Camino Journal May 2009
I arrived in Santiago de Compostela last Friday, May 15, 2009, after having walked the last 115 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago. I started in Sarria on Monday, May 11, and each day walked between 20 – 30 kms to reach my next destination. Here’s an account of my week living the pilgrim life:
Sunday, May 10, Day 0: Arrival in Sarria
I boarded the 6:52pm train near our apartment and arrived in Sarria at 9:15pm. The sun doesn’t set these days until 10pm, so thankfully I still had some daylight to look for a place to stay: I was going to spend the night in Sarria so that I could start walking the Camino the next morning and be on the same schedule as the rest of the pilgrims. Wandering around for a while, I didn’t see the Camino or any albergues (the Spanish word for pilgrim’s hostel), but then I saw three Spanish women with backpacks who looked like they were looking for an albergue as well. I asked them if they knew where the albergues were, they told me I could go with them to find the hostel they had reserved, and so together we walked up the enormous hill that’s in Sarria and found Albergue Don Álvaro, a private hostel right on the Camino. It cost us 8 euros each and we shared a room with 10 other men and women.
One of the purposes of my trip was to research the different hostels that are situated along the Camino, and I loved this hostel because it was large, sprawling, and had several common areas.
It had a garden courtyard with a fountain:
And it had a fireplace room, which is something we would love to have in our hostel. The liquor in the bottle on the left was homemade and many of the pilgrims got a little shot of it to celebrate the evening with our host. I already knew from experience that it was too strong for me so I didn’t have any, but everyone else seemed to enjoy themselves.
Then it was off to bed at around 11:30pm, although I didn’t sleep much at all. I was anxious and excited to start walking the next day, I wasn’t used to sleeping in a room with so many people, I wasn’t used to sleeping in a bunk bed, and there was a guy who woke up in the middle of the night and stumbled around, bouncing into three or four of the bunk beds before he finally found the door to the bathroom. I think that liquor was a bit too strong for him, too!
Monday, Day 1: Sarria to Portomarín, 22.85 kms
I left Don Álvaro hostel at 7:45am and started walking. There were pilgrims around during the first few hours, but I walked all day alone (meaning that I didn’t walk with anyone nor really talk to any other pilgrims while walking) and it wasn’t too bad. I saw beautiful scenery like this:
Much of the Camino consists of dirt trails through wooded, rural areas:
Around 12:00pm, I found myself walking completely alone, without any other pilgrims around. And I also found myself just trudging along the trail, tired and so ready to get to Portomarín. I was following arrows on a paved road when a white van passed by, stopped, then started backing up to where I was. A nice man said, “El Camino no va por aquí, está ahí.” (“The Camino doesn’t go this way, it’s over there.”)
“Sí?” I asked, “pero hay flechas aquí que dicen que estoy en El Camino!” (“Really?” I asked, “but there are arrows here that say that I’m on the Camino!” As you can see, I’ve learned to argue like the Spanish. They just say it as it is and are quite direct. It’s great!)
“No, pero éste no es El Camino. Ven, y te llevaremos ahí.” (“No, but this isn’t the Camino. Come and we’ll take you to it.”)
So I went to the passenger side of the van, where the man’s wife opened the front door and then scooted over into the middle of the front bench. I climbed up into the cab and sat next to her, resting my feet on an enormous sack of potatoes (this is Galicia, after all, where they consume French fries or boiled potatoes at every lunch). The man and his wife were very concerned, asking me if I were walking by myself and where I was from, and telling me that I had to join up with some of my fellow pilgrims so I didn’t have to be alone. After having walked solo all morning, it was great to talk to them for the few minutes we were together. They said I must have missed a turn somewhere, since I wasn’t actually on the Camino. They thought people had painted arrows on this wrong road to re-direct lost pilgrims back to the trail. They dropped me off at the Camino and said goodbye. I would’ve gotten to the spot eventually by following the arrows, but it was nice to have them reach out like that and save me some time.
Finally, after a couple of hours, I got to this spot:
The town of Portomarín was just across this bridge and up the hill. It was a beautiful sight, as I was exhausted and sore from a long day of walking. It was close to 3:00pm, which meant it had taken me 7+ hours to walk 22.85 kms – that was not making good time!
I walked across the bridge and up the stairs to the city, and then found the municipal (public) hostel. It cost 3 euros, and it was a nice enough hostel except that the bunk beds were pushed together in pairs, which meant that people were literally sleeping next to people they didn’t really know. This would have been OK in an all-girls’ room, but it was a big co-ed room and I immediately regretted my decision to stay in the public hostel! Thankfully, I found a bunk bed next to the wall, which meant that it stood by itself and wasn’t pushed up against another bunk.
I enjoyed the afternoon in Portomarín. I ate lunch (by myself) and walked around and took some pictures. Here’s the church in Portomarín. If you go to the photo above of Portomarín, you can see the church up on the hill, to the right by the trees.
When I came back to the hostel, I sat down in the common area, which consisted of just tables and chairs. I met two Korean girls, one of whom had been an au pair (nanny) in Connecticut so she spoke English very well. I met Patrick, a 64-year-old Irish man who was walking the Camino for the fourth time. The amazing thing about him was that he only had one arm. I also met James, a Korean guy, and later on a Japanese guy joined us as well. So at this one table in the hostel’s common area, there was white Irish Patrick surrounded by all of us Asians. I had to laugh.
It was in this hostel that my three Spanish friends from Sarria – Marina, Cristina, and Fernanda – had also chosen to stay. We got to hang out a bit that evening before we went to sleep. All in all, it was a good first day – quiet for sure, lonely at times – but I was glad to have it under my belt and I loved being back in the traveling subculture.
Tuesday, Day 2: Portomarín to Palas de Rei, 25.6 kms
I walked alone again today, all day, but this time there were many more pilgrims around me, which was nice. I left Portomarín at 7am and arrived at Palas de Rei at 1:30pm, which I thought was amazing, especially after yesterday’s 3km/hour speed.
At 9:30am I stopped at a café to get a snack, and as I ordered my Cola Cao (hot chocolate milk) at the bar, two British pilgrims came in and stood next to me. They looked around the café and said hi to two Spanish pilgrims they knew. The Spaniards were drinking beer – at 9:30am – and one of the Brits said very matter-of-factly, “It’s a little early to be drinking beer now, isn’t it?” The two Spanish guys laughed very loudly, but I don’t think they really understood what had been said. It’s like the book that Nate just finished reading, “The New Spaniards”: the author writes that at any given time, half the Spanish adult population – while not drunk – is not fully sober. And then you throw in a foreign language – English – and who knows what chaos can ensue?
The walking was difficult today – I felt tired quite often. I had chocolate and snacks with me, and these gave me some boosts, but overall the hilly trails just drained me. Thank goodness I had two trekking poles which helped propel me up hills as well as stabilize me going down, and I didn’t get any blisters. Here’s a photo of a hill I’d just crested – it was so huge you could only see the top of the house that sat at the bottom of it. The landscape was beautiful, though. And I inadvertently caught the two British guys from the café in the photo – they’re the ones wearing blue. I would talk to them the next day.
Some of the trail today ran along a road:
As I walked, sometimes I would look around me and think of all the people I knew who had been in that very same spot months or even years ago: Nate, Sarah, Andrew and Jan C., Rachel O., Steve M., Jen L. It was encouraging to think of “all those who had gone before” and to think that they had also faced the same hills and challenges and looked out on the same scenery.
Today was momentous for another reason. Let me first say that most people love walking the Camino because you get to get out into nature, experience peace and tranquility out in the woods, get away from civilization, and all that. Well, one of the occupational hazards of this kind of setting is that there are no “real” bathrooms around for miles. After walking for hours and feeling the urge to use the bathroom build and build, I started to look for an opportune place to go #1. I finally found a nice semi-secluded spot in the woods and hurried over to it. However, in my fear of being seen by pilgrims who might be coming along the trail, I was impatient to be done and stood up way too soon – really, I was still going and would be for a few more seconds – and I completely drenched my pants. Utterly and completely. I felt like Ryan, who wets his pants and bed so frequently that sometimes he changes his underwear three times a day. Except I couldn’t change my clothes at all. Thankfully, though, I was wearing black pants and you couldn’t really see that they were soaked, and thankfully they were the quick-drying kind. But still, I had to walk the next few kilometers with wet clothes and the embarrassment that came from knowing I’d just peed my pants. I was relieved that no one was around at all. Which, had I known that, I could have gone to the bathroom in peace!
Anyway…I arrived at Palas de Rei at 1:30pm and checked into the municipal hostel. Here’s the view from my bunk:
It was a co-ed room, but there were only 10 people in it, which was nice. The bad thing was that the 10 of us shared one bathroom and in this bathroom there were two showers – but there were no shower curtains. Again, if it had been an all-girls’ room, I would’ve been fine with having open showers (or bunk beds pushed together)…but in a co-ed room it just felt uncomfortable and awkward. Thankfully I didn’t see anyone naked that I shouldn’t have, and no one saw me while I was showering. While I showered I washed my pee-sullied clothes, then hung them over my bed rails, as you can see in the picture above.
The Korean girls were in my dorm and I asked them how their walk was. Another girl suddenly appeared and said, “Oh, good, you guys are speaking English!” So we started talking – turns out she had started from Sarria on Monday, too, and was still getting used to the Camino and the pilgrim lifestyle like I was. Her name was Vanessa, and she was a South African who now lived in England. Vanessa and I ended up spending almost the entire afternoon together – we had a snack at a café, and then a couple of hours later we had dinner at a restaurant. It was so nice to connect with someone, especially in English! We talked about all sorts of things – Nate and the kids, her job as a doctor in England, and our plans for a hostel in Santiago. She shared some deep things, too, about how she wanted this Camino trip to help her make some significant life decisions. I really appreciated her openness with me.
Earlier in the day, Vanessa had met a group of four guys who were biking through Europe. One was American, one was a Brit, and two were South African. They had started in Portugal and were biking along the Camino backwards, hoping to bike 100 kms a day and reach France and beyond. They came into the restaurant as we were eating dinner, and we got to chat with them a bit. It’s just so fascinating to hear other people’s stories – where they’re coming from, where they’re going, why they’re traveling – I don’t think I’ll ever tire of hearing stuff like this.
After dinner, I went to the café next door to get online. I hadn’t seen Marina, Cristina, and Fernanda all day, but into this café they came. It was a nice surprise, especially since they’d chosen to stay in a private hostel this night, and we talked a bit. Then I headed back to the hostel, where I was in bed by 10:30pm.
Wednesday, Day 3: Palas de Rei to Arzúa, 30 kms
This morning Vanessa and I got some coffee at a café at 7am, and then we walked together for maybe 10 minutes before we had to crest a hill. She flew up it like it was nothing! I, on the other hand, labored and wasn’t ready for a hill of this magnitude so early in the morning, so she went on. I’m realizing that even when you meet people on the Camino and spend time with them in the hostels in the afternoon, most people like to walk alone, where they can go at their own rhythm and control their own destiny, so to speak.
As I walked in the morning, the scenery of these two spots jumped out:
A couple of hours later, I saw Patrick, the Irish man who has done the Camino 4 times, so we walked and talked for a bit before joining up with the two British guys that I inadvertently took a picture of yesterday. Patrick saw them up ahead on the trail and said, “How are you chaps doing?” I love the way the Irish/Brits talk!
I ended up walking with ?? – I never caught his name but he was the taller of the 2 British men – and I learned that they were from Portsmouth and that they had been progressively walking the Camino a week at a time for 4 years now (in other words, the first year they started in the Pyrenees and walked for a week, the second year they started where they had left off and walked for another week, and so on). This year they had given themselves 2 weeks to finish it, so they were walking from León to Santiago. It was a good chat and lasted about 20 minutes or so. We even talked about Spanish history, which is certainly not my forte. By that time we were in Melide, and I stopped for a break while they went on.
After that I walked alone for a really long time – about 10 kms. During this time I noticed that someone had sheep in his backyard (not in a field, but just penned in his backyard):
About 27 kms into the walk, with just 3 kms left before reaching Arzúa, I met two Irish pilgrims, Niall and Maddie. I was really grateful that I got to walk with them, because our conversation helped the last 3 kms pass quickly. He’s a Catholic priest and she’s a youthworker, and they’re both from Cary. They were on the Camino with a Catholic tour group of 8, and every day they’d have breakfast together, walk 10 kms, stop in the middle for Mass and reflection, and then stay in hotels – not hostels – at night. What a different way to do the Camino! It sounded very cool. One of the best parts of our conversation was that Niall’s accent was exactly like that of the people in the movie Waking Ned Devine, one of my favorite movies (if you haven’t seen it, you’ll love it, unless you’re BJ and Pattie).
I finally arrived in Arzúa at 2:30 or so and checked into the first hostel I could find. After having walked 30 kms I was beat, and I needed to stop. The hostel was called Albergue Don Quijote, which seemed appropriate for Spain. It was a private albergue and though it was small, it was nice and clean, and offered more amenities than did the public albergues. For example, they had soap dispensers in the showers, doors on the showers, separate mens’ and womens’ bathrooms (you can see I’m very focused on the bathrooms!), and blankets on the beds. There was nicely-decorated common area with tables, pay-internet use, vending machines, a TV, and games.
They also had a pay-laundry area, which is typical for many of the public and private albergues:
For lunch, I ate by myself at a pizzería down the street. It’s so funny – during this trip I’ve just been craving a good pizza, and some chicken breast. Usually if I order chicken at a restaurant they just give a chicken thigh. So today at the pizzería I ordered a personal pizza with chicken and vegetables. Well, wouldn’t you know it, they were out of chicken by that point (3:30), so I forewent pizza and ordered some lasagna. After lunch I did some shopping for dinner (just an apple, rice w/ milk, and breadsticks) and I walked around seeing if I could bump into Vanessa. I never did see her, which was too bad. We should have exchanged phone numbers or set up a meeting place in advance. I found out later from the Korean girls that Vanessa had chosen to stay in the public hostel, and that she’d also been looking for me during the afternoon.
So back at Don Quijote, a German lady and I had the dorm room all to ourselves:
It was quiet and peaceful. We talked a bit (in English, since most of the Germans on the Camino speak English) before I headed out to the common area. There were 8 people in there, 7 of them Spaniards (and 5 of them from the province of Cataluña). They weren’t all together, but they were friendly with each other. They had a game show on the TV and a couple of the guys were reading newspapers. I started talking to them a bit, and they were all very interested in the fact that I was living in their country with a goal to start a new hostel. For almost all of them, this was their second time doing the Camino, and they asked questions, corrected my Spanish, smiled, etc. I realized how comfortable I felt hanging out with a roomful of just Spaniards: to think that I could move easily among English speakers as well as Spanish speakers gave me pause to thank the Lord.
Tomorrow will be an easy day – only 20 kms!
Thursday, Day 4: Arzúa to Arca do Pino, 20 kms
Having had our room to ourselves, the German pilgrim and I didn’t wake up until 7:30 – wow! I finally got going on the trail at 8:20. It was a rainy, wet, muddy, dirty day. It was one of those days where you wear everything that you have that’s waterproof and just plod along and try not to step in any puddles or mud piles. I didn’t take any pictures because of the rain, and I didn’t talk to many people on the trail – the German lady a bit, and then a Spanish guy from Madrid that I had seen in Palas de Rei – turns out he had lived in Chicago and in San Francisco. He loves the US.
I stopped in a café in a tiny town called Salceda and while I was waiting for my drink at the front, the couple next to me in line were speaking English with an American accent. I asked them where they were from, and they said Sausalito, California. Their names were John and Lori, they were taking one week to bike from Pamplona to Santiago (704 kms), they would arrive in Santiago this afternoon, and then they were taking a train to Madrid tonight! What a jam-packed itinerary! They asked me where I was from as well, and when I told them that we now lived in La Coruña and that our goal was to open a hostel in Santiago, John said, “Oh, I’m in the hotel business. Our company manages about 25 hotels.” Wow! He gave me his business card and told me that their company puts a lot of resources online, for example, an Employee Handbook and a Guest Services Manual. What a great contact to have, and they were both so sweet.
Then after that stop I just trudged for the last 6 kms or so – it wasn’t that hilly, but I was tired and ready to stop for good for the day. And today was an easy day!! I think being alone in the woods just drains me, whereas being in the hostels talking to people is energizing and life-giving. For others it’s the other way around. I arrived in Arca do Pino around 1:45pm and I checked in to the municipal hostel. It was a beautiful building:
We had assigned bunks, and mine is the one with the blanket hanging out:
Lucky for all of us we were in a coed dorm with curtainless shower stalls again. I happened to walk by one of the showers and a guy had just finished and was drying himself off, and I happened to see everything. Ack. I took a shower really quickly in the corner shower. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But it’s just awkward and, as one of the Korean girls said, “dangerous.” Because it’s not like you accidentally see someone naked and then never see them again – you see the same people day after day on the trail, and you really don’t want any lasting images of their nakedness in your head. Of course, it would’ve been worse for me had I actually been on the trail longer than just 5 days. I wonder how the municipal albergues are in other parts of the country.
Ate lunch at just up the road at Blue Bic restaurant, walked around a bit, then headed back to the hostel. Never did see Vanessa again today or any other day, even though I looked for her in each town. I did see Cristina, Marina, and Fernanda when they checked into the hostel, though, and we hung out the rest of the afternoon and evening. It was so nice to see them and spend more time with them. At one point I went into a grocery store without them, and in the store I met Eveline, a lady from Ireland who now lives in Australia. We chatted for a while in the store and back at the hostel. The crazy thing about her is that she doesn’t perspire – she said she’s only bought 3 bottles of water since she started the Camino 4 weeks ago and hasn’t needed anything else other than what she gets in cafés during breaks – that’s nuts! I can’t imagine not perspiring. Marina, Fer, and Cristina joined me after a while, and we chatted then went to bed. Tomorrow is the last day!
Friday, Day 5: Arca do Pino to Santiago de Compostela, 20 kms
I made it!
The day started out beautifully – I caught the sunrise from the kitchen windows in the hostel:
And I got to talk to a mother and daughter from Australia. They’re actually German, but they left Germany after Chernobyl (apparently radiation effects were being felt in Germany), and they’ve lived in Australia since then.
The walk felt difficult yet again, with much of the Camino going alongside a road instead of through the woods. At one point in the woods, though, I got a picture of my shadow:
Cristina, Fer, Marina and I had agreed yesterday that when I made it to town I would text them to tell them where I was. So I waited on the outskirts of town and texted them, then waited for a bit before they came – they were about 40 minutes behind me. Here we are right after we met up – from left to right are Marina, Fernanda, and Cristina.
We walked into town together since we were not yet at our final destination, the Cathedral. We passed through the modern area of Santiago, then entered into the historic district, walking uphill toward the back of the Cathedral. We walked through an archway, down some steps, rounded the side of the Cathedral toward the front, and then finally, finally turned around to face the Cathedral full-on and cheered. We had finished!! It was a bit emotional. Our family drives down to Santiago every few weeks to visit friends or walk around, but it was such a special feeling to actually experience it again as a pilgrim who had arrived. We walked to the back of the plaza and met up with some of the other pilgrims we’d seen for the past few days in the hostels and along the trail, and sat down with them for a bit. We looked at the Cathedral and pondered the kms that we’d pounded out.
After a while, though, it was time to get down to business and look for a place to stay. Fernanda had to catch a train in the evening so she wouldn’t be staying overnight, but the three of us – Marina, Cristina, and I – found a pensión to stay in. We dropped off our backpacks, and then I spent the rest of the afternoon eating. I didn’t plan it that way, but that’s how it literally turned out.
First, we ate lunch (at 4pm) at a great restaurant called Casa Manolo. If you’re ever in Santiago, try to eat there – their menu of the day is only 8,50 euros, and for each course they give you about 8 choices to choose from. And it’s all so yummy. Fernanda said during lunch, “I don’t know why, but I was expecting something different for when I arrived here. I’m excited I finished the Camino and that I did what I set out to do, but I feel like something was missing when I got here. It’s like I expected a greater welcome.” (Of course, it was in Spanish, but this was the theme of what she was saying.) I thought that was interesting. I had heard in the past that sometimes pilgrims are disillusioned when they arrive in Santiago, because they’ve just been through this intense personal journey, and they’ve been in the quiet countryside for so long…and then they get to Santiago and it’s just like any other tourist town: people are trying to give you free samples of cookies, sell you souvenirs, advertise their hotels or restaurants, or beg you for money. It’s like you leave what’s tranquil and real and shockingly enter the materialistic and consumeristic world again. So I guess I agreed with Fernanda – if Santiago is the destination city of this long pilgrimage that’s meant to help you connect with the Lord or help you understand yourself better (or both), it should feel different. It shouldn’t feel like just any other town that you visit as a tourist.
At 6pm, after having shopped on my own for a little bit (directly contributing to consumerism – I bought new wool socks!!), I met my friend Betty. We had some chocolate (the Spanish drinking chocolate) at her favorite chocolatería, and we got to catch up.
At 7:30pm, I met Cristina and Marina back at the Cathedral. Fernanda had already left. The three of us shopped a little more, then went to one of my favorite Santiago cafés, Café Casino, for drinks. I had tea (nice and non-caloric after our huge lunch and my snack with Betty). We had fun talking – I am really so glad that I met them the very first day of my trip, and that our relationship continued through today! I feel like we connect well.
And wouldn’t you believe it, at 9pm, we left Café Casino and headed to a restaurant for dinner. We ate at a Turkish/ Thai place (what a combination, huh?) – Cristina had spring rolls, Marina had a Turkish salad, and I had wonton soup – and we talked some more. I also saw the two British guys from Portsmouth there! It was nice to catch up with them and find out how the rest of their Camino had gone. The one who had once said, “It’s a little early to be drinking beer now, isn’t it?” was now drinking beer, and he was very smiley and happy. It kind of cracked me up to see him like this, because on the Camino he had been a serious, task-oriented guy, walking fast and purposefully. But tonight, I realized as we chatted that he was just short of fully-coherent.
Around 10:30pm we started heading back:
We walked to the pensión and headed to bed. It really had been a great day in the end – I loved the feel of Santiago as a pilgrim. We saw people everywhere that we had seen on the trail, and there was a natural openness and desire to talk and to hear about where they were staying, how long they were staying, what they thought of the town, and where they had eaten lunch. The history of walking the Camino “together” the past few days meant that we felt connected to each other, even if we’d only said “hi” when passing each other while hiking. And I think this is what makes the city of Santiago unique – once you arrive as a pilgrim, you have a built-in circle of friends with which to celebrate (and eat!). Once I caught this feeling, I wished that I had actually walked the trail longer than just 5 days – I wished I had started in León (2 weeks away) or Burgos (3 weeks away) so that I could’ve had even deeper history with these pilgrims. Maybe one day when the kids are older… But for now, I can’t wait to open up a hostel to serve these little communities that arrive every day.
Saturday, Day 6: Santiago to La Coruña
I took the 10:30am train back home, and when I stepped off and started walking toward the waiting area, I saw Nate and the kids. How fun to be home! And what a relief for Nate! It’s no easy task to be home with 3 kids alone for 6 nights, but he did a great job.
I’ve finally finished writing this Camino journal today, June 8, 2009. In reflecting on the trip, I’ve realized that while it is a physically-challenging experience, it’s also a mentally-challenging journey – every day I had to push myself to keep going so that I could arrive at the city in which I had planned to arrive for that day. Many times I was so bored as I walked, especially because I was usually walking alone, and since I was alone and bored my thoughts tended to turn inward and I would think about how bored and tired I was. But if I wanted to meet my goal of arriving at a particular town, I had to push past those thoughts and find motivation and strength to keep walking. I definitely felt close to the Lord as I walked, and it was neat how He provided people to talk to when I really needed it the most.
I also feel so grateful that Fernanda, Marina, and Cristina were such a big part of my trip. They adopted me into their group and made me feel completely at home.
The hostel research also went well. I had a checklist that I went through for each hostel in which I stayed, and I found that there were definitely some things that certain hostels had or did to facilitate pilgrims sitting down together and talking. I hope we can incorporate some of these things into our plans for a hostel.
And finally, I’m really grateful for all of the texts, emails, and encouragement I received during the week. Thanks for sharing in this journey!
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