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Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction (English)

January 8, 2012

Here it is! Finally…

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Well, it’s taken a while, but the first digital version of my new book “A Pilgrim with no Direction” is available at this site.  Here’s the cover.

 

Many of you have enjoyed the initial installments, but it has since been fleshed out, fluffed up, and tidied here and there!   Hope you enjoy it.

At some point in the future, a hard copy version will be available as well as a Spanish language version (also written by me!)

 

Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction (English),Spain,Travel

October 24, 2010

On the Road: Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction 30 (And that’s it!)

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Many years ago, though possibly not as many as some would believe, the average devote Christian would emerge from his home, wherever that may have been, and begin walking with the intent on fulfilling a once-in-a-lifetime event:  The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  The journey could take anywhere from hours to weeks, when not months, to complete.  It all depended on where their starting point was.  To get to the Holy City, they would walk great distances day after day with footwear that was good for anything but a foot or for those distances.  As a result, toes were mangled, heels hammered and ankles twisted and deformed; their joints would pain beyond imagination and their muscles would ache endlessly.  The walkers would endure a beating sun, wind-driven soaking rain, frosty mornings and bone-chilling snowfalls.  They would step through rushing rivers, trudge through mucky mud, and tiptoe over excruciating pointed rocks.  They would fall sick, cough, sniffle, groan, wheeze, hack, shake, vomit, collapse and, on occasion, perish.  Sort of like what happened to me on my first day.

                If the Camino is a tough go nowadays despite all the modern-day amenities, back then it must have been a rugged and oft horrid piece of traveling made tolerable only by a great deal of luck and an immense amount of faith.  Those who did make it, those who persevered, must certainly have felt fortunate, nearly chosen.  They would have arrived in Santiago worn out and humbled by the experience, God’s children kneeling in adoration and awe.  They would then ascend the steps of the cathedral, plug each of their five fingers in the five smooth sockets of the main column of the Pórtico de la Gloria (worn in over the centuries by the digits of previous pilgrims), go behind the altar, hug the apostle, attend mass, pay homage to all that there was to pay homage to, clasp their hands tight in pious prayer, squeeze their eyes shut and implore the Lord’s forgiveness and grace, imbibe themselves in the mystical sound of Gregorian chant, let the sweet yet acrid odor of incense penetrate their noses and brains and then fall upon the floor before the glory of the moment, and cry out “Hallelujah, the Lord is great.  The Lord is merciful.  The Lord has granted me the right to bear witness to the site where the holy remains of the Apostle Saint James lay.  This is why I have come.  This is why I am here.   This has brought all meaning to my life.  I shall never be the same again.”

                Then they would stand up, turn around and walk home.

               That’s right.  Walk.  All the way back to their goddamn kitchen.  No trains. No buses. No taxis to the airport.  Not even a rickety donkey-driven two-wheeled buggy.

               Now that would suck.  I mean, that would be a real bummer.  No full-scale pardon awaiting you at the other end of the road, but a head in a kerchief, an angry look that could split atoms, and a rolling pin in one hand being tapped in the other hand accompanied by the words:  “Where the hell have you been the last three months, you good-for-nothing weasel?”

              “I’ve been eating octopus and thinking about God” …It would earn you a good crack on the crown, but it might just be well worth the one-liner.

              Modern technology has helped us overcome that obstacle.  But there are those who feel, in fact, that the “real” Camino indeed entails returning to your starting point the same way you came and in the same fashion.  I believe that this is a total pile of Galician cow dung, because there isn’t any such a thing as a “real” way of doing it.  Plus, back then, it’s not as if the pilgrims had much of a choice.  Such doctrinistic purist hogwash tends to be the fabrication of the ignorant and their ignorance.  Still, there is something alluring about the idea of reliving the original process, and yes, there are some who actually retrace their steps back to where they came from.  The arrows pointing in the opposite direction are blue, but I can assure you that they are few and far between.  For the most part, you are better off just turning your neck a lot and sticking to the regular signs as you regress.

            Our choice of return was Andres’ Hyundai Matrix, the safest car in Europe, which by now had become like a friend to me.  The thing was our captain was in no piloting form at nine that morning, so I took the helm and sailed us through the first half all to way to Benavente.  Andrés took over from there and we cruised back to Madrid.  The return trip was quiet and uneventful.  We didn’t talk much, mostly slept.  There wasn’t much to say anyway.  The Camino was such an incredibly rewarding experience in so many ways, we had done so much in the past six days, what could we add?  We recalled an anecdote here and there, and laughed a little, but most of the time there we sat silently and listened to the music and, in my case, thought to myself.  I thought about the people I had met, the brothers from Huelva, the Saints from Belgium, the Italian Boys Scouts eaten alive by Santi the Killer Pilgrim Terrier.  I thought about my co-pilgrims Aitor, Andrés and Javier, and what wonderful people they were and what  a pleasure it had been for me to take to the Road with them.  I was especially happy for Andrés.  Six months before I had told him that he and I would walk into Santiago together, and there we were on our way back victorius.   The man overcame and outdid all expectations.  He suffered a lot and had a pretty crappy time for most of those kilometers, but he made it.  And he did it with tenacity and good humor.   God bless him, he made it.

                And I thought about all  the people in my life, my family and friends, and in particular my wife and daughters who had sacrificed their time so I could go  frolicking about in the countryside for a week.  I thought about all those I had done the trip for, and especially the good news I received about my mother.  I was lucky.  You must do the Camino for nothing in exchange and let destiny do the rest upon reaching your destination.

           Like any departure from reality, especially one as fascinating, satisfying and entertaining as that one, we were caught in a mixture of emotions.  Of course we were dying to get back to our friends and family; but at the same time, we were almost scared to reincorporate ourselves into society.  At least I was.  I guess it was a natural reaction.

           In the following days I remember talking to a number of people about the Camino.  Actually, it was interesting the way different people responded.  Some asked general questions without delving much further, others wanted all sorts of details, and still others asked nothing at all.  Most had never done the pilgrimage but almost everyone said they would like to one day.  I completely felt for them, since I used to be the same way.  I had nothing but encouragement for them, but wondered if they would ever take that step.  It wasn’t a big one, just oh so hard to raise your foot.  Wasn’t that like so many things in life, where there are dreams within our reach and yet we still fail to make them come true?  Weren’t there roads waiting for us which we pass by just to stick to the old and familiar?  Doing the Camino was a necessary challenge in my life, and one I could repeat over and over.

         I could almost liken the pilgrimage to becoming a father.  I knew it would be different, I knew it would be hard and I knew it would be extremely gratifying.  I also knew it would change my life all forever.  I just didn’t know how or in what way.  For that you have to go out and live it.  One big difference between the two was that I was on the Saint James’ Way for less than a week, and I have been a father for 4275 days and counting…but that’s another Camino all together.

         So, you can do the Camino.  You bet your life on it.   And you don’t have to do it for religious reasons, even spiritual ones.  You can do the Camino for whatever reason you want, for no reason other than you just felt like walking, though setting a goal or two to give it some meaning always helps…but maybe that’s just the teacher in me coming out.

         You should do the Camino.  Absolutely.  There’s no excuse.  It’s an attainable goal.  It gives direction.  It’s literally as easy as putting on your blue bandanna, walking out your front door and saying, “I’m going.”

         Buen Camino.

                                                        - For Mom and Dad

Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction (English),Spain,Travel

October 19, 2010

On the Road: Memories of a Pilgrim with no Direction 28

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Getting the certificate took up the entire afternoon and the early part of the evening so we barely had time to do anything other than get ready for dinner, which even under the most distressing times was a challenge we felt we could take on with pride and professionalism.  We dined at a classic eatery in the old town known as Sixto (actually it was Sixto II, right down the road) and feasted on baked scallops, octopus, prawns, large quantities of beef and potatoes.  Our great meal was massive and delicious and a fitting way to end the trip, which came at the end of a long line of great meals, though I can’t quite say it varied significantly from the general eating practices of our expedition.    

                   The old town of Santiago has a lot of things to say for itself but one thing it lacks is a solid late night life.  In fact, from the point of view of some residents of Madrid who knew a thing or two about going out, it pretty much sucked.   There were a few spots here and there, but they were packed, packed with people, packed with smoke, packed with music, packed with a lot of reasons not to enter them…so we bagged that idea and searched elsewhere, trying not to venture too far.  We went into a place nearby the park which a couple suggested to us.  I remember it once used to be an Irish bar where a friend of mine worked but now was a nightclub for preppy young people, and boy did we look like freaks.  Well, actually, we looked no more like freaks than they did in their own strange preppy way, we were just outnumbered.  Hardly anyone took notice of us except for an occasional person stared at us warily with a look that said, “What the hell are you doing there?”

              The rest just about ignored us completely, which was all right with us on one hand but, to be honest with you, our big post-pilgrimage blowout was supposed to be something a little rowdier.  I was kind of hoping to be standing on some table with the big Huelva brothers, with a beer in my hand, sunglasses on and singing out loud “Louie, Louie”, but I have always had a tendency to construct fanciful visions of my future.  Right now, though, I would have settled for anything more fun than hanging out with a bunch of posh kids who didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves in the first place.   

                    No to be.  Even off the Camino, the Camino teaches you that things don’t have to be the way you would like them to be.  We stayed for a drink and walked back into the streets and instead of going in search of some other joint, we ended up back at the Plaza de Obradoiro where we took a look at the cathedral once again, but this time with far fewer people milling around and a ton of gorgeous lighting shining on the façade.  We sat down in the same spot we did when we arrived at midday and looked up again.  And we looked up again.  And we looked up again.  I even had my sole celebratory cigarette of the trip.  I was sure it would give me a tremendous headache the next day, but at that moment, it tasted great.  If you ever get to Santiago de Compostela, be it on foot or by airplane, I highly recommend take the time out of your schedule and take a seat on the stone ground of the immense square and just look at the beauty before you around midnight.  It is my favorite time to look at the cathedral.  It always has been…

Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction (English),Spain,Travel

September 19, 2010

On the road: Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction 20

Everyone had their particular wish and desire on the Camino; Aitor’s was stomping around the countryside when it was pitch black out.       

           “It’ll be great!” he said enthusiastically to our dumbstruck faces.  “Something new and different.”  It would stir other senses in our bodies, he added.  We would have a chance to enjoy the Way among the mystery of darkness.  

             What this also meant was that we would have to wake up at some ungodly early hour. 

              For some unimaginable reason I said I thought was a good idea too, but that’s because I am known to speak before I think.  And it certainly didn’t seem like such a winner at 5.30 the next morning when Javier’s alarm started beeping frantically like a bomb about to explode.  It was start of the fifth day (or the end of the fourth night depending on how you looked at it) and the long-term effects of the daily adventures and early rising were beginning to take their toll, and for a second I wished I was at some Swedish spa resort.  By now, I popped my daily Ibuprofen ration to 600mg, just for good measure, and downed with no other breakfast but a piece of fruit.   Javier and I then quietly got our things together.  I had become quite efficient at organizing myself over the past few days:  I would just throw everything into the same bag and toss it into the backpack. 

             We emerged from the hotel and set off beneath the orangish illumination of the street lights, which became sparser as the town fell behind us.  We weren’t the only ones out there.  As usual, some of the early birds from the albergues intent on grabbing a bed in the next town had taken to the road too, but for the most part, things were pretty quiet.            

            Now, I want to make it cleear that I did my best to keep an open mind about things, but I gotta say that hiking through the countryside in pitch blackness just doesn’t do it for me.  You can’t enjoy the scenery they you can in broad daylight and, if you are a myopic middle-aged knucklehead like me, on more than one occasion you end up fumbling around for a Way stone to indicate a direction.  It just wasn’t fulfilling.  I needed to see more than just a few stars and planets lurking in the damp air.

           Aitor and Javier picked up speed and before we knew it they had disappeared into the darkness, with just about everything else as far as I was concerned.   The good thing about heading out just before dawn, though, is that eventually it will get brighter.  Now, those were the tones that I enjoyed.  The constantly changing shades of gray and blue treated us to something “new and different” every minute.  Definitely beats crawling around and squinting like Mr. Magoo for a painted arrow somewhere.

          Finally we came to a place whose owner I felt had a solid head on his shoulders.  About 100 yards before we encountered a sign saying: “Bar Peregrino, straight ahead.  Open for breakfast at 7:00 a.m. every day, come and visit us. We love you!”  Now that was what I called advertising and good business sense.  Here, most places were closed at this hour even though hundreds of potential and I mean VERY potential customers passed by every day, and the restaurant owners couldn’t be bothered with serving up a little service.  It made no sense to me.  Was it really what my friends had said that the Gallegos don’t get up early?  They sure did in O Porriño. 

           This was actually a couple who knew what it was doing.  They are probably in the Canary Islands enjoying a well-deserved break for the winter after all those summer early rises…then again, knowing the Gallegos, being untiring workaholics (once they open their bars, that is) they are still plugging away at the old family business.  In any event, Andrés, who had decidedly opted not to try and keep up with Aitor and Javier, and I trekked up to the top of a hill and entered the cafeteria.  A whole slew of us were in there.  The brothers from Huelva, some Germans, the couple from Argentina and Valencia.  We all greeted each other and then we sat down for some coffee and chocolate pastries to really recharge the batteries that morning.   Andrés popped a cigarette out of the pack for a smoke.  Just then I saw I had a missed cal from Aitor so I gave him a ring.  “What’s up?”

          “Hey.”

          “Where are you?”

          “We’re in a bar a few kilometers up the road.  Kilómetro 33 or so.  Where are you?”

          “Jesus.  You really got far.  Hold on.  ‘Andrés can I have some sugar please?  Thanks.’  We’re going to be here for a little bit.  Where should we meet?”

           “We’ll wait for you.”

            “Really?  You sure you want to do that?  It might take us a while.  ‘Andrés, here’s your chocolate doughnut.’”    

            “That’s all right.  Just try to make it quick.  You see, I left my money in Andrés backpack.  We haven’t got a dime.”

           “Really? That’s sorry to hear.  Hold on.” I told Andrés and we muffled the phone so they couldn’t hear our laughter.   “OK, we’ll be there soon.  Hold on.” 

              I hung up.  “Want another coffee?”

             “Sure.”  Oh, well.  That was the nature of the Camino.  You can rush and rush, but you never knew if it was going to get you there any faster.  They were screwed.

             I was just kidding about the coffee.  I am a sinner of great sinning but I occasionally have a heart.  We did stick to the Camino though.  Javier had suggested that Andrés cut down the distance by taking the highway instead of the long route, but Andrés was not at all for that.  If he had come that far and not been buried yet, then he wasn’t going to cheat.

          The route we took was through a small and pretty village, there are so many of them along the way, it never seemed to surprise me just how I never tired of them.  We rounded the corner and ambled up the street for barely a minute when a old man approached us and said, “¿Buenos días?”

           “I don’t want scallop shells thanks,” I replied as a knee-jerk reaction. 

           “Are you from Teruel?”

           “Excuse me?  Do I look like someone from Teruel?  Do I sound like someone from Teruel?”

            Andrés took over and said that we were from Madrid.

            “Just asking.  ‘Cause I was there during the war.”  Teruel, that tiny obscure city from the eastern part of Spain, was the scene of one of the harshest battles of the Spanish Civil War.  The man certainly looked old enough to have fought there, albeit as a very young warrior.  He had also been present at a number of the other major battles towards the end of the war.  I am a student of history, and from what he was telling me, it could have been true, though you never know with old people.  They have a tendency to get fanciful with their facts as they get on.  But it was fun to listen to him all the same.  Just then one of the German women walked by.  She was blonde and pretty, not at all fat but well-rounded, the kind that drives Spanish men crazy, because they find them so voluptuous.  She walked by, smiled and said hello.  Then she kept going.  The old who hadn’t lost a smidgeon of his verve for eying females, spied her for about 50 yards before noting, “Boas patas y boas orellas, señal de boa besta” which translated from Galician means something like, “Good legs and good ears, sign of a good beast!”   There was no doubt he approved of her.  What would the Austrian tortilla poet have thought of that technique?

               The man talked on for a little longer, but then we slowly but surely cut him off because by now the owner of the bar was probably threatening Javier and Aitor to play with doing something nasty with a walking stick if they didn’t pay up, but we still had one more person to meet.  This was one of the other German girls.  She must have been traveling with the “besta” though I hardly ever saw them together.  I had seen her a couple of times and and felt she was a rather cold and distant person because she hardly ever said more than a unfelt hello, which is uncharacteristic of the Camino.  At the same time I was intrigued, because she was a fairly large woman, with ample hips and used to walking sticks as if she were doing cross-country skiing.  What had amazed me the most was her stamina, her persistence, her fight.  I started up a little chat with her.  She indeed was from Germany and she and her friend had started down in Oporto, some 230kms away.  She was a nice girl and had a good sense of humor.  Noticing that she walked with a slight limp, I asked her how she was feeling, and she told me that she had reached a point of stability where her aches and pains were no better but no worse either.  “We’ve had time to get to know each other and have learned to accept each other.”

        Amen!

Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction (English),Spain,Travel

August 27, 2010

On the Road: Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction 12

After a nearly two-hour setback just to get a creaky old bunk bed with a hairnet thin fitted sheet and pillow case as bed linen, we knew we needed a little cheering up and sought a restaurant to raise our spirits to where they should be.  We went to a basic place recommended by some locals and ate the Menú del Peregrino which satisfied but did little more.  Then we went for a little walk and returned to the albergue to shower up and stuff now that the majority of the pilgrims had already done so and the bathrooms weren’t so crowded. 

         It would have been a fine time to take a rest but I was feeling restless and decided to spend the rest of afternoon exploring the town.  Redondela had more to offer the visitor than O Porriño.  Its two most distinguishing features are its towering train track bridges which literally cross over the town.   One is still in use, the other has been abandoned, but is still erect.  This may not spur you to drop everything and race over to Spain to see them, but they do add character.  The old town is attractive with a church dedicated to Santiago, a nice park called an alameda, and a handful of cafés and bars to while away the day.   I even walked down to the coast where there was supposed to be a fantastic beach.  Fraulein had been kind enough to give me some directions buy I must have missed the turnoff because I ended up at the port which, though had a tiny beach of its own, was not exactly what they had been telling me all about.  I sat down at a small fisherman’s outdoor café and drank coffee while I tried to jot down a few essentials of the day, but didn’t get much further. 

         Aitor joined me a little while later and we planned out the evening. If there is one thing I can’t stand about public albergues it is that they close their doors at ten o’clock.  That’s right, they have a curfew.  This might be reasonable in the early spring or late fall months when the night comes early and there is little else to do, but in Galicia in the summer, when it doesn’t get dark until late, it seems outright ludicrous.  But rules are rules.  We asked Fraulein if we could stay up later in the common room downstairs if we made it home by ten and she gave us permission.  That was the second time I had spoken to her that day and her disposition was much friendlier.  I was beginning to get the feeling that she wasn’t that bad after all and that maybe she had just had a difficult morning.  Maybe being a pilgrim was making me softer or I was suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome.

            We decided we would have a light dinner in since we had pigged out so much in the previous days.  We look for something healthy and decided we would get some empanadas (beef pies stuffed with different fillings), red wine (good for your cardiovascular system) and fruit (undeniable reconstitute).  It just so happened that Galicia specialized in empanadas and that the bakery just down the street had some award-winning recipes.  The Lord was on our side.  There were numerous fillings to choose from.  Redondela is famous for its chocos (baby squid in its ink), so we bought a large hunk of that and, since we were members of a gastronomic club and felt it was our duty to compare and contrast, ordered a hunk of the other four types too: Tuna fish, scallops, beef and octopus.   10 pounds in all. 

        Then we went to mass.  On the way we encountered three pilgrims on horses clopping up the stone streets.  “Wow! Some people really do ride to Santiago.”

         Afterwards it was back to the shelter before we turned into pumpkins and dinner time.  We shared copious amounts of empanada generously with some of our new friends from the Camino.  And then we hung out for a little while.  Most people were upstairs either asleep or trying to get there.  The scouts sat around and had a group chat and we talked to the guys from A Coruña. 

            At eleven o’clock I decided to hit the sack and hope for the best.  Aitor and Andrés hung out a little longer…

         …One reason I went to bed so early was because I knew better.  In albergues you don’t always get much sleep, and in the summer even less.  Despite their purpose they are really no place for resting.  They can be active all night as people come and go and sleepers toss and turn on crickety springs.  Pilgrims fall asleep late and get up early too, so the actual “window” of rest was really something fleeting in duration.  If  I crashed at eleven I had a fighting chance of getting some shuteye before the whole room rose the next day.  Andrés and Aitor did not heed this rule and paid a price.

         From the very beginning I could tell it was going to be real test because the man in the upper bunk to my left was roaring away a snore from minute one.  It was one of the scout leaders. Conscious of what Andrés had told me, I hoped he wouldn’t get me going too, but even if he did, I seriously doubted I would ever be able to match the volume he was producing.  He eventually stopped but that was at four-thirty in the morning when he woke up to get the troops up and moving.  Thanks for nothing. 

        Somehow I managed to get a few hours in and from what I gathered fared better than my co-expeditioners who hardly got a wink in.  Aitor was particularly affected by this setback, as he ended up in the lounge downstairs unable to cope with sleeping at such heights.  He warned very early in the morning, “I’m in a grumpy mood this morning and can’t be held accountable for my actions.”  Andrés added politely but tersely, “I’m flexible, but I don’t think we should be doing this again.”

            Figuring we were not going to have a continental breakfast with freshly brewed coffee waiting for us down at the lobby, I took out a piece of fruit and started the day with that.  And 600gms of Ibuprofen, of course.  We left Redondela in the dark, buying a loaf of fresh bread on the way… 

Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction (English),Spain,Travel

August 26, 2010

On the Road: Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction 11

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Pilgrims often rise early because by doing so they can get a head start on the day itself and avoid those tortuous last miles of walking under a severe and merciless summer sun.  This is especially advisable when the stages surpass 30 kilometers but recommendable for any distance.  Galician climate is perhaps slightly cooler than the oven-like midday temperatures of, say, Castile, but it is also generally much more humid there and thus prone to muggy weather.  That can make even late morning hiking strenuous and uncomfortable, so it makes perfect sense to want to reach your destination as quickly as possible. 

            But that’s not the only reason.   

            Departing well before even a rooster crows also increases your chances of making it to the next major town in time to ensure a bed for the night in the public shelter or albergue.  At 5€ a night, I can assure you it’s a coveted prize for the frugal.   This also explains why I had some issues with doing the Camino during a Holy Year in the first place.  I don’t mind doing albergues, in fact I like the human interaction they encourage, but I couldn’t see this as a good year.  In addition to the 250,000 co-pilgrims sharing this quiet walk together with, I refused to turn this into a competition.  “That’s not what the Camino is all about,” I argued.  “At least in my book.”  

         Aitor, the ever-optimist when it came to these things, tried to persuade me cajolingly.  “Come on!  It’ll be fun.”

            “No it won’t.  It’ll suck.”  I think I was pretty clear on this point.

            “Where’s your spirit of adventure?”

            “At home, under my socks somewhere.”

            “Come on.  Trust me.”

              “Just let me think about it.”  Aitor had promised to get rooms in towns where he thought we would have difficulty getting into the albergue, like the first and last legs and cities like Pontevedra, but on the other days, the sleeping arrangement was open.  Redondela was one of those places.

              Albergues do not open their doors until 1:00p.m.  I really feel it’s their way of getting us pilgrims out of the way for a few hours so they can clean up and fumigate, but I also like to think they do so that they can give everyone an even chance to sleep there at night.  In a sense this is good because it means the young, strong and swift can’t just jumped to their feet at 5 a.m. and bolt down the trail to grab all the beds before the old, flabby and slow like us have a chance to show up.   And that may be an intentional measure…but that doesn’t mean people can’t line up.  So in the end, instead of having people stream (or straggle) in little by little and sign in, once they arrive they have to spend the rest of the morning stuck next to the albergue so as not to lose their place in line.

                When we arrived in Redondela at 12:20 that day, already a sizable number of walkers had managed to reached the door before us.  Aitor flipped out his guide and informed us that the shelter had something in the neighborhood of 55 beds for weary pilgrims (another pilgrim heard over 60), and a quick scan told us we arrived well within that limit.

            The shelter in Redondela is a restored historic building, I think it once served as the town jail, and it is attractive.  At one o’clock on the dot, it opened and we began to file in.  The crowd up to that point had been reasonable in size, but not so surprisingly, those people in line had friends with them who happened to appear just in time to go in.  The situation looked a little bleak.  On top of that, it turned out that the guides had grossly overestimated the available space.  There were only 42 beds.  This got the crowd restless and nervous about whether or not everyone would be able to claim a spot to sleep that night.  Murmuring grew into grumbling and even some well-voiced complaining surged.  “Jesus!”  I thought.  “The sticks are going to be flying any second now.”  When it came to a cheap bed, no one was your friend.

          The woman in charge was a pretty and small-framed woman with a clear-minded attitude on how she felt pilgrims should be treated, which was not dissimilar to cattle.  She possessed impressive organizational aptitudes and had she wanted to she would have made a great prison warden.  Her oral skills were commanding as well.  In fact, I think her first word was something like “Achtung!” From there she reeled off several minutes of rules and procedures with such efficiency it blew my mind away.  What had once been nearly a mob scene, had suddenly turned into a fairly well formed line of docile obedient pilgrims. 

         She reminded us of the order of priorities 1) handicapped (not us yet) 2) walkers (I guess that was us) 3) horse riders (not horses) 4) cyclists (not a prayer at this time of year) and capped  off her discourse with, “And of course, anyone using a support car should not be allowed.  Come on, I know you know each other by now, so we can all be honest.”  These were the scourge of the Camino.  The cheaters.  Jesus!  The woman was actually asking us to fess up.  I suddenly recalled the incident from the day before with my car and noticed that the Belgian girls were ahead us in line, which curled the room in such a way that they were within a face slap’s distance.  I took one quick glance at them who stared in our direction with an expression of (how can I describe it?) hate.  We looked away casually the way you do when a hypnotizer asks for a volunteer and you don’t want to pretend to be a hen laying an egg in front of a thousand people.  At any second I was expecting the girls to scream “Them!  Them!  Fraulein, they have a support car!”  But they kept mum and thank God, because we weren’t using one in the first place, and it would have been entirely unfair.  But just imagine trying to explain it all those tired and irate pilgrims.

            Considering all those rules that fraulein spewed out, what I couldn’t get quite understand was how the group of Italian scouts who were ahead of us managed to be admitted.  There must have been 15 of them.  I’m sure there must be a limit on that, like getting tickets to a Springsteen concert.  No more than six or something like that.  But nothing was said or done.  That in my opinion seemed unfair. Why hadn’t fraulein said anything about them? 

Anyway, of the 42 spots, we came in 38, 39 and 40, which meant we had to wait nearly another hour for our beds to be assigned.  In that time, we had a chance to become better acquainted with some of the other pilgrims sharing the Camino with us.  In addition to the Belgian girls who had not narked on us (but were not talking to us because apparently we cheated) and the Italian scouts, we met wonderful people like two very nice brothers from Huelva, a mellow and kind couple from Spain (he was from Valencia and she was Argentine), and just behind us to wrap up the line were two young men from A Coruña in Galicia.  They had just done the first two stages (Tuy-Redondela) that very morning (30kms) and were suffering the consequences.  One showed us a blister the size of my elbow.  Aching and hurting, they were a good laugh.  This, my friends, is the invaluable advantage to going to these shelters.  By doing that, you get to know your fellow pilgrims better, and it makes the whole experience that much more enriching.

Finally we reached the counter and were admitted, but the problem at that point was that we would have little choice about getting a sleeping arrangement that suited us.  This proved especially delicate because Aitor had to take an upper bunk, and if there was something Aitor could not do was sleep in an upper bunk bed because he had fallen out of one when he was a child and never fully recovered.  That’s what he told me.

            “What do you mean never fully recovered?” I asked. “Does that mean you forget how to use pronouns in your sentences, or freak out from time to time?”

            “No, I just have a fear of falling out of beds, that’s all.”   

            “That’s too bad.  But I think it’s time you got us into this thing.  That’s life.  That’s the Camino.”

            Meanwhile I looked over on the other side of the hall and saw what I thought was the only remaining empty bed, an upper bunk joined entirely to another where a young blonde German woman in her twenties was lying on her back with her shirt rolled up, exposing her belly for all to enjoy.  I think she was reading too, but to be honest, the initial image made it difficult for me to focus on detail.  Just as I was looking up at the ceiling with my hands raised and was preparing to give thanks to God for his generosity, a larger older blonde woman, I am assuming it was her mother, shoved me aside and dumped her things on the bed.  Oops!  Oh, crap!  Mine was the next one over. Excuse me.  The Camino could be so fickle.

Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction (English),Spain,Travel

August 22, 2010

On the Road: Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction 8

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The brief stage from Tuy to O Porriño is described as being one of the least attractive of the final legs leading up to Santiago de Compostela and I have to admit that, in many ways, it lived up to its billing.  That’s why I was grateful to get it out of the way the first day.  Not all of it was horrendous by any stretch of the imagination.  The first half was actually quite pleasant, with plenty of small villages to weave through, an occasional lichen-clad chapel to admire, a local or two to greet, and a few patches of woods and grassy fields to cross.  This was a good time to get our blood pumping, our bones and joints greased and our muscles back into to shape so that we wouldn’t kill each other by the end of the week.  Aitor carried on a lively conversation about how much the Camino meant to him and what a great week we had ahead of us while Andrés took each kilometer with a degree of circumspection as he tried to get a feel for what this journey was all about and just how it was going to affect him. 

         The historical highlight of this section was a small medieval bridge, known forebodingly as the Bridge of Fevers, where San Telmo (Saint Elmo – yes, the one you might associate with glowing boats and planes or even Rob Lowe) became seriously ill during his pilgrimage to Santiago in 1251.  The holy man was subsequently returned to Tuy where he would eventually die.  A brief chronicle of the events is engraved in stone at the site and it is a moving tribute to his faith, but at the same time a discouraging message to the faithful because it said “pilgrims die on the Camino and have been doing it for a long time”.  Not the type of thing you want to see when you are 110 km away from the finishing line.  The water beneath the crossover was fairly stagnant and produced a warm, acrid summer stench.  I wondered if that had anything to do with the old man’s demise.  Either that or someone from the nearby town of O Porriño was making their own special contribution to the local water supply.  All the same, it was the only worthy landmark in the first stage, so we had a couple of pilgrims who spoke French take a picture of us.

         Other than that, there was little remarkable about the trail that morning, which that was all right by us because the purpose that day was to get ourselves into that pilgrimage mood.  A little over halfway through the stage we came to a naked rest area with a cafeteria and shaded picnic tables which were oddly but strategically stationed on a lookout above our destination O Porriño.  Aitor produced a hunk of cheese and some bread.  The man was a pure magician when it came to supplying us with the necessary nourishment in times of need.  We munched away, washed it down with water, and handed a local begging cat a few well-appreciated crumbs.  Andrés showed some initial signs of weariness, but all in all he was looking good. 

         We then descended a small hill and turned down a 3-kilometer straightaway of endless warehouses, an undeniable sign that we were entering O Porriño.  This industrial district happens to be one of the features that best characterize the town, which should give you an idea of its esthetic value.  It also makes up what is quite possibly the most unsightly stretch of the Camino in all of Galicia.  But you can’t completely blame the town.  Modern times have had another fate for its inhabitants who have come to thrive on its ample supply of excellent granite and marble.  As a result the Camino doesn’t seem to get the attention it might otherwise deserve in another community of lesser economic prosperity.  As modest as it was in terms of beauty, I accepted it as just another face of this journey, because the Camino can be like that.   

         Up to that point, the day had been little more than a leisurely stroll, and it would have stayed that way had I not had been in such a hurry.  So, I pressed on and on, crossed over to another straightaway and trekked down another endless stream of asphalt.  All this time, I kept thinking we were but a few hundred yards from the town center, but nothing came up.   We finally had to ask someone how much was left and they said we still had to get to Porriño. 

         “But wait,” I wondered.  “I thought this was supposed to be Porriño already.  What the heck?” 

         Yeah, right.  That’s just the nature of the Camino.  You can be there and not there, and then no where, at the same time.   And just when you think you are there again, you almost never are.  It can take forever and it requires patience, which was precisely what I lacked at that very moment. Out of frustration and fear of running late, I kicked it into high gear.  The final spurt of energy got me to where I wanted to be but it took a lot out of Andrés who arrived a few minutes behind us looking like he had been slapped in the face a dozen times by a German Oktoberfest waitress. 

         Andrés likes to be discreet in his observations and politely observed amid gasps, “Was it me or did you guys go a little fast there?”

         Once at the shelter, we went straight for the car and dumped our things in the trunk.  Just then the French-speaking girls who had taken our picture at the bridge walked by from a distance and shook their fingers at us in a disapprovingly. 

        “What?” I gestured. 

         Then I realized we made a big mistake.  Pilgrims don’t like cars and the minute they see you with one, they grimace and make all sorts of assumptions about your using a support car.  Clearly this wasn’t our case at all, and I hated giving the wrong impression.  I felt like yelling, “It’s not what you think, eh?  So, you can knock off the finger wagging thing.”   

         But I don’t know how to say that in French, and I am sure most people don’t either.  Oh, well, who cared?  We knew the truth and it was our Camino not theirs.  

Memories of a Pilgrim with No Direction (English),Spain,Travel

August 4, 2010

The Camino: Memories of a Pilgrim with no Direction 1

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A week from now I’ll be embarking on an adventure that I promised myself I would never do:  The Camino de Santiago (the St. James’ Way) on a holy year, that is, when the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday, as was the case this year.  I’m not saying this because I am a cynic, at least not too much of one, but because of a simple number: 250,000.  That figure represents the estimated number of humans, young and old, planning on descending upon the city of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain for annual pilgrimage this year.  250,000!  250,000 knuckleheads clogging up the beautiful countryside of Galicia.  Every living creature is going to be there.  It is without a doubt the absolute worst time in the world to do it.  But there you go, two friends of mine and I are going to go for it.  I am such an idiot.

 On the other hand, there is something to say for all of this and that is the Compostela, the diploma that they give you for meeting the requirements of the pilgrimage, is a kind of general pardon for your sins and it is worth twice as much on a holy year, kind of like scoring an away goal in the Champion League in soccer.  You see, traditionally, during a regular year, if you made it to Santiago with everything in order, the good people at the office there could produce a paper that reduces your stay purgatory by half.  That may sound attractive, but all the sinning I have done up to this point in life and I am sure I have a near eternal life sentence waiting for me, so 50% wouldn’t quite do.  

 But if you complete the journey on a holy year, word has it they free you of all charges.  It’s like one of those “Get of jail free” cards in Monopoly.  Then I can keep the certificate for a future time like, for example, when I die and have it buried with me so that when I reach the Ministry of Celestial Affairs I can say in a cocky tone, “Here’s my card, guys.  I’m going in.  Hallelujah!”  

 There is another factor too: the next holy year won’t be for another 11 years (not seven, wise guys.  There’s a thing called leap year.”) and who knows what kind of shape and condition I’ll be in by then.  

 In order to avoid the masses of humanity, we have decided to skip the main route, known as the French route, and have opted for the Portuguese option.  In Spain, it starts in a border town called Tuy and runs some 115 kms (that’s about 70 miles) to the steps of the cathedral.  So, we’ll see with what and whom we run into on the way.  My friends tell me everything is going to be fairly open and smooth, but with a crowd the size of Woodstock invading the region, I am not entirely convinced.  Still, I’ll try to look on the positive side for once, and wait and see.  We’ll find out in just a few days.