Sunday, May 26, 2013

Chance Meetings?

July 3rd

Two pilgrims at a water fountain near Sarria
Tilly, Katalyn, the two people whose names I embarrassingly can’t remember, and I started walking from Gonzar early, if not bright. The weather from here until we got to the end of the world, Finisterre, would be cloudy and cool for the most part, with brief periods of sun breaks. In contrast, the day I arrived in Finisterre the weather would be bright, warm, and sunny - picture perfect, or as my old voice teacher would say, a “Chamber of Commerce day.”  But until then, our raincoats or ponchos were always ready at the top of our back packs.

We walked through the pueblos of Castromaior, Hospital de la Cruz, Ventas de Narón, Ligonde, Airexe, Avenostre, Palas de Rei, San Xulian y Pontecampaña, Casanova, Loboreiro, and Furelos before finally arriving at Melide. These were all tiny pueblos, about half without a bar (café) or any other place to stop. I could imagine centuries past when these pueblos were, if not thriving, at least populated with many more families who counted the town as home, the next pueblo being populated by “the other people.” Even a few kilometers away would have been a walk that wouldn’t have been taken without good reason. I’ve read that in most of the world up until the last century, throughout their entire lives most people never got farther than thirty miles from the place of their birth. I felt that some of the residents of these pueblos might have yet been in that population.

As a side note, the reader may have noticed that there have been many pueblos with the word "hospital" in them, which means in Spanish exactly what it does in English. Hospital de la Cruz refers to an old hospital that still exists at the entrance to the pueblo. Apparently, walking the Camino in centuries past was a much more dangerous and demanding undertaking. 

I wish I knew what kind of flower this is.
I don’t remember which, but in one of the pueblos we were fortunate enough to be treated to free coffee, water, and snacks by a group of volunteers from the Mennonite Church. I had a cup of coffee and asked a woman if there might be a bathroom available. She answered me in Spanish with a distinct American accent. Switching to English, I asked her where she was from and we began talking.

Judi was a Mennonite missionary from Virginia. She was there with her husband and other church volunteers for the week to serve the pilgrims who came through. As we talked, I learned that she was based in Granada, the city to which I planned to go after the Camino to begin my new life in Spain. I knew no one there. I had only chosen that city because I spent three weeks there taking classes in Spanish some years earlier and I had thoroughly enjoyed the ambiance of the city, especially the ready availability of flamenco and the history of the city: it was the last region of Spain to be held by the Muslims who had built the Alhambra fortress and the still existing thousand-year-old houses in the Albaicin.

The Camino continued to overwhelm me: The day after I had been touched by the wing of a dove I met an American who lived in Granada and offered to help me get settled there. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that one of the side effects of Prozac withdrawal is lack of control of the tear ducts and I have to admit that I had a difficult time talking with Judi as I was struck, yet again, by another miracle. I didn’t get to meet her husband, Pablo, that day, but she gave me their phone number and a standing invitation to dinner when I arrived in Granada. We met up a few weeks later in Granada and they became my most helpful and best friends in Spain.

Moving on, I finally arrived in Melide at an utterly unremarkable albergue. Tilly had gone ahead from where I met Judi. I stayed about fifteen minutes to talk and she normally walked faster than I, so didn’t see her until arriving in Melide. I continued walking, though, with Katalyn and the others. When we finally arrived, we chose the Albergue Apalpador because there were only twelve beds per room, even though it was more expensive, at twelve Euros. One learns quickly that fewer beds per room decreases the statistical probability of having to listen to snoring the entire night. The sleeping situation may have had an advantage over the municipal albergue nearby, but the kitchen was tiny and there was no dining area. By this time we had become albergue aficionados. Many times, for only five to seven Euros, we had had very comfortable accommodations with lounge areas, dining rooms, washing machines, well-equipped kitchens, and comfortable beds. I suppose our “pilgrim attitudes” had been compromised by too much luxury, relatively speaking. But we made due.

62.5 kilometers to Santiago
My guidebook says, loosely translated which is the only way I can do it, that “[t]he imminence of Santiago lights a wick of anxiousness until it converts the present journey into slow diligent process. From this point to Santiago no large population centers remain, no majestic cathedrals, no important monasteries, but only green hills and small forests that one walks over and through without further digression or detour. The pilgrim is forced south by the numerous rivers of this region when he wants to go directly west to The Ulla River Valley, to Santiago.”

That’s all true except the part about a wick of anxiousness being lit. It was more a wick of anxiety. I looked to Santiago with a sense of ambivalence. I wanted to get there, but I didn’t. There were those mixed emotions again. The idea of walking the Camino in order to reach a destination, to complete it, had long ago been abandoned. I wanted to see the Cathedral of Santiago, but I didn’t want the Camino to end. I wonder if a babe in the womb feels the same way. You have to move on, but the womb of the Camino had been so warm, protective, and comfortable. Maybe comfortable isn’t the right word: A baby is cramped in the womb as my feet were cramped in my boots. But everything you need and could possibly want is here, right here every day on the Camino, given to you, pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing. And what’s on the other side? Did I really want to know? By this time I had decided to continue walking to Finisterre, so I was able to approach Santiago knowing that the journey was not yet complete; I wasn’t going to be forced out of the womb immediately. But I knew that a week in the future I would be at the end, as far as I could walk unless another miracle gave me the ability to continue walking across the Atlantic Ocean. I don’t know why I didn’t think at the time of turning around and making the return pilgrimage to Montserrat. I wish now that I had. 
Somewhere between Portomarin and Melide

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

One Miracle After Another...

July 2nd

I had gone through the first stage of the Camino alone, then enjoyed companionship of Maria, Beth, and Annick for the second stage which ended at Sarria, and now was walking in an on-again/off-again partnership with Tilly and the other German girls during the final days to Santiago. This particular day was one of the “off-again” days and I found myself walking alone through the farmland of Galicia. All along the Camino I had been listening for the voice of God, for instruction, inspiration, guidance, anything. I know, or at least I believe, that God and His angels are always talking to us but we’re normally deaf to their voices and blind to their subtle signals. Well, I can’t really speak for others, but I know I’m completely deaf and blind most of the time. But I believe that every once in a while God gives us a slap upside the head, something with a little more “umph” to try to say, “Pay attention!” That slap takes different forms, depending on what we need at the time and what might actually get our attention. That which means something for you might be completely innocuous to me and vice versa. So much depends on who we are and what speaks to us, our heritage, our culture, our understanding of and familiarity with mythology and its symbolism.

To wit: I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian milieu with its attendant symbolism of God who took on human form in Jesus the Christ. Jesus left the Earth two millennia ago and returned to His Father in heaven, but left us with God’s personage in the Holy Spirit which is represented in Christian mythology as a dove.

Which brings me to the afternoon of July 2nd.

I had been walking through the Galician countryside, cool and overcast, the scent of eucalyptus and manure and pine sap constantly vying for the attention of my olfactory senses, while the sights and sounds and tastes of northwestern Spain drew me constantly closer into the heart of Galicia. I was absorbed in my memories of the previous forty days, missing Maria, wondering and worrying about what was waiting for me on the other side of this bridge, this Camino, and at the same time simply enjoying the moment, if it’s possible to do that while also being preoccupied with the past and the future. I should have been feeling calm and confident after receiving dreams of encouragement and seeing and hearing and feeling God dancing in the wind as I walked among wheat fields only a couple of weeks ago. But as I’ve said, sometimes I’m just not too bright. Clueless at times is how some might describe me and I’d find that description hard to argue with.

All those feelings, sights, smells, and sounds I remember as clearly as if I had just experienced them this morning. Here’s where, I think, God lost some patience with me and decided He’d better use a more forceful hand to get my attention. I was walking alongside a farm, the path of the Camino meandering among several out-buildings, leading me past a mammoth, ancient stone barn, when suddenly and without warning a dove flew out of nowhere, right in front of my face, and brushed my forehead directly between the eyes with the tip of its right wing. It took a few seconds to figure out what had happened; I just barely caught a white dove in my peripheral vision as it flew away. All I noticed at the moment was the fluttering of its wings and the brush of its wing tip on my forehead.

One might say, on the one hand, that an albino pigeon with a faulty navigational system had nearly run into me. That’s how many, maybe most people would describe the event. On the other hand, the Christian mythological symbol of God’s presence on Earth had touched my third eye (if I might be allowed to mix Hindu and Christian symbolism) with its wing just at the moment when I was needing some guidance and a sign that I was truly following God’s plan for my life. For me, the latter image, especially given everything else that had happened on the Camino, makes perfect sense.

 Without this brief, fleeting event the Camino would have been just as meaningful for me. But God knows I’m dense and that sometimes I need that whap upside the head. I believe that on July 2nd, walking through the countryside of Galicia, He chose to give me what he knew I needed. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


July 2nd

After a good night’s sleep sans snoring (none but my own, which I couldn’t hear), I left Sarria amidst a veritable throng of humanity. I noted in my journal that, compared with the Camino prior to arriving at this waypoint, it now seemed as if I were walking in Grand Central Station.  Sarria is the traditional starting point for those who want, for whatever reason (no judgment here) to walk the minimum distance in order to be registered as a pilgrim in the annals of the Camino de Santiago. I noted the much smaller back packs and casual clothing of the “day-trippers,” as I referred to them (without judgment, of course).

It was here that I started taking notice of the stone markers indicating the kilometers to Santiago with mixed emotions. Mixed emotions seemed to be the theme of my life. First, Only 99.5 Km to go to Santiago! Then, Shit! Only 99.5 Km to go to the end of the my walk along the outskirts of heaven. 

Because most pilgrims were following a popular guidebook, the same as I, they would stop for the night at Portomarín, a respectable 22.4 Km, but not a great distance, and certainly not so great that I couldn’t walk another 8 Km to Gonzar, about an hour and forty-five minutes at my end-of-day pace, and well worth the effort in order to put some distance between the crowds and myself.

I walked from Sarria through Barbadelo, Rente, Brea, Ferreiros, Mercadoiro, Vilachá, and finally reached Portomarín: a large town with six albergues and three hostels. I hadn't the slightest inclination to stop here; too many people. The walk continued to be beautiful—every turn around the bend brought scenery more and more captivating, lush, with the smells of eucalyptus, alternating warmth of the sun in open areas and cool air in the forests. The weather was perfect and the truth is, I wanted to relish every painful step, knowing that my Camino was coming to an end. Another couple of hours to Gonzar didn’t bother me at all.

I checked into the municipal albergue, the first one I came to, and found no comfortable area to relax as most albergues had. There was only a tiny ill-equipped kitchen and no dining area. The only common area was behind the albergue where people were washing clothing in an outdoor laundry sink. There were only a few outdoor chairs available; all of them taken. After claiming a bunk with my back pack, I took my journal and a pen and set out to find a bar where I could get a beer and make some notes. What I found was another albergue; this one with a restaurant and respectable bar, a lounge area, a good selection of Rioja vino tinto, and, wait for it, Tilly and the other German girls. Life was good again. I quickly registered and returned to the municipal albergue to retrieve my back pack. I didn’t immediately see the inn-keeper and figured that no one had ever made a bed-check in other albergues, why should one this be any different? There didn’t seem to be any shortage of beds, so forgive me, but I just left without telling anyone. The municipal albergue had cost five Euros, the private, ten, so I ended up paying fifteen Euros for the night, but being tired and hungry, and looking forward to a comfortable night and a good meal, and I really didn’t care.

I had a nice dinner with Tilly and Katalyn, sharing a couple of bottles of wine (they had one, I had the other). They and a couple of other pilgrims who had been walking with them for most of the Camino became my walking companions from here to Santiago.

I had become resolved to my fate, that my Camino would end in just a few days, but Tilly suggested that I continue walking on to Finisterre, which is the real end of the pilgrimage to Santiago. I had thought, especially as I limped into Lleída some weeks prior, that I wouldn't take another step past Santiago. A bus to the coast seemed, back then, to be a darned good idea. Now it was different. I was no more ready for the end of the Camino than a condemned man is for his last meal; Convincing me to continue on, walking the extra 80 Km to the Atlantic coast was an easy argument for Tilly to make. I breathed a sigh of relief—I would have a stay of execution for another four days! 
"Day-trippers" (and one "serious" pilgrim) walking between
Sarria and Santiago (no judgment!)

Saturday, May 11, 2013


July 1st


The Camino giveth and the Camino taketh away. We said buen camino to each other and as easily as if we’d just met in passing, Maria turned and walked down the road. I guess she didn’t care for long goodbyes. I watched her walk away until she was out of sight and then watched a little longer, wondering if she’d fulfill my fantasy of suddenly reappearing, walking back to me, as if this were a movie; Tom Hanks could play my part, Meg Ryan hers. She didn’t come back. Maybe there will be a sequel.

I stayed in Sarria to have a farewell dinner with James, a fellow pilgrim I had met along the way a couple of weeks prior. He was from England and had started the Camino the previous year here, in Sarria. This year, he started in St Jean Pied de Port and walk to Sarria in order to complete the entire French route of the Camino. I met a few pilgrims along the way who were taking two, three, or even four years to walk the Camino. They only had limited time away from work, so walked as far as they could one year, returning to start where they left off as many times over as many years as required to complete their Camino. 

Let me just say once and leave it at that: work can really get in the way of life. 

(In the same vein, I’ve decided to begin my next pilgrimage to Rome at the Mediterranean shore in Barcelona and make my route through Monistrol which is a bit out of the way, but by doing so I will have walked the entire breadth of Spain from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Not that that’s important from a pilgrimage perspective; it just seems a cool thing to do.)

In Sarria I checked into a pension, which was more expensive than one of the several albergues but I was feeling the need to have a little solitude here, and was looking forward to a night without snoring and the requisite ear plugs. At dinner time, 8:00 or so, I went to the restaurant where James’ friends were giving him his going away dinner and found a seat at a long table, sitting across from Tilly, a woman from Leipzig I’d met a few days earlier, a some-time walking companion of James. She was with a couple of other women from Germany: Katalyn and another whose name I didn’t write down and is lost forever in the dustbin of my faulty memory. As the dinner wound down and the others left the table, I remained to talk with Tilly whom I found to be another fascinating, warm, and engaging person. The truth is there are no “non-fascinating, non-warm, and non-engaging” people on the Camino. Take some time to get to know just a little about whomever you meet and you’ll find a new friend. Leipzig was in the former East Germany and Tilly was just old enough to remember the time before the fall of the Wall. I’ve mentioned before that in my previous life I was a wannabe musician (OK, I still am) and was so jealous to learn that Tilly had sung in a children’s choir under Kurt Masur in, Leipzig, one of the greatest cities of music in the world. She had just completed university and would start her career after the Camino as a French and biology high school teacher.

Tilly and I talked about many things and I mentioned that I was interested in the question of why there was no well-known musical tradition from Spain, other than flamenco and what has come to be known as “Spanish” guitar, or the classical guitar tradition. 

(Parenthetical thought, if you don’t mind me interrupting myself. I was talking with Tilly in English. She was German, so of course spoke her native language, she also spoke French well enough to teach it at the German high school level, which is much more rigorous than what is normally taught in a U.S. high school, and she was able to get along quite well in Spain speaking their language. I was reminded of a joke: What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? American. Ha ha. Not really funny, is it?)

Spain has its Zarzuelas, which might be compared to opéra comique and, yes, there are several Spanish composers whose music is part of the standard orchestral repertoire: Manuel de Falla, Juaquín Turina, Isaac Albéniz among some of the best known. But if the number of composers and their works from the other European countries were weighed against those of Spain, the Spanish repertoire of commonly performed orchestral and choral music would be very light indeed. After the Camino, spending several weeks in Granada, I also spoke with a history professor from the University of Granada who, not surprisingly, took some offense at my proposition that the musical tradition of Spain lagged behind that of other major European countries. His thesis was that the apparent dearth of music was only that: apparent. The truth was that there was a long and vibrant tradition of music from Spain but that for some reason it had not been promoted to the extent of music from Germany, France, Italy, etc. Further study of the question while in Granada seemed to lend at least some truth to his thesis, but then that begged the question: Why was the music of Spain not promoted throughout the world as had been the music of the rest of Europe? Still, I don’t believe, at least at this point in my study of the question, that lack of promotion explains the entire seemingly small output of orchestral and choral music from Spain.

Getting back to my new friend, Tilly, she suggested that possibly the answer had something to do with the patronage, or rather, the lack of royal and ecclesiastical patronage of music in Spain compared with their counterparts in the rest of Europe. The instrumental musical tradition of Europe owes much of its existence to kings and the Catholic and protestant churches. For example, a large portion of the choral and instrumental opus of Bach is due to the patronage of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Koethen for whom Bach was kapellmeister and to August III as his court composer.  Also, Handel wrote much of his music as the court composer for King George II of England. 

I don’t know if the question of patronage has a correlation with the amount of orchestral and choral music of Spain, but it was an interesting discussion and kindled memories of my earlier life as a wannabe musician and I completed the evening feeling, still and again, that I was back on track. 
I almost expected to see flying monkeys and the wicked witch
flying through the air as we walked through this forest.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Leaving O Cebreiro

June 30th
Leaving O Cebreiro it seemed every kilometer was more beautiful than the last. At this altitude, between 4,000 and 5,000 feet, the clouds seem to hang just above your head, slightly out of reach, covering the tops of the lush, green hills that surround the pilgrim. Every pueblo seems to be carved out of the earth. The stonework is masterful; houses and barns are integral parts of the landscape. We normally walked far from any roads that might carry traffic so we were enveloped in silence broken only by lowing of cows and the bleating of sheep off in the distance or sometimes sharing the Camino with us as they were moved from pasture to pasture.
It rained much of the day between O Cebreiro and Triacastela, but it was only heavy for the first five and a half kilometers. I had a rain coat which kept my upper body dry but my pants were soaked. As I mentioned before, I didn’t care for the synthetic shirts I had bought for the trip, but the pants, specifically designed to be light and easy to care for, were comfortable and dried fast. I was glad not to be wearing cotton jeans. For any future pilgrims I’d also recommend the style of pants with zip-off legs so they can be converted into shorts without having to undress to change clothes mid-day. With the cool mornings turning into warm afternoons, the convertibility often came in handy.
From Villafranca to O Cebreiro the route climbs about 700 meters (not feet, meters!) over ten kilometers and makes for a good day’s hike. O Cebreiro and a comfortable albergue is a welcome sight for sore legs. The next day we descended about the same altitude over ten kilometers which would normally be a welcome relief, but there was one long section with a steep downgrade that was a workout, to say the least, for 55-year old knees, one of which 
had been damaged 35 years earlier training for a week’s hike in the Grand Canyon. To add insult to injury, my feet, as I think I’ve mentioned, were not designed for extended walking in the first place and by now were permanently swollen. I wouldn’t have believed it was possible, but they had even swollen lengthwise so my normally crowded toes were feeling very unwelcome in the front of my boots. The long downhill walk was worse than going uphill, my toes jammed against the front of my boots. I was never more glad to arrive at flat terrain when we reached Triacastela.

For most of the day I walked alone. I’d catch up with Maria at rest stops, or not. I missed her company but she wanted and needed some solitude. I didn’t mind walking alone, but as I had grown somewhat, or more than somewhat attached to Maria, I had mixed feelings about my own solitude at this point on the Camino. My thoughts alternated between, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could spend some time after the Camino with this woman, as in, oh, about a lifetime or so…” and, “Stop being a foolish old man.” As I found myself thinking the former more and more, my actions and words tended to reflect the latter. I’d make a fool of myself and end up hurting Maria’s feelings, then I’d feel like more of a fool and get frustrated by my inability to communicate, both because my Spanish was inadequate and because my dueling emotions tended to result in a behavior that reflected just about anything other than what I was really feeling.
So we, or I, walked on through Liñares, Hospital, Alto do Poio, Fonfría, and O Viduedo, stopping at Triacastela for the night. The following day was a short 18.5 Km walk to Sarria where I stopped and Maria continued on to avoid the crowds that gather in this pueblo to begin their Camino, as it’s the shortest walk to Santiago that still allows one to claim their Compostela - their “certificate of achievement.” We said hasta luego, see you later, and talked about meeting up somewhere along the way, but I had a sinking feeling I’d never see Maria again.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Lord, Grant Me Patience

Where were we? It’s been a while since I last wrote and my memory isn’t what it used to be - in fact, it never was.

Oh yeah, we were walking through Galicia, enjoying pulpo whenever possible. In Ponferrada we found a grand, as in muy grande, albergue converted from an old cathedral. An upper floor had been created where there were now 204 beds, arranged as bunk beds in cubicles of 8 beds in each, if memory serves. It was a way of turning a cavernous bunkhouse into a fairly pleasant arrangement with a small sense of privacy, if such a thing is possible in a bunkhouse of 204 beds. There was also a very well-equipped kitchen and dining area. As a side note, I think if I wanted to make the Camino again, and wanted and could select my travel partner, I’d walk with an Asian or group of Asians; they eat better than anyone on the Camino. Dinners and even breakfasts were full out, multi-course meals. For the most part everyone else, myself included, tended to go for simplicity, calories, and carbohydrates. The Asians, on the other hand, if I might be allowed to generalize a little, tended to prepare full Asian restaurant-style meals, complete with rice, pot stickers, sautéed vegetables and meats. It was amazing to behold what they could prepare given the often-times very limited cooking facilities in the albergues

Yes, my feet are still hurting but I really don't give a damn.
From Ponferrada we walked through Colombrianos, Fuentes Nuevas, Companaraya, Cacabelos, and reached Villafranca del Bierzo on June 28th. The weather had gone from hundred-degree days in the sun in Catalunya and Aragón to cool and cloudy during the day here in the northwest part of Spain, and was down-right chilly in the mornings. I had to buy a long-sleeve shirt and wore it over a t-shirt to stay warm during the morning hours. We had a couple of days of rain during this stage of the Camino, but I felt fortunate that that's all we had. I’ve heard of other pilgrims walking through weeks of rain, so I was grateful for this.

The next day, June 29th, we walked through Pereje, Trabadelo, La Portela, Ambasmestas, Vega de Valcarce, Ruitelan, Las Herrerías, La Faba, Laguna de Castilla, and finally stopped at O Cebreiro for the night. All these pueblos we passed through in less than 28 kilometers. People I talk with about having walked the Camino, who have no idea of what it is, ask if I had to camp out and wonder if I had to carry a lot of food with me. The simple answer is no, and in fact the challenge in this part of the Camino, as opposed to many days in Catalunya and Aragón, is that there are too many bars to stop at. Sometimes it's difficult to not stop at every pueblo for beer and tapas. At every pueblo listed above except La Faba and Laguna de Castilla there were ample opportunities for food and drink.

The country here is beautiful - lush, green, bucolic , dotted with hills and horses and cows. We also found, much to my surprise, forests of eucalyptus trees. The sense of smell was constantly bombarded by the polar opposites of eucalyptus and manure used for fertilizer at every farm. 

I have an affinity for Andalucía. I don’t know why, but flamenco dance and music and the Muslim architecture and heritage has a lot to do with it. But walking through Galicia I started to wonder if I might want to settle in this area. There is a word that is used to describe the best flamenco dancers, those who have that something extra, that magic when they dance - it's called duende, which literally means “ghost” because the word is derived from the phrase dueño de la casa, owner of the house, and refers to the ghost of a previous owner who haunts the house. It has come to mean “spirit” in the sense of that which inhabits the best and most gifted flamenco dancers who express their own duende through their dance. But there is also a duende in Galicia and it’s real and strong and palpable. When I remember and think about this part of the Camino I feel very introspective and emotional. It’s not something I can talk about. The entire Camino evokes the same feeling, but it’s stronger here. Maybe it’s because I knew that I was approaching the end of the best fifty days of my life. Maybe it’s because there was a duende here that began to haunt me. Maybe it was the experience of the Cruz de Fierro which drove a stake through the heart of any vestiges of my previous life that remained after the previous experiences of the Camino. Probably, as with all things in life, it was a combination of all these, and more that I can’t begin to enumerate.

The attraction of Spain, of the Camino, of Galicia is so strong as I write and think about my experiences there that I am on the very cusp of simply leaving for Spain on the next flight, ignoring all my financial responsibilities which were what brought me back to the States last September. My creditors should be grateful that I have too much of a sense of responsibility to pitch everything at this very moment and return to Spain because a well-developed sense of responsibility and guilt is the only thing keeping me from taking the next flight there. If God will allow me the patience, I'll stay here until I can return debt-free and maybe even with a little money in the bank to make a new life in my adopted homeland.