I’d stopped writing in my journal because we were so busy sight-seeing. We took a half day and went to Sintra, a lovely, picturesque town near the Atlantic Ocean. We wanted to see the Moors’ castle, on top of a big hill (yes) surrounded by a huge park. We took the bus up and it was interesting how the driver went around the curves. There were many.
When the castle came into view, it was very enchanting with the many turrets, towers and arabic influence. Like Aladdin’s fairy tale. It also reminde me, in a way of King Ludwig’s castle Neuschwanstein.
You had to go up a little, steep hill to go through the gate. Some people, younger ones as well, walked slowly due to the incline. I just took off, passing them. I was in shape. Nothing to this tiny hill. I heard Cameron calling behind me, “show off! You’re such a show off.” Made me smile. We took a tour through the inner sanctum, where the royals lived. Exquisite furniture, priceless china and the usual pomp.
When the tour was over, we went to the bus station to go back to town. It took a long time and when we found out it would be another 25 minutes, we decided to walk. We were in the walking business, after all. Long, steep hill down, no problem. We made it in record time. Took a cab to the train station as Carrie and I really wanted to see the Ocean. We’d given up Finisterre but were determined to see some water.
To get there, we were told to go by trolley. A real old one. It was open on the sides and the conductor and driver were up front on a small platform. A few other tourists joined us. We were so excited to have this special treat. Then, the trolley went arounda bend and the most god-awful-screeching came alive. This was the sound we heard for over 40 minutes, going perhaps 15 mph, that this ride lasted. Every bend, every applying of the brakes, it screeched. We covered our ears but that didn’t help a whole lot. Spoiled some of the fun of seeing nature at a slower pace. We went past beautiful villas covered in vines and flowers. Tall grasses, trees and shrubs. The view opened up and behind some tall beach hotels, shining in the sun was the Ocean. Carrie and I took our shoes and socks off and ran ‘yohoo-ing’ and laughing down to the water’s edge. Breathing deep the tangy air and watching the waves ride in.
Cameron picked a boulder and was fast asleep after a few minutes. Carrie took her already wet shorts off, and sat in the cold water. I just sat still as my eyes wanderd over the many surface miles. Watching the sea gulls and felt the warm sun on my face. I could’ve stayed there a least another day but, we had to.
I reflected on the little time we had left and what all we had done, where we had been and I felt sad that it was over. I knew when I got back, reality would set in and I would have to deal with the ‘C’ again. Needles, tests, scans and pain.
As I turned to leave, I left one more image in the sand… with some more hope of this being so.
(I’ve forgotten our opera visit in Lisbon. When I saw a poster about ‘Don Carlo’ and date and time, I was so excited and told Cameron and Carrie that I really, really wanted to go. They did, too. We purchased the tickets and asked if our ‘dress’ was acceptable and it was because it’s not all the glitz and glamour anymore. We sat in the 3rd row, right by the orchestra pit, but it was a good view. As soon as it started my excitement deflated. It was one of these modern interpretations. Street clothing, no set to speak of and kids running around with tennis rackets. I looked at Cameron and he just nodded his head as if saying ‘ I know but it is what it is.’ We did stay the whole 4 hours. This opera had been rewritten a few times, as had the ending. This particular ending fizzled out. The love interest of the young tenor was old enough to be his grandmother and thus not believable and the chemistry was missing.
The singing was very good though as was the music. Next morning we had to leave early to catch the bus to the airport. Long lines and security made for a fast good bye from Cameron, as his flight was several hours later. Carrie and I didn’t get to sit together and so began the slow separation and feelings of displacement. It felt as though someone plucked me off the camino and into the plane. At one point, tears welled up at nothing in particular. It’s been continued at home as well. Although I’m glad to be home but the camino left its mark. Nothing tangible, nothing I can grasp and hold except pictures and memories. But, subtle changes and I believe this will work its way through the future.
People asked me, ‘would you go back?’ I answered, well, not right now but perhaps at some point walk certain stages again.
Meanwhile, I saw a German movie about a Pilgrimage to Padua, Italy and I’ve been researching the ‘Jakobsweg’ they just rededicated in Austria. … Beautiful, gorgeous scenery… nice places to stay… good food. Dare I call Cameron and Carrie??
Everyone seems to want to know: How did the Camino change you?
So far, I have had a few surprises upon my re-entry to the Ordinary World. And that’s not even counting the fact that I recently bought a fresh red pepper for the first time in my life, and ate it, and enjoyed it. In fact, I find that my appetite for healthy food has increased.
The First Surprise
During the walk across Spain, I longed for a good yoga stretch. I’d grown so fond of my yoga classes over the last year and more that I really missed yoga while on the road. On the road I was sure I’d never needed yoga more; after all, I was walking thirteen or more miles a day, with all that means for the legs and back, and I was carrying a pack, with all that means for the back and neck. I imagined myself a stiff mass of bunched-up muscle and ligament.
So I was very excited to get to my first yoga class in about six weeks, in uptown Hoboken’s Devotion Yoga studio.
What I found surprised me. Far from being rusty and out of
Balancing in Montauk, New York
practice, I was more balanced. I could easily get into and hold balance poses that had been more difficult before the Camino. As I flipped up into a crow pose and held it easily, I felt as if an Olympic gymnast had just taken over my body.
I may have even been more flexible, or unstuck, in other poses that I had never been able to do well — the upside-down wheel, for example, which something in my neck — the knots? — had always made difficult. But here I was in the most complete wheel I’d ever done, as if my (tight, burdened?) shoulders had at last gotten out of the way.
Experienced yogis will say that the mat is a microcosm of life. On the mat, you practice being comfortable with discomfort, you practice slowing your thoughts and (I think relatedly) your balance, and you practice being kind to yourself rather than abrupt or forcing. You also practice concentration. And all of these things will be directly reflected in your life off the mat.
But in my yoga class, I was finding that what I had done off the mat was affecting the yoga! I was more mentally, emotionally, and physically balanced. I may have also been more flexible, less tight.
I had already sensed that I did successfully slow down my thoughts on the Camino, and that I had fewer negative thoughts and emotions, but these things are hard to measure. The yoga class was, happily, more objective – like stepping on a scale that measures How the Camino Changed Me. You either fall over where you used to fall over, and struggle where you used to struggle – or you don’t. And I wasn’t.
And because balance is a reflection of clarity of mind, I think my yoga session confirmed for me that I had somehow reached my goal of slowing down my mind, and with it, the negative thoughts that make for negative feeling. With the mind racing less, the body can be still; with the mind less mired in anxiety, your body can be calm. And you can balance yourself in ways you previously couldn’t.
What Caused These Changes?
So the question we need to be asking ourselves is this: what was it about the last five weeks that put me into such a state of balance? The food? Certainly not. The sun? There are many variables, of course, but here are the ones that I would hypothesize: the meditativeness of walking; the exercise (and, yes, the sun, a known mood enhancer or anti-depressant); and the sense of purpose. It’s this last, the sense of purpose, that interests me most. Because what I want to do now is replicate it in my “real” life.
I want to figure out what I was doing on the Camino that can be brought back with me. Because if I can’t do that, then a great deal of the value of the experience will be lost to me.
An Unfolding Surprise
While I was on the Camino, I wondered what it would be like to be off it. Would I be, as Marie Anne always is after the end of a long walk, sad? I wrote about this from Portugal, after we were done. At the time, I did not feel sadness about being done.
But then, I wasn’t done.
Simply finishing the Camino did not mean I was done with what I call the Special World. During our several days in Portugal, I was still away from my Ordinary World. And so any reaction to the real world would have to wait.
Now that I’m back in the temporary life I was in just before I left for Spain – cooling my heels in and around New York — I’m starting to feel that reaction.
At the post office a few days ago I underwent a petty frustration, and by the time I got back into the car I almost had tears in my eyes. Back at the apartment, I felt tears come up — frustration, I think, a kind of sadness that I had lost something, or perhaps a fear that I would not be able to find it again. On the Camino I had felt an occasional annoyance and even anger, but I didn’t feel the kind of existential sadness I recognized early in the week.
I found myself resisting this, and then I found myself saying, Stop resisting.
The next day was different yet again. I felt no sadness at all. But I still felt some of what Mom wrapped up well earlier today, on the phone, after I’d said the return to the real world was sometimes a bit disorienting: “Yes, I know! I don’t know what to do with myself!” she said. “I walked to the post office, I made a salad and ate fruits again, I did the leaves, I went grocery shopping . . . My body is revved up and ready to go.”
I realize that there is a particular journey that is still going on, one that is not done yet. I have been telling myself not to develop expectations of what I must be doing now that I am back. I have been telling myself to stay on the Way – which unfolds only a day at a time.
So this is the challenge I have set myself (a hopeless type-A, I often do better if I call something a challenge): to come to understand what it was about the Camino experience that made me feel less bad, less often, and made me feel very good, very often, and then to make sure my life after the Camino is designed as similarly as possible.
In the next post, I’ll talk about what I miss from the Camino. And that may lead me closer to understanding what I had there that I must create here.
I know I complained ‘a bit’ about the food on the camino. I want to be very fair and state that I really don’t know how the rest of the people in Spain eat. I just don’t like all that mayo on Tapas, nor some fish. I just couldn’t have so much grease and there was a LOT of it. In the end, it made me nauseous as I had hardly had any fat the last 18 mos and my system protested in more ways than one.
I must give our friends, Julio and Marianne a lot of kudos for their cooking because that was good and plentiful and Julio really took care to prepare dishes that I could eat and were close to my diet. I want to get the recipe for Marianne’s Couscous salad. I really liked that one.
Some of the soups I’ve had were very good, especially the one at the Fiesta where Julio ran down the cook and asked for a special bo wl for me. It was only on the Camino that things were uninspired. It’s O.K. to have eggs and bacon and ‘Jamon’ but there should be at least one or two choices for people who have health issues. i.e. Diabetes, cancer, ect. There’s a lot of sugar everywhere and at breakfast that’s all one gets. Danish, Croissants, other sweet pastries or just white bread. This is what makes the beginning of the walk difficult and hard. I wish they’d serve Oatmeal in those bars. Some had fruits, like banana, orange, and apple. But that was few and far between. and wouldn’t sustain energy over the amount of kilometers.
Maybe they’ve not even thought about Pilgrim’s health issues?
Some people are allergic to fish and lessens the choices considerably.
As we left Spain, the landscape was still the same. Rolling hills and lots of green. During the ride, Carrie and I got our camera’s and looked at the digital pictures and asked each other where this or that was taken and what we did. Already memories fading a bit and the need to reconnect. It was a strange feeling not to be walking and my eyes searched for the yellow arrows. I looked for paths to walk, that were not there anymore. First impression overall was, that the buildings and everything seemed more kept up. In better condition and somehow cleaner.
The landscape flattened out and changed. Still pretty but different.
Porto was a bee-hive-busy activity. Beautiful buildings and churches. We stopped to eat and use WiFi. It was a bit of a surprise that the menu was not much different. The Portugese eggs were hidden in an omelette but same french fries.
Cameron looked up Hotel choices on his lap top, which wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. We found one, the rates seemed reasonable and breakfast, WiFi was included.
Then, like excited children went to town to shop for new clothes. At first, it was totally overwhelming. The sheer amount of people on Catarina Avenue. The throng of people, the noise, hollering, honking, music, laughter, dogs barking and activity. Like New York’s Fifth Avenue. After the peaceful camino, quite a difference.
But, it also meant shopping and getting out of these well worn, stained clothes. One shop after another. One cafe after another. Looking a the prices the joy faded aomewhat. One outfit was 95.00 Euro’s, calculated to 50% more into dollars was too much.
Then, I spotted C&A. The German clothing giant and I know they have reasonable prices. That’s where we went. Carrie and I, totally blissful. We found what we wanted, except Cameron, who went to an Italian Clothier. Happy with our purchase, we hopped on a sightseeing tour bus. Churches, cathedral in various architectural design, some of the exterior, totally covered in tiles. Big buldings as well.
Several big bridges spanned the river. One, old iron bridge, designed by Gustav Eiffel.
We stopped by the river and got off. Picturesque, old houses lined the river promenade. We were invited to see how Port wine was made. Touring with us was a couple from Holland who joined us when the free samples came. I liked the second one best.
The bus was supposed to come back in an hour but came much earlier and then we found out, it was the last one. Left us stranded. I would’ve loved to walk this promenade but it was getting late.
We decided to spend one more night at this hotel as the others were too expensive and did not have WiFi not breakfast. Next morning, after a nice breakfast and we stuffed ourselves, we went to town. Carrie wanted to sit at a Cafe to do her school project and paint. Cameron and I went shopping. Then, we met at the pre-arranged point for lunch which was in a 1920’s style, elegant Cafe. We went window shopping some more. Later, we had dinner and it was just awful. Cameron didn’t finish his as his fish was in a sea of grease and oil.
Early next morning, we only had to go up the road to catch the bus to Lisbon.
It took us a little while to find the place Cameron had booked. We’d taken a cab. Arrived at the address, there was no sign only a tiny piece of paper over a bell. We looked at each but rang anyway. A lady opened the door and a torrent of angry words was the welcome. She pointed upstairs and after we drudged up, there was nothing to identify anything. We left.
Cameron discovered that he had left his connecting cable at the hotel, in Porto. Lap top battery dead. Got another taxi and found the ‘Apple’ Store where we were allowed to use free time for FB and he could find us a place to spend the night. Once, all this was taken care of we took a cab to the place.
In an old house, up narrow stairs and a long hallway. The manager was nice enough and very helpful. The first thing we saw, going into the room was an open area, with a sink and a Bidet. Carrie laughed histerically and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But, he showed us the other bathroom/shower areas. We figured since we were only there to sleep and had our eyes closed, this would do. Our finances were dwindling fast. Carrie and I, both had to keep borrowing from Cameron.
The next morning, we went to see the castle and had this magnificent view. Peacocks wandered in the garden below. I was enchanted.
After a nice lunch, outside at the bottom of the castle , we took the streetcar to the famous tower. Carrie and I decided to forgo the 5.00 Euro entrance fee and just enjoy the bay and sun. Then, we went to the huge monastery, white and richly decorated with stone carvings.
We went in search for dinner and came upon a Indian restaurant. We were the only guests and had a feast. It was one of the best meals, in along time. If you go to Lisbon, look them up. Dehli Delights.
After some confusion and miscommunication about the transport of Quasimodo, we set off around 7:30a.m. It’s still dark, with a full moon. Going past a forest and up a hill. Mist rising in the valley, and we’re walking with Rene, from Jena. He’s into holistic medicine and also works with crystals. Walking is brisk in the morning and our path goes uphill quite a bit. I am truly amazed how hilly Spain is!
We stop at a store and I buy fruit and my beloved Spanish pepper. Someone should import these. When I think of the ones back home, in comparison, they seem plastic. Temps were going up to 32C. My whole body got hot as I still wore two pairs of socks (so as not to blister). Also greased my feet and toes with Nivea. We stop at one little bar and have a fresh and natural raspberry drink. Oh, my, that was so good!
Mainly we walk through sunlit forests, but we’re still going up. One particular steep hill — I dedicated this one to my cousin Renate. Another for my sister, brother, and close friends. There are enough hills here for half of the people in Montrose. Sure was glad when the 17+kms were done today. Now I’m sitting under an old gnarly apple tree, looking out at hilly landscape, and wide swatches of fall colors. Birds are singing, and it’s another peaceful spot.
Stopped in Casanova Mato. The refugio is right on the road. There are only five houses here, and no store. Carrie and I are ahead of Cameron, who took advantage of free wi-fi and stayed longer at the last spot. The woman talks very rapidly in answer to my questions. I tell her, “No habla Espanol.” It’s nice and clean and has a kitchen. This was put in as a joke, since there’s no store here. We showered with the usual sound of ahhhhhhh.
Cameron caught up. We were told that there was an albergue 1.5km away that would pick us up. That was too far to walk, even for very hungry pilgrims. We got a very good lentil soup — we ate two plates each. Then meatballs, home-made fries, peas and carrots, all in a nice sauce. Water, bread, wine. A very reasonably priced good meal. We are happy campers. We were chauffered back and I told Carrie that I could purr like a cat now.
There are ten bunks total, and they’re all filled up. I read a bit, and talked to a German woman next to me, who has walked from France, but by a different route. The street light shines right into my face, and I had to put my mask on. Then I woke up, out of a deep sleep, because the Spanish couples came in, talking, rustling. Finally, quiet, until one of them starts snoring. Deep, loud, and going on most of the night. I was dismayed, thinking of the long hike ahead with barely any sleep.
Got up at 5:30 and got ready. Again only one bathroom for all of us. We left at 6:15, one cup of tea and one small piece of bread we’d brought from the restaurant last night. Carrie was the only one who had a light. Cameron lost his, and mine was empty, as I’d used it to read. There was a full moon, but of no use, since we had to go through a very dark forest. And so we trekked along. After 4-plus kilometers, I shared the last bit of chocolate, which only made us more hungry.
Cameron figured we’d have to walk about 9km before reaching a larger place. I was thinking of all these refugees who walk for days without food. Finally, we saw a large city and we knew there was a bar open somewhere. Having come up some more steep hills, I was famished. We walked around a corner and there it was. We could have pizza and sandwiches, and there was Internet and cafe con leche! Almost paradise.
We stayed for over an hour.
Ten more kilometers to go. I would never have guessed how many hills Spain actually has. We’re going through lovely forests, but also steep inclines. I dedicated each to a different person. My heart friends: Irene, Bonnie, Inge, Carla. The next hills to Rowena, Jayne, and Willa Kay. The last steep one to Cameron. Then suddenly I felt shaky and dizzy. We stopped and Carrie gave me a banana, and then we kept going.
The stench of liquid manure, pig farms, etc., is overwhelming. As beautiful as Galicia is, so far it smells the worst of all. In between, we would smell natural scents of hay, dry leaves, eucalyptus, fennel, roses, mushrooms, and even camomille. We were ecstatic. We arrived at the next town, but then decided not to stay in another dormitory with noisy people.
We took a taxi for a few kilometers to Arzua and checked into a hostel with nice, soft beds and towels. After the usual shower, Carrie and I took off to find a grocery store, and when we did, and the automated door of the grocery store opened, we both said, “Ahhh, look how pretty!” There were shelves of food, and it was very clean. I went to the produce section and almost wept with joy. Everything was there, and my wonderful red peppers too. I bought grapes and cheese, bread, yogurt, tomatoes, salad, and dressing, plus plastic plates. We came back and had a picnic on the bed.
We had found Internet (expensive as usual). I also thought of the high prices they charge along the way for a small cup of coffee and a piece of toast, 3 Euros. We haven’t seen much of this town, so very near Santiago, but we are too tired. Carrie and I watched some Spanish soap opera, and laughed at the bad acting. And since we didn’t understand, we made up our own dialogue.
I want to make sure of this distinction: that we only know the food on the Camino. I am not saying all food in Spain is this indifferent. We don’t know how people eat elsewhere in Spain. There simply isn’t any desire nor creativity to be different along the Way. Cameron suggested starting a moveable deli, starting at one point and moving along to meet pilgrims wherever possible.
We’re in Pedrouzo now. This is a very nice albergue. Near new, clean, wooden bunks, sheets and pillows. In the middle of the dormitory is a plant topiary with soothing water running. There’s nice soft music playing overhead, and it’s truly an oasis. The usual ritual followed: I washed all clothes — in a machine – and hung them out in the fresh air and sun. Then Carrie and I went looking for a grocery store. Not many choices, they said, since it was Saturday. But we found one and got the usual: bread, cheese, grapes, and white asparagus for me.
We ran into Rene, who was staying there as well, and he joined us outside for dinner. He talked of his journey, and disappointments. How unfriendly, unsmiling the business people, waiters, etc., on the Camino had been. He was upset at the cruelty to and neglect of the animals. “You can tell a lot about people by the way they treat their animals,” he stated. Then he asked me if it was true that people in the U.S. had the claws from their cats removed? I said yes, I had seen a few without claws. He said, “It’s just like ripping out your toes.” He was visibly upset, put his face in his hands, and just shook his head.
Next morning, sure enough, the rustling and bathroom-goers started at 5a.m. Then, as people walked into the hallway, a light came on automatically, and shone in everyone’s faces. They need taller walls — the kind that go all the way up to the ceiling. I got up at 6a.m., Carrie did too. I went to the coffee machine to have a cup. It made such a racket that I walked away so no one would know that it was me!
Cameron needed to work some more while he had wi-fi, but since it would be 20-plus kilometers, I wanted to leave at the agreed-upon time of 7a.m. Carrie and I left and made our way, looking for our yellow arrow. Here came the forest . . . deeep and dark.
She cranked up her light, and then we remembered that Cameron wouldn’t have a light. Back she went a little way, left her penlight and a note. I doubted that he would see it, but hoped that he would find some other pilgrims coming through. After a while, Carrie and I agreed that we’d never have done this at home. We actually felt safe here.
Finally, a different path, then forest again. Then small hamlets started to appear. Same slate-stone houses, with corncribs. By now, we would know that if there were six houses, two to three would be in ruins. After an hour or so we saw our first bar. Stopped for cafe con leche and Carrie had a fresh OJ. We waited 20 minutes, then moved on. I told her that Cameron would catch up, probably singing, “She’s a lady, woh woh woh, she’s a lady.”
The exterior of the cathedral had many, ornate stone carvings, statues and gargoyles. It looked a bit dark and had yellow leeches growing all over, in some places grass growing out on the side. It would need a good scrubbing as well and window cleaning. The were so black, one could not see through. (Maybe they should ask for some Pilgrim volunteers?) We went inside and I was surprised that there were not many people there. It was Sunday and surely other Pilgrims had made it? No one came and applauded our accomplishment, either. No matter, we knew. The main altar was richly adorned with gold and flowers. In the middle a life size statue of San Diago. The famous, huge silver orb hung still, unmoving on thick ropes. A 9 man team swings this orb , filled with frankincense through the cathedral but only used on special occasions. Like, the pope visiting, or a holy year. (In 2010.) In long ago past, the reason for this, was to cover the stench the many unwashed, unclean Pilgrims brought with them.
A small staircase went up behind the altar, the steps hollowed out in the middle from millions of previous foot steps. The statue was draped in a large, gold cape, richly decorated with jewels. Most everyone touched the back, silently wishing? praying? Or just glad to have arrived and giving thanks. Some more devout people cried as they did so.
Below the altar, is a small room. Placed into the recess of the wall and protected by thick glass, is a richly decorated, silver coffin. It is said, that it contains the remains of St James.
There’s also a small prayer bench to kneel for a short prayer as people are lining up to get their turn. Also, attached to the bench is a large donation box. They are everywhere.
We had met Rene again and he chatted happily as we made our way to the pilgrim’s office to receive our Official ‘decree’, in Latin no less, certifying that we have done ‘the way’.
Not only a piece of paper.
As we made our way through historical, busy streets, a man came up offering us a room for 50 Euro’s and as he kept repeating, ‘very, very quiet. He offered that we could look at it. We went with him and there were several rooms with a fully equipped kitchen. Well, I wouldn’t have time to use it much.
The owner helped us through the maze of many streets as we still had to pick up Quasimodo for the last time. Suddenly, someone grabbed me and screeched ‘Meine Guete, schau mal wer da ist?’ (My goodness, look who is here?) I turned and it was Barbara. They’d made it there just a little while ago as well. Her husband had surpised her for their 26th wedding anniversary as they’d never been apart on that day. He had walked the last 3 days of her camino with her. As I shook his hand, I remembered at the Albergue where we had met the second time, when she told me about him. She said, in that lovey, lilting bavarian, ‘jo mei, I hoab ihn hoid nu so liab’. (Well yes. I still love him so much.) This sincere tribute, after 26 years really touched my heart. We couldn’t stand in the middle of the street with the landlord tapping his foot and we quickly asked if they would go to Finisterre. She told us that the bus would take 3 hours, one way. We said, we’d see them then. Later, we decided with heavy heart not to go after all as it would be more time than we had allowed. I feel sad, that I didn’t ask for her address. I sure hope that they will have another, happy 26 years.
On we went and then saw the Monastery. You guessed it. Up a high hill and a very, steep incline. But, finally we were all reunited. Carrie offered to carry mine and Cameron carried hers, as it was really heavy. By that time, we had not had any food since early morning and then only a piece of white bread. Our Carrie, who has never complained , suddenly turned into a bear, nearly fainting from hunger. Finally, to our room and then quickly back the cobble stone streets, old, ornate buildings, street musicians, beggars and many cheap souvernir shops.
Cameron and she devoured a pizza in a few minutes while I still had to wait 40 minutes, since the waiter forgot my order. After some sight seeing and Cameron using free WiFi, Carrie and I went back to the cathedral to just sit and look. The sun was setting and it was a peaceful, beautiful moment. I felt disjointed, sad that it was over. The ‘way’ was finished.
Up early next morning, we took a cab to the bus station to go Porto. The ride would take 3+ hours.
Next morning, we drove to the bus station to go to Porto.
I am catching up the blog but have to rely now on my journal as memories fade already to exact words and thoughts.
As we were walking the last kilometers I was thinking about the trip. Did I have expectations? No. Did I have any regrets? None whatsoever. Will I be disappointed if results turn out different? No, not really. It has been a fantastic journey, in many more ways than one.
I was wondering what that last, steep hill would be like? I’d read about it in 2 different books and was a bit nervous. But, if I can climb the Pyrenees then I can climb this one too. We came closer to Santiago and some people sped up. We stopped at a mount with a huge wall with a likeness of the Pope on it. Then went on. When we actually came upon a hill I went up without comment (or sigh) and when we came down I realized that this was ‘the hill’ they had described as so difficult. Phhhht!! Totally anticlimactic. Whiners, both of those authors. Unless they or someone moved the mountain.
On we went to Santiago but curiously did not feel a whole lot. There were large, box-like Apartment Housings, 60’s style that seems to be the same all over the world, in cities. Since it was Sunday, shops were closed. I had had the shakes earlier on and I believe I’m missing vital nutrients besides this daily, physical hardship. We must’ve walked 2-3 km when we finally came upon a cafe and sat down. After a small respit, on we went and then saw the historical section. There were lots of people walking around the small, cobble stone streets. I saw spires from the back and other nice buildings. We met an American couple, who were visiting Santiago for the second time, liking it that much. They told us that we were the first, actual pilgrims they had seen in three days.
I had told Cameron earlier that I did not feel I had arrived until I would see the cathedral. The absolute finishing point of the camino. When we came around to the front, ‘Timothy’ came back once more, lodging in my throat. There it was. The End. I had absolutely made it. Through grueling mountains and long, hot hiking, sunburn, toe injuries, hunger, thirst, and double blisters. Santiago de Compostella. I remembered a sign we had seen, right after St. Jean pie de Port, which stated 792 Km to Santiago and how I thought what a LONG way away this was. Now, I was here and tears came. Then, Cameron reached into his backpack and came out with red carnations. Like a magician. He had carried those 2 flowers for awhile. That really opened the water works, We hugged one another and then group hug for us three, so happy to have arrived. Happy shock. The couple had also come around and congratulated us and took a few photos, promising to e-mail them.
If you learn nothing else from this post, you will remember that Porto, also called Oporto (“O” being the Portuguese “the”) in both English and “Portuguese” (explanation of quotes below), is the second-largest city in Portugal and the origin of Port wine.
I knew the latter even before we took a tour of an award-winning port wine maker clustered on the river with dozens of its peers. I learned, from our Botswana-born guide, that the makers prefer French and American oak for their barrels, that port is made by interrupting the fermentation process with a heavy infusion of grape alcohol, and that the ruby and tawny ports I often see are the two middle rungs of port wine, with vintage being the newest and least expensive, and reserves, running from 20 to over 40 years old, being the oldest and most expensive.
We sat down at a sawed-off barrel with a Dutch couple and began tasting. I don’t think I’d ever had white port wine before; they offered a dry one and a sweet one, both very good. I tried a 20-year-old reserve, and bought a sweet medium-red tawny.
Who will give me an excuse to open it? Please complete your application in the Comments section of the blog. Especially interesting applications may be emailed in confidence.
The drive from Galicia took about three-and-a-quarter hours, and was a continuation of the beautiful, green, hilly country we’d seen in Spain, but it looked better maintained. It was hazy all day, for the entire distance we covered.
I’m sure Porto has culture, and in the distance I’m pretty sure I saw churches and palaces and whatnot, but my interest was focused like a laser beam on (1) doing nothing and (2) finding civilian clothes. For a month I have worn two shirts, two socks, two pairs of underwear – I was like the Noah’s Ark of hiking gear. I discovered in Porto that I had an inner metrosexual, and he wanted to come out.
We pretty much accomplished all these goals on the Via Catarina, a long, narrow, pedestrian shopping street, and during a few visits to the Majestic Café, a carved-wood-and-mirror Nouveau Art creation in which I could imagine Hemingway, its contemporary when it opened in 1923, sitting down to write. They are so proud of being able to cook a proper spaghetti Bolognese – which is to say about half as good as Mom’s – that they will take from you about $17 for a bowl the size of an appetizer dish. But they will speak English to you, like many Portuguese seem to do – they even seem to prefer it to Spanish.
Portugal lives in the shadow of Spain, its much larger, more populous, less poor country, and so to carve out their own distinct identity, the Portuguese have sort of agreed they will speak Spanish with a Russian accent. This they call “Portuguese”.
Things get really confusing when you hear a Russian immigrant speak “Portuguese”, or when you ask a Portuguese if he or she would prefer that you speak English or Spanish. “English,” they always say. This is because saying “Spanish” would simply reveal their secret: they are already speaking Spanish, just with a heavy Slavic accent.
The notion of customer service was stronger in Porto than on the Camino. Our first interaction was with the proprietor of a café-bar who (it would not be too much to say) hurdled over the counter to come and translate his menu for us. Everywhere we went, people were very friendly and accommodating.
Kudos especially to the woman who harvested an entire wall of its
No dummies were hurt in this demonstration
sweaters, and even brutally amputated a mannequin, in an attempt to get me to buy a sweater; the friendly young man at Zara who worked his mic like Madonna and who professed not to believe that I had never, as I told him, been as cool as he was, and therefore could not wear some of the items he was suggesting to me; and the salesman at Massimo Dutti, which I have decided is superior to Zara for men over 35, for lightening my wallet more than all the others combined.
I took care to hold on to my receipts, though. Taxes on clothes make up a whopping 23% of the listed price, but the foreigner can get back 19% at the airport. This helps a lot when you’re contemplating a 220-Euro winter coat at Massimo Dutti. Curiously, there is a minimum purchase of about 60 Euros, as if the authorities (in Portugal and elsewhere, actually) don’t want to administrative overhead of dealing with small receipts. But this creates a disincentive to buy single articles from smaller, mom-and-pop merchants, and likely benefits mostly the department stores and expensive retailers.
Many of the churches in Porto look as if they were built from the French Country section of Pottery Barn, being faced with a combination of somewhat grimy stonework that frames large, eye-catching expanses of blue-and-white Delph tiles depicting Biblical stories.
We took a double-decker bus around town. Mom on the bus ride along the ocean reminded me of a little girl, which is another way of saying that she’s able to be open and present to things as if she’s never seen them before. Ohhh! Look at that! It’s crashing! Do you hear it! I’ve got to catch that! It was amazing. I felt so stick-in-the-mud. We got off the tour bus on the avenue of port wine makers. “When will the bus return here?” I asked. “One hour,” the woman said firmly.
Fifty minutes later it paused briefly at the bus stop, a block away from us, and left without us.
For dinner that night I decided to try bacalao, or cod, which I’d had once in Spain, but which is considered a national dish in Portugal. Probably I should have waited until we were in a finer restaurant. Though I ordered it “grilled,” there was so much oil on my plate I could have run my BMW on it. I literally spooned it like soup. The fish itself, as prepared, was nothing to write a blog home about.
In Lisbon yesterday we began with a series of small disasters. The tourist office called about five hotels but all were booked. No problem: I’d look them up on the Internet. Then I discovered that after about 30 straight days of remembering to pack all of my electronics gear every day, I’d left behind my MacBook Air’s power cord. I’d used the battery on the bus, and it was almost dead. My Vodafone USB stick has been done for since Saturday.
We dealt with these setbacks by having lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. Carrie was in heaven. Mom loved her salad. The mac and cheese was pretty good. Afterward, we marched into a Starbucks that’s surely located in one of the most beautiful buildings for any Starbucks, and I madly tried to book a hotel on any of Priceline, Travelocity, or Venere. My power reached 2% and I booked a place called Caza Latina. We jumped in a cab and drove uptown to the address.
There was no sign. “This is a hotel?” I asked the driver. He shrugged, pointing out that he’d just brought us to the desired address. Obvious locals sat around at some tables at the joint next door. They told me, I thought, that it was a hotel. I then saw the “Latina” plate next to the buzzer marked #1. I buzzed. And buzzed. No one. I buzzed one marked “Porto” and this brought forth an angry charging dog dressed as an old Portuguese woman. By this time I was cursing with her. I established that she was not with the hotel, and though she was not done with her rant, I said goodbye to her and walked up the stairs. No sign. Nothing indicating a hotel or any commercial establishment. No open doors. Nobody.
On the sidewalk we considered our options. Finally we hailed another cab to take us to an Internet café whose address (like an Apple reseller’s) I’d looked up while in Starbucks. A miscommunication delivered us to the Apple reseller instead. He had no more power cords. But he was very generous: he said I could charge up and use the wi-fi. He also pointed out the coffee. Wow.
On Prieline, I found a two-star hotel near the Apolonia metro station. The rooms had single beds of the sort you’d see in the army, if you were in the army in one of Portugal’s former African colonies. A sign warned against “eating or drinking in the room”, but the presence of an unwalled sink and bidet added, “but do feel free, out in the open, to wash your ass”. The manager was extremely helpful in calling the hotel in Porto and having them ship my power cord.
Then we headed out for the ocean, two blocks away, but we were stymied because the ocean, it seemed, had been fenced off. For miles and miles. Never seen anything like it. So we went to an Indian restaurant, opened the place up (at 6:30), and had a fantastic meal. We were the only patrons, and it wasn’t just that restaurant: block after block, restaurant tables were empty.
I asked Mom and Carrie what felt different or what they missed now that the Camino was over. “I miss Julio!” Carrie said. Mom said, “I miss Julio’s encouragement, and I miss Marie Anne’s laughter. I also miss walking a little every day.”
I will write more later about our dawning realization that we have left what screenwriters call the Special World. We bring, I suppose, the precious elixir from our journey back to the Ordinary World. But we also know that the other reality is now imminent.
We weren’t in a hurry this morning. For most of the walk we went at a leisurely pace, putting me in mind of the pilgrims to Canterbury, England, who once rode their horses and donkeys toward their destination at neither a slow trot nor a fast gallop, but somewhere in between, which is why we now have the word canter.
If you think Priceline (above) is confusing, definitely avoid Kemwel.com
I did start late, though, and so spent the first hour or so catching up to Mom and Carrie. I had stayed behind at the albergue to try to get a car rental from Santiago to Lisbon, and I worked at this until I realized several things: (1) Priceline’s notions of arithmetic are akin to Camino café-bars’ ideas about spaghetti Bolognese (2) car rental giant Kemwel.com has not yet entered the era of user-friendliness or common sense, to put it mildly, and (3) it is impossible to rent a car one-way in Europe for a price less than that of booking a private jet.
We’re at about the 42nd parallel, which is perhaps near the California-Oregon border in the U.S., but it’s still dark until well after eight a.m. because while the Spanish discovered America for Europe, they haven’t yet discovered Daylight Savings Time.
About forty-five minutes after Mom and Carrie had gone, I left Pedrouzo at a fast pace and found myself in a dark wood. Two roads diverged in the wood, and I, I . . .
I waited for some pilgrims who hadn’t lost their headlamps. Instead I got pilgrims who had no lights at all, and one who tried to use his phone. The wood was so dark that I couldn’t even make out the ubiquitous Pilgrim Litter Navigation System. Once a group of ten of us had bunched up, murmuring in three or four different languages, we concluded via groupthink to take the wider path, a decision that, unlike the Bay of Pigs, worked out pretty well. I caught Mom and Carrie about an hour later, and I was pouring sweat. I don’t remember the song I was singing as I came up from behind, but they were convincingly disappointed that it wasn’t “She’s a Lady”.
A Spaniard on a bike asked us if we’d seen a group of four men, including one with a beard. No, we hadn’t. Why? Well, the bearded man and a woman had fallen in love some stages back, and then they’d gotten separated. The biker was trying to find the man to deliver a letter from the woman that included information on how to contact her. Awww, how sweet, right?
No. I am sorry, but better the letter is never delivered at all. If two people allegedly in love can’t think to negotiate contact information, what hope is there that they’ll remember to have sex, or to stop at the grocery store on the way home?
Not long afterward, we passed a pilgrim coming back from Santiago. He was walking back to France – that is, doubling his trip. We’d already run into an Austrian woman, perhaps late 40s or early 50s, who had begun in Toulose, France — 750 kilometers before the start of our own walk.
For Second Breakfast, I asked for the Espaguetti a la Carbonara. Based on my bolonaise experience thus far on the Camino, I knew this was risky; my espaguetti could arrive with octopus on top, and in a pesto sauce. Mom, feeling lucky, said she’d have one too. But the man at the bar informed us that, sadly, there was only one. Mom looked at the man, then at me.
“What did they do with the other one?”
A few kilometers later, she left her despised orange shirt on a sign that had been vandalized beyond usefulness anyway. We had walked twenty yards away from it when she said, “Oh, God, now it’s whining.” I thought she was joking, but she turned around to go back and get it. I took out my camera, but she had turned around again. “There are people coming,” she said sheepishly.
We walked on. She got shaky again. “It must be this food,” she said. “My body is just all messed up lately. I’ve got to get back on my diet. I haven’t felt so many problems in my body in two years.”
There’s not much to say about the last stage to Santiago. After the early forests and some brief bits of farmland in ruin, we walked on backroads bordered by some aggressively ugly houses, through sparsely settled suburbs, near an active firing range where all the suburban warriors were belting out double-taps, Navy-SEAL-style, and through Santiago’s outskirts, which, like a bride’s skirts, seemed to go on forever. We were in Santiago itself, but instead of the steep final hill that some guidebooks went on about, we were tested only by a tolerance for boredom. Said Mom, “I won’t feel I’ve arrived until I see the cathedral.”
With a little less than a mile to go, we took a break. I took off my trail-running shoes and discovered my first blisters, including a 2” x 3” job on my right foot and several on my toes. The unnecessary river crossing I had done two days ago had gotten my minimalist footwear wet, and they hadn’t dried out by yesterday. I had worn them anyway, with wool socks, but wearing them at all may have been a mistake. You never want moisture near your foot when you walk a long way.
I took out a pair of scissors and did the kind of surgery that makes fifteen-year-old girls blanch, and then I put on my FiveFingers. They had done almost all the work that got me here, and I would not, as Yahweh had done Moses, deny them the Promised Land right on the verge of it.
On our way to the plaza of the cathedral, we met two Seattle tourists who seem to have felt sort of bad because they’d gotten to Santiago by car. Mom chatted with them a bit before we had to answer the magnetic pull of the finish line just a few blocks away.
When Jesus Meets Me in the Sky
I was thinking of Julio’s words to me. “When you get to Santiago,” he’d said, “the local townspeople will greet you and offer to take you to their homes. You’ll have dinner with them and stay the night with them. It is a tradition there.”
I could just envision it. People would line the road like in the Tour de France, holding out bunches of wildflowers they’d picked themselves. Small children would squirm on their father’s shoulders, and teenagers would clamber onto the first-floor ledges of buildings, or hang from fire escapes and drain pipes. Everyone would cry out huzzahs and hosannas. Sloe-eyed and slender Spanish women would blow kisses. Old women would clutch at their rosaries.
I would pick up my poles and jog around the plaza in a victory lap, but the people’s joy would not be so easily contained, oh no. They would lift us up on their shoulders and sing to us traditional Galician songs, songs so old they were once sung by Pagans, and they would parade us around the square. When they finally set us down, all of us laughing ourselves to tears, a member of the Knights Templar would step out of the shadows and explain that the brotherhood still existed, after all these centuries, and could I please join – nay, lead — them?
The cathedral was well-hidden on the far side of Santiago. Also hidden were the townspeople and their homes, the huzzahs and the women, young and old. There were no tears, there were no kisses, and the Knights Templar remained a figment of Dan Brown’s imagination. We would stay in a pension, the Santa Cruz, run by an extremely helpful Spaniard who insisted on walking us places rather than simply give directions.
The Cathedral, and a Sort of Finish Line
The cathedral seems situated for maximum impact. You see only spires as you approach, and then the back and side. Then you go through a stone archway into the plaza and face the building opposite the cathedral. And once we entered the plaza of the cathedral, I focused on watching, and filming, Mom walking ahead of me. I surprised myself by getting a little choked up, but I’m pretty sure it was because I forgot to take my meds.
“Oh, we’re here!” she said.
Mom holds out the credentials stamped by all the albergues on the way
“You made it!” I told her. “You did it.”
I handed Carrie the camera and hauled my backpack over to Mom. I set it down and extracted the two battered red carnations I’d stored in it since the night before, and when she saw them she started crying again. She didn’t even care that the stem of one was now only eight inches long. When I pulled out the sixteen inches of the rest of the stem, she reached for that too.
“We’ve been here for days,” the man said, “and you’re the first pilgrims we’ve gotten to talk to. You guys have really accomplished something.” It was strangely wonderful to have some witnesses, to call them that, who were fully willing to join in something so late in the day and yet still get something from it, and who gave something back.
In the cathedral floor — where you go if you don’t burn enough karma, or whatever, on the Camino
It was almost as an afterthought that we toured the cathedral. It did not impress as much as the ones in Burgos and Leon. There are three world-class cathedrals on the Camino: in Burgos, Leon, and Santiago. Burgos boasts most of the gold in South America. Leon, its magnificent stained-glass windows. My favorite, though, was the one in Los Arcos, because that is where something magical happened, as a father mourned his lost son, and we were witnesses to his love. What matters, in a cathedral, is simply who’s inside it.
Nearby, we found the Pilgrims’ Office and got our Camino certificates, in Latin, which, as I work it out, means they came straight from the Vatican.
But it ain’t over till the mochilas come home. We still had to schlep across town and pick up Mom and Carrie’s backpacks. They were at the seminary, which turned out to be down a steep hill, up a steep hill . . .
“I’m glad we’re not staying there,” Mom said as we got close. “It looks like a prison! Look at the bars on the windows.”
“That’s to keep out the nuns,” I said. Carrie then learned that a
seminary is an all-male facility, which we know because it shares the same root as semen. She will have so much to share in her school report when she gets back to Colorado!
We ran into Devin, of Canada, who had walked 60km in 24 hours and now had severe tendinitis in both legs. “I saw the sign for 50 kilometers,” he said, “and I thought, ‘I could be in Santiago by tomorrow morning.'” We saw the 19-year-old New Zealand woman who had sped across Spain alone, on a deadline to catch a plane to London. And Mom was overjoyed to find Barbara of Bavaria, whose husband had surprised her for their 26th wedding anniversary by flying out to join her on the last three days of the Camino. She had walked him for 35km the first day. “You people have got to be crazy,” he said.
Reunion with Barbara of Bavaria – in Santiago
What Have You Learned?
“When people ask you what you learned on this trip,” Mom said to Carrie, “what are you going to tell them?”
I think that’s a job well done. Go forth and prosper, little cousin!
Me? I learned that Galicia, especially the countryside, is in a state of disrepair. My friend Adam, a longtime student of Spanish and Latin American history, and who is right about things that don’t really matter exactly 63% of the time, says that Galicia was depopulated during the 20th century. The guidebooks don’t often mention that until less than forty years ago, Spain was isolated and in decline under the right-wing dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.
I learned that if you’re a Pope, you can fly into Santiago in a private jet, slide into your Popemobile, and, having materialized at home base, as it were, receive the designation of “pilgrim”.
I learned that miracles are possible. For example, in the hurly-burly of travel, I had lost both the little rubber earbuds to my iPod’s headphones. For weeks, I stuffed the hard metal tips into my ears. They fell out easily. It was a hard, hard existence. But one day, as I was walking along, I saw, draped over a branch on one of the countless trees in Spain, a black wire. As I drew closer, I saw that there was not one wire but several. The tip that plugged into a music source had been ripped away, but there, before my eyes, were two rubber earbuds. I crossed myself and harvested them, leaving the hard metal tips and the rest of the wires on the branch. They fit my own headphones perfectly.
I learnd that if the collected works of E. Presley have taught us anything, it is that the primary anxiety of a waiter wearing blue suede shoes is that you may do anything you want to do but you should lay offa his blue suede shoes; that you can burn his house, and steal his car; that you can drink his liquor from an old fruit jar. You can do anything, that you want to do, but you oughtta lay offa his blue suede shoes.
There is no destination. Only the way. Recall the book by the German comedian, if you can set aside, for a moment, the oxymoron. The jacket copy said that since its publication, the number of pilgrims had increased by 20%. If more people go on the Camino after my book about it, they will have missed the point. There is no Camino. There are only caminos. There is no camino here. The camino, the way, is wherever you make it.
“Buen Camino!” We have heard that hundreds of times, from fellow pilgrims afoot, from bikers, and from the Spanish. But at no time does it seem more appropriate than now, once we’ve reached Santiago.
“Have a good Way!”
Chief Expedition Videographer, Biographer, and Podiatrist