Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ventosa and Camino Amigos



10 June

I’m finding it difficult to write Part Two, where I meet other people leaving Logroño, one of whom changes my entire Camino experience. Before this point I could write what I saw, what I did, a little of how I felt, and it was all just me, all the time, every day. From here, though, so much of my Camino experience is wrapped up with other people whose privacy I will be invading and much deeper feelings I will have to reveal if I'm going to write honestly. We humans are social creatures and nothing of much significance happens alone. I’ll do my best to convey my experiences and feelings on the Camino de Santiago from here to the end.

I had to start using my ear plugs in Logroño. I was in a room of about a dozen bunk beds—twenty-four men—so you can imagine the snoring. As if that weren't enough, the celebration outside, without my attendance, naturally, lasted until at least 2:00 AM. Lights-out at the albergue was 10:00 PM and I was tired as usual, so sleep came easily. But about the time I’d get near dreamland I’d be awoken by either snoring or the fiesta occurring outside. This went on until the wee hours of the morning when I finally found that deep, restful sleep I craved and needed. When I awoke, I found that I was the only person in the room; everyone else had gotten up and was on the road. With my earplugs and the efforts of other pilgrims' to move about as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the others who preferred to sleep, the room full of 23 other men preparing their back packs and getting dressed was more conducive to sleep than had been the the revelers in the streets some blocks away through the night. This became the norm for the rest of the Camino. I had no schedule, which was one of the absolute beauties of the Camino, and at this time of year there didn't seem to be any danger of there being no place left to sleep in any pueblo in which I stopped for the night (save one or two times, noted below), so I was never dependent upon an alarm to wake up. 

As it turned out, that was one of the most fortunate circumstances of my Camino because as I left the albergue I fell into step with a few other late starters passing by who had stayed the night at another albergue: Maria and Beth from Catalunya, Adolfo from Valencia, Diego from Málaga, and Annick from France. I had written some post cards to send home to friends and family and asked the group if they knew where a post box might be and, as we seemed to be walking at roughly the same tempo, I continued walking with them through Logroño and beyond. We didn't walk the entire remainder of the Camino together, and several days later we lost Diego and Adolfo, but for the most part, my Camino memories from Logroño to Finisterre are intertwined with, and mean very little without, Maria, Beth, and Annick. I miss them so much now it is difficult to write this.

Maria told me some weeks later that the four of them, she, Beth, Adolfo, and Diego, were trying that first few hours after meeting me to figure out who I was. They were sure that I was an American movie star, but they couldn't quite place me. I smile every time I think of that. I’m sure the same thing happened to Shirley MacLaine all the time. Shirley and I—we have a lot in common. 

Walking alongside Diego I got some excellent Spanish practice as he told me all about the challenges of his local futbol (soccer) team and the beauties of Málaga. He talked at around 60 miles an hour, with gusts up to 90. That first day I think I caught about 30 to 40 percent of what he said, but by the end of the second day walking with him I was beginning to feel pretty good about my Spanish, understanding better than 75 percent, in my estimation.

That first day we only walked to Ventosa, although the guide suggested walking on to Najera, another 10 kilometers further along. However, the albergue in Najera only had fourteen spaces and, as we had gotten a late start, didn't want to take the chance that it might be full by the time we got there and the next option was another six kilometers. No, not going to do that. We took it easy and stopped.

Inside one of the best albergues
on the Camino
I’m glad we did because the Albergue San Saturnino is one of the nicest on the entire Camino. The hostess was extremely pleasant and helpful, the albergue was completely remodeled with very comfortable beds, a nice patio, washing machine and dryer, and music that exactly suited my tastes, which, I might add, are excellent. (ha!) The hostess was playing Miles Davis when we arrived and we awoke the following morning to Gregorian Chant. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I didn't want to get out of bed, but the Camino was calling and pilgrims aren't allowed to stay more than one night at an albergue, no matter how good the music. 
In the courtyard - Diego, Annick, Adolfo, 2 Japanese pilgrims whose 
names I forget and an unidentified pilgrim on the right.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Logroño


9 June, Logroño

I arrived in Logroño not knowing what to expect, but as that had been the norm every day on the Camino, that was fine, no, more than fine by me. I looked forward to every day, to every adventure, to the heat, the silence, the sore feet, to the constantly changing vistas, the personality of every pueblo and city I passed through. I'm not a very social person, but now that I was joining the French route where there would be more pilgrims, I wondered if I would meet other people and learn their stories, why they were here, where they had been, learn of their experiences, their successes and disappointments. I wondered if I were the only one with foot problems, the only one who was looking for a complete change of life. I had my suspicions that many other people making such a grueling, long walk would also have heart-felt and serious reasons for doing so. What surprised me was the number of people I met who were there purely for the fun of it, who had made the journey multiple times before. I learned that everyone had his own Camino, which, in Spanish translates to path and in this case translates very well as that word: We were all on our own path, whether it be physical, spiritual, or a combination. If there are a thousand people on the Camino, there are a thousand reasons for being there. I found, though, that those of a like mind tended to find each other and form a small, albeit temporary, group of traveling companions.

This was to be the first city with more than one albergue, and the first albergue I spent the night in where I would be one of who knows how many people spending the night. For the first time on the Camino, I stood in line to register at an albergue, but was glad to find that the cost was only seven Euros. My time of forty to fifty Euros per day seemed to be at an end. But then again, so were my days of sleeping in a quiet room sans snoring. As with all of life, there is good and bad. Thank heaven for ear plugs is all I can say.

Another surprise: this albergue had washing machines for clothes. I had been hand washing my clothes for weeks and I don’t mind saying I was downright happy for a modern convenience. I sat in the albergue’s courtyard, feet in the cold pool of a fountain, drinking a semi-cold beer from their vending machine (Beer from a vending machine! Is this a great country or what?!), and waiting for my clothes to be washed automatically! Yes, I had enjoyed my solo time walking through Catalunya and Aragon, but joining the crowd and albergues prepared for them had its benefits.

Later I walked through the nearby environs of Logroño, which, coincidentally, was host this particular weekend to a regional celebration. Logroño is the capital city of La Rioja and I was fortunate enough to be there during their “founders’ days.” This was a first on the Camino—it was actually difficult to find a place to eat. There were thousands upon thousands of people everywhere, in every bar, every restaurant, filling to capacity every square.

I was looking forward to Logroño where I thought I would be able to buy a power converter and a couple of cotton T-shirts. I found that the expensive, wick-away-the-sweat (BS!) synthetic shirts I had bought at the high-end outdoor stores were uncomfortable in the heat and I longed for a simple, natural cotton T-shirt. But, as this was a festival weekend in Spain, everything except restaurants was closed. Thousands upon thousands of people, including tourists, in the street and not a shop open to buy anything. Spaniards take their festivals seriously. What’s the use of having a festival if you have to work? Who am I to judge? All I knew was that I couldn’t spend my money for anything except food and alcohol.

Amidst  the throngs of people I couldn’t find any place to have a normal dinner so I ended up just having some tapas after elbowing my way in to a couple of bars, including a wonderful duck pate, with a couple of glasses of the best wine I had had so far on the Camino (and it was only a Crianza!). As I walked back to the albergue I passed another bar whose tapas looked so good I had to stop for more. I didn’t make any notes about this in my journal but more than nine months later I still remember the sensations of flavors—savory meats, pates, cheeses, and seafood on crusty bread or just served plain on a plate, mixtures of tastes that I never would have expected to find together but seemed to be created for each other once I got over the surprise of finding them cohabitating on the same piece of bread.

I hadn't yet found God, but I finally found those great Spanish tapas I had been looking for. 
Self portrait, having the time of my life, just before getting to
Logroño and just before my camera battery gave out.
(Yes, that's my happy face.)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Of Olives and Prozac



It seems a good time to make a few notes of things I've thought of that don’t fit very well into my daily narrative. So, if you will, permit me a little break for some random thoughts.

Olives:

Why is it so difficult in the United States to find olives with pits in them? One of my favorite things about stopping at a bar for a beer or a glass of wine was that I could always get a plate of olives and bread with olive oil to dip it in. (I can't help mention once more that I was never carded. Is Spain a great country or what?) I’d enjoy the cold beer in the hundred-degree heat, or later in Galicia where it was cooler, a glass of wine, while slowly eating the olives, working around the pit with my teeth and tongue, getting the meat of the olive on one side of my mouth, holding the pit in the cheek of the other side, then chewing the remaining meat of the olive off the pit after swallowing the easy part. I didn't do as good a job as a friend I met on the Camino, who would get every last bit of meat off the pit, and then even bite the pit in half to get at the little olive tree inside it. I aspired to her talent but knew that it would take years to attain, so just sat in admiration. Now that I’m back in the States, I haven’t been able to find a jar of olives with the pits still in them. They're always stuffed with something—blue cheese, anchovies, garlic, pimientos—anything but the pit that God made them with. ¿Porque? I’m a staunch, free-market capitalist so I understand supply and demand and the fact that those who sell olives want to supply what the market wants to buy. So the question is, why do so few people know of the pleasure of eating olives with the pits still in them? Is it cultural? Do we in the U.S. not want to take the time or trouble to eat around the pit? Does it take too long? Is it too much trouble? Or, I hate to think it, but a reasonable conclusion in this litigious society is that the olive sellers simply refuse to take the risk that someone will bite into an olive pit, damage a tooth, and sue the producer, the processor, the distributor, the jar manufacturer, the label printer, and the grocery store for millions of dollars, which suit they will most certainly win here in the Land of the (used to be) Free and Home of the Brave Litigant. Call me cynical, but whenever I think I might be too cynical I am made aware of some government or legal or social stupidity that tells me I’m not yet cynical enough.


Writing:

In an earlier post I made mention of letting go of Prozac. My doctor, many years ago when he prescribed it, told me that it was a “serotonin re-uptake inhibitor;” its purpose in life was to inhibit the re-absorption of serotonin by those evil nerve endings that were supposed to pass it along so that the chemical could be transmitted to and picked up by other nerve endings so it could be useful. In my system, that serotonin was being re-absorbed by the sending nerve endings which refused to share it. (Selfish bastards!) The result being that I didn't receive the benefit of this chemical in my brain. In short, I was depressed because of a chemical imbalance. I read an article by another doctor that said this was all theory proposed by the manufacturer and was probably BS.

I have no idea. All I know is that a former significant other didn't want me on the drug. She said it made me a walking zombie minus the appetite for brains. I know it prohibited me from feeling the lows and exhibiting the attached behaviors that went along with them, but it also constructed a firm ceiling against any highs and being able to express anything resembling happiness or joy. My emotions ran the gamut from M to N; A to L and O to Z were somewhere, locked deep inside. It kept a lot of negative emotions in check at the expense of any positive emotions that might cause me to resemble a human being.

In an earlier chapter of my life I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be an artist. Maybe I could be a writer: I wrote some good papers in high school creative writing class. But there was something inside of me that wanted desperately to get out through some artistic expression—through writing, music, both, something else, I had no idea what it was or how I should express it. 

An artist allows what’s inside to get out. If not, there is no art. But I built an edifice around myself as impregnable as the Great Wall of China or the Alhambra. Whatever was in here was not going to see the light of day no matter what my spirit wanted. The pressure was almost more than I could bear, and I developed the strength to withhold every sign of emotion like Arnold Schwarzenegger developed his lats. Nothing could get out no matter how much pressure built up inside, and Prozac was my facilitator, my partner in crime.

So I quit.

What I found was that I was suddenly and without warning an emotional basket case. Not an out of control luny-tune, but just overly emotional at the wrong times Over the course of their lives people usually develop mechanisms for dealing with emotions and normally keep them in check when not socially appropriate. For twenty years, while on Prozac, I hadn't had to deal with any emotional extremes and I’d completely forgotten how to deal with them. Now it’s as if all those emotions that were trapped inside of me, building up over the course of two decades, without Mr. Prozac as gatekeeper, were free to leave the zoo and run wild through the streets. 

On the Camino I was able to experience feelings of joy, happiness, extreme contentment such as I had never felt. But as I neared Santiago and saw the end of a near-nirvana experience, the closest thing to heaven I had ever experienced, or could imagine ever experiencing in the future, an incredible, unearthly sadness overcame me and I fell apart. I remember sitting at a table in an albergue after dinner with my new-found Camino amigos about a week from Santiago, and feeling such a weight of melancholy overcome me that I could not contain myself. One of the side effects of quitting Prozac is that one cries a lot. I’m the poster boy for the Prozac-withdrawal crowd. I think about the Camino and I cry. I think about the friends I left in Spain and I cry. Watch a emotional scene in a movie or read a beautiful passage in a book, I think about my children—how proud of them I am, and I cry, or how I hurt for them because they didn't have a father worthy of them as they grew up, and I cry. I have to intentionally keep myself from thinking or discussing certain subjects with people even a year after I weaned myself off the drug lest I break down into an uncontrollable embarrassment to myself.

The reason I decided to write this blog was that I thought if I expressed my feelings about the experience, let the emotions out, that I would be able to get to a point where the feelings weren’t a burden to me and could be transformed into happy memories. But I can’t be satisfied with a newspaper report, just writing where I went and how sore my feet were, like Sargent Friday's end-of-day report, “Just the facts, ma’am.” I want to express myselfI want you to feel what I felt and see what I saw, to understand why those were the best fifty days of my life. I want to create art.

On the recommendation of one of my dearest friends I bought and started reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (link over there, up and to the right). Listen to how she describes ushering in the new year at an ashram in India:

As the minutes pass, it feels to me like we are collectively pulling the year 2004 toward us. Like we have roped it with our music, and now we are hauling it across the night sky like it's a massive fishing net, brimming with all our unknown destinies. And what a heavy net it is, indeed, carrying as it does all the births, deaths, tragedies, wars, love stories, inventions, transformations, and calamities that are destined for all of us this coming year. We keep singing and we keep hauling, hand-over-hand, minute-by-minute, voice after voice, closer and closer. The seconds drop down to midnight and we sing with our biggest effort yet and in this last brave exertion we finally pull the net of New Year over us, covering both the sky and ourselves with it. God only knows what the year might contain, but now it is here, and we are all beneath it.

That’s not the best paragraph in the book—I just pulled it out at random. Almost every sentence in the book is a gold mine of word painting. I read the first three chapters of that book and was reduced to tears in my neighborhood Starbucks. I had to leave before finishing my latte. I wanted to give up writing this blog. Why bother? Everything I could possibly say about life’s struggles or self-discovery has already been said, and said so much better than I could possibly think of even attempting. Ms. Gilbert paints with words like Caravaggio painted with oils and colors. I feel her feelings. I see the streets of Italy and the cow paths of India that she traverses. I taste her gelato in Rome and pizza in Sicily. I feel her frustrations to the depths of my soul as she goes through divorce and then loses the love of her life on top of that. I weep with her and I celebrate her accomplishments because she writes so god-dammed well. She invites me into her life and I cry and laugh and rejoice with her and then I curse God for giving me the will and the need to express myself through some sort of art, any art, but then not giving me the talent for anything except building tremendously thick, impregnable walls against everyone, walls that keep inside anything that might be worth sharing with the outside world.

No, I’m not on Ms. Gilbert’s payroll. You could also read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, or listen to Pavarotti sing a Puccini aria, or take an hour and look at Picasso’s Guernica if you happen to be in Madrid.

And no, I don’t literally curse God. I know every struggle I have is part of a learning process and series of tests I have to go through in this life. I have a strong believe that we have a soul which goes through many lives on Earth as a child goes through many days of school between kindergarten and a Ph.D. We can’t learn everything in one brief life and we can’t just sail through life with no challenges. What would be the point? I know my frustrations are just learning opportunities and tests. But even Jesus had doubts and he was a perfect being, an ascended master. If he had doubts, can’t I?

I’ll keep writing as a means of searching for meaning in my experience in Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago between Montserrat and Finisterre, meeting and falling in love with fellow pilgrims, simultaneously enjoying and enduring, ascending to a place between heaven and Earth and then having to return to a mundane life and wondering what the hell that was all about. Maybe I’ll find the answer to that question in this life, or maybe I’ll have to wait until class is over when I’ll finally get to sit with my teachers to review this life’s lessons.

But when presented with what a master can do with the same words I have to work with, and having seen what’s possible compared with my meager attempts, it’s sometimes difficult to continue. It’s been said that if you give a million monkeys a million typewriters, in a million years one of them is going to produce another Shakespeare play. I’m just a monkey with a typewriter, so there’s still hope. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Alfaro and Arrúbal

Storks on the roof of Colegiata San Miguel

June 6th

D-Day. St. Norbert’s Day. My sister’s birthday. The day I got to Alfaro in Aragon, the wine country of La Rioja, home of the largest population of storks in the world. 

In the summer, on the roof of Colegiata San Miguel, you’ll find over 500 (five hundred!) storks. The clicking sound they make with their beaks is as constant as the rising of the sun. In other cities and towns I heard the incessant screeching of swallows as they darted through the air, keeping the bug population to a comfortable level. But in Alfaro, storks rule the skies and the sound waves. I saw storks all through Aragon and into Castilla y Leon. Their nests seemed to be on every tall structure available–power line towers, church towers, office buildings, anything over a hundred feet tall seemed to have a giant stork’s nest on top of it. The size of the sticks they use to build their nests–some appeared to be veritable branches–attests to the strength of these birds. No wonder they’re used to deliver babies.

The blisters on my feet were finally healing and turning into calluses, but I was beginning to have problems with the fact that there wasn't enough room in the toe box of my boots for my toes. I believe it was somewhere near Alfaro that I cut a hole in the side of my right boot to give my little toe some room. It was probably another hundred kilometers down the road when I cut another hole for my big toe. I didn't have to “customize” my left boot–that foot is slightly smaller than the right and I managed to get by, although I did lose two toenails on that foot by the end of the Camino. I believe I paid about $200 for those boots but I couldn't see any good reason to not make whatever “modifications” might help me survive the next several hundred kilometers.

It was also at this point that my camera battery decided to give up the ghost. The camera uses a specific battery, not a double- or triple-A so my only option was to recharge it. I can be very absent-minded–ask any woman with whom I've had a relationship. It seems to be something that drives them nuts. I don’t care much for the characteristic myself, but I've learned to live with it. Not so with my various women friends. I had brought my recharger, but thought I’d be able to purchase a power converter easily along the way.The power converter I already owned was a kit for every country in the world, much too large and heavy to carry with me on the Camino. Yes, I could have taken just the converter plug for Spain, but for some reason two different plug types in the kit were labeled for Europe and I didn't want to carry anything unnecessary, especially since I thought it would be easy to find just what I needed in Spain. My mistake was in thinking I could buy anything easily along the way. The towns I passed through seemed to be too small for many of the things I needed–a hat, a guide to the Camino, a power converter–or I’d pass through during siesta when everything was closed. The power converter proved to be exceptionally difficult to find, so I spent the next several days sans camera. 

Thinking back, my idea of finding a power converter along the way was pretty silly. Why would a shop in any small town in Spain stock a power converter for U.S. to Spanish plugs? As it turned out, I found out later that the charger for my Canon camera accepted both 120- and 240-volt sources, so all I needed was a plug converter which was available in any general store. Live and learn. 

Another couple of days passed before I made another entry in my journal. June 8th. I spent the night in Arrúbal, in the ayuntamiento, on the floor, at no charge. Again, I was grateful for small favors.

With a dead camera battery I can’t even look back at pictures to try to remember where I was. I hope that if anything interesting happened I would have written about it in my journal, but for the most part my pilgrimage to this point was one of self-discovery, contemplation, observation, listening to the silence as I’d walk through the Spanish countryside, and most of all, simply enjoying the days passing without a phone call, without being concerned with email, without a television and its incessant blathering news, without seeing the face or name of Obama or any other American politician. That alone would have made the pilgrimage worth all the foot pain and dehydration and getting lost in the Aragon desert. 

The next day I would enter Logroño, where my route would join that of the more common and popular French route from Saint Jean Pied de Port. This is where the Camino would more closely resemble the books I’d read and the movie, The Way, which I highly recommend, even though it is impossible to capture the true, life changing nature of the Camino in a two-hour movie. I have to say though, after watching it three times, prior to my own Camino experience, that director and actors do a good job of getting close to the mood of the Camino and giving a sense of the camaraderie, self-discovery, and growth that one might experience. Today, after the Camino, I can't watch the movie because it brings back so many memories; memories I cannot bear at the moment without suffering an emotional breakdown. I'm suffering from PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, except in my case the trauma was caused by an experience so wonderful that I find it difficult to proceed with a normal life. Writing about it in this blog is incredibly difficult.

I remember feeling that I was going to be starting a new Camino. When I started in Montserrat I had no idea what to expect, I was walking into an unknown world. After 20 days I had developed a routine, but it was my routine–all me, all day. I got up when I wanted, stopped when I wanted, walked at my pace (slowly, it turns out). I wondered if after Logroño I’d become part of a group (yes, I did), If I’d be able to sleep in a communal bunk-house with people snoring (yes, with earplugs), if I’d miss my private time. This one isn’t a parenthetical thought–No, I didn’t miss my private time because I found the people on the Camino were the warmest, most interesting, most engaging people I’d ever met. Oh, there was a bore here and there but they were very few and far between and you didn't have to hang around with anyone you didn't care to. I’m sure that has something to do with a combination of the type of person who is willing to go on a walk of 500, 800, 1,000 miles, some even more, and the attitude a pilgrim develops as the days and miles pass by on the Camino. You don’t know what to expect at any time and you develop an attitude of gratitude for every small favor. All along the way you receive favors and you give favors; you help where help is needed and gratefully accept any level of assistance you receive from other pilgrims, the townspeople you meet along the way, and the saints who run the albergues.

At the time I felt that my time for reflection and spiritual renewal was coming to an end, and I’d now just join a large group of people walking by day and partying by night. I thought I’d miss my solitary Camino experience. I couldn't have been more wrong.
My foot on the left - note the holes cut in the boot at the
big and little toes. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tudela


June 5, 2012

I reached Ribaforera after walking 34 kilometers that day to find there was no albergue, no pension, nor hostel in the town. 

I know what you're thinking; "Didn't your guide tell you that there was no place to stay in Ribaforera?" Yes, it did, and it took me several more weeks to realize the difference between alojamientos and alimentos. A Spanish speaker would realize that those are two completely separate, distinct words, not sounding at all alike. But a novice in the language (yours truly, for instance), I hope can be forgiven for confusing the two. The first means lodging, the second, food. I read in my guide book that Ribaforera had no alojamientos and I thought, how strange not to have any food in town. I thought that must mean there was no grocery store, that the town must be so small that the residents have to drive to a larger town to go shopping for food. It never occurred to me that my guide was telling me that there was no place to spend the night, no hotel. Imagine my consternation when I found out what alojamientos meant. 

I had given away my tent in Lleída, but there was no place to camp anyway. Walking another kilometer, much less another 12 to the next town was not an option. The rule (actually more of a guideline) of the pilgrimage is that you walk if you’re on foot, you ride if you’re on bicycle, but you don’t take the bus or a cab unless you’re not physically able to proceed on your chosen means of locomotion. Well, I was not able to proceed on my miserable feet even one more kilometer, so it was time to admit defeat for the day, hop on a bus, and get to the next town where I could check into a nice pension or hostel and get some rest. Reluctantly, I boarded a bus for Tudela.

A church tower in Tudela
Arriving at the central bus station, I had no idea where I was. The guide had me entering on foot in some other part of town and this was no small pueblo where I could just wander around until I found the Plaza Mayor and the ayuntamiento. Tudela was a ciudad, a city, and relative to most other towns I had passed through or would pass through on the remainder of the Camino, a big city. I've already broken the rules and ridden a bus, so what’s one more transgression? I’ll take a taxi to the Casco Antiguo where my pilgrim guide says I can find a pension. (No albergue here.) Problem was, I waited at the taxi stand for about thirty minutes without a taxi in sight. Rather, there was one taxi in sight but its driver had made himself scarce. Maybe it was break time. At any rate, I started wandering toward where my intuition told me was the center of town until I happened upon a young couple of whom I asked directions. They told me I was heading in the right direction - just go up the hill, turn right, continue up the hill, turn left, then up another hill, another right at the farmácia… 

It sounded like another five-K and all uphill. I asked them if I might just take a cab and they told me that cars are not allowed in the Casco Antiguo

I’d have to walk. But realizing the directions were too complicated, or a better guess, that my Spanish was not up to the task of adequately understanding what they were saying, they invited me to walk with them and they would show me the way. By this time I was used to people being bend-over-backwards friendly and helpful so I went along for the ride. We had a pleasant conversation, most of which I don’t remember, but part of it was about the difficulty of learning a foreign language. They wanted to learn English and I thought, “Wonderful! My first two students! If only I were planning to remain in Tudela.” Of course, that wasn't an option but I was encouraged.

In fact, as I spoke with people and they would ask me where I was from, I’d tell them I last lived in the U.S., but currently had no address and was, in effect, homeless, but I hoped to stay in Spain and teach English for a living. I received encouragement from everyone. Even when talking about the problems of working illegally before I could establish residence, everyone, to a person, told me not to worry about it. Just plop myself down somewhere, find some private students, and in a few years I could apply for residency. Sounded easy. Maybe this was why I was so happy on the Camino: The future I wanted seemed to be finally within reach.

They walked with me to the old part of town and led me to the street where my guide said I’d find a pension. I expressed my thanks for going out of their way to bring me here, and we said our farewells. It turned out to be only about a ten- or twelve-minute walk. Coming to a, you guessed it, bar, I sat down and ordered a very cold beer. Ah, the small pleasures of the Camino! 

A sign on a building across the street told me that it was a pension but as was typical much of the time, there was no open front entrance, lobby, check-in desk, or any visible way to gain access to a room. I asked the bartender at the bar if he knew how I could get a room there and he told me to wait, he’d get the manager. In a few minutes a short, surly, very Spanish-looking man, greeted me. I introduced myself as a pilgrim and asked if there were a room available for one night in the pension. He told me there was, gave me the price, which I think was 22 Euros, said he’d get a key and show me to a room and then was gone. No “I’ll be right back,” or “Hang on a second,” or “Please enjoy your beer while I get the key.” He just walked away. 

This was my introduction to what I would find was a grand tradition in Granada, but which I also found throughout Spain—the mala folla, or, not to be too delicate about the translation, the surly fucker. This is an attitude not dissimilar to what you might find in Northern New Jersey or the South side of Chicago. It’s the “I know who I am but who the hell are you" attitude. In fact, the normal greeting I received when entering a bar in Granada was, directly translated, “Talk to me.” Sometimes it was, loosely translated,”waddya want?” And in fact, if I said something to the effect of, “I would like a beer, please,” the look I’d get was one that said, “You would like a beer if… what?” As if an attitude of politeness was not only unwelcome, but I was wasting their time by using unnecessary syllables and the present subjunctive tense. The Irish bartender in Zaragoza told me that this was one thing he still hadn't gotten used to after living and working in Spain for ten years. The way a Spaniard asks for a beer in a bar is, “Gimme a beer.” In fact, the bartender told me that one time he and his fellow bartenders had started ringing a bell any time a customer used the word please or left a tip. (The subject of tipping I’ll leave for another post.) Sometime around midnight, at hearing the bell, his boss asked him why he rang the bell. The bartender explained, and the manager said, incredulously, “And you've only rung it twice all night?”

Getting back to the story, the manager returned after I had had time to drink a second beer (Could that have been his plan the whole time?), showed me to my room, gave me the key and said I could pay him later. He hadn't taken my name, hadn't asked for ID, hadn't asked for payment, yet still gave me the key and left me alone. Absolute trust, no checking of ID for alcohol purchases, friendly people (other than bartenders): This country was going to take some getting used to. 

I showered, cared for my feet—although there were no new blisters, I was still caring for the old ones nightly—and returned to the bar for dinner of chicken penne in a red sauce, salad, and a couple of glasses of wine. OK, maybe more than a couple. As I think I've said, normally with dinner you get your choice of a bottle of water or a bottle of wine. Take your pick. And I'll say once more, tough choice, that one.

Sometime between dinner and going to bed the manager knocked on my door to ask for the 22 Euros, with a look that said, “Hey buddy, howz about the money you owe?” Surly fucker. I told him I had looked for him at the restaurant but hadn't seen him. He seemed satisfied, took the cash, and left.

The night was hot and my window overlooked a street containing several bars. I’d been to Spain before and knew what to expect—this is a noisy country. I closed the window, inserted my ear plugs, and slept the sleep of the dead the whole night. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Luceni


Well, there you have it: my thoughts on the economic condition of the world in the microcosm of Spanish industrial parks. Much as I wanted to leave all worldly concerns behind and concentrate on my internal struggles and find a new path (a new camino - the symbolism did not escape me), the cancer on the Earth that is the political class hovered over my head constantly and consistently as I walked, albeit further away than in the past, at times so far away that I hardly noticed it. Sometimes several hours would pass without the oppressive, frustrating thoughts of the political class and how they ruin life for the rest of us. The lack of television and newspapers helped greatly. Whenever I’d stop in a bar for breakfast, lunch, or dinner I’d consciously avoid the television if it was tuned to a news program. Thankfully, the normal fare was futbol (soccer here in the U.S.)

Before I left the States I started weaning myself off of my twenty-year reliance on anti-depressants, my vitamin P as it is referred to by some. I’d let a day go by without taking it during the week, then a couple of days, taking it four or five days a week, then down to skipping a day out of every three. I noticed no difference, although a “professional” would probably say, “Of course you noticed no difference—you’re too close to the subject.” Self-un-medication, as with self-medication, is a dangerous path which should be left to the professionals.

I’m not so sure. I like to live dangerously. Sometimes I don’t floss my teeth. I jay-walk. I don’t have a 401K. I use salad dressing that is past its expiration date. Yet through the pain of my bad feet, the heat of Catalunya and Aragon, and the solitude of the Camino, even without my Prozac, I felt good—no, not just good but wonderful every day. I ate well, I slept well, I enjoyed life. I enjoyed the sound of the rushing water through the irrigation canals along the Camino and the view of the Rio Ebro as I walked along it day after day. I had no idea what each day would bring and I wasn't yet at the point where I thought about life after I’d reached Santiago (that was where I could have used some Prozac). All I knew was that every day was good. Damn good, in fact.

June 4. Before entering Luceni, as I walked along the Rio Ebro, I came upon a small town that featured a bronze statue of Sancho Panza, Don Quixote's faithful squire. In the second book of that first and greatest of all novels, Sancho is given an island to govern by a pair of dukes, playing a practical joke on poor Sancho, the Isla Barataria (barata means "cheap" in Spanish.)

The Rio Ebro and Sancho Panza's island, near Luceni
Book One of Don Quixote is written as a parody of popular chivalric literature of the time. The Don and his squire are simpletons and the butt of jokes. But the theme of the second book, written ten years after the first, gives us an entirely different perspective on Don Quixote and Sancho, using the pair as a representation of the wisdom of foolishness, and showing the foolishness of the wise, ruling classes. In the chapter in which Sancho becomes governor of this island, the dukes, representing the political ruling class of the day, try to snare Sancho in intrigue and political problems of the island. Sancho, however, applies common sense and practical, down-to-earth wisdom to show the foolishness of the learned dukes. Finding the governorship of the island too much work, he resigns to return to the side of Don Quixote.

Luceni. My guide said there was a beautiful 13th century church here, but I couldn't find it. I noted in my journal that “the weather continued to be pleasant, if a little windy, but nothing like the first two days out of Montserrat. Still no word from God.”

I felt fortunate that Luceni had an albergue, even though it was nothing more than a mattress on the floor of a large multi-purpose room in the building that housed the ayuntamiento. On the Camino, one is grateful for small favors.

It seemed to be the norm in most small Spanish pueblos that the streets were deserted in the afternoon. I wandered into town not having any idea where the ayuntamiento was. Normally you’d find it at one of the main plazas, or The Plaza Mayor if the town had one. Luceni didn't seem to have a plaza, much less a Plaza Mayor. I attempted to ask a woman on the street if she could direct me, but was ignored as she hurried on her way, the first and only time help wasn't offered willingly and gladly during my entire four months in Spain. I found a main street and what looked like the town’s largest bar restaurante and, after the requisite beer, asked where I might find the ayuntamiento and was directed to an address where someone would have the key, as the ayuntamiento was not open. What seems very odd today, but became the norm in so many towns through Catalunya and Aragon, was that I was given the key to a municipal building as if I were a long-time, trusted resident of the town rather than a passing vagabond. The Camino is like that: pilgrims are trusted and pilgrims trust everyone. Through 1,250 kilometers and fifty days of the Camino, I didn't hear a word of anyone experiencing any dangerous situations, theft, or violence. I imagine that a protective energy field pervades the Camino on all the routes from all the source cities, built up from what I can only call a "spiritual residue" from over a thousand years of pilgrims making their way to Santiago, that no negative energy can invade. 

Getting back to Luceni, a very friendly and helpful woman, the norm on the Camino, showed me to the albergue, gave me my choice of mattresses, being the only pilgrim at the albergue yet again, handed me the key, asked me to leave it at her door in the morning, and wished me a pleasant night. There was no shower, and there was no hot water, but there was a soft mattress and after a simple dinner at the bar I spent another night in blissful sleep.

I awoke the next morning at about 8:00 and went back to the bar for my breakfast of café con leche and croissant, spending about an hour talking with a woman who was interested in my Camino experience, finally hitting the road at about 9:30, again, very late by pilgrim standards. But what did I know? I was still traveling solo and every day was an adventure into the unknown.

Sancho Panza and I, resting near the Rio Ebro and
Isla Barataria, given to Sanho to govern by two regional dukes.
A random note - As I refer back to my journal to remind myself of where I was each day, it brings back memories of sights and sounds, heat and exhaustion, painful feet and joyous views of the pueblo coming into view where I would be able to stop for lunch or for the night. As I remember talking with people—asking directions, answering questions about my experiences—I don’t remember speaking in Spanish but I know I must have been. I made a note of speaking in English with an Irish bar tender in Zaragoza, which was very unusual. Later, when I was walking with other people, after my Camino met up with the French Route, that coming from St. Jean Pied de Port, and trying to have normal, adult conversations, I remember vividly the frustration of not being able to communicate feelings and what I was thinking on a deeper level than that required for asking directions and relating simple experiences. But at least for a short while, on a very basic level, I was communicating in Spanish. I remember feeling pretty good about that.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Poligonos


Walking across Catalunya and Aragon, as I entered several larger towns and cities, through the outskirts of the town I would walk past poligonos – industrial parks – brand new, huge buildings, gated, secure properties with large parking lots, brand new lighted streets leading up to and surrounding them, the concrete still gleaming white, new and unmarked by graffiti: 

Sitting lonely and vacant. 

These are Spain's ghost poligonos, some complete with tumbleweeds, evidence of low interest rates and easy money provided courtesy of European politicians and central banks. I was a ground-level witness to the inexplicable wastefulness of Keynesian economics in action. Or rather, inaction. Where did the money come from to build these acres upon acres of factory and office buildings? Was it stolen from the people of Spain and the rest of the Euro-zone in the form of taxes? Or was it just created out of thin air, a tax on future generations who would have to suffer the devalued currency that would necessarily result from the creation of hundreds of billions of Euros that represented nothing more than some politician’s wet dream of a new industrial park in his district.

Whence came the demand for these industrial parks? Whom was the potential productive capacity of the factories and offices going to help? What additional productive, economic activity would cover the costs of the land, building materials, and construction costs of these grand albatrosses hung around the collective necks of the people of Spain? And where was the evidence that the billions of Euros spent on these poligonos was the best use of the capital, even if it was counterfeit, created out of nothing?

“If you build it, they will come” only works in movies. In the real world, where people risk their real saving, saving which represents real and valuable productivity over and above what its creator required to live, an investment in a poligono or a store front or a restaurant or any business enterprise would be undertaken after a careful business and economic analysis gave evidence of an imbalance between supply and demand which the new business enterprise would then be able exploit (in an economic sense), hopefully at a profit.

In the world of politics and Keynesian economics, money is created out of nothing and spread around in direct correlation with the power of the politicians who wield it. The money the politician is spending is not his, it is not the fruit of his labors, he hasn't reduced his past consumption in order to save for a future investment in an enterprise that will improve the general welfare and produce future profits. No, the source of his money is always the productive capacity of those who have earned it, and then is stolen via taxes, or it is stolen from those in the future who will have to earn it by the sweat of their face to pay the required taxes or to produce more for a greater amount of the inflated currency which buys less and less.

But this is of no consequence to the politician who is the beneficiary of the newly created Euros (or dollars or pesos or yen or…). He and his cronies are the first beneficiaries of his inflated government salary and whatever he can skim off the top for himself. The hundreds of billions changing hands in government offices, before the money enters circulation and becomes worth-less, are manna from heaven for the politically well-connected. The politician doesn't have to produce, save, or plan for the future, except in so far as he plans how much he can extort from the political system to support his extravagant lifestyle at the expense of the people he is supposed to represent. He and his family will be fine. It is the rest, the mundanes, the non-politically connected peons who have to suffer from the inflated currency and ill-spent money on unneeded and unwanted poligonos, standing empty, rusting, collecting dust, doing nothing more than providing gleaming white horizontal surfaces for yet more graffiti.   

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Torres de Barrellén


June 2, 2012

Another day of rest was what my feet needed. They were still blistered and sore when I left Zaragoza, but as I review my journal I see that the worst seems to be over.

My journal tells me that I was looking forward to a change of scenery; the constant view of nothing but flat farmland makes for long days. The constant heat, somewhere around 100 degrees every day, walking in the sun, added to the exhaustion factor at the end of each day. And, while the albergues in Cataluña and Aragon were mostly free (I had to pay five or seven euros at only two of them) for the most part I was staying in hostels at a normal rate of 25 euros a night, about 34 dollars at today’s exchange rate. I was also spending more on food than I had planned. I hadn't found any of those cheap “pilgrim specials” that I had read about. A normal breakfast was coffee and a croissant for about two Euros, lunch would be a sandwich and a beer for six or seven, dinner was normally a salad and some kind of pasta with chicken or a filet (cheap cut of steak) for around ten Euros. It wasn't unusual to spend 40 to 45 Euros a day, or about 55 dollars. What kept me from being too worried about the money was that I knew that once I reached Logroño my lodging expenses would decrease, which, to that point, was about half of my daily outflow of cash.

The beautiful architecture of the
Muslim heritage of Spain

June 3, Torres de Barrellén and an albuergue for only six Euros. Wa-hoo!! My guide suggested continuing on to Alagón, but there was no albergue there and, as usual, my feet were dying. Better to save the money, give my feet an easy day and stop here. Finally, as I noted in my journal, this day I found no new blisters: a first! The temperatures had also moderated so I was a happy pilgrim. Here in Torres de Barrellén I again had the albergue all to myself so I had a peaceful night’s sleep. (I say this with the memory of almost every night that I spent in an albergue where I did have to share a room, being one of snoring, only mitigated, barely, by my ear plugs.)

I was walking the Camino hoping to have some spiritual renewal, awakening, rebirth—something!—to find that “still small voice” of God to which I had seemed to be deaf my entire life. So far, I had heard nothing but the constant tape loop in my brain that played the list of my shortcomings, of my financial stupidity, the memories of failed relationships, interspersed with my musings on the abysmal state of politics and economics in the United States. 

But I was patient. It was early and I still had most of the Camino ahead of me. At the same time, I was thoroughly enjoying the environment—just being in Spain with no telephone, no computer, no television, no one depending on me to be anywhere, no one asking for status reports or asking me to set up or attend meetings, no need to make any decisions other than to get out of bed and start walking every day. While each day was tiring, each day was tiring in a good way; from the ankles up I was healthy and fully capable of whatever physical stresses the Camino put before me, and even my feet now seemed to be on the mend. I read in one of the books about the Camino de Santiago before undertaking the journey that everyone finds some point on the Camino where they ask themselves, “What am I doing here?” and wondering if it might not be a good idea to stop, take a bus to the nearest airport, and fly back home. I can honestly and sincerely say that I never got to that point. From the day I arrived in Barcelona to the end of the Earth, Finisterre, I was in a state of contentment such as I had never known, and, as I said in the first post of this blog, one that I fear I will never find again. 

The llanura of Aragon