My Life as a Traveler

Camino 2012

Oh, hello!

(Yawns, stretches, opens eyes)

Oh, hello! How are you doing? I have had the most wonderful nap and feel very rested and restored. Gee, we haven't spoken for a while, have we? Well, let me fill you in on what's new with this Pilgrim.

First, no, I actually haven't been napping. After a bit of post-Camino doldrums, I have launched myself right back into “reality.” As Morgan's mom, I have supervised his driving solo (and am not as worried as I expected to be when he drives away without me) and his entry at the tender age of 16 into the local community college, his first ever classroom experience. He's doing great, by the way, and I'm really proud of him. I had hoped to be supervising his entry into the job market as well, but all in good time.

Second, I have been a bit more aggressive about promoting my own business. Many of you might not know this, but I am founder and president (and sole employee) of Julie Greene Personal Safety Solutions. I teach women's self-defense seminars and have written a book, DEFY the Bad Guy, Powerful, Practical Self-Defense Strategies for Every Woman (shameless plug – visit my website at and sign up to receive the newsletter that I haven't been writing, go to Facebook and LIKE DEFY the Bad Guy, and if you want a really comprehensive manual on how to live a safer life, order my book on – a great gift for any woman you care about. Also, email me at if you would like me to come to your town and do a self-defense seminar for your group). In the last few months, I have taught my 16-hour self-defense bootcamp at the local fitness center, spoken for a group of sorority ladies at the College of William and Mary, and at this very moment, I am on my way to Phoenix with a suitcase full of books to sell as a vendor at the ICHF Combat Hapkido 20 Year Anniversary conference.

Third, I have been functioning as General Contractor for a major remodel of our master bath, master bedroom, and Morgan's bedroom. When I started this, I didn't really think that it would take up that much time, I mean, it's not like I'm laying the tile myself. But between making decisions about tile, granite, paint, floors, glass, fixtures, and who will do the best job has been quite time-consuming. That doesn't even take into account the fetching of materials, the rescheduling when things don't go as planned, and the general stress of having people banging around in my house (even though they are extremely nice and highly professional).

Also, since this is a travel blog and I have not been traveling, being basically grounded by Morgan's needing to be in school every week (a new thing for all of us), I really haven't had anything to report on the travel front since July.

However, it seems that the Camino posts of this blog have really resonated with people from all over the world. I have received emails regarding some of my posts and have answered them privately, but people still have lots of questions about my experience on the Camino. So, I'm thinking that maybe, between this trip and my next trip in December, I'll create some posts that address these questions. I also want to let you know how I am incorporating my Camino lessons and have been sharing my experience with anybody who asks (and even some who don't!) I think of my Camino every day – most days I wear my scallop shell bracelet and earrings to remind me of the valuable lessons I have learned and to employ those lessons in every decision and interaction.

So, hello again! If there is anything you are particularly interested in, make a comment on the blog or email me at I'd love to carry on this conversation! Talk to you soon.


Why? A Long Walk for a Small Piece of Paper

July 14, 2013

I first heard about the Camino as a travel agent in the 80's. Not too many people were walking it back then; it had just been declared the first European Cultural Route in 1987. The idea of a 500 mile walk across Spain was fascinating. Although it didn't fit into my life at that time, I could see myself doing something like that in the future. Walking the Camino has been floating around in my head ever since then.

In the last 25 years, I've been divorced, remarried, and am in the last stages of raising my teenage son. Life's been busy! However, a year and a half ago, I was at a party and talk of walking the Appalachian Trail came up. Even though I love the idea of walking in nature, those of you who know me know that my idea of camping is a Motel 6 with a black and white tv. The idea of packing in food and shelter to walk in the wilderness just wasn't my cup of tea. Taking a long walk though, was appealing, and the thought of the Camino that had been floating around in my head all these years came to mind. This was a walk where you sleep in a bed and don't have to cook over a fire. My kind of walk!

I'm not a stranger to lots of walking, at least while traveling. In fact, Susie and various members of my family anticipate the “Julie Death March” at least once every trip. Susie, remember walking up to the snow at Gimmelwald? How about stalking the wild elk on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, in the pouring rain? Mom and Morgan, remember walking 12km to find the lost labor camp in Germany? I can stay on my feet all day in any city of the world (and do!) as well as walk a good nature trail.

So, the stars seemed to be aligned. My son was old enough to either leave at home with George or join me (so glad he decided to join me), I had no job or work commitment for the summer, and had two good friends who could join me. But it was more than opportunity. There were four components of my life that drew me to this adventure…

Physical – Could a month of walking make me physically stronger and help me lose weight? I love the idea of pushing my physical limits. As a martial artist, I'm used to keeping going even though it's not comfortable and possibly painful. The six plus hours each day of walking the Camino was like taking a black belt test every day. Walking felt good, even though there were aches and pains and blisters. Walking felt even better when I could lay my sleeping bag on my bed and feel so clean after showering. On most days, I felt like I was getting stronger. Plus, the physical activity meant that I could eat and drink whatever I wanted (which sometimes was everything edible in sight, sometimes not) without gaining, in fact, while losing weight. What's not to love about that?

Social – Will I be closer to my friends and maybe my son after this trip? Well, the answer to this was a complete surprise. Yes, I believe I became closer to my friends and learned all kinds of stuff about them that I never knew before. And even though I never walked with Morgan more than one day, I do feel that our bond is stronger as well, just through the shared experience. However, I was blown away by all of the new people I met, and especially awestruck that such close relationships could be forged in such a short time. There was speculation that in maybe the act of walking, since you're looking forward instead of at the person you're talking to, it was easier to share really personal stuff. Who knows? It was an amazing gift to meet so many people and to discover that each interaction fed my latent extrovert.

Mental – Could a month of walking create better mental health? My head was clearest when I was walking alone and I spent a lot of time walking alone. However, it didn't start out that way. In the beginning I resisted walking alone. Heck, I brought four potential walking companions with me, didn't I? Even when those didn't work out, the universe threw me some more, which was really great – no complaints here. But once I started walking solo, I really began to savor just spending some time with myself. It became a walking meditation. I had no desire to listen to music or podcasts; I just wanted to hear the birds, the traffic, the sound of my footsteps on the road, and just think about stuff without interruption. It was easy to be totally in the moment, taking it all in using all of my senses: tasting, hearing, smelling, feeling, seeing – not missing anything. I'm hoping to maintain forever the mental clarity this experience has produced, if that's possible.

Spiritual – Will walking to Santiago bring me closer to God, the Universe, my Higher Power? When pilgrims arrive in Santiago, the staff at the Pilgrim Office which issues the Compostelas, asks whether the pilgrim walked for a) spiritual b) spiritual/cultural c) cultural reason. I believe that most pilgrims check “b”. At least, I did. I really don't know how an experience like this could not be spiritual, even for the unbelieving. For me, I believe that the combination of physical exertion, mental clarity, and gifts of friendship from other pilgrims is the perfect recipe for being more connected to something bigger than myself. I feel that there are layers of some of my previous personal stuff that have been stripped away, allowing for a more clear access to determine what my purpose here is, how to live better, and how to love better. Did I find this in an ancient church? At the top of a mountain? Staring at the slats of the top bunk? I don't know. But I do feel richer spiritually.

I'm sure each person who undertakes this journey has their own reasons for why they do it. Some folks have an idea before they go; some folks figure it out on the way. It's a very personal journey that can only be done by you. It's a long way to walk for a small piece of paper, but I highly recommend it!

And with that, I'm going to close this Camino chapter of PracticingTravel. I'm so glad to have been able to share this adventure with all of you – and I'll still monitor any comments on any posts. I'll be going dark for a bit, until the next trip, whenever and wherever that will be.

If you want to continue a conversation about the Camino, or really, anything, please email me at My new extrovert self will be happy to chat with you!

Buen Camino, all!


My Six Lessons from the Camino

July 13, 2012

So, what have I learned on the Camino and what will be different now that I am back?

Lesson #1 – Do One Important Thing Every Day

In order to get to Santiago in the time allotted, I needed to walk an average of 26km (about 16 miles) each day. The guidebook breaks down the entire Camino in segments from 1km to 17km, at the end of each you can sleep, eat, or sightsee. Sometimes, after a long day, walking one more segment to the next town just seemed impossible. But, you know what? I made it to Santiago actually one day sooner than the original plan. However, there were times when I needed to remind myself to take one step, then another, then another. The Most Important Thing of each day was to walk those 16 miles to attain the bigger goal of 500 miles. If I didn’t walk enough one day, I would make it up in the next day or next few days. Once I made it to the albergue and the goal was accomplished, I was free to do all of the secondary tasks like showering, laundry, eating, and writing.

So my plan for doing things now is to decide what is currently the One Most Important Thing and get it done. Now that I’m home, my One Important Thing is not as big as Walk Sixteen Miles, but it will be a task of sorts that will help me accomplish my bigger goals. After my One Important Thing is done, then there’s no pressure to get a list of secondary things done, although somehow without the pressure, those tasks are getting done anyway. Plus, I don’t feel guilty if I play Legend of Zelda with Coach Morgan, because I’ve gotten my One Important Thing done. At the end of the week, I’ll have Seven Important Things done. Since I’ve returned to a fairly empty calendar, my One Important Thing has been to post this blog every day. I haven’t yet, but once this blog is done (at least for now, this is my second-to-last post) my next One Important Thing will be to sit myself down with my goal list, break the goals into tasks, then do the One Most Important Thing every day. Maybe once I get that down, I can work on Two Most Important Things, or even Three. Hey, a girl can dream!

Lesson #2 – I Really Don’t Need All That Extra Stuff

For the last five weeks, my “home” has been the space between my mattress and the upper bunk. The total sum of my possessions weighed less than twenty pounds and fit in my red backpack. My home decorating consisted of picking wildflowers and arranging them in my side backpack pocket. The albergues and bars provided space for eating and hanging out.

So my first impression on returning to my house in Virginia was “Yikes! It’s huge!” Then, “I have way too much stuff!” The bookshelves are overflowing, my bedroom closet has too many pieces of clothing I don’t wear, my kitchen has too many gadgets. Let’s not even talk about the attic. (A side note – I was waking up in the middle of the night feeling that my bed was too soft! I would move to the chaise sofa, read for a bit, and finish the night sleeping there.) The next Important Thing after the blog is done and goals are set will be to seriously declutter my space.

Lesson #3 – I Need to Feed My Extrovert

One thing I learned on Camino was that I’m really an extrovert! In my current life, I spend a lot of time alone at home or travelling with George and Morgan. When you travel with someone, there’s a tendency to focus just on them and not get out and meet other people. On Camino, especially since I started walking alone, my previously hidden extrovert came out to play. For me, meeting people and getting to know them has been one of the most interesting and exciting parts of the Camino.

I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but I am committed to getting out more in my own ‘hood. Maybe I’ll join a book club, the Ladies Who Dine (call me, Bonnie!), attend more outdoor concerts with Susie, or start volunteering somewhere. Now that Morgan will need less of me, I should have the time to get out and be social.

Lesson #3 – I Don’t Need To Eat As Much As I Thought

Dear readers, remember when I was complaining that I didn’t seem to be losing weight? Well, I gotta send a big shout out to Saint James for hearing me – when I got on the scale at home, I was 10 Pounds lighter! And, I look pretty good, if I say so myself! Most of my pants/shorts are too baggy now – another reason to declutter – I’ve got to go through all of my clothes and see what is too big. I’ll be taking those too-big things and donating them to Goodwill. Not keeping them around!

On Camino, even though I ate what I wanted, I rarely was starving when it came to mealtime. I was happiest sharing a meal with another pilgrim or just having a few tapas. I really got used to smaller portions. In order to continue this habit at home, first, I am no longer eating in front of the tv (dinner, and breakfast, too, is outside on the pier). Second, my plate is not piled high any more and there’s more veggies on the plate than meat. If I find the scale creeping up, a night or two of just a satisfying salad for dinner gets those scale numbers back where I want them.

Lesson #4 – Keep the Body Moving

I loved getting up to walk every day. My body loved it. The first hill in the morning was always a killer, but it felt good to keep moving. I really hated stopping for very long because it was taking away from the walker’s high (is there such a thing?) I felt moving along the trail. Besides my initial knee swelling, which subsided after I kept it wrapped and cortisoned, and other leg pains that would pass, I really had no problems.

However, my legs hurt for the first week after coming home. Mary’s friend, a marathon coach, told her that the walking we did on Camino was like doing a marathon every day. My schedule did not allow rest days, although there were some shorter days, and it eventually took a toll on my legs and knees. When I got to Santiago, I went to squat down to talk to some folks in the square and I couldn’t do it. Still can’t bend my knees like that for long.

The running coach told Mary that the best recuperative action was no action at all. I’ve been taking that to heart, and for the last two weeks, I’ve not done any exercise whatsoever. A couple of days ago, I started my yoga practice again (with no pain) and walked a morning 5km with George (no pain). I was in pretty good shape in May before Camino; I just weighed more than I wanted. Now I’ve got the weight down, and I just need to keep moving to keep my stamina and strength up.

Lesson #5 – Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff/It’s All Small Stuff

Maintaining the inner peace and harmony honed on the Camino is more of a challenge now that I’m home. Yet, as I encounter problems, I remember that some things, like the pain in my legs came and then went, need to be watched and not dealt with just now. Some things that can’t be changed must be acknowleged and made peace with. Some things that can be changed will be addressed one step at a time. Nothing is the end of the world, and a chocolate cookie can cure a lot of ills.

Lesson #6 – I’ve Gotta Find A Way to Give Back

OK, Santiago, you were really there for me in Spain. I saw you in the smiles of the people I met, the meals shared, and the healing of the blisters. I cannot begin to describe the blessings I’ve received from you through every fellow pilgrim, hospitalero, barkeep, nurse and doctor, tourist office, or store employee. Thank you for the random Spanish person who, when they saw I was taking the wrong path, set me on the right one. Thank you for the truck drivers who honked their “Buen Camino” as they drove by. Thank you for making it possible to make this pilgrimage in good health, with good friends, in great weather.

For my next request, Santiago, help me find the best way to give back. I’ll have my ears and eyes and heart open, ok? Can’t wait to hear again from you!

You can be sure that there are many more lessons that I’ve learned on the Camino and I’m personally excited to see how they will play out in my life in the months ahead. If any of you fellow pilgrims are still with me, please post a comment on your Camino Lessons. I’d love to hear from you.

I’ve got one more post on Camino before I continue on to my Next One Important Thing, and that’s the WHY that I promised you at the beginning of this trip. See you tomorrow.

Unpacking: The Good, The Bad, and the Useful

June 29, 2012

Warning! This is an exceptionally long post, detailing the usefulness of everything I brought on Camino. I have endeavored, dear readers, to make this not only invaluable for any future Pilgrim, but tried to make it somewhat entertaining for the non-future pilgrim as well. I do, however, use the phrase “lady bits” and if this is offensive to you, better stop here…

We were too busy running errands yesterday to unpack, so our backpacks just sat in the middle of the living room floor getting in the way. As I'm unpacking Morgan's and my packs, I thought I'd do a play-by-play on the stuff we brought and what was useful and what was not.

First, we each loved our backpacks and would take them anywhere with us again. Morgan's was an Osprey Atmos 50 Liter and mine was a Deuter 40 +10 Liter (There was a flap of fabric that could be raised from the main compartment of the bag to make an extra 10 Liters of space. Never used it.) Red was not my color of choice when I bought it, but it was the best one at R.E.I. that felt balanced for me. The color never really mattered while walking.

I cannot recommend more highly the Platypus water bag/hose system that was stored in the back of our packs. Morgan's ended up leaking toward the end, but having this filled and handy meant we were never thirsty. In fact, I expect I have never drank so much water – it was so handy.

We each had a super-light polyester backpack. Morgan would have liked one more manly-looking.

Sleeping: Loved my R.E.I. 1lb super light women's sleeping bag. Cost $100 and worth every penny. There are no sheets on the beds in the albergues; you're lucky if you get this sort of gauzy thin liner to put over the mattress. Most alberges also had blankets available, though, and on some cold nights, a blanket and my sleeping bag kept me warm. On hot nights, I just slept on top of the bag. The sleeping bag is also used to claim your space when you first arrive in the albergue and are assigned to or find your bed. It's the first thing taken out of your back and spread out on the bed, since it's bad form to put your backpack there. Morgan had a super-light fleece sleeping sack that he said he only used a few times because he slept in his clothes and thought the gauzy mattress lining was good enough. Probably, it was; I did not meet one person who ran into bedbugs.

The albergues do provide pillows, often covered with a gauzy pillowcase. I brought a pillowcase from home and felt better using it. Surprisingly, many of the pillows were the extra-long kind that my standard pillowcase would not completely cover. I'll bring a long pillowcase next time. Morgan snorted at my offer of a pillowcase for him, and he didn't seem to miss it.

Sleeping clothes: Morgan slept in the clothes he was going to wear when he got up and I mostly slept in my black and white paisley shirt (you've seen it!) and my skirt (wearing underwear!), unless it was cold, then long sleeved top and leggings. In the 5am mornings, it was dark enough for me to sit up in bed, take off my sleeping clothes and put on the pants and shirt that I was going to wear that day, which I kept folded and ready at my feet. Would not do this differently.

Shirts: I had two short sleeved, quick dry shirts, one long sleeved shirt, and my evening ruffled black and white polyester paisley shirt. Perfect! Would definitely recommend a non-technical shirt for after walking, ladies, so you can feel pretty (well, as pretty as you can wearing the same shirt every night!) Actually, on cooler nights, I would wear the long-sleeved shirt. Morgan used his two short-sleeved shirts, but not his long-sleeved one. He always did run hot.

Pants: For walking, I had one pair quick-dry capris and one pair quick-dry long pants with legs that zipped off at the knees to make shorts. I also brought leggings and a skirt for after walking. Used them all and was thankful for them. Morgan had a pair of zip-off pants and a pair of shorts. He wished he had two pairs zip-off pants, because he only wore the shorts when he was washing the long pants.

Underwear: 3 pairs of panties for me – which meant on some days I didn't have to do laundry, just washed more the next day. Two sports bras. Morgan had 2 pairs of underwear and no sports bras, which seemed to work for him.

Socks: oooh, the socks. Started out with two pairs of liners and two pairs of SmartWool hiking socks. The combo of liner+hikers was supposed to eliminate the friction that causes blisters. It probably did, until it started getting hot. All you need is the slightest bit of moisture which could create friction anywhere on your feet to begin a blister. Sweaty feet or socks that didn't dry all the way or socks that got sweaty and weren't washed or switched out with clean ones were all causes of blisters. For me, the liner/sock combo was too much, smashing my toes together. In the hot, even the socks without liners were too thick. When I bought new socks in Leon, one thickness more than the liners, my blisters started to heal and no new ones started. I don't know how anyone can replicate the Camino conditions unless you take six-hour long walks regularly. Morgan just wore one pair of socks and liners.

Walking shoes – we loved our shoes. Mine were Merrell and Morgan's were Lowe. I had inserts and liners in mine, Morgan's were au naturel. After 500+ miles, they are far from worn out.

For non-walking shoes, I had my Teva ballet-slipper-type shoes, which were great. For the shower, I brought a pair of the thin rubber flip flops you get after your pedicure. I didn't really expect them to last, but, after I reinforced them with needle and thread, they never fell apart and kept the heebeejeebees off my feet in the shower. Morgan had flip flops which now look like they've been well used.

We each had a lightweight fleece jacket, which was invaluable.

I had a big blue lightweight scarf that was pretty and, for some days, just the right amount of warm.

Hat: I'm not really a hat person, but I used my sun hat for a few days when it was really hot. I really prefer sunglasses. Morgan brought a beanie but did not use it.

Rain Gear: We were very very lucky weather-wise and had very little rain. What rain we did have was a light sprinkle; there were a few downpours but they usually happened late in the afternoon. We each had a breatheable raincoat, which we used, and rain pants, which we didn't use (well, I put them on one day, but didn't really need to). We each had a waterproof backpack cover, which I used but Morgan did not. He just ended up putting his things in the many zip-lock bags I made him take. I put electronics in zip-locks as well on rainy days.

Towels – we each had a towel that was 17″x34″ and in my opinion, not large enough to dry my body before my dripping hair got it all wet again. I eventually just wore my skirt and a loose top getting out of the shower after the towel did it's best to dry me and avoided putting underwear on until my lady bits could air out. (TMI? Hey, if this sentence could save one woman pilgrim from the discomfort of putting dry underwear on a wet body, it's worth it!) Let's just say it would have been better to have a bigger/more absorbent towel or maybe, even better, another smaller towel to use with my existing towel. The smaller one could be used for the first body swipe, then for my hair, following up with the bigger towel to dry everything else more thoroughly. Most showers have a little space outside of the shower curtain where you can change, but it's still steamy and you don't have a lot of room here. Morgan lost two towels and came home with one. The mesh bag that the towels came in, though, was great – if we had wet things, we could stick them in there and hang them off the back of our packs as we were walking and they could get a little dryer.

We each had a bar of Dr. Bronner's soap, which we used as soap for body and laundry. Morgan used his as shampoo, but it was a little harsh for me, so I used some men's shampoo/conditioner and it was great. I brought a little mesh scrubby that worked, too. Of course we each had a toothbrush and toothpaste. Morgan learned not to store his toothbrush in the soap bag. Not sure if Morgan brought floss, but I did, and used it. We each brought razors and used them, although Morgan did not use the extra disposables I got for him. We also used sunblock and deodorant, but did not use the laundry cord we brought – there was always space on the line somewhere.

I used earplugs, my spork, duct tape, and safety pins for keeping wet laundry on the line. Morgan used none of these. I had an airline sleeping mask that I only really needed to use the night they left the light on all night, but it was buried at the bottom of my pack on the floor when I was on the top bunk. We each preferred Compeed over bandaids, and even though we brought ibuprofen, immodium, and rehydration salts, fortunately we did not have to use them. I used needle and thread and antiseptic spray on my blisters.

Brought a headlamp and used it for early morning departures on the dark trail – reading the guidebook to make sure I was going the right way. Also good for taping toes in a room where there's not good light. Never used it in the sleeping rooms – too bright. Morgan did not use his at all.

I used a fair amount of the toilet paper I brought; Morgan used none. I have some left because I got into the habit of stuffing some tp from the morning bathroom in my right pants pocket. Toilet paper in your backpack left by the trail does not help you in mid-pee behind a tree. 'Nuff said.

Travel wallet: I had a lightweight fabric wallet that could hang under my clothes. Did not hang it under my clothes but kept my money and some credit cards in it. Got Morgan a waist belt to keep his valuables in, but he didn't use it.

My iPad was essential to keep up the blog and the lightweight keyboards made it easy to use them. It was good for books and music, too. Chargers were a pain, but still worth it – although the cords are way too short! Morgan had a Shuffle for listening to music and two pairs of headphones (he's really hard on headphones) and loved it. I kept my music on my iPad and only a couple of times used my headphones to listen.

I lived by A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago by John Brierly. This book listed each and every town on the Camino and had maps including distances between towns and other stopping places, elevation, albergues and other places to stay, even some especially pilgrim-friendly bars. It also provided historical and information of local interest, plus some spiritual insights. Don't go on Camino without it. Having said that, Morgan, Mary, and Susie used just two sheets of paper they received in St. Jean – one with recommended stages and kilometers and the other listing albergues with distances between them, and they made it just fine.

Camera was great. Morgan ended up with Dominic's camera and took over 600 pics – a first for him to be taking pictures. Chargers were, again, relatively heavy, but welcome and worth it.

Our phones were also essential to keep in touch with each other. Since we did not travel together, I asked Morgan to text me the name of the town where he was spending the night, which he did, without fail. I also used my phone for a watch (gave Morgan mine to wear – glad I did) and a nightlight.


I received a Pilgrim Passport in St Jean Pied de Port, which I needed to show at each albergue upon check in. The hospitalero would stamp it with the albergue's unique stamp (sello) and date it. I could also get stamps from churches, town halls, bars, and restaurants. I was not a “Sello Tart”, crazy over collecting massive amouts of stamps, but I did know one person who had filled three entire Pilgrim Passports with stamps from everywhere he went (you know who you are!)

Often, I had to show my US Passport along with my Pilgrim Passport. I also had one Visa card for the cash machine (no ATM fee) which never failed me, as well as my other Visa (no int'l transaction fee) for merchants. I brought my driver's license for ID that was easier to reach than passport, and was glad I had it for the car rental. Thank goodness I never had to use my health insurance card or backup credit cards.

Phew! As I'm sitting here staring at my stuff on the floor, I can't think of anything else that I would have brought (except for another small towel and a larger sized pillowcase) or have left behind.

I guess that means I'm ready for the next Camino!


Flying Home

June 27,2012




One Hot Night in Madrid (No, Not That Kind of Hot)

June 26, 2012

There are four of us together again: me, Mary, Susie, and Morgan. We say goodbye to the cathedral as we walk through the park to the train station. The 8am train to downtown A Coruna is on time. After a bit of asking around, we find the bus to the airport and arrive to find a huge line for check-in. We guess the computers are down because nobody is moving. The flight status monitor says our flight is an hour late anyway, so we just chill in line. Morgan hasn't emptied his Platypus yet and it's somehow leaking all over the airport floor.

Eventually, another counter opens up and we shuffle forward to get our boarding passes. After a trip to the candy store, we go through security (Susie got a lecture for wrapping her poles, but didn't have to surrender them), board our flight, and fall asleep before the plane leaves the runway.

We decide to stop in at the Lufthansa counter in Terminal 2 to get our boarding passes for our 7am flight tomorrow. I've rented an apartment through and I text the woman who's supposed to meet us there that we are running late. By the time we buy our Metro tickets and get lost finding the apartment, the woman who is supposed to meet us is gone and won't be back for about an hour. No worries.

Somehow, on the way to the apartment, Mary finds two 50euro bills on the sidewalk. She asks people around if it's their money, but nobody claims it. The Camino provides.

It's 3pm. Susie and Morgan are tired and hungry and do not plan to leave the apartment tonight, so they go across the street and grab lunch/dinner. Mary and I wait in the lobby and share candy, sunflower seeds, and cookies to tide us over until we can go out and find some real food.

Tatyana finally comes, lets us in, and shows us around the 3 bedroom apartment her grandmother left her and her sister. Gorgeous hardwood floors, a nice bathtub, and plenty of room for everyone to sleep. Mary and I unilaterally decide to give snoring Susie (love you!) the biggest, darkest bedroom, Morgan gets the closet bedroom, and Mary and I get the hot one in the back. All the drapes are pulled because there is no central air, just one of those weird Euro a/c units with a hose vent to the outside that really don't work that well. It's a record 40C or 104 degrees fahrenheit outside and barely passable inside.

Even though we're pretty much running on fumes, Mary and I feel the need to go out to explore the neighborhood. Tatyana recommends the restaurant at the Real Madrid stadium which overlooks the soccer field. We're too late for lunch (here's the link for a pic of what we missed:, but the bar is open and the attractive female bartender brings us two jumbo-size Tinto de Veranos and a big bowl of potato chips (Lyn! Wish you were here!) paid for by the Camino sidewalk money. We chat in the coolness.

It seems like too much trouble to go all the way downtown to see the Madrid of the guidebooks. Besides, across the boulevard from our apartment is El Corte Ingles, the iconic Spanish department store. Mary wants a Spain Vogue magazine (comes with free gifts) and I always think it's fun to shop where the women of Madrid shop.

El Corte Ingles is a combination of Nordstrom's, Macy's, Target, Home Depot, Barnes & Noble, and the best grocery store selling wine that you've ever been to. This must be the flagship store, because it is an entire city block with 5 floors of merchandise. They have an entire floor just for spa services and medical practitioners. It's Tuesday afternoon and the place is packed. Mary considers a Longchamp bag, we admire the olive bar and the huge hams in the grocery, and finally find the magazines. The Camino buys her the Vogue and a Telva for me, which comes with free huaraches. I wish I had more pictures of this place, but I was just too, too tired, and frankly overwhelmed by the crowds after my solitary days on the trail, to aim a camera at anything.

Now I'm hungry and we walk back to see if we can have dinner at the stadium, but it seems a little too fancy for our sweaty selves, so we settle on a tapas bar just a few doors from the apartment. There's more tinto de verano, fried artichokes, and other delicious treats, courtesy of the Camino. Somehow, there is still more to talk about!

When we get back from the apartment, Susie is sleeping, Morgan is on the internet in his underwear, and the hot bedroom in the back is even more hot. Not even a cool shower makes it worth sleeping there, so I flop on the futon in the hall and in a minute, I'm out.

The alarm is set for 5am – we have a 7:40am departure back to the US tomorrow.


The End of the Earth

June 25, 2012

For many, Santiago is not the end of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. No, it is possible for a pilgrim to walk from the Pyrenees (as we mostly did) all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. When I made our air reservations, I didn’t really take this stage of the journey into consideration – in fact, we had planned to just walk to Santiago on Monday and then head out the next day.

However, a couple of weeks ago, in Acebo (Reunion II) we decided that, although we didn’t have the extra four days to walk that far, we could get to Santiago a day earlier, that is, on Sunday. A good idea on several levels, it gave us a better chance to see the botafumiero, which only swings on certain Holy days (remember Sunday was the feast of St. John the Baptist?) It also gave us time to take the bus out to Finisterre – the westernmost point in Spain and the place where many pilgrims feel is the true end of the Camino – on Monday, therefore completing the entire Camino one way or another. Yesterday, thanks to the Parador concierge, we don’t have to take the three hour bus ride. We are renting a car this morning, I’m behind the wheel driving to the coast, and as a bonus, we also can visit Muxia on the way back.

Or at least we thought we were driving to the coast. Faulty directions led us north out of town, so we just changed our circle trip to go from Muxia to Finisterre instead of vice versa. It took us getting a little lost to figure it out, but eventually, after driving through some perfectly charming towns that for sure no other pilgrim has visited, we arrived in Muxia.

It was foggy here at the coast and quite cool. This is where the movie The Way ended their journey. There’s a cute seaside town, but the attraction is down the road a few kilometers at the Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Boat, a Christian church located on the site of a Celtic sacred site. It’s rather extraordinary to look west and see the ocean instead of more Camino.

We find a restaurant for lunch and share all of the local specialties. During lunch, a young man who looked familar came to stare at us as we were eating. Turns out, it was Morgan, who finished his walking here last night and getting ready to take the bus back to Santiago. He grudgingly let me hug him (haven’t seen him for weeks!) and turned down our offer to haul his backpack in our trunk so he could take the bus without encumbrance. He sees the bus come and runs to join his friends for the ride to Santiago.

Back in our car – a Spanish SEAT (not the whole car, ha ha) – we head down the Costa da Morte, literally, “Coast of Death,” ostensibly named for the many shipwrecks along the rocky shore. However, now that I’ve gotten a feel of the car and have no trouble passing the slower drivers, some of the ladies in the back seat (you know who you are!) are wondering if the name applies to more than shipwrecks.

As we get closer to Finisterre we see yellow arrows and Way markers along the road, along with a few pilgrims. The beaches we pass approaching the town are long and wide and beautiful. There must have been an awesome party there Saturday night. We do a drive-by of the town, passing by several albergues and a small fishing port, but our final destination is the lighthouse at the end of the peninsula, another few kilometers out. As we drive past pilgrims walking, we are all thankful that we’re all on our SEAT (ha ha).

Finisterre – the end of the earth, land’s end. Muxia is a stop at the ocean, but Finisterre is the westernmost point in Spain and the popular, spectacular finish of the Camino. Once you get past the Camino souvenir stands, there’s the lighthouse, and beyond the lighthouse, the point. This is the spot where, as a final gesture of letting go of your old self, you burn your clothes (and hopefully put new ones on afterward that you bought in Santiago). I brought my sock liners to burn; they helped me, they hurt me, then I didn’t need them.

Unfortunately, and I can only guess the reason, we are not allowed to burn anything out there anymore. However, there is a cross where people have left various articles of clothing, and that will have to suffice. I tie my liners on the cross and say a prayer – for the woman who bought them is not the same woman who is leaving them. Mary leaves her dad’s hat that she’s been wearing all Camino. We have a bit of time to sit and reflect, but soon it’s time to head back to Santiago.

It’s a beautiful drive along the rocky coast and up the river valley to the freeway. Our goal was to be back to the Parador at 6pm, and we’re just about to make it. Had to do a quick detour to get gas for the car (didn’t think the car could u-turn so tight in traffic, did you, ladies?) and were back just a little late. Before we called it a day, I requested the gang get their packs and we take pics of us at the cathedral, since I wasn’t in a picture-taking mood upon arrival (thanks, guys!), and we went back to pack for our departure tomorrow.

Morgan’s stuff was in the room and he was out spending his last evening with friends. We are dog-tired from travel, walking, staying up late, getting up early, and I really just want to go to bed. However, Mary wanted to have one final night in Santiago (“like a hooker, walking the streets”) and I had to agree that this was the best idea. She took us to a tapas bar where we said goodbye to some folks we knew, met some new ones, and had way too many chupitos (ooops, that was just me). Not sure exactly what time we all got back and was glad I set the alarm ahead of time for 6am.


June 24, 2012

Even though I was up past midnight last night, I'm awake at 7am, hopping out of bed and heading for the cathedral, which I can see in the haze from my bedroom window. Hardly anybody's there – it's so peaceful. I walk the empty streets in search of a bar open early on this Sunday morning for coffee. Of course, it's right across from the pilgrim office. Coffee…

Before Mass today, I'm supposed to meet Amedeo for brunch at the Parador, my second home. Not only do they have a great patio for drinking champagne, they have amazing bathrooms with the sweetest lilac soap. OK, it's a beautiful building, opulently furnished, historical and all that, but the bathrooms!

I'm dressed in my Sunday best, (oh wait, it's the same blouse I've been going to dinner in and sleeping in for the last 32 days – forgive me, Santiago!) and glad of it because this is some fancy breakfast. Kiwi juice, caviar, champagne, the best hams and cheeses, chocolate – well, you get the idea. I feel like Cinderella at the ball after all those breakfasts of just toast and coffee. After breakfast, we wander through the courtyards meant only for guests, admiring the medieval fountains and gardens.

Since we're meeting the gang in front of the cathedral at 11:30am, and it's only 11am, there's time to do a little research for the next couple of days. The tourist office is open and I find we can take a 32 minute train ride to A Coruna, from where we are flying to Madrid in two days. That's good news. But for tomorrow, M&S&L&K and I want to go to Finisterre and Muxia. There are tours available (40euros each), but they are inconvenient. Taxis are expensive (same as tour – but need two taxis and we want to be together). The bus is slow (3 hours to go 90km?). Not sure how we're going to do this yet. In the meantime, I get a text from Lyn at 11:20am saying they're going in, it's getting crowded.

We hurry over to the cathedral to find Susie waiting for us and no pews available. Amedeo says we need to sit in the transept for the best view of the botafumiero, the huge incense burner that they might swing this morning. We find some spots on the stone steps behind the pews. It seems that every pilgrim in the world is here. It's not so bad, though, we're on the 2nd step, so we're a bit above the crowd and can see the people at the altar and hear everything just fine.

The Mass begins in Spanish. We stand, we sit, we sing, we pray. The priest talks about where the pilgrims are from that received their Compostelas yesterday. The music and prayer that follows echoes throughout the cathedral. When I close my eyes, the experience permeates every cell in my body. I hear my friend Father Augustine up there, dressed in white, offering a prayer in English. Then, a group of about eight guys dressed in monk robes come to the place before the altar. It's time for the Botafumiero!

The Botafumiero is one of the largest incense burners in the world, weighing in at 176 pounds and is over five feet tall. They load it with about 90 pounds of charcoal and incense and light it up. Smoke emanates from this huge burner as the tirabolieros grab their ropes attached to the pulley mechanism. With a huge heave-ho, the burner rises off it's platform on the floor of the cathedral. A couple of monks grab the thing and give it a push toward us at the end of the transept. Each time the eight pull their ropes, canister swings higher and higher until it's almost touching the ceiling. The clouds of smoking pouring from it are considered a form of prayer. Back in the 11th century when they first started this, it was not only prayer, but served to mask the odors of the unwashed pilgrims and was also believed to prevent the spread of the plague.

Here's a clip from YouTube (not mine) that was taken just a little closer to the altar than where we were sitting. I have a video, but need to post it somewhere, then link and don't have the space in my brain to do that right now. Until then, check this out: or Google Santiago de Compostela botafumiero to see it in action and hear the song that goes with it.

After the Mass, I pop into a side chapel to find a group of young college-age men on their knees in the pews in front of me praying along with a Mass in English. I sit here for a while, listening, absorbing the ceremony in my own tongue for about ten minutes. However, I have friends waiting for me to go to lunch, so I leave to meet Mary in the square.

I tell her about my research on travel to the coast and she suggests that we go ask the concierge at the Parador. What a great idea! We head over to my second home and the concierge suggests that we just rent a car for 80euros for the day. When I suggested this to the gang earlier, they said they were afraid that if I drove, I would get less out of the experience. Well, those of you who know me know that I love to drive (and have been missing my MINI at home), so I was thrilled that this was not only the most fun (for me, at least and hopefully for all) option, but the cheapest, quickest, and most convenient. The concierge said that he could have the car delivered to the Parador in 20 minutes – were we ready? Nope, we said, but we'd love to take him up on it tomorrow. Fine, he said, come around 10am. Note to Mary: seriously, you would make a great concierge – second career at the Heathman, baby!

We text L&K with our find and somehow they find us in the street as they are beginning their lunch of white wine, salad, and razor clams (the official meal of Santiago!) and join them for a bit. We agree to meet at the Parador at 9:30am tomorrow morning. Mary and I then walk down to the train station (meeting Ray from Portland along the way – bringing a picnic of wine and cheese to his sweetie in their hotel room) and buy our tickets to A Coruna. We stop for coffee on the way back because we can and find the shortest route from the train to Roots and Boots.

Back at R&B, both Mary and I are ready for a nap, but there are more friends who want to walk around town because it's their last day there. We stroll the city buying souvenirs, looking at each other's pictures, having Sangria, almost losing my wallet (!) but didn't, visiting the cathedral again, walking through the park.

Eventually, it's back to Roots and Boots, which has a great back yard. Susie's there – I haven't really had a chance to chat with her alone in quite a while – and over a bottle of wine we catch up. Mary's gone off with Silvana for their last night to party together. It's quiet in the back yard; yesterday the college kids were playing drinking games, but today it's football playoffs and everybody's inside watching the game on the big tv in the common room next to our bedroom. I say a final goodnight to the football watchers, then Susie and I try to get some sleep. The room next door gets noisier as Italy scores and to compensate I read aloud to Susie from the romance novel on my iPad and we fall asleep with good dreams to come as the match ends next door.

Tomorrow we go to the end of the world.



June 23, 2012

This is my last morning walking and I'm up with the 5am Club, no sleeping in this morning. It's still dark, I've got my headlamp, which is good, because the first part of the trail is in the woods. When I emerge from the trees, I can see the first fog of morning over the fields. There are a few people walking, not many, though.

It's only 20km to the cathedral. On the way, I'm thankful that the road is not too busy. I greet pilgrims as I pass, some I know, most I've never seen. I try to be as much in the walking moment as possible for these last few steps. I stop at Monte del Gozo (Mount Joy), the last hill over Santiago, hoping for a view of the cathedral that the pilgrims of old could see from here. However, in this century, the suburban apartments block the view. I gotta keep going and by 10am I'm at the outskirts of Santiago.

Walking over the freeway and through the busy streets of suburban Santiago, I feel somewhat disconnected. Only when I reach the gate of the old town that beckons me to the narrow streets and more medieval-looking buildings do I start to feel excited. At the top of a rise I see cathedral spires. Is that where I'm headed? These last five kilometers are taking forever! I drop down a hill and see a square. Dr. Judith is there… Christiana… and Susie! I've made it, almost. This is just the side of the cathedral. The front, the main square, is through the portal below. Susie is walking with me, but I am speechless. We walk into the square and I just stare up. There he is, Sant Iago, the pilgrim who's been walking with me since St. Jean.

Good friend that she is, Susie let me take it all in slowly. We sat for a while outside and watched as more and more people filled the square. While I went into the cathedral to pay my respects to St. James, Susie watched my bag so I could follow the timeworn ritual unencumbered. I climb the stairs to the entrance and take in the beauty of it. I can't place my hand on the central column of the inner portico anymore like they do in the movie The Way, because the millions of pilgrims coming here have worn a handprint in the marble as a mark of gratitude for their safe arrival; there's a barrier now, so I can only look at it. I can see the statue of St. James at the high altar as I walk the length of the cathedral. There's a set of stairs that lead behind the altar and I get in line to hug the statue. When I reach St. James, I fling my arms around him and lay my head on his shoulder, thanking him for my safe arrival, the people I've met, really everything about this extraordinary journey. I'm glad there is not a huge line behind me; this is not the quick hug for someone you just met – no, it's the embrace meant for a dear, dear, friend.

Directly down the stairs are his bones in a silver box, behind a gate. You can kneel here to offer your prayer, but I've said my peace at the hugging station and move on. The cathedral is filling up and Mass is about to begin, but I'm too overwhelmed for ceremony today, so I go back outside. Susie wants in, though, and she leaves me to just sit against one of the columns of the building facing the cathedral and just be. I text Mary and she's still over an hour out. I recognize the cassock of Father Augustine and see some other people file up the stairs to the cathedral. To my left is the Santiago Parador, an old monastery/hospital turned into luxury hotel, and in front of it is someone playing the piano. I listen to the music, watch the arriving pilgrims, and can't believe I'm done walking. I can't believe that I'm here.

Morgan calls – what great timing – he's in Finisterre after a short walk this morning. There's supposed to be a huge party at the beach there – I know some pilgrims who are taking the bus this afternoon from Santiago to attend. I congratulate him – I'm so proud of him – he just turned 16 in March and walked this Camino on his own.

People are spilling out of the cathedral; Mass must be finished. The sound of bagpipes echoes over the stones as I hop up from my spot and go to greet my friends. These hugs are even better than the hug for Saint James. First on the agenda, it seems, is to get my Compostela, my Certificate of Completion, and so I meet Lyn, Kathy, and Mary at the Pilgrim Office. There's a line – it's right after Mass, after all, and we talk and wait in excitement. At the top of the stairs we present our filled-in Pilgrim Passport and receive our Compostela (with my Latin name – Dnam Iuliam Greene). Now I will be one of the pilgrims mentioned from the US in tomorrow's Mass.

I'm hungry for lunch, but first I want to check in at Roots and Boots. I'm really glad I reserved the room; they were close to full when we arrived. It's past 2pm, but a shower is absolutely necessary. Lunch is salad, white wine, and razor clams. Who knew razor clams tasted so good?

I'm meeting the girls – Susie, Mary, Lyn, Kathy, and Silvana – for celebratory champagne at the Parador before dinner. We toast each of our successes. Silvana tells us there's a Zara store and we make her take us there so we can buy something new to wear. I'm really sick of wearing the same four shirts for the last 35 days and would love something new and pretty, but nothing suits me. We eat a nice Pilgrim meal at recommended Restaurant Manolo. Outside there is a group of drummers surrounded by a crowd, bouncing and clapping to the rhythm. This foreshadows the big town-wide party tonight – it's the Feast of St. John the Baptist – and it's rumored that there will be fires in the squares around town (not in front of the church) and people will be jumping over them.

Since Mass doesn't start til noon tomorrow, there's all the time in the world to walk around town and check out the festivities. The night is perfect. I've seen plenty of sunrises, but precious few sunsets because I'm usually in bed before the sun goes down at 10pm. But tonight, the moon is bright over the purples and blues of the coming night. Climbing to a hill above the town we can see the entire multi-hued horizon, complete with glowing moon, between the church steeples. The drummers are parading through the streets with a parade of people behind them. Competing with them is the group of bagpipers and their following. On the corners, there are open grills where people are cooking some kind of trout-sized fish. At midnight, fires are lit and people are in fact jumping over them.

And all of this because I walked almost 500 mies.

Thanks, Santiago, you're the best. See you at Mass tomorrow (actually, later today, since it's after midnight!)




Practicing Lovingkindness

June 22, 2012

This is the last full day of walking before we reach Santiago. Excitement should be high, but instead our room of women in the albergue is sleeping in, not waking til 6:30am. It’s light outside and Mary and I go downstairs and have some breakfast. Normally, I don’t like to have breakfast before walking, but we bought some yogurt yesterday and it’s a short day on flat terrain, less than 20km to Pedrouzo, the last major stop before Santiago, so we can take our time, and don’t leave til 7:30am.

We weren’t 100 meters from our albergue, though, when I remembered why I do not like to leave so late. First thing, we have to walk through the haze of the four people ahead of us… walking and smoking! Probably there have been more people smoking and walking, but I just haven’t seen them. I’ve seen lots of smoking while sitting, but not walking, and I can’t see the trail in front of this bunch through the cigarette smoke. Ugh.

I receive Mary’s blessing to go ahead at Julie Speed and promise to wait for her at the first cafe. However, there’s no more having the road to myself anymore. There are sooo many people walking. At the cafe, there’s a crowd. All of the tables are full. I have to wait until some people leave to get an empty table. There’s a line for the bathroom. A line!

In fact, in these last 100km from Sarria, the number of pilgrims has exponentially increased and it’s a challenge for us who have been on the road for the last few weeks to have patience with them.

To borrow from Jeff Foxworthy – You Might Be A New Pilgrim If….

  • You are walking in tennis shoes, sandals, or (the worst) flip flops!
  • You are wearing jeans and cotton t-shirts (which means you will not be doing laundry all week – they take too long to dry)
  • Your backpack has no frame and is carrying less than the backpack of your average high school student (means they’re having their luggage transported ahead to your next albergue by one of the many services available)
  • Your sleeping bag in it’s sack is hanging haphazardly off some part of your pack (balance is key for long walks)
  • You are smoking and walking!!!
  • You are walking with more than one person – it’s not unusual the last few days to see groups of four to seven people, but at the cafe this morning, there are at least a dozen all sitting together with the same paper in hand reading something together. I have to clear my throat or make a noise to walk through these pilgrim-barriers on the trail.
  • You are stopped on the trail digging through your backpack while your three companions watch you or nervously look at the other pilgrims passing by (ok, I’ve been here, but it seems so long ago).
  • You have the TAXI number on your speed-dial (I’ve seen lots of signs advertising taxis – and I’ve noticed that the taxis on this part of the Camino have their windows tinted black for client anonymity.) Yes, I’ve taken a taxi, but not in the last 100kms, that’s unforgiveable cheating. To be fair, however, this might be necessary when your flip flops give out!
  • You are talking loud or singing (yes, I mean you, French people) after 9pm in the albergue.

Now, dear readers, before you start wondering how judgmental I’ve become on my spritual walk, please note that the above descriptions are meant to be dispassionate; just observations (albeit some with exclamation points). Actually, it is difficult to not have a little resentment toward these “intrusions” on my Camino. And I know it’s not just me. The last time I saw Ricky, my Italian friend, I told him he reminded me of a revolutionary. He replied, “Yes! I am rebelling against all these new pilgrims!” I can relate.

However, when I started to realize that I was getting annoyed, I determined that this was a great opportunity to practice lovingkindness. This type of meditation felt a lot better than being irritated all day. First I start with myself:

May I be happy.

May I be healthy and strong.

May I be free of suffering.

May I be able to live in this world peacefully, joyfully, and with ease.

Then to each jeans-clad, tiny-backpack wearing, loud, slow, trail-blocking pilgrim or group I passed:

Dear Pilgrim,

May you be happy and enjoy your time here in beautiful Galicia.

May you be healthy and strong and have enough energy at the end of the day to have some fun with your fellow pilgrims (because on some days, that was the best part).

May you be free of suffering and blisters.

May you walk on this Camino peacefully, joyfully, and with ease and be open to the full experience that comes to you.

After breakfast with Mary, I leave her in the bathroom line (I would rather pee off the side of the road than wait for that smelly toilet) and forge on. I see my friend Father Augustine having coffee at the next bar and stop to say hi, but decline the offer to stay and chat. I greet each pilgrim I walk by with a “Buen Camino” and I really mean it. In fact, it feels really good to send out so many good wishes.

However, all that good wish-sending takes a toll and I’m tired when I reach Pedrouzo, a large, busy city. I text Lyn and Kathy, who are ahead, and see if they have found somewhere nice to stay (they should be travel agents, they are so good at finding nice albergues), and sure enough, they are in Pension Edreira, so that’s where I’m headed. I buy a bed for Mary so she’ll have a lower like me (she did the same for me last night) and text her where to come.

After shower and laundry and charging electronics, we go up the hill for a bocadillo and a beer. Lyn and Kathy tell me they have a hotel reserved in Santiago and this does not sound like a bad idea. Back at the albergue, I get online and find Roots and Boots, a hostel that has a four-bed room available for 18euros/bed/night. After a cursory look at some hotel options, I find that to buy all four beds (we’ll need all four when Morgan comes back) for all three nights is the best deal. I love the albergues, but it seems better to have a room just for us that locks for our last three nights on Camino in Santiago. It’s booked before we go to dinner.

In the courtyard of the albergue, we see our Italian juggler friend, Fabricio, who we last saw broken down on the road to Logrono. He recovered and will be in Santiago tomorrow with us. So will Andy and Jeffrey, Judith, Christiana, Father Augustine, Amedeo, Irish Mark, Rolande, and Susie to name a few. It will be a grand reunion. Morgan’s latest text informs me he’ll be in Finisterre tomorrow night.

We celebrate our last night on the road with Lyn and Kathy. White wine and potato chips to start, then dinner of salad, risotto, tiramisu, and lots of great wine.

Tomorrow, Santiago!

Reunion II and a Half

June 21, 2012

It's raining. It was raining last night pretty hard and it's still coming down this morning. No early risers in this room of four; I'm surprised when I wake up that it's almost 6:30am. Christiana says she wants to go back to bed, but I'm up and getting ready. The one thing I've been carrying that I haven't used/worn is my rain pants, a lightweight shell that keeps my pants underneath from being soaked. Today, even though it's not pouring, I'm wearing them. As I'm taping my toes on the patio, I see Kathy and Lyn go by and wave.

Last night, Mary was only 12km ahead. I text her and ask if she wants to meet in Arzua, only a 15km walk for her. When I catch up to Kathy and Lyn, I find they're heading to the same place. Reunion tonight!

In the meantime, I'm walking in the rain through the green countryside reminding me of Oregon… except for the eucalyptus trees. The trail goes through forests of them. They're not native to the area but were brought in for lumber. When I reach Melide, a larger city, I see truckloads of them rolling through town. The stands of trees have a wonderful, fresh scent and I am breathing deeply this morning.

The sun is coming out when I reach Melide. I remove my raingear and have a coffee. A couple of pilgrims come up to sit next to me. These guys (actually a man and a woman) have a kind of wild-woodsman-Rip-Van-Winkle-I've-been-to-Hell-and-back kind of look. They tell me they've been on the Camino Primitivo, a route that parallels the Camino Frances that we're walking. For some, the Camino Primitivo is the “true” Camino and is generally regarded as the most difficult for walking, going up and down hills and avoiding the cities instead of through the “easier” passes of the Camino Frances. Supposedly, there are amazing views and different and beautiful monasteries and churches to visit. This couple told me that they had walked the Camino from LePuy in France three times and once from Seville in the south of Spain, but after this, they were done. A guy I met later in the day said, “There are three types of people: 1) those who have never done Camino, 2) those who have done Camino, and 3) those who have done Camino Primitivo.” Bravo, Ironmen and women, but I'll stick with Group 2.

Mary's ahead of me and we text back and forth in the next few hours as to where we should stay. I suggest a private albergue from my guidebook and she will head that way. I text Lyn and Kathy and tell them our plan – maybe we'll see them there, too.

After Melide, I've been feeling my shoes rub on the back of my heel. I'm smarter, now, though, and stop to apply a little tape to the red spot. I am NOT getting any more blisters! In Arzua, I find Mary has reserved a bed (lower bunk!) for me and while I'm laying out my stuff, who walks in by Lyn and Kathy. We all shower and then go out to a Pilgrim Menu lunch at a recommended restaurant. It's always good to go to a place where it is not just pilgrims, but locals eating there. We share fried fish and pork knuckle and bites of each other's dessert. I love a group that shares!

Lyn and Kathy move on and Mary and I go to the local panaderia (pasty shop that serves coffee and drinks) and have um, coffee and drinks and catch up on the last week since we've seen each other. This takes about three hours and as we walk back, we see Lyn and Kathy having G&T's in the square. I bow out and head back to the albergue to do some writing before bed. I'm the last one to bed in our room of eight. It's all girls, though, and the attached bathroom just for us is a luxury. No snorers tonight (well, Kathy snores a little bit!) Tomorrow is our last full day of walking before we arrive in Santiago.



Speaker, Listener, Reader

June 20, 2012

Up and out at 6am this morning and on the trail as the sun is just coming up. Today begins with a hill and, while I am a strong walker, the first hill that comes before I'm really warmed up burns my leg muscles. But, no pain, no gain, right? When I'm on the flat I hear someone with walking sticks clicking behind me. I am uncomfortable with clickers behind me, so I stop to let the clicker, who turns out to be a young Spanish guy, pass. He stops to take a picture and I want that same picture. We grin at each other and he moves on.

About an hour later, I stop for coffee and breakfast and there he is at the next table. We nod. A week ago, I used to be one of the first customers at the side-of-the-road bar, but now, at 7am and much closer to Santiago, almost every table outside is full. (Funny, after walking outside all day for all of these days, no one wants to sit inside unless it is raining.) I move on and pass Mr. Spanish Sticks taking another picture, but he catches up to me and says hi. Turns out his name is Ruben and he is from the Canary Islands and has been walking since Burgos. Unfortunately, he does not speak English and I have to get my butt off the English-speaking pilgrim bus to try to resurrect my conversational Spanish, which has taken a backseat to my traveler's Spanish. Yikes.

However, I gotta say that I'm not sucking at Spanish too terribly, as we talk together for almost an hour. Ellen from New York passes us with a, “Not bad, you should be fluent by Santiago!” Hmm. A bit later, a guy in a Franciscan friar religious habit, hood, cord, beard, and all, lopes by with a, “Nice job, your Spanish is better than mine!” Double hmm. I learn Ruben has a job with the power company at home, lives by himself, and loves to camp. I try to tell him what I do, and we discuss why each of us are there and what we like about the Camino. He is adorable, but the conversation dwindles and eventually he smiles and moves on. Sigh.

Right around the corner, though, is a village with an albergue advertising coffee, tea, and stamps for our Pilgrim Passports. When I walk up to ask where the bathroom was, I find it's staffed by Americans. But not just any Americans, Hokies! A orange-vested group from Virginia Tech was there on a mission to help the church-run albergue in this remote village for two weeks. I chatted with them a bit, checked out the facilities, and moved on, thanking the Camino for a little reminder of home.

It's a great day for walking. The landscape is lush and green. I'm in the moment, walking Julie Speed but drinking in the villages, farms, woods, and fields. Yesterday I met Dr. Judith, who I hadn't seen in 2 weeks – I knew we'd be leapfrogging each other for the next couple of days, planning to arrive in Santiago on Saturday. Today, she's off-trail along a stone fence enjoying lunch. I wave and she waves back.

After 24km, I'm in Palas de Rei, a larger town. At the bar next to the albergue are sitting (of course) Italian Ricky and friends, including Franciscan priest guy. Ricky jumps up from his seat to give me a shout and a hug. I catch up with him and greet the rest of his gang. Turns out he has to be in Santiago by Friday because his girlfriend is coming to meet him from London on Saturday. I'm invited to the celebratory bash, but I won't be there in time. They urge me to stay and chill with a beer, but I still feel like walking, so off I go. I really want to get one town ahead to avoid the crowds in the morning.

I don't go far, though, and in less than an hour I'm standing in front of a quaint stone albergue. Some German folks are sitting in the courtyard and tell me it's a nice place and I should stay here. That's enough for me and before you know it, I've found my bed (top bunk, but I've made peace with the ladder) showered, saladed, beered, and napped. I meet Christiana over lunch and listen to her story instead of write, even though I've got my iPad open. This albergue is attached to a restaurant/bar and I go over for a cup of tea when I wake up. Dinner tonight is here at 7pm, but I'm invited to attend a mass in English at 6:30pm, presided over by Franciscan Priest guy, actually called Father Augustine, and who is from England. Mass, sure, why not?

The lounge area adjacent to the sleeping rooms is set up with a table for the priest and a half-circle of chairs facing him. I've been to the tail end of Spanish Mass in Carrion and German Mass in O Cebreiro and never really knew what they were saying, so I'm glad for the opportunity to hear it in English. Our small group of about 14 souls watches the Priest as the liturgy begins and I'm drawn in by the poetry and the ceremony. No singing today, just prayer.

I'm surprised and honored to be asked, as the only native English speaker in the group, to read some Scripture aloud. I fumble for my glasses (never in their correct place) and stand in front of the group. It's the story of Elijah and Elisha. A story! I can do this! All those nights reading Harry Potter and all the other classics aloud to my family have prepared me for this moment. I pause to scan the text, then with appropriate pauses and different voices for Elijah and Elisha, I, hopefully along with my audience, am on the River Jordan when Elijah whips his cloak out to part the river, then says goodbye to his friend Elisha as he's whisked away by the magnificent chariot and horses of fire. I finish, take a breath, and hand the book to Father Augustine, who is, frankly, staring at me. Oh shoot, too much drama?

The Mass continues with more prayer, communion (I choose not to take communion) and a blessing (I'll take all the blessings I can get!), and we head off to dinner. I stay after everyone's gone to thank him for my first English service, and, to my great relief, said that that was the best reading of scripture he's ever heard! Phew.

We move on to dinner and Christiana is trying to keep the English speakers together, so I join her and Father Augustine for a lively conversation about how a kid from a military family majoring in English in university becomes a Franciscan priest. We talk about silent retreats and yoga and Nicaraguan insects and natural health as well. The food is soup and salad for first course, potato omelet and grilled pork with beans as a second, and prepackaged desserts for all. I would love to talk to Father Augustine more, and he says he'll be staying in Arzua tomorrow, and usually does Mass in the local church.

Back to the little stone room and my upper bunk. I'm going to sleep well tonight. Goodnight, Elijah, thanks for a great day.





Fifty First Dates

June 19, 2012

Sarria. From here it is 100km to Santiago – this is the closest place you can begin a Camino and receive a compostela, or certificate. The town is crowded with albergues full of pilgrims and the road this morning is busy with new arrivals to the trail. After a relatively light day yesterday, I'm planning to walk 30km through the green hills of Galicia to reach Portomarin. The mountain range we just crossed creates a barrier for the ocean weather, so the Europeans compare the climate and landscape to Ireland, but for me it resembles the Oregon coast or maybe western Virginia. The predominant smell is cow poo, which is splattered all over the road and spread everywhere by the tractors that rumble by. Morgan is in Santiago today and will be heading to Finisterre tomorrow. I have a few more days to go.

Today I'm reflecting on the people I've met these last few weeks. This has been the most surprising and unexpected aspect of the Camino for me. I don't know if a borderline introvert/extrovert like myself could have prepared for the number of fascinating people I have had the pleasure to meet. Sometimes it seems that I'm not even in Spain, but in a long, long tour bus full of pilgrims interacting with each other while looking out the window at the countryside. Unless you're doing a silent Camino, you will meet many people and have relationships lasting anywhere from five minutes to the length of your walk. It's delightful and I want to tell you about some (well, 50) people that I or Mary or Susie have met, either over coffee or a meal, walking on the trail, or sleeping in the bunk on top of me. What kind of people walk the Camino? Meet my 50 First Dates: (oh, and if you just want to skip the prose, there are more pics at the bottom)

  1. Dr. Jeon from South Korea, age 78, walking the Camino with the blessing of his wife, but not his children which include his daughter, who graduated from Harvard Medical School and her brother, who works for her in S. Korea. Dr. Jeon ran a ceramics company that made ceramics for colliders and we believe he is an accomplished artist, according to the paintings he showed us on his iPhone. (He passed us on Day 2.)
  2. John from South Africa, one of the most inquisitive and provacative people I've ever met, used to run a hotel and travelling with his girlfriend, strolling along no hurry (the only people who Mary, Susie, and I passed while walking on Day 2.)
  3. Michael (not John) and Kathryn (also not John) from the OC, (hi guys!) walked to Pamplona in 4 days from St Jean Pied de Port. Kathryn is a teacher and I was impressed that they had cards printed especially for the Camino with their contact information. (Why didn't I think of that?)
  4. Michel from Switzerland – we crossed paths quite a few times the first week. I'll never forget his grin as he was sitting in the bar at Lorca with shoes off – a perfect picture of relaxation. He walked on ahead, but not before he admonished me to wear my hat on those hot days.
  5. Simon from Italy, a lecturer who lives near Venice. Great smile! I love that he tried to impress the importance to Morgan and Dominic of drinking one glass of water for every glass of wine that first night at Orisson when the boys were getting a little too happy.
  6. Margaret from Canada was carrying her husband's ashes in a tiny keychain vial and dropping them where she would like to have him visit with her while her new partner is at home taking care of her 17 year old cat.
  7. Jonathan from Australia, traveling for 10 months, has spent the last 5 months working in some of the best hotels in Britain before going on Camino.
  8. Renate from Holland, who walked across the Pyrenees in the freezing, pouring rain that occurred just days before we began our walk. She knew that she was supposed to be there, though, when at the top of the hill, she met an 80 year old woman from her home country near collapse and half-carried her to the nearest road because she couldn't have made it on her own and spoke only Dutch.
  9. Ray and Tina from Portland, who live in the Belmont area, just a few blocks from Mary's house. They saved up a year's worth of vacation time to walk their Camino. We first saw them in Uterga, just out of Pamplona, then again in Santiago, where they turned Mary on to one of the best tapas bars in town.
  10. Steve from Richmond, fit and blonde, got his Master's degree and then went into the army as an officer, was stationed in Italy for four years and then served one year in Afghanistan. He was on terminal leave walking the Camino as part of a one year trip around the world couch surfing. Saw him just outside of Najera needing to go back 20km to retreive a lost passport. Saw him again in Santiago, so he must have found it.
  11. The Eileens – Mom Eileen is 71, walking the entire Camino on a two month schedule (instead of our 33 days). She had walked it 15 years earlier with her husband, who has passed, and for this trip is accompanied week to week by different family members who are concerned about her traveling by herself. They needn't have worried, however; she was tough and knew her way around just fine.
  12. Young Eileen, Eileen's daughter walking with her Mom. One morning as they were leaving the albergue, she came down to get her shoes (in most albergues, shoes are left near the entrance and are not allowed in the sleeping rooms) to find them missing. In their place were a pair of more expensive shoes, however, they were a half size too small. She had to walk all day to the next town in them, where she bought a snazzy new pair.
  13. Eileen's niece Luann and her daughter Christine from New Jersey were walking with Eileen after daughter Eileen left. We saw them in Carrion as they were trying to persuade Eileen not to walk the 17km “wilderness” by herself, since the next shift wasn't due for a couple of days.
  14. Jessica and Brian are moving from Connecticut to Oregon (who wouldn't?) This Camino was their honeymoon, and they were having a hard time walking. Their feet were all torn up, they were buying new shoes in Pamplona, had lots of allergy problems. Mary gave them a pep talk and persuaded them to take the bus. They were quite dejected to see people pushing ahead of them.
  15. Meg and her twin sister traveled from Canada to walk the Camino on their 30th birthday. One sister got infectious cellulitis (infected blisters on her heels) and had to take antibiotics and stay off her feet for four days.
  16. Mike from Vancouver, WA, an EMT walking the Camino for his 40th and loving his iPhone as a tool to keep in touch with family and friends back home. First saw him at Carrion, then just before Sahagun, where he was headed for the train to Leon to buy new shoes that would not aggravate the blister he had on the bottom of his foot. Saw him again the night before reaching Santiago with new shoes and blister healed.
  17. Roxanne, age 50 from Vancouver, Canada, has a daughter getting married in September and some health issues. She is taking little vacation breaks from the Camino to go to places like the beach at San Sebastian.
  18. Susie's friend Rolande from Virginia, walking the Camino to celebrate her 60th birthday. Since the kids were out of the house, she felt free to do something unusual. In October, she saw the movie The Way, wrote to Martin Sheen and got a response back within a week with a story of how his family was from Galicia and that he wished her well on her Camino.
  19. Leif the heart surgeon from Stockholm crossed paths with us for a few days. We were aghast to see him smoking, but he did help us with some health issues – I got a wrap for my swollen knee and some cortisone the next day thanks to his advice.

  20. Fabricio, the young, cute Italian juggler from Sicily who had very sexy black underwear, which we saw when he shared a communal bathroom with us in Navarette. Too bad Mary wasn't wearing any underwear when Fabricio saw her coming out of the shower!
  21. Modesto, a professional photographer from Italy was traveling with his huge camera and took some pics of me blogging on my iPad and coming down the trail after a long day. Wish I could get copies of those.
  22. Vittorio, from Italy, traveling with Modesto. Always had a friendly wave when I passed them in the dark in the morning.
  23. David from North Carolina, who has spent his junior year of college in Madrid. His girlfriend, who is still taking classes in Madrid, is planning a trip for them in Galicia after he finishes. He will then go back to Madrid and stay with host family until August, when he will return to UNC in Raleigh. I was jealous of his native-sounding Spanish and his ability to play guitar.
  24. Ingrid and her three Swedish companions who were always seen parked at the bar in the morning for coffee and then in the afternoon for beer. They were doing one part of the Camino at a time, and were found very upset one morning when they arrived at one of the albergues and there was no coffee.
  25. Mary and Susie met John and Janet, an English couple who were retired schoolteachers, traveling the Camino in their Caravan (trailer). Dedicated Francophiles who fed my friends the best cheese and wine, they are traveling the Camino this year instead of their usual France trip. They admitted to driving 35 minutes each way to find good produce.
  26. Kim and Kim (both guys) from South Korea, walking the Camino celebrating their retirement from Xerox, so happy not to have to wear a tie. Learned that 30% of all Koreans are named Kim.
  27. Brenda and Paul from Banff, Canada, used to walking the Rockies, but found different conditions here in Spain.
  28. Steve from England, taking a year off from his electricity company job to recharge his batteries (no pun intended) before he goes home to deal with his father, who is in the early stages of dementia.
  29. Two women from Germany, who trailered their horses from Germany and were riding them along the Camino with their beautiful Afghan hound walking with them. I don't remember the name of the women, but the dog was named Annabelle, and she wears a rhinestone collar and gets her feet oiled every night to prepare for the next day's walk. I don't know the age of the women, but the horses were 14 and 21 years old.

  30. I never got the name of the Danish woman I saw walking with her 7 year old. She walked the Camino ten years ago and wanted to do it again, but waited for her daughter to get old enough to walk with her. She wears her adult pack on her back and her daughter's small pack on her chest. Looks like they were having fun.
  31. I also did not get the name of the woman walking with the black lab wearing red booties and his own doggie panniers. We first saw her on the train. She sets up a tent near town and meets fellow pilgrims in albergues.
  32. Franco, born in Argentina, but moved to Spain looking for a better job. He hopes to go to New York, though, so if any of you New Yorkers out there want to do a house exchange with a guy from Valencia, look him up.
  33. Tonya from Denver. Short, cute, a great sense of humor, but a potty mouth. Surely it's to shock people, and it works. Last seen taking a taxi out of Navarette.
  34. Sika from Iceland, called to the Way many years ago but only recently decided to go. After she made the decision to go, she was bombarded with signs – an article in a magazine, a documentary on TV, the movie, The Way… Like the woman in that movie, she was trying to quit smoking, but each day I saw her, she was always lighting up.
  35. Sebastian from France, running the Camino in just over two weeks, because he's getting married at the end of the month to an American girl and they're moving to Berkeley where he has a job. His backpack was the size of a kid's school backpack, no extra shoes, no sleeping bag, only one other change of clothes… the bare minimum.
  36. Bernhard who walked from Germany, on his third month. One leg was quite swollen about 10 days from Santiago, but it wasn't stopping him.
  37. The 13 year old German boy who was traveling with the social worker his parents sent to supervise him in a tough love type of trip after he was expelled from school.
  38. Silvana, a German preschool teacher working in Switzerland, deciding if she wanted to stay there or go to Pakistan, Dubai, New York, or elsewhere. She had a Google Translate relationship with a Spanish guy which lasted quite a few days. What fun!
  39. John from St. Louis, a teacher who is meeting his family for vacation in Barcelona at the end of the Camino. He had some serious blisters that slowed him down a bit.
  40. Jim the Spanish teacher from Atlanta. It's his third or fourth Camino. Helped Susie immensely with trip planning and deciding when to bus and when to walk. Introduced Uli and I to our first chupitos, the after-dinner digestive liquer made from herbs. Later we found that this yummy drink comes in coffee flavor, Bailey's flavor, berry flavor (tastes too much like cough syrup), and some flavor you can light on fire (somehow never had this one!)
  41. Anka from Netherlands, looking for work and applying for over 100 social work jobs. Striking with long black hair, big blue eyes, she has no ticket to go home and will walk until she figures out what to do.
  42. Angelo from Venezuela who came to Madrid to look for a job in the tech field, had one, but was let go, taking some time to walk the Camino while he is between jobs.
  43. Jeffrey from Arkansas who's been teaching in a Christian School in St. Petersburg Russia. He was always on the lookout for Doritos and Oreos, 'cause you can't get them in Russia.
  44. Mark from Ireland, super-friendly. He woke us up in Itera in the muddle of the night when he started laughing out loud and slapping his knee in his sleep. That's him at the top, by the way.
  45. Gerd and Guadaloupe, walking the Camino for their 25 year anniversary, she's from Valencia, he's from Germany, you can see they really love each other by the way they look at each other.
  46. Judith, the German woman who just graduated from Medical school and is taking some time off before she starts her first job as Dr. Judith. When we met her in Viana, she was tired, really tired. When I met her a couple days before Santiago, she had color in her cheeks and was feeling great.
  47. Christiana from Germany, a natural health practitioner specializing in alkaline diets and yoga, questioning her spirituality after a talk with Father Augustine. When the French person at our table said that the first part of her name was Christ, she was taken aback.
  48. Father Augustine, a 32 year old Franciscan Priest walking the Camino between jobs – in a couple of months he'll be in Nicaragua. The nicest priest you'll ever meet, he was always surrounded by a bevy of young people, mostly girls.
  49. Ricky from Italy, going to school in London and looking forward to meeting his girlfriend in Santiago. I told him he reminded me of a revolutionary, always wearing an army hat, rolling his own smokes, and never without an irreverent comment. He always made me laugh.
  50. All of the other people whose names I never got or have forgotten – I could go on and on. All ages, all types of professions, yet united in the sense of adventure and seeking to know themselves better during this walk.

I do make it to Portomarin in record time and stay in a huge modern albergue with 150 beds in one room and a great view of the river below. Half of those beds filled with two busloads of pre-teens on a Camino tour. I don't know if this is good or bad. Lyn and Kathy are in the albergue next door and we enjoy salad, mussels, pulpo (octopus) and peppers for dinner. Hopefully, I'll catch up with Mary soon. Seems a couple of days ago she and Susie split up, so not sure where Susie is, since she has no phone. We're almost there!



The Camino Provides

June 18, 2012

None of my English-speaking companions are up yet, just me, sitting up to reach my clothes left near my feet at the base of my bed, putting away my earplugs, slipping on my bathroom shoes and go to wash my face (without soap, always put that away the night before) and brush my teeth before dragging my backpack, sleeping bag and it's sack, toiletries, and other clothes into the main room filled with big, loud Spanish guys. I stuff my sleeping bag in it's sack here – it's really noisy and I try not to do this where people are still sleeping, stow the rest of my gear, tape my toes (probably I don't really need to by this point, but it makes me feel good), put on socks and shoes, double check that I have all my valuables in their respective places, quietly creep back into the sleeping room and check under my bed to make sure I didn't leave anything, and head out a bit after the Spanish guys.

It's foggy and dark. I've got my headlamp on and I check my book again to make sure I'm heading the right way. No spectacular sunrise today, just a brightening of the mist surrounding me. Since I've started from a small albergue instead of from a bigger town, there are few fellow pilgrims walking at this hour. A random girl who doesn't speak English is the only person I meet. The trail winds down through small stone villages. In the second village, about an hour and a half walking, there's a bar open for breakfast. I'm good and hungry.

There's a problem, however. Somehow I wasn't paying attention to money at the last cash-machine town and ended up spending my last bills on dinner last night. I have five euros in my wallet. Unfortunately, I order the fresh-squeezed juice (2euros) and coffee (1euro) before realizing that, and instead of my favorite potato omelet, all I can afford is toast (tostadas) and have one euro left over. At home, I would be freaking out at the thought of going out with an empty wallet, but here, I'm not worried. According to my book, Tricastela, the next town, is only an hour and a half walk away, and chances are favorable that it will have a cash machine. If not, well, in another 18km (a little more than four hours more walking) there was Sarria, the 100km mark from Santiago. In the meantime, I had cookies and sunflower seeds to eat, plus I would not feel the least bit strange about asking people for money, if I really had to. The Camino always provides. And sure enough, when I got to Tricastela, there was the cash machine right on the trail waiting for me. Thank you, Camino.

After Tricastela, the Camino splits into two trails – one that goes via Spain's oldest and largest monastery at Samos, 6.4km longer, or the one that goes via a more natural path through San Xil. I choose the shorter one, take a wrong turn for about 10 minutes, then pass through gorgeous woodland, through a stone village, and up a hill. Earlier, I am passed by a solo bicyclist, who meets me on the other side of this village. “Perro,” he says, very seriously, and points up ahead. At first I think he is afraid of a dog and wants someone not wielding a bike to wield a stick (because I am Superwoman), but then I figured that he saw the dog, knew I was alone behind him, and stopped to provide protection. You gotta love these Italians! We chat for a bit, I take his picture at the fountain on top of the hill, then he cycles on. The Camino provides.

I'm getting hungry and am ready to stop for lunch. It's around noon, and it's 9km to Sarria. I don't think I'm going all that way; there are several places to stay before there. There's a bar open, I peel off my pack, go inside and see my Brazilian friend, Jorge. As I greet him (we just say hi since he doesn't speak English), I hear a voice from his other side. “You sound American!” There's a woman the other side of Jorge. I ask where this woman is from. Virginia. Hmmm… I take a wild guess and ask her if she's Rolande, Susie's friend who started before us. Sure enough, it's her, and she knows me! I grab a sandwich and we chat, filling each other in on our respective journeys. We part, promising to meet in Santiago. The Camino provides.

So, now, how far do I walk before stopping? Question answered: coming out of the bar I see my Australian friends, Lyn and Kathy. I walk with them a bit to find out that they are ready for lunch and ready to stop for the night. I just had lunch, but according to the guidebook, there was a pension (small hotel) about half an hour's walk ahead. Could they wait and eat then, and I'll split a room with them? Sure! Although it's a little sooner than I had planned, I was happy to join my friends the “Hotel Tarts” in a room with a bed with sheets, towels, and no snoring men. At 17euros, it seemed like a steal. We watched the parade of cows coming home as we checked in. The Camino provides.

The ladies had lunch, I did some writing and listening to music, and Kathy introduced me to the 2euro foot/leg massage chair, which became my new best friend. Before dinner, we met for drinks and (Lyn's favorite) potato chips. We asked the waitress for something warm and she brought out a small, open pitcher from the back. Special chupitos made by her husband! It did indeed warm us down to our toes. Dinner was festive, sharing life stories, and we got to bed early. Thank you, Camino. Tomorrow, we're going to try to make it to Portomarin, almost 30km.






The Beauty and the Terror

June 17, 2012 (the correct date, somehow I'm a day off with my camera, I'll sort out the other earlier dates later)

I started out happy.

It was 6am, still dark, the fog lay on top of the mountain across the valley. A perfect morning.

Stopped and had cake and coffee for breakfast. Feeling great. I'm going to climb O Cebreiro!

But there must have been something in the cake, for just steps from the bar, I became apprehensive. My usual 4-5km/hr-take no prisoners-stop only for a potty break pace had dissipated into a stroll to look at the cows, take pictures of the stream, study the buildings lining the road through this little valley.

Something was wrong. I was scared.

There was a part of me that, for some reason, did not want to climb this mountain. What?! This makes no sense! The Sensible Julie reminded the Scared Julie that she had walked more than 350 miles over two mountain ranges already. I was rested, had my coffee, and was ready to roll. I was arguing with myself out loud, to the consternation of Amedeo, my Italian friend who was walking with me this morning. Somehow, it didn't really bother him, though; he had witnessed me in various states of craziness coming down hills and walking beyond my limits; he knew I had a weird streak.

But Scared Julie was having none of Sensible Julie's arguments and reacted like many frustrated women the world over; she started crying. I'm now crying, but trying not to look like I'm crying as I walk a few steps behind Amedeo, thinking that this will pass shortly. But it does not. He stops to wait for me and I am openly sobbing. “Ccccan I hhaave a tttisssue?” I ask him, because I can't reach mine without taking off my pack. He hands me a package. He wants to know what's wrong, what he can do to fix it. I tell him I will not be a good walking companion today, I don't know what's wrong, I don't know why I'm crying, I just am and it looks like I'm going to be doing it for a while. I could see the frustration in his face, but I send him on and just stood for a while at the bottom of the hill, hiccupping.

After a bit, I start up the hill, tears flowing. What was going on? Was is the physical pressure of walking at least six hours a day for the last 25 days without a rest day? Was it the mental pressure of making sure everybody in my group was ok? Was it the deadline that I had set for myself to get to Santiago by next Sunday, needing to average 25km/day? Was it that I was spending too much time walking by myself? Or too little? Was it something more esoteric: the enormity of this adventure, the echoes of the heartaches of those who walked before me? Yet, I am loving being outside, just me and my pack, not knowing each morning where I would spend the night, not knowing who I will meet, cherishing the relationships I had developed so far. It's beautiful, yet I am feeling so, so small on this mountain, so weak. Bigger questions arise. What am I supposed to do here? What is my purpose in this life? What if, when I finally figured it out, I couldn't do it? What if I can't do it? What if I can't do it? What if I can't do it? I'm terrified.

The trees made a dark canopy over the trail at the bottom of the hill. I'm walking slowly and sobbing. The grade is pretty steep, but no more difficult than any other hill I've scaled. In the middle of a particularly steep rise, I see someone has left a sign with a quote on it by Rilke. I stop to read. “let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. just keep going. no feeling is final.” Yes! Instructions! Who hung this sign here knowing it was exactly what I needed at this moment? This is so right! More tears come, but now they are cathartic. Just keep going, it will be ok. It will be ok.

I am climbing in earnest now. Not attacking the hill exactly, but meeting it. Eventually, the trail breaks out of the trees, opening into wide valleys with amazing views. I stop to admire the surrounding mountains and the valleys far below. I greet Jorge from Brazil, who stops to admire the view with me, then moves on. I'm feeling better, still hiccupping a bit, but I know I have definitely made it over the hard part. I meet Jamil from Montreal, who carries a guitar-like instrument, and find out he's been walking since 2am, couldn't sleep.

The guys go on and I head up the hill. At La Faba, only 6km in distance from where I started this morning, yet spiritually much farther, I see Amedeo waiting, as well as Lyn and Kathy, my Australian friends. I tell them about my breakdown, and get hugs from all before they head up the hill ahead of me. I'm slow today, making peace with this mountain and just keeping going, stopping to enjoy the flowers on the side of the trail, the distant vistas, smiling at the farmers working in their barns that straddle the road up the hill.

Farther up the hill is the marker for entry into Galicia, the Province where Santiago de Compostela is located. I'm getting close to the top, to the end, and feeling better, refreshed, now. When I reach the church at O Cebreiro, one of the earliest surviving buildings on the Camino de Santiago, Amedeo tells me he will move on without me. Can't blame him, really. I file into the 9th Century Iglesia with a group of Germans who have apparently reserved the church for their own Mass, complete with German priest. No one shoos me out, though, so I stand when they stand and sit when they sit. I don't understand much German, but I appreciate Gott und Himmel und die Heiliger Geist and bathe in the hymns that echo into all corners of the church. I bet my friend Uli would love this. I say a prayer of Vielen Dank over and over until the service ends, wishing to be nowhere else in the world.

With a wave to Lyn and Kathy, who I see shopping, I head down the hill. A German girl passes by, we start talking, and, in the Spirit of the Camino, we find that we know each other, or at least know of each other. It's Silvana, who has walked with Mary, and we share bits of life story/Camino experience. She's got some ankle problems, though, so she stops to rest, but I'm moving on.

I stop for lunch at Hospital (the name of the town, not a medical facility) with Italian Ricky and his friends. I have actually never seen them walk, only sitting at the bar as I pass by, but I see them at least once every day. I share my sandwich and sit for a bit. They are laughing (as usual) this time because some German tourists were taking pictures of them and they were providing captions: “pilgrims walking”, “pilgrims eating.” I took their picture with the caption, “pilgrims eating.” Every time I see them, I come away smiling.

It's three more kilometers to the next town. I'm pretty tired, it's 2pm, my preferred stopping time, yet I'm back to Julie Walking Speed. I walk past the cows coming home down the village street and catch up to Lyn and Kathy just before Alto do Poio (1335m) where there's a bar/albergue. I'm done for the day and check into the albergue, but they are just having lunch and moving on. Since I just had lunch, I just sit with them for a bit to watch the motorcycle racing (big in Australia), then say goodbye and go back to the albergue to take my shower and do laundry.

There are just nine sets of bunk beds, and it looks like every one is claimed by a man. Oh my, I've stumbled into the men's albergue – I'm the only woman here. It's not the cleanest ever, there's mold in the shower, but for tonight, it's home. Here's where I meet Aymar (not sure of spelling, didn't get it right the first time, called him Liam until I was corrected by Lyn and Cathy who met him later), otherwise known as “The Irishman who took the Spanish Guy's Shoes.” It's cold outside and starting to rain hard. He's paying for a lavadora (washing machine load) and I throw in my shirts and undies with his and split the 3euro bill. We sit on the bench by the radiator and chat until the laundry's done. There's no dryer, so we lay our wet things over the radiator. He shows me pictures of his daughters, who gave him a Father's Day card on his departure to open today. Some new pilgrims come in, Zach from Seattle and Katherine from Australia (yay, another woman!) and we go to dinner in the bar next door. I'm especially thankful for Katherine, who let me use her iPad photo adapter when my after-market job wouldn't work. I bought my companions their first chupitos in the Camino Spirit.

You can believe I was asleep at 9:30.











Camino Legends

Dear Readers, As many of you know by now, I’m home safe and sound, although not exactly the same, from the Camino. The last days on the trail, the triumphant arrival in Santiago, and the celebratory days following did not create a lot of time for writing and posting. However, if you will accept my apologies for the delay, I will continue writing as if I am still in Spain, because there is still so much to say and so much to show you. So, let’s carry on…

June 16, 2012

It begins to rain just steps from the albergue this morning at 6:30am. We stop and put on our rain jackets and cover our packs. We have a lovely walk through the vineyard-covered hills and it feels like the wine country of Oregon, drizzly weather included. I didn’t have my usual pre-departure fruit this morning, but no worries, the Camino provides with trees dripping with sweet red/yellow cherries, enough for everybody. Many of the stores along the way sell cherries, but I feel more like a pilgrim scavenging from the trees on the trail. If you wanted something more, you could stop at the Coke machine an enterprising family placed at the end of their driveway.

After a couple of hours, we reach Villafranca de Bierzo, our breakfast stop. This gorgeous stone town with no less than eight churches and convents, was developed along the Camino in the 11th century. The first church we reach is the Church of Santiago (of course) where the Puerta de Perdon (Door of Forgiveness) is located. We are a day’s walk from what some say is the most steepest, most arduous climb over the last high point on our journey. Back in the day, this was as far as some pilgrims could go, so they received absolution from their sins here the same as they would in Santiago. I touch it just to be safe and sit in the doorway for a bit to just absorb the feeling of peace on this rainy day.

After breakfast in the main square, we move on, not exactly sure where we will stop. My goal is, after yesterday’s death march, to stop early, get some writing and resting done, and get to bed early in anticipation of the big climb tomorrow. Between some towns, there are alternative routes you can take; the often shorter one that follows the highway, or the more scenic one that parallels the road. I plan to take the scenic route, even if my guidebook says it’s an hour longer and more hilly, because I really don’t like walking on the highway. However, somehow as we’re exiting the town following the pilgrims ahead of us, we miss the turn. Oh well, it’s not a bad day for an easier walk, even though my heart races a bit each time a car speeds past.

It’s still raining and when we reach the next town, I want a cup of tea. In the bar, we meet three young American college-age girls from LA walking the Camino. They tell me that I’m brave to walk alone. I told them I didn’t start that way, and sure enough, like many other people I talk to, they know my story. It’s one of the Camino Legends – The Boy Who Fell Off the Pyrenees and Broke His Leg and Had to Go Home. I’m actually only one of the supporting characters (The Woman Who Left Her Friends?), but I’m a little proud to be part of the Legend. It’s right up there with The Man Who Had a Heart Attack and Died on the Pyrenees When It Was Very Cold and The Man Who Fell Out of Bed and Had to Go to The Hospital and Ended Up Dying There. These are the most dramatic; there are others less fatal that I’ll share with you when I have more time.

We reach Vega de Valcarce (Vega means “fertile plain, Valcarce is the name of the river we’ve been following) at about 2pm and I’m beat. Up the hill is the municipal albergue (which is, by the way, pronounced “al – bear – gay” with the accent on the bear, and don’t forget to roll your rrrr’s) and as far as I’m concerned, it could be the Hole of Hell and I wouldn’t care, cause I know I’m going to sleep well tonight.

Here’s my arrival routine:

  • Lay out sleeping bag on bed. Why? Beds in most albergues don’t usually have sheets, just a mattress covered with a thin, gauzy material that is supposed to protect you from the latent germs/bugs/cooties. I am not comforted by this, so I sleep in my super-light sleeping bag.
  • Cover the pillow with the pillowcase I brought from home.
  • Move valuables (wallet, iPad, Pilgrim Passport, camera, glasses, phone) from their respective places on my big backpack to my small light backpack
  • Take out towel, soap, and after-shower clothes.
  • Shower, most of the time with valuables hanging nearby
  • Get dressed and do laundry
  • Go get some food or socialize or write til dinner around 7pm

Today, however, after this “shorter” day of 26km, I can’t stay awake and fall into a deep napping state after the laundry is done. This is the first time I’ve napped during my entire Camino (so many other members of the 5AM Club do so) and I wake up feeling good and search the town for wi-fi. Instead I find Mary Ellen from New Orleans and we have a great chat before dinner.


After dinner I find a bottle of water for my Platypus (if I can’t buy water, I just use the tap water at the albergue, which has not hurt me yet, but I prefer to buy a 2 liter bottle) and an orange for breakfast. In bed at 9pm and despite my nap, I’m out before 10pm.

There’s a mountain to climb tomorrow.




A Long Day

June 15, 2012

It’s more downhill at 6:20am. The sun is coming up over the hills, but we’re in the valley so we won’t see the sunrise. On the way down, I bump into Lyn and Kathy, who stayed in the town ahead. I wish I could post a picture of them, since it had been a few days since I saw them, but aaarrrgh, my camera is broken. It’s more steep walking, but in the morning it is much more manageable. We have breakfast together with Amedeo, who is also walking early, and continue down to the city of Ponferrada.

Ponferrada boasts a castle and some fine churches in the old town on the hill, with a modern, thriving city in the valley below. (Sorry, again, no picture.) After a nice coffee (I’m having coffee now at least twice a day) Amedeo decides to visit the sights and I am going camera shopping. We decide to meet at noon in the main square. I find out there’s a camera store in the old town, so I’m thinking this will be a quick errand.

Unfortunately, my camera is not repairable (I actually figured this out last night via Google) and the closest camera store only sells Nikon cameras. The salesman directs me to another camera store down the hill into the main city. I walk about 40 minutes to get there. Unfortunately, they only sell Fuji and Olympus cameras. However, the saleswoman directs me back toward town, about a 15 minute walk, to another camera store. I follow her directions and can’t find a camera store, but there’s a photo developing store and I figure they might know where I can find a Canon camera. I’m hoping, by the way, to find a camera that uses the same battery and charger. It’s just a simple point-and-shoot, not too expensive, and I’m thinking that this should not be so hard to find. I text Amedeo that I am not coming back to town and will meet him in the next town, 17km away.

This salesperson directs me to the Centro Commercial, known to Americans as The Mall, which has a Best Buy sort of store (why did someone not send me there in the first place?) I find my Canon and leave everything except for the camera, since I already had a charger and didn’t need any of the other cords or instructions. At first, the salesguy thought I was crazy, but when he saw my backpack, he understood. I also need new sunglasses, and there’s a sports store on the way out. Shopping success!

Now I just have to find the Camino. Fortunately, I get good directions from a nice woman in the parking lot and I head out, hoping she’s right. Sure enough, after about 15 minutes, I see backpacks. However, it’s 1pm and I’m beat. I look at my guidebook and determine that there’s a hotel about 10 minutes walk from here. I really need to walk that 15km (more than 3 hours) to keep on my schedule, but a quiet room of my own sounds delicious. I make a deal with Santiago. If I don’t see anyone I know to walk with me (and keep me going) before I reach the hotel, I will stay there. I couldn’t imagine walking that far and being so tired by myself, so it seemed like a fair deal.

However, who shows up but Amedeo and he’s game to go the distance. After walking for a bit, we stop for lunch and I have a tuna/tomato salad. We talk, share stories, compare notes on God and politics and food and relationships. He tells stories in Italian and I just listen. There are fellow pilgrims parked at the cafes in the little towns we pass, but none of these towns have an albergue for us to stop at. I know if I stop for a glass of wine or a beer, I’m never going to get up, so I press on, past the suburban houses, the small village homes with their balconies hanging over the street, and the vineyards. His shoulders are aching and I can’t feel my legs. Finally, we reach the church at Cacabelos, find our beds, and crash. It’s 4:30pm and if I was tired at 1pm, I’m dead tired now. I can’t imagine ever getting up again, but I do, to shower only, the laundry will wait. Fortunately I have two walking shirts and one after-walking shirt; I’ll just have to clean 2 shirts tomorrow.

Somehow after the shower I drag myself out of the albergue, ask some local old guys hanging around (each town has a group of old guys hanging around) for the best local restaurant (comida casera) and they direct us to the local pulperia, where the football match is going on and the pulpo and mussels in sauce are fantastic.

I’m sure I walked more than 30km today with all of the shopping – my longest day yet, and I’m still alive, but just barely. The good news is that my blisters, which had been plaguing me for the last two weeks, have disappeared a couple of days ago, and that’s one less thing to worry about. My swollen knee is fine, too. I must be getting stronger. Now if I could only lose some weight…








Reunion II

June 14, 2012

In the early morning, you can see the storks tending their families on top of the church tower. The mountains are up ahead as we cross what’s left of the meseta. The terrain is what in Oregon you’d call the high desert, scrubby bushes, no tall trees, fairly dry. Today I’m headed for the Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross, a famous stop among pilgrims at the top of the highest hill we’ve crossed yet (yes, higher elevation than the Pyrenees) at 1550 meters.

At the base of the hill is Rabanal, home to one of the best churches I’ve visited yet. It’s a Templar church, but it’s not empty, like the first one we visited, or huge, like the last one. It’s just big enough for the village, built to serve the pilgrims in the 12th century. If I was to stay the night in this town, I would go to the evening vespers and hear the Gregorian chanting offered by the monks that live in the monastery next door. In fact, I think Mary and Susie did when they were here. I meet a young German guy who is spending 6 months there helping the monks and the pilgrims. Finally I find a pair of shell earrings – for only 4 euros – in the monastery store. I came without earrings because nothing I owned seemed suitable and the scallop shell (symbol of the Camino) ones I came across at home were expensive. I’ve been feeling rather naked without earrings, so now I’m pretty happy. I receive a gift of a matching bracelet. I’ve gotten lots of complements on my scallop shell jewelry. After a quick sandwich, it’s up the hill.

Back on day 2 of our journey, we each picked up a stone (well, actually it was supposed to be a stone from your home town) that would represent our cares and worries and struggles. I picked up a piece of slate (not a large piece) and put it in my wallet. I’ve been carrying this rock representing my worries for the last few weeks in order to leave it at the foot of the cross, along with all of the other pilgrims. Leaving the rock here, I am to reconnect with the purpose of my journey.

However, arriving at the top (not a hard climb, really) I am somewhat underwhelmed. The famed iron cross is just a little tiny thing on top of a long pole. To be sure, there is a mountain at the base of the pole of left stones, messages, and keepsakes that pilgrims have been leaving for years and years. I take off my pack and find my stone. Between pilgrims, I clamber to the top and leave my stone. I try to summon some emotion, but it’s just not there. I think about leaving the stone as my blessing and it makes me smile, but that’s about it. The good news is that the road crews that were working on the road right under the cross that morning are gone, the bad is that for the next few kilometers it smells like asphalt. Oh well.

It’s downhill a bit into a small valley on the mountain. It’s 1pm and I’m ready to stop. There’s an albergue at Manjarin that’s supposed to be pretty unusual, organic food and solar heating. Turns out though, that the “bathroom” is a hole in the ground across the road and the water is from a well also across the road. No hot shower, but organic food and perhaps a Templar chant. Sorry, not for this pilgrim. It’s 7km down the hill to the next town. How hard can that be?

Well, it is absolutely true that going down is definitely harder than going up. The trail, if you could call it that, is one flowing piece of mountain rock interspersed with random rocks of all sizes. It is hard hard hard going, trying to maintain my balance (would it have been better with one or two walking sticks?) and not slip and fall. I am deliriously tired from having walked 13km to Rabanal, 7km to the cross, with another 10km to Acebo, the last 4km being straight down. Each step down requires excruciatingly cautious effort to not roll right down the hill. I’m looking down for each footfall and up between them for the amazing views from the top of this mountain.

When I see the sign for Acebo, 800 meters to go, I start singing, I’m so crazy happy. Beatles songs, mostly, I don’t know why, at the top of my lungs. Thank goodness my walking partner is far enough ahead that he can’t hear me. When I turn the corner and see the town, I bring out my camera to take a photo. Before I can get the strap around my wrist, I trip (on the flat) and the camera flies into the road, lens open. Unfortunately, when I pick it up, I find the lens won’t close. It’s broken. Bummer. The good news is that the memory card was saved, but for some reason, some of the pics did not make it to show the steep way down. Sorry!

I’m not sad for long, though, because the first people I see are Susie and Mary sitting at the bar. I scream with joy, disturbing all the other pilgrims who are enjoying their end-of-the-day peace. I don’t care. Mary takes my camera and directs me to the albergue, somewhat further down the hill, where I find my bed, a shower, and do some laundry. Everything freshly scrubbed, I haul myself back up the hill to find Mary and some new friends watching the bartender make them a homemade pitcher of Sangria. I’m in for that.

There’s internet here, and I have time to check my email and Skype home. Amedeo has bought a bottle of wine for us and we meet him back at the albergue. Dinner is family-style at this German-run hostel, and we say grace in two languages before we eat.

I’m exhausted, however, and go straight to bed. Tomorrow, Mary and Susie will walk the 13k to Ponferrada, a decent sized town, and I’m going to add another 17km to Cacabelos, at least that’s the plan. But first I need to buy a new camera…






Cocido Maragato

June 13, 2012

I’m a little late for the 5 o’clock club and meet Kyeongsoo in the kitchen having breakfast. Normally, all I like to have is a piece of fruit before leaving, but I shared my orange and received in return some yogurt and some bread. I left when he was finishing. I’m on my way to Astorga.

The sun is coming up and I run into my new Italian friend, Amedeo. He’s listening to a Camino guide on his iPod, which includes music of the period as well. We stop for coffee and start talking. He’s a retired engineer from Bergamo, north of Milan, and has really done his research. He’s created an Excel spreadsheet with each town that has an albergue and/or a cafe, with the amount of kilometers between each town, and what to see in each place. I’m impressed. We pass by one of the many rest spots with some funky art and I take a small break.

Up the hill to the high plain and see a shack in the distance. Closer, there’s a sign advertising organic juice. Organic! Under a tree we meet David, who offers 12 different kind of juice (organic), coffee, some bread, nutella, peanut butter, and some fruit, including beautiful red cherries. There’s no costs posted, only a donation requested. Turns out he lives here – his bed is just to the right of the stand. He tells us that his mission is to serve the pilgrims. Each morning he walks his portion of the trail to pick up any trash. He walks the 8km to Astorga to order these snacks to be delivered to his wilderness home/pilgrim rest stop.

A little farther along the plain, we come to the cross that marks the descent to Astorga, or Asturica Augusta as it was known in Roman times. Through the gate of this walled city is an interesting combination of churches, a lovely cathedral, Roman ruins, and a building designed by Antonio Gaudi. Amedeo also adds that he wants to try the local specialty, cocido maragato, basically a plate with 10 kinds of meat, plus potatoes and vegetables, and would I like to join him. A fellow foodie!

The ruins are amazing, the cathedral awe-inspiring, the Bishop’s Palace designed by Gaudi filled with gorgeous glass windows. We stop for a coffee (which is my personal code word for needing to use the bathroom – but I get coffee, too) and ask the waitress if she can recommend the best restaurant for cocido maragato, since just about every restaurant we passed has it on the menu. She says that there is one in town, but a better one is 5km out. They serve from 1pm to 4pm, and it’s 1:30pm now, so we can be eating meat in a quaint village in about an hour. It’s tempting to stay in Astorga and visit the chocolate museum, but I’m ready to get moving, so off we go.

The village of Castrillo is a reconstructed version of the crumbled stone villages that we have been passing through and although the particular restaurant we were looking for is closed, the one next door is open. Dinner is the biggest plate of meat, potatoes, omelet, and cabbage you’ve ever seen. I eat until I’m about ready to burst, too tired to walk to the next village. There’s a local family entertaining relatives from South America here, so it’s not just for tourists. Thankfully, there’s an albergue there and I get a bottom bunk. The usual program, shower, rest, a cup of tea, a small walk around the village. Not hungry for dinner. Sleeping at 9pm.








June 12, 2012

It was a rough night last night. In all of the albergues I have stayed at so far, the lights go out at 10pm, sometimes at 9pm. I fell asleep before 9pm, but woke up at 11pm to find the light still on. Too tired to climb down to turn it off, I fling my arm over my face and sleep some more. 1am, still on, 3am, still on, 4:15am, still on. At 5:17am, I can’t take it anymore and get up and get dressed, leaving the albergue at 6am. It’s still dark, the half moon high in the sky.

My Camino guidebook outlines 2 different ways to walk the next 40km or so. One way is along the highway, the other (often longer, but just by a couple of kilometers) is on smaller roads off the beaten path. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the path divides, especially at 6am, when there aren’t that many people around. At first, I pass the turn, but something doesn’t seem right, so I turn back and find the right way. A Korean guy is behind me and wants to take the same road. We fall in step and start talking.

Kyeongsoo has 2 months off (which he gets after working for 10 years for the same company) and is walking the Camino solo. His daughter just graduated from Princeton and is now at Wharton Business School, his son studying fashion in Korea. He is suitably impressed with my TaeKwonDo black belts. We compare lives as we walk across the high plains. There are no bars open in the first villages we pass through, so after 3 hours of walking, we stop for a picnic in the town park. I didn’t really plan on a picnic, but we pooled our resources. He had peanuts, I had prunes, chocolate cookies, sunflower seeds, and a nut/choco bar. There was no cafe, but it still was nice.

He walked ahead as I was made a bathroom stop, but we met about an hour and a half later at the next bar. We’ve already walked 24km and it was only another hour walk til the next town, Hospital de Orbigo. My dogs were barking, but a 12th Century bridge and a decent town was calling, so off we went. Today’s walk is flat long road that cuts through fields of corn, all leaning away from the wind. I pass local folks wrapped from head to toe. They say, “un poco frio,” a little cold, which is an understatement. Today is fairly cold and windy; I’m wearing my fleece and my raincoat, plus my scarf.

The albergue has a nice courtyard and I’m early enough to get the bottom bunk. The shower is basically outside and has one temperature, lukewarm. Clothes get washed and I shuffle back to the bridge where the town’s fancy hotel has internet. A glass of wine and a lovely salad make for lunch on the patio, where, if you’re just sitting and not walking, it’s positively freezing.

Going back to the albergue, my Italian friend Livio was there, Kyeongsoo checked in, and when I went in the kitchen to make tea, I found another Italian guy making what looked like a very nice lunch of ham, potatoes, and vegetables. He invited me to share his bottle of wine, and those of you who know me know that I never turn down a glass of wine. Two Italians, one South Korean, and me. Eventually, I went to dinner at the local restaurant and watched a soccer (football) game on the tv hanging on the wall of the restaurant.

Well, I’m certainly not lonely.




How do you say “Sad” in Italian?

June 11, 2012

It’s Uli’s last day of walking and she wakes me up at 5am, as I asked her. We are the only ones stirring and quietly get dressed, drag our bags from the sleeping room to the hall to stuff our sleeping bags and tape our toes, then hit the bathroom on the way out to brush our teeth.

It’s still dark out and we cross the bridge out of town under the half moon. After about an hour walking alongside the highway (and not knowing exactly where we are going – no arrows here!), we find a bar just opening up. The woman who runs the Casa Blanca greets us with a smile, and makes our cafe con leche. She has some pastries on the counter, but I want tortilla de patatas and she tells me to wait 3 minutes while she makes one from scratch. It comes with tomato slices in olive oil and is the best one yet. Uli, never without a tomato in her backpack, supplements the feast, because 3 slices are just not enough. There’s classical music playing, the sun is coming up, it’s a little cool, but good for walking, a great day.

As we walk through the suburbs of Leon, I’m telling Uli that next year Susie and I hope to visit a friend in Napoli (hi Lucy!) next year. The guy in front of us swings around and says “Napoli!” and we meet Livio from near Milan. He doesn’t really speak English and I don’t speak Italian, but we both speak enough Spanish that we can sort of figure out what the other is saying. At least the gist of it. He mostly speaks in Italian, though, which takes our minds off of the lack of nature that we’ve been enjoying the last few days. And he speaks a lot. Talks all the way to town. I learn to count in Italian. What fun.

It’s a bittersweet moment when we get to the cathedral. It’s about 10:30am (we got a little lost in town) and I want to use the bathroom before we tour Leon’s most famous sight. We say goodbye to Livio and have a coffee. We find out that Uli’s train is at 2pm, so there’s time to tour the cathedral, buy me some new socks, and have lunch.

The Leon cathedral is only second to the Chartres Cathedral in the amount of stained glass that make up the walls. After entering, I get a call from Morgan saying that he has reached his next stage and it’s only 11am and he wants to keep walking (he’s averaging 30-40km days) but what will he do in Santiago for days before we get there? I really wanted to tell him to slow down and wait for me, but instead I urged him to move on to the next town where I knew Susie and Mary were staying tonight, and then, if he had time, go on to Finisterre – the end of the world- 84.4km past Santiago. Many pilgrims like to carry on and finish here, but on my current schedule, there’s no time. He liked that idea and went on his way.

I found the hiking store and bought some socks one step thicker than my liners, in hopes that I don’t have to tape everything in the world for the rest of the trip. Uli and I had calamares and mushrooms for lunch and said goodbye. We’ve been hiking together for many days now – we are truly Camino Sisters. I’m really going to miss her. We promise to stay in touch and I know I have made a friend for life.

I was planning to stay in Leon, where undoubtedly there would be people I know stopping here as well, have a short day, and do some more sightseeing in this lovely town, but I just really felt like walking some more, alone. There was a convent 8.7km (about 2 hours) walk out of town and that sounded about right. A place where I can be incognito.

I’m there in time to take the last bed, and although some faces are familiar, they are not people who I’ve introduced myself to – except Livio! He wants to talk some more, but there’s wi-fi here and I choose to write. This place is about 5 minutes walk from town, but I’m not leaving. There’s a food machine and I get a sandwich and an Aquarius. I’m the only American here.

Tomorrow begins a new stage of the Camino for me, no Uli, no chance of catching up to Morgan, and unlikely to see Susie and Mary anytime soon. Although they are covering less kilometers walking, I’m guessing they will bus ahead before I catch up to them. I’m really on my own now.

How do you say “sad” in Italian?










Rockin’ the Roman Road

June 10, 2012

Today’s another wilderness day, as there’s no town for all 24km of our walk today. We sleep in, have breakfast at the albergue at 7am, just coffee and toast, and head out.

After about half an hour it starts to rain, so we find some trees and bring out our raincoats/ponchos and pack covers. I also have rain pants, but this is more of a misty rain rather than a Virginia deluge, so I don’t mind my pants getting a little wet.

Today we walk along the longest stretch of Roman road left in Spain. It’s not the first time on a Roman road, but the thrill of walking where the Emperor Augustus walked (well, he probably rode) is slowly turning to the agony of the feet. They used rocks under some dirt, but since no one but pilgrims use these roads, the dirt blows away and you have rocks. It’s a challenge to find a part of the path that does not have loose rocks or any kind of rocks to poke up into your shoes when you step on them. I’m spending more time studying the road for least rocky path than enjoying the rippling wheat fields I’m passing through.

I get a chance today to talk to Kathy, who runs the librarian certification (a two year program) at the Australian equivalent of our community college. It was fascinating to find out how many different skills are required to work in the library: you need to know IT and customer service, program planning and organization, as well as where the books go on the shelves. She also has the same administration/funding issues that I’ve heard from Susie, who also works at the community college.

After more than 2 hours of walking, stopping for a snack, then another 3 hours, we made it to Mansilla de los Mulas, the last stop before Leon. Our Australian friends are taking the bus straight to Leon, avoiding the suburban/industrial/walking along the highway route, considered relatively ugly by the guidebooks. It’s tempting to join them, but Uli wants to make her last day of Camino a triumphant walk to one of the most beautiful cathedrals and cities in Spain. I have promised myself as well that I will walk the rest of the way to Santiago. No more cheating!

We stroll through the medieval gate into the old town amongst flower petals (it’s a holiday) and bands playing. We check in to the albergue and head straight to lunch. Uli wants paella and the hospitalero directs us to a restaurant three doors down. It’s the best paella ever, followed by more fish, rice pudding, and an entire bottle of good wine. We’re there, eating, drinking, and talking for two hours until 4pm. Back to the albergue for a shower, laundry, and some blogging.

At 7pm, the usual dinner time, we’re not hungry in the least and still a bit drunk. We take a walk through the town, stop at the store for water and oranges, and look for something to do. The only action is in the bars where all the Spaniards are cheering their football (soccer) team on against the Italians.

Back to the room, we do an early prepack and have time to read before falling asleep a little after 9pm. Tomorrow we walk to Leon, just 18km. There, Uli will finish her walking Camino and take the train to Santiago. After I put my book down, I can hear a bunch of people talking in the next room, but earplugs work wonders, and before I know it, I’m out.





Walking with the Bulls

June 9, 2012

It’s the meseta and we’re walking early. I have a new habit to buy an orange to eat instead of an apple because they are soooo much better and from not far away. It takes me a minute longer because I can’t eat and walk, but it’s worth it.

On the side of the road, we find a small labyrinth made of rocks next to a stream. We take turns walking it, and our friend Manolo from Madrid does the same. The village just past it, like many villages, has houses made of straw and clay. Not too many folks up at this hour, though.

When we stop for breakfast, we see Andy from Portland and his walking partner, Jeffrey from Arkansas who works in Russia. Andy’s having trouble with his foot and might fast forward to Leon to buy new shoes.

We head on to the next halfway large town, Sahagun. There are strange railings set up along the street. I’m stuck behind some when I see my friends from Australia, Lyne and Cathy (names probably mispelled – sorry!) We last saw them when we taxied into Burgos together last week. Seeing them is like greeting long-lost family. We find out that the railings along the street are for the weekend festival that involves the running of the bulls tonight. It’s only 11am and I want to get some more kilometers under my belt, as do Uli, Lyne, and Cathy, so we make a plan to walk to the next town (13km), check in, hang out there for a bit, then taxi back to Sahagun to see the bulls.

Uli needs to stop at the farmacia to get a knee brace, and I need some more Compeed for my little toes that still kind of hurt at the end of the day. There’s a market in town and we wish we could buy some of the great local treats, but who wants to carry even one ounce more?

It’s a long walk along the road, across the road, and off into the wilderness again. The wheat fields are in various stages of maturity, dark green, a shining lighter green, luminescent yellow. We had two choices leaving Sahagun: along the highway or through the countryside, about 2km (half an hour walking) longer. We choose the countryside, but it seems especially long this afternoon. Uli’s foot is hurting and she falls behind. I’m on a roll and walk ahead, passing a pretty oasis picnic area and an abandoned albergue, complete with empty pool.

Finally, we reach Calzadilla de los Hermanos and check in to the first private albergue we see. It’s 15euros (kind of expensive, the municipal or church-run albergues are 5-7), but we get a room for 4 with all 4 beds on the floor, our own bathroom across the hall (cause no one else is on our floor), a charger next to every bed, a lock on the door, and a fluffy, white, big towel. I’ve told you before how wonderful a towel is, and that alone is worth the extra euros. Plus, this place has no curfew. Many of the municipal albergues lock their doors at 10pm, and we’re just not sure how late we’re going to party with the bulls this evening.

After a all-the-hot-water-in-the-world shower, a little internet, and a glass of wine, Lyne and Cathy are ready to go to the bulls. Uli does not have the energy, so she stays behind. The albergue owner calls a taxi and we’re heading back to Sahagun.

Things are really starting to heat up here. Across the street is a group of girls taking each other’s pictures, all wearing red shirts. Another group of young men in the street with a band have shirts of green. We ask the guy in the store what’s going on. He says they are the “brotherhoods” of the town, a group of folks all dressed alike, each with their own band. Some will run with the bulls, but most will not. He did say that Lyne, Cathy, and I could be a sisterhood, and parade with the rest, but we declined.

We found the main square and ordered some tapas. The nice Irish boy, Dylan, came over to chat. Then we heard the music. Each brotherhood and gathered and was parading, group by group, down the street to the main square, band blaring. Here come the purples, then the reds, then the yellows. The yellows seem to be more interested in the beers in their hands than in anything else, but they were having fun. Lots of kids dressed in the same colors as their parents. Once all the groups gathered in the Plaza Mayor, the announcer came on welcoming everyone to the event. A moment of silence, then a cannon going off, then everyone waved their scarves in the air. The crowd started to break up to find a place to watch the bulls. We followed suit and found a great place in front of the church, just past a turn in the road.

We stood around for about half an hour as more and more people took a place behind the barricades. then each of the brotherhoods paraded by, band in tow. Eventually the road cleared and the police swept the route. Suddenly, a group of young men came running by. Well, the first ones were sort of jogging, but the tail end of the group were sprinting for their lives right ahead of the bull! We screamed as a bull, rounding the corner, almost ran into our part of the barricade as it went after a guy who climbed the fence right in front of us. Six more bulls thundered by and that was it.

But the fun was not over. In the Plaza del Toros (bullring) there was, not a bullfight, but a “skipping” of the bulls. Curious as to what that was, we paid our 10euros and filed into the bullring to find a seat. The brotherhoods were already there. One group played a song, then the announcer introduced the seven toreadors, pros who came from all over the country. After another band played, they spread out into the bullring with one guy in the middle, facing the door where the bull was to enter the ring. He reached his hand to the dirt and crossed himself 5 or 6 times. The bull came out, he dodged it. The bull turned around, the guy ran to his safe barricade next to the wall, and the bull ran after him, but did not stop in time and ran headfirst into the wall and collapsed. The crowd all gasped. Apparently, this was not supposed to happen. Plus, the toreador got hurt somehow as well.

The bullring was silent for a moment, then the announcer came back on and another brotherhood band played as they dragged the bull out by the feet and the toreador was carried out by his compadres. Six toreadors returned to the ring to face another bull (the back up?) This time, things went as planned. The bull ran toward them, they dodged it, arching their back over the bull’s horns as it passed by. Then some toreadors jumped over the bull as it ran toward them, diving, backflips, pole vaulting. Very exciting. Eventually the bull got tired and they let it out of the ring.

Next, they brought a bunch of kids from the crowd into the ring. The toreadors then brought out a bull’s head on a wheel that they could push around like a wheelbarrow. The kids lined up (some looked as little as 2 with parent) and the toreador would push the bull on wheel after them. This was on one hand hilarious and on the other hand a bit disconcerting. I guess that’s the best marketing for future toreadors.

They then brought out another bull, but it was 9:30pm and we were getting tired. We called our taxi and he was there in 15 minutes to take us back to Calzadilla. It’s really great to hang out at the end of the day with pilgrims, but tonight, it really felt like I was part of the village of Sahagun.











Made it Through the Wilderness

June 9, 2012

Someone is rustling their backpack outside of our room at ten to five. I turn off my alarm and proceed to get ready:

  • pull on my knee brace (knee not swollen but I still like to wear it, only during walking)
  • take off my shirt and skirt (best outfit for sleeping and for going out in) and pull on my pants, sports bra, and shirt that I laid out at the foot of the bed
  • plug in my phone to charge a bit
  • go to the bathroom to brush my teeth, splash a little water on my face and smear it with SPF80.
  • back to the room, load toiletries and bathroom shoes in main backpack compartment
  • take pillowcase off pillow and stuff sleeping bag into it’s carry bag (noisy), stuff both into front pocket
  • stuff raincoat in on top of sleeping bag after seeing stars in the sky instead of clouds and get tape ready
  • find a place with enough light (back to bathroom) and tape heels and big toes with thick tape, tape toes with skinny tape, put a big Compeed on my joint below my big toe. I’m down to just wearing liners as my technical SmartWool socks are smashing my toes together, causing unending blisters. Yesterday, wearing just the liners was great and my toes did not get new blisters, but I need to tape the rubby spots to avoid more
  • put socks on
  • unplug phone and put charger and converter in chargers bag, phone in pocket on top of pack where I can reach it while walking
  • put food on top of everything in main pack compartment
  • put on fleece jacket, put on shoes, and head downstairs to get the cheese and yogurt out of the fridge in the common room.

It’s now almost 6am and I need to meet Uli at the town square, because we’re walking together today.

Lots of pilgrims leave early for this leg, so we are not alone. It’s cool, but not cold, with a nice sunrise behind us. This part of the Camino, the flat meseta, is said to be the most ugly and boring of the rural trail, but I find it compelling. I suppose in August, these flat, green, wheat fields are a never-ending brown, but right now, it’s nice to see the wind play over them. It should take us 4-5hours to walk this stretch. After a couple of hours, we find a bush for our morning pee (on the flat trail with lots of pilgrims, it’s a challenge to find a sort-of-private spot), and, just half an hour after that, we are hungry for breakfast. Suddenly (relatively speaking), on the right hand side in some trees is a guy with a little trailer serving coffee, snacks, and hot dogs on the grill. Coffeeeee in the wilderness! Another Camino miracle! We order a cup and eat our yogurt, fruit, and little cakes from the breakfast before. Perfect.

Just after 10am, we see the roofs of a town. We made it through the Wilderness, and celebrated with another coffee and a cookie. Another 5km through a flower-lined pastoral trail, we find another small town and stop for a celebratory beer (Uli has soda). In 3km more (about 45 minutes), we arrive at our next stop, Terredillos de la Templarios, an ancient Templar stronghold back in the day. Now there’s a nice albergue here with great food for dinner, a lovely patio, and tinto de verano. We have a little snack with our leftover food. People show up that we know, but I’m being anti-social after shower and laundry to blog blog blog. There’s a patio above the kitchen and I have a nice view. Up til now, I’ve been writing about things anywhere from one day to several days behind, but today I am writing about today. Hooray! Just heard from Morgan, he is 14km ahead – another 40km day for him. Whew!

We are sharing our room with two Australian women about our age who had their bags shipped ahead. After they checked in and found their bags, they came up with a bottle and two glasses of wine. Now, that’s the way to end a walk! Since there’s only 4 of us (no guys) in there tonight, it should be good sleeping. Dinner tonight at the Albergue was great: garlic/bread homemade soup, pan-fried local trout and salad, and an orange for dessert (no flan?) We sit next to Antonio, a very cute Brazilian guy who only speaks Portugese. We’re eventually joined by a German couple who Uli can talk to, and Sebastian from France, who is running the Camino before his wedding at the end of the month.

Sooo tired, in bed and sleeping before 9pm and it’s still light. Right before I fall asleep I read that this town is exactly halfway between St. Jean and Santiago. Halfway……..