There were books about the Camino and about Spain. There were books about Galicia. The boys showed me a coffee table book of  Santander, their home city.

Night fell. I fell asleep in the security of friends and strangers. But sad.

I was so close to Santiago. Was the adventure ending??

Not by a long shot.

Family Movie Night – Day 34 – VillaFranco to Vega de Valcarce

What is a family? How do people come together? How do unwritten relationships develop?

Do you stick together always? Can you choose to become unglued? How do you find that delicate balance between being together and being separate?

People floated into and out of my circle of Camino family members on an almost daily basis. I would walk with people for days, then lose them for the rest of the trip.

My journal was full of names and incidents which would have been forgotten yet had made it into my journal because of their importance to me at the time. But some names were beginning to appear again and again.

My Camino family was coming together  –  Andres, Juan Carlos (the boys), myself,  and Christina, the bright, friendly college student from Virginia.

The four of us began to run into each other more frequently.

We usually split up at the end of the day since we had already decided where we each wanted to stay, for whatever reason (“This place sounds cool,” ” I heard this place has good breakfast,” ” I need a washing machine,”  etc).

Anyway, since we were walking the same basic plan (last one to leave the albergue, frequent stops for coffee and/or beer) we stood a good chance of running into each often.

But how do I explain the fact that, even when there were two or three choices of routes to take, we all seemed to magically pick the same one.

The Camino was pulling us together.

My albergue the night before had been glorious – clean, quiet, bright and  spacious.  I had seen several familiar faces and I was one of the last to leave in the morning.

On my way out, I asked the hospitalero which route he recommended I follow – there were three options. His answer, short, sweet,  logical – “The easy one, of course!”

I took his advice, again an alternative route, which offered some stunning views, avoided traffic, and was not uber-challenging.

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The route followed a river valley . The stream running on my left was peaceful and the bird songs were some of the most beautiful I had heard during the Camino. It was as if the Audubon Society played all their recordings at the same time.

After walking through such a Garden of Eden, I was surprised to stumble upon another place where the owners had decided to drop out of the rat race and start a new life on their own terms. Of course, at that hour of the morning, I was like a moth to a flame when I read the sign out front – “Fair Trade Coffee.”

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As I drank my coffee and ate breakfast, I enjoyed the peace, the music and the  really good food.

I asked the owners how they ended up here and where they got fair-trade coffee.

He was from the Netherlands and enjoyed cooking for people. They had local family who had told them about this spot. They pointed to the truck stop across the stream, next to a highway. They said that most drivers go to the truck stop but they did OK with the pilgrims on this side.

As I was finally leaving the coffee shop, who should come along but the boys, Juan Carlos and Andres.

By this time I had forgiven them for introducing me to “Botillo” the night before, that classic local dish which was mainly a ball of meat parts and which had endured in my stomach long after the sun had gone down.

The marvelous bird songs,  great morning coffee, and dazzling blue sky and sunshine had put me in a wonderful mood.

I thought the sign said "Walk without dying." What it says is that the stream is "catch and release." Don't kill the fish. OK, so my Spanish still isn't that good.

I thought the sign said “Walk without dying.” What it says is that the stream is “catch and release.” OK, so my Spanish still isn’t that good.

Andres, Juan Carlos, and I walked together the rest of that day. We talked about every topic under the sun. They explained Spanish culture to me – history, language, geography, politics – with generosity of spirit and passion.

I learned they were brothers.

We talked about our families, our careers, our homes. I began to understand their deep love for their country.

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When we arrived at our stop for the day, we were crushed to learn that the albergue had only one bed left  If I took it, where would the boys go?  The small village had only one albergue and there were no pensions in town. Heading up the mountain so late in the day to find a bed in the next town was out of the question.

I did not want to leave them without a place to stay – it had happened inadvertently weeks earlier and I still felt badly.  We needed to find a place for three people.

The young hospitalero at the albergue was determined to find a place for us in spite of the fact that he had a full house of pilgrims to look after. He made phone call after phone call on our behalf.

He was finally able to find a local who had some empty rooms we could share, the double for the boys, the single for me. The problem was, the price of the single was twice the price of the double – way over my budget.

Then, the boys decided to split the total cost three ways. It would reduce the cost for me, but would increase the cost for them. But they did it anyway.

The Camino was gracing  me with undeserved blessings, this time in the form of a true Camino family.

The side door led to our home for the night.

The last door led to our home for the night.

The rooms were in a four-bedroom house being renovated and we had the house to ourselves. When we went there with the owner, she discovered that the last person to stay in the house had left the double room unmade.

The result was that each of us would get a single.

St. Julian, patron saint of hospitaleros – You Rock!

After I settled in.

After I settled in.

Heavenly!! Soft, clean sheets, flowers at the windowsill. A huge double bed. A bathroom – with a bathtub!

The kitchen had a wood burning stove which seemed to be in good working condition.

The kitchen had a traditional wood burning stove.

We went to the only restaurant in town and Juan Carlos was excited to introduce me to the tiny little fish which were now in season. Eat the bones or not eat the bones? It was an ongoing topic of discussion.

Being an adventurous traveler, I ate the bones. This time, the boys’ culinary suggestion was spot on. That meal was one of the  memorable ones of the Camino.

The end of a delicious meal

The end of a delicious meal

After exploring the village on the way back from dinner, we made our way back to the house. They managed to plug the right plug, switch the right switch and, for the first time in weeks, we had television!

They found a classic movie channel and they were appalled to learn that I had no clue as to the stars of the movie, their legendary status in Spanish cinema or their legacies that continue today.

That night, the three of us stayed up late watching Spanish movie musicals. Can you imagine hearing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” for the first time, unaware that it’s a classic? That was me, unaware of this entire aspect of great movie history.

We knew we had a rough day ahead of us but we stayed up late anyway. When we finally retired, and I crashed into bed, I slept like a person who had already climbed a  mountain., No traffic, no snoring, no animal sounds – I was out.

La Hija de Juan Simon (1957). Starting out as a traditional flamenco singer, Antonio Molina’s amazing technique and good looks made him a star.

One Year in One Day – Day 33 – Molinaseca to Villafranca

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Walking the Camino solo gave me time to think about the pleasure of choosing a family.

A Camino family.

As you walk, you pass, and are passed by, many pilgrims. Some of this occurs on the road. You stop for coffee and find yourself sharing a table with a stranger whose pack is close by. A conversation starts, and, presto, you find yourself walking together for miles.

Other times, your walking companion continues on, while you settle into a bar for lunch. Will you see each other again?

Maybe, maybe not.

Sometimes, you pass, and are passed, when you end the day.

In the albergue, you throw your sleeping bag on a bunk next to someone you’ve seen a few times over the past few miles. You talk and decide to have dinner together – maybe at a restaurant, maybe pooling resources and making a meal in the tiny albergue kitchen. The next morning, you get up and they have gone, their bunk empty without a trace that they were ever there.

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There are people you keep running into again and again. At lunch, in town, leaving an albergue you discover you shared the night before. Since everyone is walking a similar route at a similar pace, it is not surprising that you run into the same people.

I had discovered that, although I enjoyed/needed people to talk to at the end of the day when settling into a town, I enjoyed walking solo. I liked getting lost in my thoughts for hours at a time. I didn’t have any particular problems to work out. I simply found that walking solo gave me lots of time to really see and enjoy my surroundings.

Walking solo made me available for adventures and experiences that would never have happened if I had been with other people, lost in conversation. The woman on the trail outside Leon? The old man and the cherry tree? Elisa and her gift?

None of those experiences would have happened if I had been with other people.

Not to mention my strange yet not uncommon “Saint-sightings.”

As I walked along, I came to appreciate the  pilgrim friends I was meeting again and again. I was comfortable with the idea that we could go separate routes and, when we met again, it would be like family coming together at the end of the day.  If we decided that we wanted to see different things, it would be OK to split up because we might meet again soon.

In a real family, there are actually few certainties. You can be fairly certain that your parents and your children will stick with you no matter what. But you can never be completely certain about your spouse, in-laws, others who have chosen, or have been chosen, to be part of your family. You never know for certain what is going on in the mind of your husband or wife, do you? You have faith that you do, you trust that you do. But you have no way of knowing for sure.

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Your Camino family becomes a family of choice. People chose to be together. Knowing that the family has a definite end point – arrival at the final destination – your Camino family choses to stick together and to give each other space and support as needed. You allow each to accept or reject advice, conversation, insights, whatever, and not take offense.

I’ve come to the conclusion that every day of walking with someone on the Camino is the equivalent of knowing that person for one year. So, if you walk with someone for three days, it is the equivalent of knowing them for three years.

As I go through my photos, I am surprised at the number of times people who ended up being my close Camino family would be somewhere in my photos. Usually not center stage, usually in the background or a half profile here, their stuff on a bunk bed there. But circling the periphery of my relationships, nudging into my consciousness.

The Camino provided what I needed. Food, shelter, companionship, solitude, beauty, kindness, strength. All in the proper dose and at the proper time.

For me, my goofy, ridiculous, delightful, FREAKY Camino family was the manifestation of that providence.

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