An Audience with El Notario

El Notario was a very sober man. Small, neat, with a short-sleeved white shirt and a modest tie (so modest it bordered on immodesty), he exuded authority and self-assurance.

Julio made sure to legitimate me right away.

El es un abogado de Princeton,” he said.

“Harvard,” I said.  The Spaniards thought this was funny.

El Notario placed before us the documents that Eva had drawn up. He verified Julio’s identity and made him swear to translate faithfully (Julio would violate this by saying “blah blah blah” over extensive portions of the document). The documents contained so much legalese that even when they were upside-down, an American lawyer could read them: Latin is still the lingua franca of the legalist. They said that Don Cameron Christopher Powell did not understand Spanish, and that Don Julio Angel Redondo Garcia was acting as interpreter and translator. They also appeared to say that they had no real legal effect.

When all the preliminaries had been completed, El Notario reached for a Bic pen and held it up before me as if he were putting Excalibur into my care. He held up my passport before me and pointed at my signature as if to say, “It should look like this”. (Perhaps he did say that). I signed my name in two places.

He appeared to think we were done.

I explained to Julio that a document with only my signature on it would not be useful to the American authorities, who rather expected that the State, County, signature, and commission expiration would be filled out by a notary on the same document, and who would neither look at nor understand the beautifully produced four-page instrument that Eva had so carefully prepared for El Notario’s stylish signature.

To my dismay, El Notario was not reaching for his pen. “Notaries in Spain never expire,” Julio translated. “Their license to print money is forever, perhaps beyond death.”

“Could he write ‘No expiration’?”

Sadly, he could not.

He told us to come back in an hour, so that the separate, Spanish documents could be changed to reflect the fact he would be applying his pen to the English-language document. Like a man sitting in a cab from New York to Washington, D.C., I could see the meter ticking upward.

But there was one good thing to come of it all. “For the rest of Camino,” I told Julio. “You will call me Don Cameron.”

From Pamplona to “Ave Maria” in Los Arcos

Pamplona to Cizur Menor

I didn’t walk from Pamplona, as I was feeling very shaky.  I thought perhaps it was due to low

Lunch in Cizur Menor

blood sugar (the H’s hurt with each step) and I just couldn’t face even walking four miles.  Carrie, Marie Anne, and I took a cab with Cameron’s pack too.  In Cizur Menor was a lovely albergue, with a small pool filled with goldfish and turtles, blooming hydrangeas and other lovely foliage.  It was more like a small resort.  Julio cooked again and we sat outside and ate pasta.  I was pretty tired and in bed by 8:30.  I slept well until all the snoring started.  I got up at 2 for the bathroom again, then at 3:10 and once more at 4.  At 5:30 I gave up to handle my dental issues and have a cup of tea.

To Puente La Reina

We started out at 7:30 and walked approximately 8km, had a decent lunch, and walked through beautiful countryside that reminded me of Tuscany.  We had to climb up another hill, and down a rocky path, but the view on both sides and around us was well worth it.  Large fields, now empty and harvested, cypresses and blackberry bushes.  My foot started to hurt and it was getting hot, but I will not complain.

Finally, we came to Puente La Reina.  Beautiful old monastery. Upon arrival we were told that our backpacks hadn’t made it.  Julio took over, helpful as usual, helping us immensely with language.  We had the packs brought by taxi.  Marie Anne and I tried to find a grocery store, but, it being Saturday and a fiesta for running the bulls, everything was closed.  Lots of movement in town, with people sitting all over outside, picturesque houses again, with lots of flowers.

We went to see the old bridge and I took pictures.  Got the rest of our little family and

Puente La Reina

went to see the bulls being run.  A DJ played good loud music and Marie Anne and I danced.  It was so much fun.  Then the two little bulls came running up and down the street as young men tried to touch their horns.  The bulls sure looked tired after a while, but it was all in good fun.

Julio found a store and we invited a young man who has been walking from England since June.  Carrie has made a friend.  An older gentleman and artist.

Estella

Estella.  I call her the elusive, because I was under the impression that the town was only 19km from Puente La Reina, but the walk seemed to go on for a long time.  Problem was we got a late start due to some miscommunication, so we were behind everyone.  The path looked in some places like Douglas Pass, or in any case like the road to the Black Canyon.  We walked up the hill and I was really breathing hard.  When I reached the top, there was the little family giving me a standing ovation.  Then

Julio interrogates an olive tree

we saw lovely vineyards, hills, olive trees, and figs.  Julio picked some of each and offered them to me to make up for the lack of veggies.  Later, Julio cooked a whole pot of pasta, which we shared with others.

My legs are sunburned and red like lobsters.

The Way of the Camino

The way of the Camino is such that everyone, regardless of nationality or religion, is

English lasses with ready medical supplies

immediately helping.  The sharing and caring makes it so worthwhile.  They don’t ask your interpretation of the Bible before they’re willing to help.  No one holds himself above another.  Sometimes the aid is as small as a band-aid.  Other times, people stop and dig through their entire backpack to find what you may need.  People call out a friendly “Hola!” when the pass, and everyone wishes you “Buen Camino”.

When I rest for a minute to catch my breath, the ones who pass always ask if I’m okay.

The Long Road to Los Arcos

Morning came early and we hurried to get started, as I could not face another day with most of the time in 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Our journey today will be 21km to Los Arcos.  Again we made a good start in the cool morning mist.  The stars were shining and we heard the click-clack of the walking poles. (I have two BFFs, Preparation H and ibuprofen).  The many hills that I have to climb don’t elicit any more comments from me.  It is what it is.

The last two-plus kilometers were really, really hot, and it was all I could do to place one foot in front of the other.  Finally, we see Los Arcos, and I was soooo glad.  (It turned out to be 24km).

When we got inside the albergue, Julio was already there, helping us with the credentials.  The front desk was staffed with volunteers.  When it was my turn, one of them barked at me, “Do you speak English?”  I said “Yes”.  Then she said, “Well, how come he” – Julio – “has to do this for you?”  I didn’t understand her attitude or what she was getting at, and I said, “I’m sorry, but I feel really sick, and right now I can’t even manage my name.”

She looked at me and said, in the same tone, “What do you want me to do?”

I was so exhausted and in pain that this was all it took to make me tear up, and I said, “For what I have, there’s nothing you can do.”  Tears flowed freely, and I wondered whether we had walked into a prison camp by mistake.  Then my son took over and told her in no uncertain terms what he thought of her and her sour attitude.  Then Julio, in Spanish, said many words.  I stumbled off to find the dormitory before I collapsed, led by my son.

The Mourning Father

After a shower and a rest, I felt somewhat improved once more, and we decided to go and look at the cathedral.  When we opened the heavy, ornate door, I stood speechless in front of the golden splendor and beauty.  Gold, carvings, painted walls, and stunning decoration.  As we stood to gaze at some statues, Cameron put his hand on my lower back, where the tumor resides, and I felt the energy, and I was choked up and couldn’t speak.

I lit five candles, for four of my loved ones who had passed, and for the son of my friend Pat, her only son, who died last year not long after his marriage.  She misses him so.  After he died, instead of giving her a card, I had given her a small, potted tree for her to plant.

We sat in silence in the pews, when suddenly, there was this grand voice, starting “Ave Maria”.  We looked up in surprise, and I saw a lone man with both hands stretched before him, imploring the statute of Mary, who had her place of honor in the center of the altar.  His voice was brimming with emotion, and I started to cry.  I was remembering how violinists played “Ave Maria” at my brother Gunter’s wedding to Elfriede, and they were so beautiful and young.

Looking over at Marie Anne, I saw her crying too.  Everyone had stopped to sit or stand and listen.  Then the singer paused, and after a moment, he started another “Ave Maria”.  He went on for over ten minutes.  His voice carried, and the acoustics were phenomenal.  By this time, I was no longer thinking that he was singing from religious devotion, but from some other emotion.

He came down, and people approached him to shake his hand and thank him for his beautiful gift.  I also shook his hand and he said something in French, which I didn’t understand.  I just placed my hand over my heart to let him know how he touched me.  We walked to the courtyard and I was still wiping my face when I found out that he sang as a tribute to his son, who had died a short time ago, and that today would have been his birthday.  I looked at him as tears streamed down his face, and there was such deep pain (I cry as I write this).  I folded him into my arms and he sobbed, in English, “My son, my son”.

I could only touch my heart in silent communication.  Everyone – Cameron, Julio, Marie Anne, and a few others – was openly weeping now.  Later, when we returned to the albergue, we told the story, and everyone wanted to hear him sing.  They were affected the same way.

Morning Meditations in Logrono

It’s a crisp morning in Logrono.  It’s going to be another beautiful day in Spain, if perhaps a bit hot, especially given our late start.  The women have gone ahead, while Julio and I sit in a café-bar called Ibiza and consume bocadillos and café con leche (me) and hot chocolate (Julio).  Julio reads El Pais, one of the national papers, and translates for me the occasional outrage.  Julio often sounds outraged, but you don’t ever detect

Julio sweetly presents Carrie with a stolen flower

real anger, resentment, or bad faith.  It’s more of a stance, like performance art done by someone who’s a comic at heart.

I’m now sitting at a table outside Ibiza, opposite a park.  The streets are largely deserted.  The dearth of thinking I have done on where I shall live, or what I shall write, or what direction to take next in my vocations, is more than a little surprising.  There was a time when I could not get certain topics off my mind.  Now I can walk and have nary a thought enter my head that’s aimed more than a few hours into the future.

But I must credit my instinct with knowing what I need, and apparently what I need is, truly, a break from the thinking and weighing and analysis.  Indeed, yesterday I had an intimation, a sense, that the detachment I feel from the life I led before the trip would prove to be fertile ground for feeling my way into what’s next.  I had the sense that I needed to quiet the chatter of before so as to be receptive to the whisperings of what I might want now.  This is a change from what I expected, which was to have ideas drop into my head via the alchemical process of walking meditatively.

Some of the Spanish cheeses are delicious.  Yesterday I discovered ventero, a soft cheese reminiscent of freshly-made parmesan.

I’m hoping Mom’s ailments do not worsen.  It would be ironic if, on this spiritual-

Mom claps along in Puente La Reina

emotional-health pilgrimage, her health deteriorated simply because she could not get access to the food she needed.  Her diet in the U.S. is so rarefied and esoteric (compared to what now passes for nutrition in our country) that she usually has to shop and cook for herself to stay on it.  It’s even more difficult to be a vegan in Spain than in the U.S., and that’s not even counting the pilgrim’s diet.  To eat as a vegan here would require her to do more investigation in each town, walk farther, and spend considerably more.

But her spirits are indefatigable.  There is so much life in her that it’s unimaginable that it could leave her anytime soon.

Soaking the feet

A Visit to the Notary

Spain has some serious drags on its economy.  The lack of English is one; I can’t think of another country in Europe where the people speak less of the lingua franca of business.  Then there are the fueros, or dispensations, given to certain towns and regions over half a millennium ago, before Columbus “discovered” America, and which still provide tax breaks to people who live in those regions.

Then there are the notaries.

A notary, in Spain, is not someone who sits in a bank and stamps a document for you for free.  A notary, in Spain, occupies an economic role somewhere between a property lawyer and a machine that prints money.  In a transaction to sell a home, for example, a notary, in exchange for his stamp and some title research, extracts a mind-boggling 7-10% of the sales amount for his commission.

Julio and I went into a notary’s office yesterday. Notaries here do most of their work for banks – apparently they have contrived to make themselves legally indispensable to everything a bank does.  Julio spent his entire career working in banks, and said he’d never in his life been able to walk into a notary and be able to sit down in front of one without appointment or a wait.  But because the economy in Spain is so bad – the highest unemployment of any developed country, 21%, and 45% or so among youth – we didn’t have to wait.

Julio explained to the woman, Eva, that I had a document that required a notary.  He translated the woman’s response.

“They can’t notarize this for you because no one here speaks English.”

This was in theory.  Julio said he’d often seen notaries stamp a document without reading it, just as they do in the U.S.

I patiently explained that for the purposes of the title company that wanted me to have the document notarized, they would accept the stamp of a monkey, so long as the monkey could do two things:  (1) check my ID, to ensure that it was really me signing (authentication) and (2) check my head, to ensure that there was no one pointing a gun at it (no duress).  Also, (3) I was a lawyer.  I hoped this might have the desired effect.

Julio duly translated this.  The woman now said that they were only authorized to notarize documents in their jurisdiction, Spain.  Their notarization would not be valid outside of Spain.

“Can you ask her,” I said, “if she is willing to give me the stamp, I will pay her and assume the risk that someone in the U.S. challenges it?”

She was already nodding her head.  She left to consult with her colleagues about my document, which I had emailed to her and she had printed out.  When she returned, she said that I could return at 9a.m. the next day to sign the document in front of a notary.

“They can’t do it now?”

The woman walked away to retrieve a file and presented it to me.  It was a little booklet of bound papers, including a notarized document. Julio explained that my document, which I had planned to photograph in lieu of a scan and to then email to the title company, would need to be prettied up in such a binder before they could notarize it.  This was what they did for the big bucks.

We left and I bought Julio beer and jamon for his trouble.  We sat in the main plaza and enjoyed a good chat about Julio’s irreverent career as a banker, and his early retirement.

From Viana to Logroño

The 10K road from Vaina to Logroño has little to recommend it.  It passes by some small farms in disrepair, and more than the usual pilgrim trash along the road.  At all times you can see the industrial buildings and warehouses of Logroño in the distance.  Mom was suffering from a few ailments that made walking painful, but, as usual, she did not quit.

An elderly woman had set up a sort of shop outside her tumble-down house.  I saw that

On the road to Logrono

she was selling Camino pins and the like, but my attention was on the five or six mutts straining to be petted.  I would have given her ten Euros if she would promise to get them chains longer than three or four feet.  I petted one long-eared dog, a mix of German Shepherd and traveling salesman, whom a German woman quite astutely pointed out looked like the dragon from “The Neverending Story,” and he grew so excited that there occurred an unconsummated attempt at interspecies mating.

At the hostel, a very pregnant woman explained that the front doors closed at 9:30 (and Marie Anne explained that Logroño had so many bars that drunken pilgrims were apparently an issue).  The kitchen’s stovetops had been removed and replaced with a second countertop, which annoyed Julio to no end.  “You will see this in most of the albergues for the rest of the Camino,” he said.  “It’s terrible.  We once had a great party in here.”

The pregnant woman’s associate put our passports and Camino credentials into plastic bags.  He explained in Spanish the following process:

  • We were to take our sheets and go upstairs.
  • When we were finished with our showers, we would come back downstairs and then we would pay and get our passports back.

“The last time I was here,” Julio said, “an eighty-year-old man gave the best service on all the Camino,” Julio said.  “Now there is these people.  I do not understand how this woman got pregnant.  To be honest.”

The Mourning Tenor on the Camino de Santiago

In Estella, when I first met the Lebanese women, they told me that they’d spent a few

The Retablo

days traveling with a man who had recently lost his son.  “But tomorrow was the son’s birthday,” one of the women told me, “and I think he wanted to be alone.”

In Los Arcos there is a cathedral, the Iglesia Parroquial de Santa María de la Asunción,

The cupola and retablo (Mary at lower left)

that was built over a period of 600 years.  It betrays a mélange of styles, from Mannerist (~ 1530s to 1600) and Baroque (late 1500s to early 1700s) to Churrigueresque (late 1600s to early 1700s) and Rococo (1700s).  We walked through all of it and I took the pictures now on Facebook.  We sat down near the back of the church.  It was quiet.  There were perhaps eight people in it.

Suddenly, from behind and above us, from the choir, we heard a magnificent voice.  We turned to see a small, white-haired man, in a blue shirt and shorts like swim-trunks,

Mary in the central retablo

with his arms spread before him, perhaps toward Mary in the retablo, and he was singing “Ave Maria”.  I immediately turned on the video of my SLR camera.

For ten minutes, he sang three haunting versions of “Ave Maria” – Schubert’s, Gounod’s, and one we didn’t recognize – as the handful of us in the church simply sat motionless, aware that we were in the midst of something rare, powerful, and beautiful.  “My heart was beating so fast,” Julio would later say.  He sat on one side of a pew behind me, and Mom sat at the other end of it, wiping away tears.

The amazing cupola

By the time he was finished, I had walked with my camera up to the choir.  Again and again he reached his hands out over the bannister at which he stood, in supplication.  He reached the end of his last “Ave Maria” and turned around, drained, and made his way to a pew where two of his friends sat.  He sat down briefly, and then they all stood up and walked past me.  “Grazie,” I said.  He nodded at me and walked out the door.

Our group went outside into the quiet and light of the cloister, still emotional, and then

I change the mood by pointing out that Mary´s pose makes her look a lot like the Buddha

he was there too, like a magnet, but also looking frail, spent, and awkward, with tears in his eyes.  Seeing Mom’s own tears, he leaned toward her and said, in Italian, “I sang to remember my son.”  Marie Anne translated this, and Mom reached for him and hugged him.  He seemed to receive this awkwardly.  We were all crying.

Marie Anne and Julio thought he was Italian.  Julio thought he heard the day of his singing was the anniversary of his son’s death, perhaps even the third, rather than his birthday.

He would sing again that night, after mass, from the front of the church.

The next morning, he and his friends passed us on the Camino trail, in the dark.  His two friends walked on either side of him, and one step back.

Viana and the Monastic Life

To Viana

Last night in Los Arcos Julio and I shared two bottles of Rioja with our young friends Steffi, of Germany, and Jethro, of England.

Julio wanted to get up at five in the morning.

“Julio, that’s not humane.  I still have three hours of REM sleep left at five.  I wouldn’t ask a dog to get up at five.”

I may as well have gotten up at five.  Between the noises in the night, the rioja Julio forced down my throat, and my worsening cold, I slept fitfully.  I woke up feeling at least as sick as yesterday, but I was not going to take the bus again.  And on the evidence of today’s mostly very pleasant walk, I see that it’s more than possible to walk 20K even when you feel sick.  The way I feel at 6a.m. is apparently not predictive of how I’ll feel later on.

The countryside was beautiful today.  At first, we couldn’t see any of it:  we were underway at a quarter to seven, guiding ourselves by looking slightly away from the path so that the rods of our eyes, or perhaps it’s the cones, could discern the slightly lighter path from the surrounding field.  The sky was clear and the stars were popping.  We walked toward Venus, which is as close to romance as the Camino gets.  After an hour or so the sun stretched tentative orange fingers from east to west.  The light before and just after dawn was something to behold, draping soft warm tones over the ploughed brown of the furrowed fields, the yellows of the grasses, the dozens of different greens of the olive trees, the small but numerous vineyards, and, later, the pines and almond trees.  We were walking through 19th-century landscape paintings.  We ate almonds from the trees and blackberries from their bushes.

The physical pains are mostly receding, at least for me. Soon we may all be enjoying ourselves as Julio does. Today I experienced moments of real enjoyment in the rhythm of stick-stick-sticking my way across the landscape, taking in the smells and the light and shadow.

We spent a good part of the day walking with (or near, because no one on the Camino walks at the same pace for more than a little while) two pleasant, lovely lasses from England, one from Leeds (Jenny), the other from London (Katrina).  Their good natures and medical kits came in quite handy, the latter for Mom’s wasp bite and my first burgeoning blister. Katrina just stopped by our dorm room to get this blog’s address, saying they were taking the bus onward in the morning and we’d likely not see them again, so now they’re here, practically famous. Do come walking in the U.S., girls!

Meanwhile, the Koreans still dress like Himalayan mountaineers on expedition.  Their entire heads and faces are covered with hats and bandannas.  They wear glacier glasses, long-sleeved jackets, and gloves – every last bit of skin or hair is covered against the sun.  I was passing one of them, seated, her features only barely apparent beneath all this protection, when she pointed at my feet and chortled merrily to her friends (if non-English speakers could ever be said to “chortle” – Lewis Carroll invented the untranslatably English word by combining “chuckle” and “snort”).

Julio told me more about what he said to the Belgian woman yesterday.  “I tol’ hair, ‘Why are you here?  You don’ speak the language, and in your veins there is no blood, only Coca-Cola.’”

“You said Coca-Cola?”

“Yes, to do this job you have to have some dynamism, not be there with your lists and your forms.”

“Did she understand you?”

“Of course not!” he said.  “I had to repeat myself.”

“They did seem to be unaware of the thousand-year-old tradition of the hospitalero, didn’t they?  Kings were constantly funding hospices for the care of sick and injured pilgrims – even leprosariums.”

“That is correct.”

Outside a café-bar where we stopped, Mom got stung by a wasp, twice, on her big toe.  She cried out and hopped around and we found her a chair and some ice.  “You’re going to have to suck it out,” she said to me, pointing to her leathery big toe.

“You’re thinking of snakes, Mom.  You get bit by a snake, I’ll be there.”

The Monastic Life

I didn’t realize the extent to which we would come to live an almost monastic existence on the Camino.  We wake up when it’s dark.  We then eat bread, perhaps with butter.  We strap on a hunchback (Mom calls her backpack “Quasimodo”) as a Catholic penitent might put on a hairshirt.  We walk, and walk, and walk. At nine or ten we stop for a snack. It’s an indescribable pleasure to simultaneously sit down after walking and eat after nearly fasting. The mid-morning break is one of my favorite times. Julio says that his favorite part of walking — and he told me he walks 250-300 days a year — is the eating.

At around one o’clock we check into the albergue and then Mom, Marie Anne, and Julio go shopping. I stay behind to wrestle with wi-fi or my Vodafone USB connection, upload photos, write blog posts, and check emails. We eat lunch communally around a wooden table, simple meals of real food, not far divorced from nature.

We sleep, often under nothing more than a sheet (in my case, a bedbug-resistant silk enclosure) on mattresses as thin as adult diapers, in bunk beds located in chaste dormitories, with people called pilgrims, or peregrinos.

I don’t have privacy, or no more than a medieval pilgrim might have had during stolen moments in an outhouse.  There is no night-life in the small towns, and even in the larger towns where there is night-life, it’s irrelevant to us:  hostel doors close at 10, or even 9:30.  There is no TV.  Indeed, just having a computer with Internet access and iTunes makes me more plugged-in than most, though all the hostels have computer terminals for hire.

Lights go out at ten.  I wake up in the dark.  And walk again.

And women do not enter anywhere into it.

This must be good for me somehow.

La Bruja en Los Arcos

The Albergue Municipal in Los Arcos was staffed by volunteers, a Belgian couple.  The man, rotund and pink-cheeked, was pleasant enough.  I checked in and had barely gone upstairs to my dormitory, Bed #6, when I heard Julio downstairs.  The woman was telling Julio that he could not reserve any beds for the rest of the group, though they were only minutes behind and he was holding in his hand both their passports and Camino credentials.

“You are saying,” Julio said, “that if a person comes, first time on the Camino, has cancer, you cannot put her near her son?”

“It is not allowed to make reservations in advance,” she said.  “All Spanish outside,” she said, motioning to him.

Julio made a face to me and then motioned at himself to calm down.  He walked back to Table #1 to fill out his papers.  “Bloody hell,” he said.  “They don’t know what they are doing.”

“Volunteers,” I said, trying to placate him and avoid a scene.

The husband sidled up to us and said, “Yes, we are volunteers.”

Julio digested this for only a moment.  “If you are volunteers,” he said, “then you have no right to complain.”

Soon after, Mom and the others arrived from their 20km hike.  Mom looked exhausted.  “It was so hot!” she said.  “I had to borrow Carrie’s pant legs because my sunburn was so bad.” I jumped up to fill out the forms they needed to sign at Table #1 so that they could then be permitted to approach the table of the Belgian woman, Table #2.

She sat there with her arms crossed and cited to Julio one made-up rule after another, many of which don’t exist in other hostels.  This went on for some time.  My mother stood there clutching her papers next to Julio, who was seated.

“Do you speak English?” she asked my mother.  My mother nodded.  “So what’s the problem?”  On her visage was the implacable calm of the righteous.

Mom was confused.  “I don’t have a problem,” she said quietly.  “I’m just waiting here.”

“He arranges everything for you?” the woman demanded, pointing to Julio.  “Even though you speak English?  Why do you not handle this yourself?”

“I’m sorry,” Mom said.  “I am just feeling sick and he has been helping me out.”

“Then how can I help you?”

“What I have you can’t help,” Mom said.

Mom’s back was turned to me, so I didn’t see when she began to cry.  Now I moved in and spoke to the woman.

“You have a future in bureaucracy,” I told her.  I’m not proud of it.  “But now it’s time to have a little compassion.  As we have told you several times now, we are a group.  Julio told you that she has cancer and wants to be near me.  Now, do not speak to her again.”

Mom was just trying to escape, though, blindly stumbling down the hall, so I helped her upstairs and left Julio to deal with the aggressive Belgian.  We could hear him laying into her for some time, apparently without result, and then he came upstairs, agitated, and in Spanish recounted to Marie Anne his agitation.  He ended with a single word.

Bruja!”  Witch!

It took him some time to calm down.  I heard him singing in the shower, and it did not sound like the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” so that was good.

And you can send me dead flowers every morning
Send me dead flowers by the mail
Send me dead flowers to my wedding
And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave

I knew the skillful thing for me to do would be to remain upstairs for a while, so I wrote this post.

So Mom and I will sleep in separate dormitories tonight, that the earth may continue to spin on its axis.

Toward Los Arcos and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

The End of Childhood is the End of Certainty

I won’t get into how, but I found myself explaining to Carrie what I know of the imago, or our image of what attracts us in a mate, and the operation of transference, rationalization, the unconscious, and denial.

The moment we realize that our parents, teachers, or other mentors are flawed – that they are human – is the end of innocence.  The god-like are seen in all their messy humanity.  To come to see the limitations of those we look up to and depend upon is a necessary, if painful, rite of passage.  But not everyone makes this passage.  Not everyone is ready, in this sense, to grow up.

The fundamentalist, the narcissist, the dependent and the victim for example, will simply double-down, insisting on their belief in certainty, such as in someone’s infallibility (in the case of the narcissist, his own), or the inerrancy and clarity of a text.  The fundamentalist purports to see absolute clarity in texts that are not only not clear, but were never claimed to be clear by anyone at anytime before Darwin.  The entirety of modern-day American-style fundamentalism is not “fundamental” to the Bible at all, but a relatively recent invention of the mid-1800s.  Rapture theology, for example, did not occur to anyone before it occurred to the Englishman John Darby in the 1830s.  How clear could it be?

But in the black-and-white, in easy answers, there is comfort and certainty, and comfort and certainty were never needed so much as when Darwin’s natural selection and geologist George Lyell’s dating of rocks, in the mid-1800s, both showed the earth to be far older than a literal reading of the Biblical myths would suggest.  Indeed, before the advent of science and reason in the Enlightenment, which was terrifying to some of the pious (and which Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann recently, and revealingly, identified as the root of all of America’s problems), no religion ever insisted upon the historicity of their sacred texts.  They did not take it literally.  They saw the tales as mythos, the stuff of finding meaning and of understanding the sacred, and not as logos, the province of fact, rationality, history – or science.

Once you confuse mythos with logos, it becomes difficult to think clearly.  Once you start building museum dioramas, as one can now find in Kentucky, in which humans frolic with dinosaurs, purportedly only a few thousand years ago, you will have so successfully rejected science that you are now at liberty to dispute without either evidence or science-based rebuttal the nearly universal conclusion of scientists worldwide that the earth is warming dangerously.  The same science that sends people into space, powers GPS, runs your cell phone, and heals the sick is dismissed when it runs into conflict with our beliefs, tribal mores, or other indices of identity.

If we are meaning-seeking creatures, then it is great comfort for meaning to come easily, and for answers to be readily at hand.  Humans fear few things so much as uncertainty.  The unknown has always been terrifying to our species.  And so we may seek to remain in, or return to, the comforts, the lack of uncertainty, of childhood.

On the Cushion

Yesterday morning I found myself once again thinking, Now, why am I doing this again….this Camino?  Is it fun?  If it is, will it remain fun?  Is fun even the right question?  I have slowed down a great deal, but apparently not so much that I have stopped craving more stimulation than is available.  Rural trails, small towns largely emptied of the young (or the middle-aged), few cafes, no night life.  I don’t even have books.  I suppose I could download more onto my MacBook’s Kindle app, but lights go out at ten.

Here is what is different.  I am not doing much on online dating sites.  I don’t check my phone for emails or texts – there are none there.  I’m not doing any coaching, and sending and receiving few emails about it.  Some of the Tourette’s tics (but only Type I – I don’t get to shout or curse, damnit) are largely in remission.  Because Tourette’s is exacerbated by stress, I take this as the clearest, most objective evidence of change.  One tic that had become quite prominent over the summer arose from an urge to pop my left knee as you might crack your knuckles.  I haven’t seen it in about a week.

Yes, this is embarrassing.  I’m out now.

And I’m still not giving much thought to where to live.  The house in Bend already seems a memory.  By the time I return, it will be completely out of mind – just as my things will be out of the house and in storage.  I may never see it again, and that’s all right.  The letting go really sped up in the end, surprising my expectations.

Nevertheless, I am reminded of meditation retreats, where people may at times find themselves wanting to run away, screaming.  But that is exactly the point of watching the mind.  You will eventually see things that you aren’t keen to see.  Resentment, cravings, attachments, irritability, annoyance, jealousy, rage, desire, rejection, discomfort.  Meditation doesn’t make the unpleasantness of the outside world go away – it brings our relationship with the outside world into sharp focus.  The path to any kind of enlightenment isn’t filled with peak moments.

You could even say the path doesn’t go anywhere in particular.  The goal may simply be to stay on the path, the middle path, in which we neither cling to, indulge in, or identify with, nor push away, reject, repress, or condemn.  We may choose either erroneous path out of a craving for certainty, whether the need to have an identity or an explanation we can cling to, or the need to reject what is going on in order to hold on to the storylines we have, or to avoid painful feelings.  The middle path is the one where we observe our experience without judgment (pushing away) and without attaching ourselves to it (clinging).  Only then can we see clearly, and make decisions rooted in what we know to be best for us.

To Los Arcos

Monday morning. Woke up many times in the night, and knew I was sick.  I can feel it in my chest.  Further dreams of seeing clearly, and of letting go.  I decided to take the bus to Los Arcos (“The Bows,” named for the decisive role archers played in winning a great battle) rather than suffer through a 20k walk.  Mom and Carrie sent their bags ahead and the group of four left me at the bus station.  At the bus station I ran into three young Israeli women whom I’d seen prior albergues, and two Lebanese women I met last night.  I helped them find the right bus and introduced them all to one another.  The countryside we passed through was gorgeous, all greens and browns and yellows, everywhere rolling hills and citadels and iglesias, and granite cliffs in the distance.

Once in Los Arcos, I walked around for a bit, finding the stores (drinkable yogurt,potato chips, muesli bars), the public hostel (albergue municipal, always the cheapest), and a Café-Bar called Abascal, where I had a green-and-red-pepper omelette bocadillo and tea.  I leafed through a Spanish magazine and got caught up on which American celebrities are sleeping with which other American celebrities.  I still don’t understand who Kim Kardashian is, or why she is.  I especially can’t understand what would justify the Spanish caring.

In the tiny plaza outside Abascal I sit abreast of my new amigos, or the local retired community of hombres.  A seventy-something man walks back and forth over the 35 yards as if counting steps, as if trying to catch the distance in the act of being different on just one of his passes, and thus reveal even una plaza to be subject to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, one big cosmic joke.

Puente La Reina and the Running of the Small Bulls

On Saturday night in Puente La Reina we walked the 300 meters to the main plaza, where carpenters were putting the finishing touches on elevated platforms in the shape of a rectangle with three sides, with the missing side opening into the main street.  In this street two mid-size, or at least economy, bulls were run back and forth to exhaustion by a band of teenagers, gelled up, in sneakers and soccer shorts, and a few old hands, one of whom did actually get one of the bulls by the horns for a few seconds.  A brass band comprised of men in their fifties and sixties, and a long-haired youthful tuba player, was entirely drowned out by a DJ spinning modern pop for a group of dancing adults, each holding a beer in one hand and the beat in the other.

In the same plaza, in 1315 and again in 1345, two Jewish men were burned alive as sodomites, so the use of running bulls as public sport could reasonably be seen by some as an improvement.  Last night, it was a young man who got the raw end of the deal when he didn’t get out of bull’s way soon enough, and found its horns dug into his back, throwing him face-down onto the street, where he could be seen lying until he was surrounded by the locals who ran to him.

In semi-autonomous Catalonia, the last bullfight was just conducted last night.  The Catalonian legislature has outlawed the practice, though it’s unclear if it was on grounds of animal cruelty, the subsidies the sport was increasingly requiring from local governments, or the EU’s opposition to effectively subsidizing farms that were producing bulls for activities illegal elsewhere in Europe.

In the morning, Julio was dyspeptic.  It was going to be nearly 100 degrees, he said, and we were starting much too late.  “We should have started at quarter past six,” he said.  “It’s going to melt all the Camino.”

The Walk to Estella — 24km

Puente La Reina to Estella.  24 km, very hot, some climbing and descending.  The country has grown drier since the lush riverside we found on the way to Pamplona.  We walked through vineyards for much of the day.  The others found the heat overbearing, but for some reason, perhaps that I was the only one wearing a thin wool shirt (which wicks and breathes), it didn’t bother me much.  My feet offered me the least pain of the trip so far.

In Cirauque, a Basque term meaning “nest of vipers,” we came upon the cobbled stones and flagstone borders of a Roman road, and, after a while, a Roman bridge.  While most of the Camino follows the Roman Via Traiana, the best-preserved remains of the entire route are here.  But the Roman road continued only for a few kilometers, until “improvements” by Camino designers covered it up.  Then we wound through more dry, beautiful country, through hills where hermits came to live a thousand years ago, including in the still-extant Ermita de San Miguel.

In a tunnel, amongst the graffiti, someone had written, “The Camino has nothing to do with Compostela.  The Camino is right here, right now.”  Which is true.  The camino, or way, is not about where you end up.  It’s how you choose to perceive and respond to the right here, right now.

Communication on the Camino 

Communication on the Camino can be a curious thing.  Many languages are spoken, but the main two are Spanish and English, the latter being the lingua franca in most conversations in which the speakers aren’t from the same country.  The Asians seem to be the most at sea; very few of them speak even a little English, and they have no Spanish at all.  How brave they are to come here anyway.  They keep largely to themselves.

Communication between bikers and walkers is almost non-existent.  So far I have heard only one biker use a bell to signal his approach.  None have announced themselves by words.  And what would they say?  Even among English speakers, it can be confusing for hikers to share a trail with bikers.

“On your left!” bikers say, signaling where they are.

To the left a surprised or even terrified hiker jumps, right into the path of the biker.

Or take this example of on-trail communication.  I was in the lead, and passed a lone sneaker that someone had tossed onto the orange furrows of a ploughed field.  “Shoe alert!” I said, pointing with my right stick.

“What did he say?” my mother said, in third position.

“I think he saw something but I didn’t catch the first word,” Carrie said, in second.

“Oh!” says Mom.  “A bird?”

“What bird?” demands Julio, in fourth position.

This is how legends, myths, and religious stories get passed down, not to mention fabulist tales such as that of President Obama being a foreign-born Muslim planted here nearly 50 years ago by Al Quaeda for nefarious ends.

September, 2011 | Camino Not Chemo!

An Audience with El Notario

El Notario was a very sober man. Small, neat, with a short-sleeved white shirt and a modest tie (so modest it bordered on immodesty), he exuded authority and self-assurance.

Julio made sure to legitimate me right away.

El es un abogado de Princeton,” he said.

“Harvard,” I said.  The Spaniards thought this was funny.

El Notario placed before us the documents that Eva had drawn up. He verified Julio’s identity and made him swear to translate faithfully (Julio would violate this by saying “blah blah blah” over extensive portions of the document). The documents contained so much legalese that even when they were upside-down, an American lawyer could read them: Latin is still the lingua franca of the legalist. They said that Don Cameron Christopher Powell did not understand Spanish, and that Don Julio Angel Redondo Garcia was acting as interpreter and translator. They also appeared to say that they had no real legal effect.

When all the preliminaries had been completed, El Notario reached for a Bic pen and held it up before me as if he were putting Excalibur into my care. He held up my passport before me and pointed at my signature as if to say, “It should look like this”. (Perhaps he did say that). I signed my name in two places.

He appeared to think we were done.

I explained to Julio that a document with only my signature on it would not be useful to the American authorities, who rather expected that the State, County, signature, and commission expiration would be filled out by a notary on the same document, and who would neither look at nor understand the beautifully produced four-page instrument that Eva had so carefully prepared for El Notario’s stylish signature.

To my dismay, El Notario was not reaching for his pen. “Notaries in Spain never expire,” Julio translated. “Their license to print money is forever, perhaps beyond death.”

“Could he write ‘No expiration’?”

Sadly, he could not.

He told us to come back in an hour, so that the separate, Spanish documents could be changed to reflect the fact he would be applying his pen to the English-language document. Like a man sitting in a cab from New York to Washington, D.C., I could see the meter ticking upward.

But there was one good thing to come of it all. “For the rest of Camino,” I told Julio. “You will call me Don Cameron.”

From Pamplona to “Ave Maria” in Los Arcos

Pamplona to Cizur Menor

I didn’t walk from Pamplona, as I was feeling very shaky.  I thought perhaps it was due to low

Lunch in Cizur Menor

blood sugar (the H’s hurt with each step) and I just couldn’t face even walking four miles.  Carrie, Marie Anne, and I took a cab with Cameron’s pack too.  In Cizur Menor was a lovely albergue, with a small pool filled with goldfish and turtles, blooming hydrangeas and other lovely foliage.  It was more like a small resort.  Julio cooked again and we sat outside and ate pasta.  I was pretty tired and in bed by 8:30.  I slept well until all the snoring started.  I got up at 2 for the bathroom again, then at 3:10 and once more at 4.  At 5:30 I gave up to handle my dental issues and have a cup of tea.

To Puente La Reina

We started out at 7:30 and walked approximately 8km, had a decent lunch, and walked through beautiful countryside that reminded me of Tuscany.  We had to climb up another hill, and down a rocky path, but the view on both sides and around us was well worth it.  Large fields, now empty and harvested, cypresses and blackberry bushes.  My foot started to hurt and it was getting hot, but I will not complain.

Finally, we came to Puente La Reina.  Beautiful old monastery. Upon arrival we were told that our backpacks hadn’t made it.  Julio took over, helpful as usual, helping us immensely with language.  We had the packs brought by taxi.  Marie Anne and I tried to find a grocery store, but, it being Saturday and a fiesta for running the bulls, everything was closed.  Lots of movement in town, with people sitting all over outside, picturesque houses again, with lots of flowers.

We went to see the old bridge and I took pictures.  Got the rest of our little family and

Puente La Reina

went to see the bulls being run.  A DJ played good loud music and Marie Anne and I danced.  It was so much fun.  Then the two little bulls came running up and down the street as young men tried to touch their horns.  The bulls sure looked tired after a while, but it was all in good fun.

Julio found a store and we invited a young man who has been walking from England since June.  Carrie has made a friend.  An older gentleman and artist.

Estella

Estella.  I call her the elusive, because I was under the impression that the town was only 19km from Puente La Reina, but the walk seemed to go on for a long time.  Problem was we got a late start due to some miscommunication, so we were behind everyone.  The path looked in some places like Douglas Pass, or in any case like the road to the Black Canyon.  We walked up the hill and I was really breathing hard.  When I reached the top, there was the little family giving me a standing ovation.  Then

Julio interrogates an olive tree

we saw lovely vineyards, hills, olive trees, and figs.  Julio picked some of each and offered them to me to make up for the lack of veggies.  Later, Julio cooked a whole pot of pasta, which we shared with others.

My legs are sunburned and red like lobsters.

The Way of the Camino

The way of the Camino is such that everyone, regardless of nationality or religion, is

English lasses with ready medical supplies

immediately helping.  The sharing and caring makes it so worthwhile.  They don’t ask your interpretation of the Bible before they’re willing to help.  No one holds himself above another.  Sometimes the aid is as small as a band-aid.  Other times, people stop and dig through their entire backpack to find what you may need.  People call out a friendly “Hola!” when the pass, and everyone wishes you “Buen Camino”.

When I rest for a minute to catch my breath, the ones who pass always ask if I’m okay.

The Long Road to Los Arcos

Morning came early and we hurried to get started, as I could not face another day with most of the time in 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Our journey today will be 21km to Los Arcos.  Again we made a good start in the cool morning mist.  The stars were shining and we heard the click-clack of the walking poles. (I have two BFFs, Preparation H and ibuprofen).  The many hills that I have to climb don’t elicit any more comments from me.  It is what it is.

The last two-plus kilometers were really, really hot, and it was all I could do to place one foot in front of the other.  Finally, we see Los Arcos, and I was soooo glad.  (It turned out to be 24km).

When we got inside the albergue, Julio was already there, helping us with the credentials.  The front desk was staffed with volunteers.  When it was my turn, one of them barked at me, “Do you speak English?”  I said “Yes”.  Then she said, “Well, how come he” – Julio – “has to do this for you?”  I didn’t understand her attitude or what she was getting at, and I said, “I’m sorry, but I feel really sick, and right now I can’t even manage my name.”

She looked at me and said, in the same tone, “What do you want me to do?”

I was so exhausted and in pain that this was all it took to make me tear up, and I said, “For what I have, there’s nothing you can do.”  Tears flowed freely, and I wondered whether we had walked into a prison camp by mistake.  Then my son took over and told her in no uncertain terms what he thought of her and her sour attitude.  Then Julio, in Spanish, said many words.  I stumbled off to find the dormitory before I collapsed, led by my son.

The Mourning Father

After a shower and a rest, I felt somewhat improved once more, and we decided to go and look at the cathedral.  When we opened the heavy, ornate door, I stood speechless in front of the golden splendor and beauty.  Gold, carvings, painted walls, and stunning decoration.  As we stood to gaze at some statues, Cameron put his hand on my lower back, where the tumor resides, and I felt the energy, and I was choked up and couldn’t speak.

I lit five candles, for four of my loved ones who had passed, and for the son of my friend Pat, her only son, who died last year not long after his marriage.  She misses him so.  After he died, instead of giving her a card, I had given her a small, potted tree for her to plant.

We sat in silence in the pews, when suddenly, there was this grand voice, starting “Ave Maria”.  We looked up in surprise, and I saw a lone man with both hands stretched before him, imploring the statute of Mary, who had her place of honor in the center of the altar.  His voice was brimming with emotion, and I started to cry.  I was remembering how violinists played “Ave Maria” at my brother Gunter’s wedding to Elfriede, and they were so beautiful and young.

Looking over at Marie Anne, I saw her crying too.  Everyone had stopped to sit or stand and listen.  Then the singer paused, and after a moment, he started another “Ave Maria”.  He went on for over ten minutes.  His voice carried, and the acoustics were phenomenal.  By this time, I was no longer thinking that he was singing from religious devotion, but from some other emotion.

He came down, and people approached him to shake his hand and thank him for his beautiful gift.  I also shook his hand and he said something in French, which I didn’t understand.  I just placed my hand over my heart to let him know how he touched me.  We walked to the courtyard and I was still wiping my face when I found out that he sang as a tribute to his son, who had died a short time ago, and that today would have been his birthday.  I looked at him as tears streamed down his face, and there was such deep pain (I cry as I write this).  I folded him into my arms and he sobbed, in English, “My son, my son”.

I could only touch my heart in silent communication.  Everyone – Cameron, Julio, Marie Anne, and a few others – was openly weeping now.  Later, when we returned to the albergue, we told the story, and everyone wanted to hear him sing.  They were affected the same way.

Morning Meditations in Logrono

It’s a crisp morning in Logrono.  It’s going to be another beautiful day in Spain, if perhaps a bit hot, especially given our late start.  The women have gone ahead, while Julio and I sit in a café-bar called Ibiza and consume bocadillos and café con leche (me) and hot chocolate (Julio).  Julio reads El Pais, one of the national papers, and translates for me the occasional outrage.  Julio often sounds outraged, but you don’t ever detect

Julio sweetly presents Carrie with a stolen flower

real anger, resentment, or bad faith.  It’s more of a stance, like performance art done by someone who’s a comic at heart.

I’m now sitting at a table outside Ibiza, opposite a park.  The streets are largely deserted.  The dearth of thinking I have done on where I shall live, or what I shall write, or what direction to take next in my vocations, is more than a little surprising.  There was a time when I could not get certain topics off my mind.  Now I can walk and have nary a thought enter my head that’s aimed more than a few hours into the future.

But I must credit my instinct with knowing what I need, and apparently what I need is, truly, a break from the thinking and weighing and analysis.  Indeed, yesterday I had an intimation, a sense, that the detachment I feel from the life I led before the trip would prove to be fertile ground for feeling my way into what’s next.  I had the sense that I needed to quiet the chatter of before so as to be receptive to the whisperings of what I might want now.  This is a change from what I expected, which was to have ideas drop into my head via the alchemical process of walking meditatively.

Some of the Spanish cheeses are delicious.  Yesterday I discovered ventero, a soft cheese reminiscent of freshly-made parmesan.

I’m hoping Mom’s ailments do not worsen.  It would be ironic if, on this spiritual-

Mom claps along in Puente La Reina

emotional-health pilgrimage, her health deteriorated simply because she could not get access to the food she needed.  Her diet in the U.S. is so rarefied and esoteric (compared to what now passes for nutrition in our country) that she usually has to shop and cook for herself to stay on it.  It’s even more difficult to be a vegan in Spain than in the U.S., and that’s not even counting the pilgrim’s diet.  To eat as a vegan here would require her to do more investigation in each town, walk farther, and spend considerably more.

But her spirits are indefatigable.  There is so much life in her that it’s unimaginable that it could leave her anytime soon.

Soaking the feet

A Visit to the Notary

Spain has some serious drags on its economy.  The lack of English is one; I can’t think of another country in Europe where the people speak less of the lingua franca of business.  Then there are the fueros, or dispensations, given to certain towns and regions over half a millennium ago, before Columbus “discovered” America, and which still provide tax breaks to people who live in those regions.

Then there are the notaries.

A notary, in Spain, is not someone who sits in a bank and stamps a document for you for free.  A notary, in Spain, occupies an economic role somewhere between a property lawyer and a machine that prints money.  In a transaction to sell a home, for example, a notary, in exchange for his stamp and some title research, extracts a mind-boggling 7-10% of the sales amount for his commission.

Julio and I went into a notary’s office yesterday. Notaries here do most of their work for banks – apparently they have contrived to make themselves legally indispensable to everything a bank does.  Julio spent his entire career working in banks, and said he’d never in his life been able to walk into a notary and be able to sit down in front of one without appointment or a wait.  But because the economy in Spain is so bad – the highest unemployment of any developed country, 21%, and 45% or so among youth – we didn’t have to wait.

Julio explained to the woman, Eva, that I had a document that required a notary.  He translated the woman’s response.

“They can’t notarize this for you because no one here speaks English.”

This was in theory.  Julio said he’d often seen notaries stamp a document without reading it, just as they do in the U.S.

I patiently explained that for the purposes of the title company that wanted me to have the document notarized, they would accept the stamp of a monkey, so long as the monkey could do two things:  (1) check my ID, to ensure that it was really me signing (authentication) and (2) check my head, to ensure that there was no one pointing a gun at it (no duress).  Also, (3) I was a lawyer.  I hoped this might have the desired effect.

Julio duly translated this.  The woman now said that they were only authorized to notarize documents in their jurisdiction, Spain.  Their notarization would not be valid outside of Spain.

“Can you ask her,” I said, “if she is willing to give me the stamp, I will pay her and assume the risk that someone in the U.S. challenges it?”

She was already nodding her head.  She left to consult with her colleagues about my document, which I had emailed to her and she had printed out.  When she returned, she said that I could return at 9a.m. the next day to sign the document in front of a notary.

“They can’t do it now?”

The woman walked away to retrieve a file and presented it to me.  It was a little booklet of bound papers, including a notarized document. Julio explained that my document, which I had planned to photograph in lieu of a scan and to then email to the title company, would need to be prettied up in such a binder before they could notarize it.  This was what they did for the big bucks.

We left and I bought Julio beer and jamon for his trouble.  We sat in the main plaza and enjoyed a good chat about Julio’s irreverent career as a banker, and his early retirement.

From Viana to Logroño

The 10K road from Vaina to Logroño has little to recommend it.  It passes by some small farms in disrepair, and more than the usual pilgrim trash along the road.  At all times you can see the industrial buildings and warehouses of Logroño in the distance.  Mom was suffering from a few ailments that made walking painful, but, as usual, she did not quit.

An elderly woman had set up a sort of shop outside her tumble-down house.  I saw that

On the road to Logrono

she was selling Camino pins and the like, but my attention was on the five or six mutts straining to be petted.  I would have given her ten Euros if she would promise to get them chains longer than three or four feet.  I petted one long-eared dog, a mix of German Shepherd and traveling salesman, whom a German woman quite astutely pointed out looked like the dragon from “The Neverending Story,” and he grew so excited that there occurred an unconsummated attempt at interspecies mating.

At the hostel, a very pregnant woman explained that the front doors closed at 9:30 (and Marie Anne explained that Logroño had so many bars that drunken pilgrims were apparently an issue).  The kitchen’s stovetops had been removed and replaced with a second countertop, which annoyed Julio to no end.  “You will see this in most of the albergues for the rest of the Camino,” he said.  “It’s terrible.  We once had a great party in here.”

The pregnant woman’s associate put our passports and Camino credentials into plastic bags.  He explained in Spanish the following process:

  • We were to take our sheets and go upstairs.
  • When we were finished with our showers, we would come back downstairs and then we would pay and get our passports back.

“The last time I was here,” Julio said, “an eighty-year-old man gave the best service on all the Camino,” Julio said.  “Now there is these people.  I do not understand how this woman got pregnant.  To be honest.”

The Mourning Tenor on the Camino de Santiago

In Estella, when I first met the Lebanese women, they told me that they’d spent a few

The Retablo

days traveling with a man who had recently lost his son.  “But tomorrow was the son’s birthday,” one of the women told me, “and I think he wanted to be alone.”

In Los Arcos there is a cathedral, the Iglesia Parroquial de Santa María de la Asunción,

The cupola and retablo (Mary at lower left)

that was built over a period of 600 years.  It betrays a mélange of styles, from Mannerist (~ 1530s to 1600) and Baroque (late 1500s to early 1700s) to Churrigueresque (late 1600s to early 1700s) and Rococo (1700s).  We walked through all of it and I took the pictures now on Facebook.  We sat down near the back of the church.  It was quiet.  There were perhaps eight people in it.

Suddenly, from behind and above us, from the choir, we heard a magnificent voice.  We turned to see a small, white-haired man, in a blue shirt and shorts like swim-trunks,

Mary in the central retablo

with his arms spread before him, perhaps toward Mary in the retablo, and he was singing “Ave Maria”.  I immediately turned on the video of my SLR camera.

For ten minutes, he sang three haunting versions of “Ave Maria” – Schubert’s, Gounod’s, and one we didn’t recognize – as the handful of us in the church simply sat motionless, aware that we were in the midst of something rare, powerful, and beautiful.  “My heart was beating so fast,” Julio would later say.  He sat on one side of a pew behind me, and Mom sat at the other end of it, wiping away tears.

The amazing cupola

By the time he was finished, I had walked with my camera up to the choir.  Again and again he reached his hands out over the bannister at which he stood, in supplication.  He reached the end of his last “Ave Maria” and turned around, drained, and made his way to a pew where two of his friends sat.  He sat down briefly, and then they all stood up and walked past me.  “Grazie,” I said.  He nodded at me and walked out the door.

Our group went outside into the quiet and light of the cloister, still emotional, and then

I change the mood by pointing out that Mary´s pose makes her look a lot like the Buddha

he was there too, like a magnet, but also looking frail, spent, and awkward, with tears in his eyes.  Seeing Mom’s own tears, he leaned toward her and said, in Italian, “I sang to remember my son.”  Marie Anne translated this, and Mom reached for him and hugged him.  He seemed to receive this awkwardly.  We were all crying.

Marie Anne and Julio thought he was Italian.  Julio thought he heard the day of his singing was the anniversary of his son’s death, perhaps even the third, rather than his birthday.

He would sing again that night, after mass, from the front of the church.

The next morning, he and his friends passed us on the Camino trail, in the dark.  His two friends walked on either side of him, and one step back.

Viana and the Monastic Life

To Viana

Last night in Los Arcos Julio and I shared two bottles of Rioja with our young friends Steffi, of Germany, and Jethro, of England.

Julio wanted to get up at five in the morning.

“Julio, that’s not humane.  I still have three hours of REM sleep left at five.  I wouldn’t ask a dog to get up at five.”

I may as well have gotten up at five.  Between the noises in the night, the rioja Julio forced down my throat, and my worsening cold, I slept fitfully.  I woke up feeling at least as sick as yesterday, but I was not going to take the bus again.  And on the evidence of today’s mostly very pleasant walk, I see that it’s more than possible to walk 20K even when you feel sick.  The way I feel at 6a.m. is apparently not predictive of how I’ll feel later on.

The countryside was beautiful today.  At first, we couldn’t see any of it:  we were underway at a quarter to seven, guiding ourselves by looking slightly away from the path so that the rods of our eyes, or perhaps it’s the cones, could discern the slightly lighter path from the surrounding field.  The sky was clear and the stars were popping.  We walked toward Venus, which is as close to romance as the Camino gets.  After an hour or so the sun stretched tentative orange fingers from east to west.  The light before and just after dawn was something to behold, draping soft warm tones over the ploughed brown of the furrowed fields, the yellows of the grasses, the dozens of different greens of the olive trees, the small but numerous vineyards, and, later, the pines and almond trees.  We were walking through 19th-century landscape paintings.  We ate almonds from the trees and blackberries from their bushes.

The physical pains are mostly receding, at least for me. Soon we may all be enjoying ourselves as Julio does. Today I experienced moments of real enjoyment in the rhythm of stick-stick-sticking my way across the landscape, taking in the smells and the light and shadow.

We spent a good part of the day walking with (or near, because no one on the Camino walks at the same pace for more than a little while) two pleasant, lovely lasses from England, one from Leeds (Jenny), the other from London (Katrina).  Their good natures and medical kits came in quite handy, the latter for Mom’s wasp bite and my first burgeoning blister. Katrina just stopped by our dorm room to get this blog’s address, saying they were taking the bus onward in the morning and we’d likely not see them again, so now they’re here, practically famous. Do come walking in the U.S., girls!

Meanwhile, the Koreans still dress like Himalayan mountaineers on expedition.  Their entire heads and faces are covered with hats and bandannas.  They wear glacier glasses, long-sleeved jackets, and gloves – every last bit of skin or hair is covered against the sun.  I was passing one of them, seated, her features only barely apparent beneath all this protection, when she pointed at my feet and chortled merrily to her friends (if non-English speakers could ever be said to “chortle” – Lewis Carroll invented the untranslatably English word by combining “chuckle” and “snort”).

Julio told me more about what he said to the Belgian woman yesterday.  “I tol’ hair, ‘Why are you here?  You don’ speak the language, and in your veins there is no blood, only Coca-Cola.’”

“You said Coca-Cola?”

“Yes, to do this job you have to have some dynamism, not be there with your lists and your forms.”

“Did she understand you?”

“Of course not!” he said.  “I had to repeat myself.”

“They did seem to be unaware of the thousand-year-old tradition of the hospitalero, didn’t they?  Kings were constantly funding hospices for the care of sick and injured pilgrims – even leprosariums.”

“That is correct.”

Outside a café-bar where we stopped, Mom got stung by a wasp, twice, on her big toe.  She cried out and hopped around and we found her a chair and some ice.  “You’re going to have to suck it out,” she said to me, pointing to her leathery big toe.

“You’re thinking of snakes, Mom.  You get bit by a snake, I’ll be there.”

The Monastic Life

I didn’t realize the extent to which we would come to live an almost monastic existence on the Camino.  We wake up when it’s dark.  We then eat bread, perhaps with butter.  We strap on a hunchback (Mom calls her backpack “Quasimodo”) as a Catholic penitent might put on a hairshirt.  We walk, and walk, and walk. At nine or ten we stop for a snack. It’s an indescribable pleasure to simultaneously sit down after walking and eat after nearly fasting. The mid-morning break is one of my favorite times. Julio says that his favorite part of walking — and he told me he walks 250-300 days a year — is the eating.

At around one o’clock we check into the albergue and then Mom, Marie Anne, and Julio go shopping. I stay behind to wrestle with wi-fi or my Vodafone USB connection, upload photos, write blog posts, and check emails. We eat lunch communally around a wooden table, simple meals of real food, not far divorced from nature.

We sleep, often under nothing more than a sheet (in my case, a bedbug-resistant silk enclosure) on mattresses as thin as adult diapers, in bunk beds located in chaste dormitories, with people called pilgrims, or peregrinos.

I don’t have privacy, or no more than a medieval pilgrim might have had during stolen moments in an outhouse.  There is no night-life in the small towns, and even in the larger towns where there is night-life, it’s irrelevant to us:  hostel doors close at 10, or even 9:30.  There is no TV.  Indeed, just having a computer with Internet access and iTunes makes me more plugged-in than most, though all the hostels have computer terminals for hire.

Lights go out at ten.  I wake up in the dark.  And walk again.

And women do not enter anywhere into it.

This must be good for me somehow.

La Bruja en Los Arcos

The Albergue Municipal in Los Arcos was staffed by volunteers, a Belgian couple.  The man, rotund and pink-cheeked, was pleasant enough.  I checked in and had barely gone upstairs to my dormitory, Bed #6, when I heard Julio downstairs.  The woman was telling Julio that he could not reserve any beds for the rest of the group, though they were only minutes behind and he was holding in his hand both their passports and Camino credentials.

“You are saying,” Julio said, “that if a person comes, first time on the Camino, has cancer, you cannot put her near her son?”

“It is not allowed to make reservations in advance,” she said.  “All Spanish outside,” she said, motioning to him.

Julio made a face to me and then motioned at himself to calm down.  He walked back to Table #1 to fill out his papers.  “Bloody hell,” he said.  “They don’t know what they are doing.”

“Volunteers,” I said, trying to placate him and avoid a scene.

The husband sidled up to us and said, “Yes, we are volunteers.”

Julio digested this for only a moment.  “If you are volunteers,” he said, “then you have no right to complain.”

Soon after, Mom and the others arrived from their 20km hike.  Mom looked exhausted.  “It was so hot!” she said.  “I had to borrow Carrie’s pant legs because my sunburn was so bad.” I jumped up to fill out the forms they needed to sign at Table #1 so that they could then be permitted to approach the table of the Belgian woman, Table #2.

She sat there with her arms crossed and cited to Julio one made-up rule after another, many of which don’t exist in other hostels.  This went on for some time.  My mother stood there clutching her papers next to Julio, who was seated.

“Do you speak English?” she asked my mother.  My mother nodded.  “So what’s the problem?”  On her visage was the implacable calm of the righteous.

Mom was confused.  “I don’t have a problem,” she said quietly.  “I’m just waiting here.”

“He arranges everything for you?” the woman demanded, pointing to Julio.  “Even though you speak English?  Why do you not handle this yourself?”

“I’m sorry,” Mom said.  “I am just feeling sick and he has been helping me out.”

“Then how can I help you?”

“What I have you can’t help,” Mom said.

Mom’s back was turned to me, so I didn’t see when she began to cry.  Now I moved in and spoke to the woman.

“You have a future in bureaucracy,” I told her.  I’m not proud of it.  “But now it’s time to have a little compassion.  As we have told you several times now, we are a group.  Julio told you that she has cancer and wants to be near me.  Now, do not speak to her again.”

Mom was just trying to escape, though, blindly stumbling down the hall, so I helped her upstairs and left Julio to deal with the aggressive Belgian.  We could hear him laying into her for some time, apparently without result, and then he came upstairs, agitated, and in Spanish recounted to Marie Anne his agitation.  He ended with a single word.

Bruja!”  Witch!

It took him some time to calm down.  I heard him singing in the shower, and it did not sound like the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” so that was good.

And you can send me dead flowers every morning
Send me dead flowers by the mail
Send me dead flowers to my wedding
And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave

I knew the skillful thing for me to do would be to remain upstairs for a while, so I wrote this post.

So Mom and I will sleep in separate dormitories tonight, that the earth may continue to spin on its axis.

Toward Los Arcos and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

The End of Childhood is the End of Certainty

I won’t get into how, but I found myself explaining to Carrie what I know of the imago, or our image of what attracts us in a mate, and the operation of transference, rationalization, the unconscious, and denial.

The moment we realize that our parents, teachers, or other mentors are flawed – that they are human – is the end of innocence.  The god-like are seen in all their messy humanity.  To come to see the limitations of those we look up to and depend upon is a necessary, if painful, rite of passage.  But not everyone makes this passage.  Not everyone is ready, in this sense, to grow up.

The fundamentalist, the narcissist, the dependent and the victim for example, will simply double-down, insisting on their belief in certainty, such as in someone’s infallibility (in the case of the narcissist, his own), or the inerrancy and clarity of a text.  The fundamentalist purports to see absolute clarity in texts that are not only not clear, but were never claimed to be clear by anyone at anytime before Darwin.  The entirety of modern-day American-style fundamentalism is not “fundamental” to the Bible at all, but a relatively recent invention of the mid-1800s.  Rapture theology, for example, did not occur to anyone before it occurred to the Englishman John Darby in the 1830s.  How clear could it be?

But in the black-and-white, in easy answers, there is comfort and certainty, and comfort and certainty were never needed so much as when Darwin’s natural selection and geologist George Lyell’s dating of rocks, in the mid-1800s, both showed the earth to be far older than a literal reading of the Biblical myths would suggest.  Indeed, before the advent of science and reason in the Enlightenment, which was terrifying to some of the pious (and which Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann recently, and revealingly, identified as the root of all of America’s problems), no religion ever insisted upon the historicity of their sacred texts.  They did not take it literally.  They saw the tales as mythos, the stuff of finding meaning and of understanding the sacred, and not as logos, the province of fact, rationality, history – or science.

Once you confuse mythos with logos, it becomes difficult to think clearly.  Once you start building museum dioramas, as one can now find in Kentucky, in which humans frolic with dinosaurs, purportedly only a few thousand years ago, you will have so successfully rejected science that you are now at liberty to dispute without either evidence or science-based rebuttal the nearly universal conclusion of scientists worldwide that the earth is warming dangerously.  The same science that sends people into space, powers GPS, runs your cell phone, and heals the sick is dismissed when it runs into conflict with our beliefs, tribal mores, or other indices of identity.

If we are meaning-seeking creatures, then it is great comfort for meaning to come easily, and for answers to be readily at hand.  Humans fear few things so much as uncertainty.  The unknown has always been terrifying to our species.  And so we may seek to remain in, or return to, the comforts, the lack of uncertainty, of childhood.

On the Cushion

Yesterday morning I found myself once again thinking, Now, why am I doing this again….this Camino?  Is it fun?  If it is, will it remain fun?  Is fun even the right question?  I have slowed down a great deal, but apparently not so much that I have stopped craving more stimulation than is available.  Rural trails, small towns largely emptied of the young (or the middle-aged), few cafes, no night life.  I don’t even have books.  I suppose I could download more onto my MacBook’s Kindle app, but lights go out at ten.

Here is what is different.  I am not doing much on online dating sites.  I don’t check my phone for emails or texts – there are none there.  I’m not doing any coaching, and sending and receiving few emails about it.  Some of the Tourette’s tics (but only Type I – I don’t get to shout or curse, damnit) are largely in remission.  Because Tourette’s is exacerbated by stress, I take this as the clearest, most objective evidence of change.  One tic that had become quite prominent over the summer arose from an urge to pop my left knee as you might crack your knuckles.  I haven’t seen it in about a week.

Yes, this is embarrassing.  I’m out now.

And I’m still not giving much thought to where to live.  The house in Bend already seems a memory.  By the time I return, it will be completely out of mind – just as my things will be out of the house and in storage.  I may never see it again, and that’s all right.  The letting go really sped up in the end, surprising my expectations.

Nevertheless, I am reminded of meditation retreats, where people may at times find themselves wanting to run away, screaming.  But that is exactly the point of watching the mind.  You will eventually see things that you aren’t keen to see.  Resentment, cravings, attachments, irritability, annoyance, jealousy, rage, desire, rejection, discomfort.  Meditation doesn’t make the unpleasantness of the outside world go away – it brings our relationship with the outside world into sharp focus.  The path to any kind of enlightenment isn’t filled with peak moments.

You could even say the path doesn’t go anywhere in particular.  The goal may simply be to stay on the path, the middle path, in which we neither cling to, indulge in, or identify with, nor push away, reject, repress, or condemn.  We may choose either erroneous path out of a craving for certainty, whether the need to have an identity or an explanation we can cling to, or the need to reject what is going on in order to hold on to the storylines we have, or to avoid painful feelings.  The middle path is the one where we observe our experience without judgment (pushing away) and without attaching ourselves to it (clinging).  Only then can we see clearly, and make decisions rooted in what we know to be best for us.

To Los Arcos

Monday morning. Woke up many times in the night, and knew I was sick.  I can feel it in my chest.  Further dreams of seeing clearly, and of letting go.  I decided to take the bus to Los Arcos (“The Bows,” named for the decisive role archers played in winning a great battle) rather than suffer through a 20k walk.  Mom and Carrie sent their bags ahead and the group of four left me at the bus station.  At the bus station I ran into three young Israeli women whom I’d seen prior albergues, and two Lebanese women I met last night.  I helped them find the right bus and introduced them all to one another.  The countryside we passed through was gorgeous, all greens and browns and yellows, everywhere rolling hills and citadels and iglesias, and granite cliffs in the distance.

Once in Los Arcos, I walked around for a bit, finding the stores (drinkable yogurt,potato chips, muesli bars), the public hostel (albergue municipal, always the cheapest), and a Café-Bar called Abascal, where I had a green-and-red-pepper omelette bocadillo and tea.  I leafed through a Spanish magazine and got caught up on which American celebrities are sleeping with which other American celebrities.  I still don’t understand who Kim Kardashian is, or why she is.  I especially can’t understand what would justify the Spanish caring.

In the tiny plaza outside Abascal I sit abreast of my new amigos, or the local retired community of hombres.  A seventy-something man walks back and forth over the 35 yards as if counting steps, as if trying to catch the distance in the act of being different on just one of his passes, and thus reveal even una plaza to be subject to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, one big cosmic joke.

Puente La Reina and the Running of the Small Bulls

On Saturday night in Puente La Reina we walked the 300 meters to the main plaza, where carpenters were putting the finishing touches on elevated platforms in the shape of a rectangle with three sides, with the missing side opening into the main street.  In this street two mid-size, or at least economy, bulls were run back and forth to exhaustion by a band of teenagers, gelled up, in sneakers and soccer shorts, and a few old hands, one of whom did actually get one of the bulls by the horns for a few seconds.  A brass band comprised of men in their fifties and sixties, and a long-haired youthful tuba player, was entirely drowned out by a DJ spinning modern pop for a group of dancing adults, each holding a beer in one hand and the beat in the other.

In the same plaza, in 1315 and again in 1345, two Jewish men were burned alive as sodomites, so the use of running bulls as public sport could reasonably be seen by some as an improvement.  Last night, it was a young man who got the raw end of the deal when he didn’t get out of bull’s way soon enough, and found its horns dug into his back, throwing him face-down onto the street, where he could be seen lying until he was surrounded by the locals who ran to him.

In semi-autonomous Catalonia, the last bullfight was just conducted last night.  The Catalonian legislature has outlawed the practice, though it’s unclear if it was on grounds of animal cruelty, the subsidies the sport was increasingly requiring from local governments, or the EU’s opposition to effectively subsidizing farms that were producing bulls for activities illegal elsewhere in Europe.

In the morning, Julio was dyspeptic.  It was going to be nearly 100 degrees, he said, and we were starting much too late.  “We should have started at quarter past six,” he said.  “It’s going to melt all the Camino.”

The Walk to Estella — 24km

Puente La Reina to Estella.  24 km, very hot, some climbing and descending.  The country has grown drier since the lush riverside we found on the way to Pamplona.  We walked through vineyards for much of the day.  The others found the heat overbearing, but for some reason, perhaps that I was the only one wearing a thin wool shirt (which wicks and breathes), it didn’t bother me much.  My feet offered me the least pain of the trip so far.

In Cirauque, a Basque term meaning “nest of vipers,” we came upon the cobbled stones and flagstone borders of a Roman road, and, after a while, a Roman bridge.  While most of the Camino follows the Roman Via Traiana, the best-preserved remains of the entire route are here.  But the Roman road continued only for a few kilometers, until “improvements” by Camino designers covered it up.  Then we wound through more dry, beautiful country, through hills where hermits came to live a thousand years ago, including in the still-extant Ermita de San Miguel.

In a tunnel, amongst the graffiti, someone had written, “The Camino has nothing to do with Compostela.  The Camino is right here, right now.”  Which is true.  The camino, or way, is not about where you end up.  It’s how you choose to perceive and respond to the right here, right now.

Communication on the Camino 

Communication on the Camino can be a curious thing.  Many languages are spoken, but the main two are Spanish and English, the latter being the lingua franca in most conversations in which the speakers aren’t from the same country.  The Asians seem to be the most at sea; very few of them speak even a little English, and they have no Spanish at all.  How brave they are to come here anyway.  They keep largely to themselves.

Communication between bikers and walkers is almost non-existent.  So far I have heard only one biker use a bell to signal his approach.  None have announced themselves by words.  And what would they say?  Even among English speakers, it can be confusing for hikers to share a trail with bikers.

“On your left!” bikers say, signaling where they are.

To the left a surprised or even terrified hiker jumps, right into the path of the biker.

Or take this example of on-trail communication.  I was in the lead, and passed a lone sneaker that someone had tossed onto the orange furrows of a ploughed field.  “Shoe alert!” I said, pointing with my right stick.

“What did he say?” my mother said, in third position.

“I think he saw something but I didn’t catch the first word,” Carrie said, in second.

“Oh!” says Mom.  “A bird?”

“What bird?” demands Julio, in fourth position.

This is how legends, myths, and religious stories get passed down, not to mention fabulist tales such as that of President Obama being a foreign-born Muslim planted here nearly 50 years ago by Al Quaeda for nefarious ends.