Sunday, November 9, 2008

On the Camino

At last, here is my journal from the pilgrimage. I did a lot of writing while we were away—at least a couple of pages each day—so I’ll try to condense it all here and give you a little day-by-day synopsis.

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 25 – Arrival in St. Jean Pied de Port
We left Paris on a midnight train, and neither of us managed to get much sleep. I found myself nervous about how many details were yet to be figured out (some transportation stuff, all of our lodging—pilgrim hostels don’t allow for reservations), but really excited about being surrounded by a new language and a new landscape. I was constantly attempting to learn new phrases. What I found surprisingly difficult was dealing with the Spanish pronunciation—I guess I am more used to the Spanish of the Americas than I have considered.
We arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port (in the South of France) pretty early in the morning, and went to the Pilgrim Welcome Office. The greeting was everything I could have hoped for—the woman who spoke with us provided us with lots of information, encouragement, and some warm tea. We spent the rest of the day exploring the city, which is lovely and found ourselves perplexed by a language we kept seeing everywhere; it took us a little while to figure out that it was the regional language, Basque, which is still very much alive in the area (which includes parts of Spain and France). Signs were mostly in Basque with French beneath them, and we found a Basque bookstore. Incredibly interesting. We were pretty exhausted so we went to sleep early, to get ready for the adventures ahead.

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 26 – Taxi to Pamplona
Before leaving St. Jean in the morning, we had breakfast with the other pilgrims, who were taking off for the hardest day of walking in the entire pilgrimage (we weren’t going to start walking for a few days, so we couldn’t really commiserate). We spoke with some people from Switzerland, one of whom had hiked 635 km to get to St. Jean! We thought it was a starting point for most people, which it is (the start of the Camino Frances—there are several possible trails), but a lot of people hike from their home countries or from elsewhere in France in order to get to St. Jean. That Swiss guy complimented us on being the first Americans he has met in France who actually speak French, so we felt proud. We went to say goodbye to the woman who had welcomed us, and took off for Pamplona (who kissed us and remarked that we were cute and brave).
Since it was Sunday, we had basically no travel options except a taxi, but it was cool because we got to see the Pyrenees, where we otherwise would have been hiking, and we got to hear about the Basque language from the driver. Turns out everyone learns it in school and it is even the language used for announcements in the airports. He said it’s such a fascinating language because its roots are almost impossible to trace.
When we arrived in Pamplona, we did a lot of useless wandering (since most things are closed on Sunday), but eventually found an albergue (pilgrim hostel). It seemed to mostly house Germans, but obviously everyone is welcome. We just ended up being the minority, linguistically. We stayed in a room with two German girls who had actually met online and decided to walk some of the camino together; they hadn’t known each other at all otherwise, which was fascinating to us. One of them spoke fantastic English, and she explained to us that she had worked for years on an American army base in Germany, where she had an American boyfriend. They left the base recently, and her boyfriend passed away—so this was the first time we heard a “this is why I’m walking” story. We also met a 71-year-old German man who has walked and biked all over the world, and remarked that the reason this pilgrimage is so unique is because you truly meet people from everywhere in the world. Additionally, we met a guy from Holland who began the camino there and has been walking for three months already. As Vanessa put it, he walked out his front door—and kept walking. He thus did a lot of the camino completely independently, whereas starting from a designated city like St. Jean gives you access to the yellow arrows which point you in the right direction, and cheap albergues to house you. I give him a lot of credit. Besides wondering how people had randomly free months to spend walking the camino, I think we both went to sleep that night really impressed with the courage and spirit of the people we had met.

MONDAY, OCTOBER 27 – bus to Leon
We had to wake up at 5:30 to leave for Leon, and we had to take 3 different buses to make it there—but we accomplished it all without a hitch! We had several successful interactions in Spanish throughout the day, including the purchasing of the bus tickets, the finding of the correct buses (even getting off at the right stops was not always easy), and explaining our traveling situation to the man at the Benedictine albergue where we stayed (you’re mostly supposed to be walking in order to be allowed to stay in the albergue, so we had to explain that we only had so many days in Spain, and we were going to start walking soon).
The city was lovely, with a beautiful cathedral. The albergue itself was particularly interesting. The rooms were packed—we slept in a room with about 50 other pilgrims, and there was an equally large room next door, also full. We met a fellow American named Chrissy from Maryland, who has found herself with a degree she is not sure how to use (in Divinity) and who is exhausted from several years of working at a camp for troubled girls. She’s not sure what she wants to do next, so that’s why she’s walking.
The albergue is run by Benedictine nuns, so you only pay what you can (a few euros suffice). They also invited us to the evening vespers and a special pilgrim benediction, and we went to both. We were pretty proud of how much we could understand in the prayers, and we got to pray aloud in Spanish with the other pilgrims, which was foreign but very cool for mostly everyone. They read a list of the countries we all came from, and it was pretty impressive! The man from Pamplona was right when he said the camino draws people from all over the world.

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 28 – bus to Sarria
We left for our last day of traveling by bus, which was long, but fine. We continually impressed ourselves with our ability to understand what we hear and express ourselves, however elementary our phrases are. We saw some beautiful landscapes, several pilgrims on the camino, and lots of camino arrows! When we arrived in Sarria and followed the camino to reach the albergue, we looked down at the shells in the sidewalk (yellow arrows and shells are the two indicators of the camino for pilgrims). We remarked on how many people had walked along this otherwise unsuspecting sidewalk. The camino really has such a life and presence to it.
We decided to vary up our albergue experiences, and chose to stay in a nicer private one (still under 10 euro for the night). We were in a nice little four person room, which seemed refreshing…until we realized that there were no outlets in the room, the albergue doesn’t offer breakfast in the mornings, and we really had no way to meet other people. We paid 4 euro the night before for our crowded room, but there was a real sense of community, and an unlimited supply of bread and coffee in the morning! Ah, well. Also, the power-saving lights in our nice little room shut off every 15 minutes. That was pretty irritating as we got into bed for our nightly writing/reading time.

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 29 – walk to Portomarin
The weather was a little drizzly in the morning, but we got off to a nice start for our first day of traveling on foot. As soon as we left Sarria, we found ourselves in forests and rural farming areas. The views of the countryside were breathtaking and the entire day was incredibly peaceful. The most exciting event was passing a herd of cows on the path. Cows are so big up close, it's a little scary. Overall, though, I think we’d both say it was a really pleasant, calm day.
The experience of walking was really powerful. I kind of developed a new sense of the terrain as something infinitely larger than myself, yet something I still was able to traverse. It was such a wonderful feeling, for example, to see Portomarin from a distance, and then suddenly find it right before us. We met some French friends at the albergue, which was really nice. We met an older woman who had been walking for almost 60 days (ironically, we had seen her earlier in the day when we stopped for coffee, and she had shared some bread with us—but we didn’t realize we all spoke French at the time, so we had an awkwardly silent exchange), and a couple who had just started walking like us.
Vanessa remarked that she knew I was on board for this over the summer when I said we could have our very own Canterbury Tales, which cracked me up. It made me think, though, about how many stories Vanessa and I have already exchanged—how conducive this type of travel is to the telling of stories (even the bus part). There is really nothing else happening but the traveling itself. I even thought of how many people we have met have introduced themselves with a short story about who they are and why they are walking; we rarely learned anyone’s name, but we always learned something somehow more personal. It’s almost like stories are, in this context, something of value that everyone wants to share and receive. So rarely, otherwise, do we make time for the telling of stories.

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 30 – walk to Palas de Rei
Our second day of walking was more trying. The ground was damp from the rain last night, but the cool air was nice for starting off the day. I find that I love the peace of the early mornings as we’re walking. As we hesitated in getting back on the path (we lost track of arrows when we went to our albergue), we ended up meeting a nice man named Peder from Slovenia. Together, we crossed a rickety bridge, and as we expressed our fear, he replied, “Ah, you like your life?” After the epic bridge-crossing, we said farewell and continued on our ways.
We continued the tradition we began the previous day of stopping for a little café to break up our morning. Unfortunately, it poured all afternoon, and we arrived in Palas de Rei soaked and disgruntled in our ponchos. We re-encountered our friendly French couple, which was nice. We heard that the shower water was cold, and also the four shower stalls were wide open and facing each other—so between that awkward situation and the fact that we were already cold and wet, we opted to forego taking a shower for the day. And anyway, we were just going to be putting the same dirty (and now wet) clothes on the next morning. We put our pajamas on, and we were unable to move from our sleeping bags for the rest of the evening. I finished up reading A Thousand Splendid Suns and moved onto the French book that I picked up in Portomarin the day before.

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 31 – walk to Arzua
We didn’t get a whole lot of good sleep last night, because there was a rowdy group of Spanish teenagers sleeping in our pretty crowded room. We decided they were either a school group or random locals—they didn’t seem to have much respect for the camino or the pilgrims, so we figured they had just begun to walk somewhat recently.
We stopped for our first real lunch along the way, which sustained us through the rest of what turned out to be a very long day. We had planned to stop short of Arzua, but we decided to continue the rest of the way there, taking advantage of the mostly sunny weather.
We walked for a while with a German guy (who we later came to refer to as “West German”) who had worked in NYC and whose wife is a teacher, so we had plenty of topics to discuss. We chatted (in English) about school systems, language learning, and about the election. We continued to run into the French couple; it feels so nice to talk to them in French. Dealing awkwardly with people in Spanish, it’s refreshing to be able to express ourselves in the tense and tone we choose, even if it’s still a foreign language.
We were both aching and tired as we approached Arzua. We met a man who is writing a story about Canadians on the camino, who we continued to see and hear about as the days went on. We arrived at the albergue, pleasantly surprised to find that the showers were really warm and the water pressure was strong—so that more than made up for the unfortunate shower situation in Palas de Rei. We took the best showers ever.
We heard about a bomb in Pamplona that had been set off by a Basque terrorist group, and we saw graffiti today comparing Galicia to Palestine. Those two things made us reflect on what we know about the importance of regional identity in Spain (as in France), but also how unfamiliar we are with the culture and conflicts of Spain. As much as we learn everyday about the land, we have so much left to discover about its people.

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 1 – walk to O Pedrouza
After a night in a room of snoring old men (better than the teenagers? I don’t know), we woke up to more rainy weather, but it let up quickly. We walked along with another German (this one was, obviously, “East German”), and talked to him for a while. He finished up his contract as a consultant for international companies, and plans to move to Cambodia. In the meantime, he is walking to get away from everything, but also as a physical and spiritual challenge.
We took a break for lunch and continued our new tradition of Estrella Galicia (the regional beer) in the afternoon. Afterwards, we shouldn’t have had too far to go, since we decided to cut today a little shorter. However, we had trouble knowing what towns we were in, since they were really tiny and poorly marked. We were increasingly tired and it was raining pretty hard. We ran into two Canadians and an American who were also planning to stop in the same town as we were (O Pedrouza). As we figured, we had overshot it by 4 km, and the next town with an albergue was 12 km away. We turned back, which was obviously discouraging, but clearly the best choice.
It was interesting to be around an American, as he was only the second we had encountered. It was refreshing to hear his accent and even his slang, of course, but there was something characteristically American about him—in a bad way. As we watched him confront people in his awkward Spanish (which may have been worse than ours), there was something in his bearing which seemed to affront people and lead them to respond sarcastically and harshly to him, something we have not yet encountered. We were proud of ourselves for our interactions with Spanish people, even with our linguistic limitations, which seem to show them enough respect that they respond with sincerity and kindness.
Looked like another long night with the Spanish teenagers in our albergue.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 2 – walk to Santiago
Waking up was tough this morning; I got very little sleep last night because of the group of teenagers—they were chatting and turning lights on all night. I had a conversation with one of them earlier in the day, who confirmed that they are indeed on a school trip, though I was left wondering how the logistics were working out with so many of them.
In honor of our last walking day, we had a “Café Che” before we took off—coffee with milk, cinnamon, and whisky (though I would guess that no one actually orders it in the morning). We also split a Tarta de Santiago, so we started off strong. We did a whole lot of uphill walking at the beginning, but the weather was nice, so we couldn’t complain.
We got frustrated during a rather flat stretch with no camino signs, and nothing interesting in sight (I think I had actually been warned about this portion of the camino, and how disheartening it is). We felt like we weren’t moving anywhere, until we finally reached Monte de Gozo where we stopped for one of our staples—juice, “zumos.” We each bought bottles to take with us, but the woman at the counter offered us glasses and insisted we sit. We got to see the adorable baby she cares for, but unfortunately found ourselves able to say nothing more than “hola” repeatedly. We continued our trek and Santiago at last became visible. We finally made it into the city, and left our stuff at a cool hostel with incense, music, and interesting decorations. Felt very homey. We then went out for a celebratory meal. What a feast—red wine, a selection of local cheeses (Vanessa remarked, “You know what’s cool about these cheeses? I think we met all the cows responsible for them.”), a mysterious something that we think involved octopus (regional specialty), I had prawns in lime, honey, and garlic sauce, Vanessa had pork belly, and we split a salad of asparagus, tomato, and mammoth hunks of goat cheese.
Tired, full, and being pursued by an ominous cloud (Santiago is said to be the rainiest city in Spain), we went back to the hostel, and saw our West German friend along the way! Hopefully we’ll have more reunions tomorrow. For now—it’s reading and sleeping time.

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 3 – day in Santiago
We began our day by wandering around to do a little bit of souvenir shopping. We each wanted a little something with a shell on it to remember our experience, but it took us a while to find anything other than really cheap, touristy stuff. Then we went to the cathedral, took some pictures, and looked for the pilgrim office. We heard some French speakers, so we asked them to tell us where it was, and we headed over to get our pilgrim credentials (for walking the last 100km). Then we went to the pilgrim mass. It was cool so see so many people who looked dirty and tired like us, and we were pleased to hear the words “pererinos” (pilgrims) and “Etados Unidos” (US) in the sermon.
The climax of the mass would be when this enormous (seriously, as big as a person) incense thing came down from the ceiling, and 5 men worked together to swing it from side to side all the way up to the ceiling while really dramatic organ music played. Everyone was taking pictures. We actually got videos of it.
On the way out, we ran into this Spanish man from our hostel, who had been really distressed about the fact that we went to sleep early yesterday—he kept popping his head into our beds to see if we were awake and to wish us “beautiful dreams.” I managed not to see him right away, and I yawned, which was not the best thing to do, because he proceeded to pretend to yawn in return and remark, “My God. So many hours. I don’t know why. Why?” This continued for the rest of the day and into the night. In the evening, when he was bothering us about being in bed before he was, Vanessa looked at him and said “My God,” as he had earlier (in a kind of hilarious accent), and then hid in her sleeping bag. Good times.
In other news, we chatted with a Canadian guy named Stefan, who was pretty cool. We met a nice American couple from California, who has actually walked the camino before, but followed a different route. They were nice and lent me a book (about the camino!) because I finished the one French one I had picked up, and couldn’t find a bookstore with French or English books in Santiago. We also met a Spanish man named Carlos who works with young children, but was just getting really worn out, and asked to take some time off to clear his head. He’s continuing on, like many pilgrims, past Santiago to Finisterra. Vanessa and I stayed up reading for a while, and went to sleep. The next day we returned to Paris; we found we had really missed France, though we had an incredibly interesting adventure through Spain. Truly an authentic, one-of-a-kind experience. We’ve discussed possibly returning to do other parts of the camino in the future, or at least considering hiking elsewhere. It’s such a great way to get to know an area and to meet interesting people.

1 comment:

Vanessa Nelson said...

I loved reading this! I laughed out loud several times as the stories came flooding back. Man, I crack myself up.
I also remember a Spanish bus driver trying to talk to us about the upcoming election, and all we understood was that he thought Obama was "mas guapo" than McCain, as he stroked his chin.