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.

Video? – Day 33 – Molinaseca to Villafranca

Still feel like a gorilla with a computer.

I’ve been working for many days on embedding this YouTube video into this blog. I still haven’t gotten it right.

Put on headphones if you’re watching this at work.

A special shout-out to my Camino family who inspired me and helped make the final days of my Camino so enjoyable and memorable. Still have many days to go, but everything is coming together at the end.

Video nerds – I still need help. This movie was done on Picasa 3 when Microsoft Photo Gallery became too unwieldy. Any thoughts??