307 miles walked, 193 miles to go!
Day 23: I had a pretty good foot day, so perhaps this means for the poor people reading this blog that you will not have to see any more tattered foot pictures :). Fingers and toes crossed!
I started the day walking by myself along a very loooooong stretch of road next to the highway. It wasn’t very scenic, so I put my headphones in and listened to a book. It wasn’t until I reached the town of Hospital de Orbigo that things got easier on the eyes again. The entrance to the town was over a long medieval bridge made of stones. There was even a jousting arena on the left and the guidebook said they have jousting competitions in June.
As I walked through the town, I wished I had stayed there instead as it was much more historic than the previous town I had stayed in that had a busy highway running past the room I slept in.
As I left the town, I came again to a spilt in the Camino where you could go left and walk along the highway (the slightly shorter route), or go right and enjoy the scenic rural countryside. At these crossroads is where I met Kathryn, a really lovely woman from New Zealand. I asked if I was correct about what was in each direction, she confirmed, and we both headed right. It was worth every extra step.
After several days of walking along or in view of the highway, it really made me appreciate being back in nature with no cars in sight.
We were out in farmland, so the only vehicle we saw was a tractor.
Kathryn grew up on a dairy farm in New Zealand, so greeted the cows like old friends, “Hello ladies!”
We talked about a lot of things, conversation flowed easily, and she told me what led her to the Camino. She worked in a field of different forms of spiritual healing that focus on connections between the mind and body, and that this had helped some of her own healing of chronic back pain. She had had such problems with mobility that being able to park her car nearby started to determine if she would go to a place or not. She said that this had caused her world to increasingly shrink. She told me that her Camino started 18 months before as she started reading books about people’s Camino experiences; also during that time she had been mentally preparing to take on such a physically daunting challenge. She’d been walking the Camino a few weeks longer than me, and was dealing with pain as well as a Camino-acquired open foot wound that developed from a bad blister, but she was still going and taking rest and recovery days when needed. You would never know it as she walked at a regular pace, was carrying her full pack, and was very positive and funny. I enjoyed her company immensely, and she felt like someone who I would hang out with back home. She remarked that she had actually ended up walking with quite a few Californians.
As we talked, we also were paying attention to and commenting on our beautiful surroundings.
Over three weeks of walking, and I was slowing down, learning what it means to be completely in the present, and I was finally taking the time to stop and smell the roses :).
I didn’t regret for a second turning right at that crossroad.
It also turned out that Kathryn was a talented singer-songwriter, and as I write this, I’m listening to her album on Spotify: http://www.notalltheleavesarefalling.com. We reached the town she was staying in, we friended each other on Facebook, and I headed to the next town. Here was another Pilgrim I would truly love to run into again.
I walked by myself to Astorga, a city on a hill surrounded in its interiors by a medieval wall.
I was headed to a new hostel that was run by a Brazilian family. I had just been to Rio de Janeiro 3 months before in February as one of my good friends Kim had gotten engaged to a Carioca, a native of Rio. So I was interested in reconnecting with that culture, and also I like Spanish food, but there’s not a lot of variety in the cuisine. I was really excited about a change of pace and some yummy Brazilian cuisine for the Pilgrim’s dinner. Of course, after a long day of walking and tired feet and hips, this was the last bit on the way to where I was staying. My kingdom for an escalator!
I got slightly lost as the hostel wasn’t on the actual Camino (how am I going to go back to real life with no yellow arrows guiding me?), and a teenaged guy met me on the street and with Brazilian accented English asked if I were looking for the Brazilian hostel. Um, obrigada, yes I was! He led me to what was their actual house with a large dormitory room on the top floor with 10 beds.
Then 4 of us who were staying there joined for a delicious home cooked dinner.
At dinner, I got to meet a man who was born in Korea but when he was 9 his family moved to São Paulo, Brazil and he was fluent in Portuguese, English, Italian, and Spanish, but he said he was embarrassed he didn’t speak Korean very well. Yeah, what a slouch with only being fluent in 4 languages! Also at dinner was the most friendly couple from the Netherlands, Johan and Annette, who had taken 2 months of unpaid leave from their jobs to fulfill their Camino dream.
It felt nice being in a home, and while we ate, the family hung out watching some TV while the kids were with their friends talking and playing music and videos on a laptop.
It was interesting to see a different home life, and it reminded me of something Kathryn had said earlier that day. She said that on the Camino each night you slept in a different city and in different bed, so there was no real sense of home, so home became something that you carried inside you. Maybe that’s why I haven’t felt particularly homesick so far. I do feel my friends and family along with me here.
But I do miss snuggling with my cat!
Day 24: I headed out of the city of Astorga in the morning, and I wasn’t too far down the road when I saw Tracy walking ahead of me with another person. I caught up, said hello, gave her a big hug, and she introduced me to Harry from Belgium. He commented that I was walking too fast, and laughingly said to slow it down. I obliged, and he said he began the Camino feeling like he needed to cover a lot of distance each day and quickly. When he’d hear someone coming up behind him, it triggered something competitive in him and he’d pour on more speed. After a week, this led to him pulling muscles in his left leg so badly, he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to continue. Instead he carried on but slowed way down. When he did, he spent most his walking days now meeting and chatting with other people. Harry told us that he had originally imagined his Camino would be a completely solitary walk where he would look inward and come to know himself better. However, he said that now that he slowed down and came more and more out of his own shell, he said he was finding that “life is meaningless without the others.”
As, we walked, we met Jisoo and she and I started chatting. I said, “From your accent I’m guessing you’re from where I’m from,” and she said, “Korea?” I laughed and said no, and that I thought she was from the U. S.. She told me she had grown up in Indonesia and now lived in Korea. But her English was flawless, she had a perfect American accent, she knew slang and even said “Hella,” which is slang specific to the Bay Area, as in, “The Camino is hella hard to walk with busted feet!” It turned out she had gone to International school in Indonesia, had studied in Washington D. C. and the Bay Area, and mainly read and wrote in English. It was fun to talk to her and hear her 20-something perspective on the Camino which you can imagine involved more partying than the average Pilgrim.
We all stopped for a drink and rest in the next village, but Jisoo moved on quickly as she was on a tight schedule and had only so many days left to get to Santiago.
I carried on with Tracy and Harry and even though my feet finally felt so great that I could practically skip down the Camino, I matched their leisurely pace and drank in the beautiful surroundings.
We stopped in a village with a funky looking bar and got ice creams.
A young guy came up to me, handed me an actual professional looking camera (I hadn’t seen one of those in a while), and in accented Spanish asked me to take his picture in front of the bar, and this is how I met Mateo from Italy.
There were quite a few Italians on the Camino, but usually they were traveling in groups and he was by himself. Also, so far I had met only a couple of Italians who could speak English or Spanish, so I hadn’t had many conversations with anybody from that country. Mateo didn’t speak English, but he had recently started studying Spanish, so for the next two hours, we were able to communicate using both of our second languages. His Spanish often had Italian sounding endings or inflections to the words, but I could understand him perfectly. Mateo was 28 years old, from Florence, had studied to be a lawyer, and was now studying to be a judge. I told him that in my country you had to practice as a lawyer for quite a long time before you could become a judge, and he said in Italy the system was different. He had been studying in his field for 8 years, and was on a brief break between courses, and since he knew he wouldn’t be able to take much vacation in the future in his profession, he had decided to do the Camino now. We walked and talked for several hours. Then we came to the small village I was staying in called Rabanal. He was pushing on one more hour to the next town, but as he left, he was wincing as one of his knees had really started to hurt. The Camino is hard for the old and young! I wished him luck, we got one more pic and off he went.
I settled into my albergue and was grateful for a single top bunk this time because in this albergue, there were many bunk beds pushed together! Now I didn’t mind sharing a room with 14-16 people I’d just met, but this was too close for comfort! 🙂
I took a shower and was settling into my bunk to write about my day when I got a text from Tracy that she and Harry were up the road at a restaurant drinking wine with two Spaniards, and said to come join. Keeping up with writing about what happened each day on the Camino had been a challenge especially because I was writing everything on my phone! Sometimes I could use voice to text, but when there were people in the room, I didn’t want to be rude, so more often than not, I was writing everything with one finger using swipe-text. Needless to say, this takes several hours or more a day, but I also didn’t want to miss out on Camino experiences because I was trying to write about them! So I gave my swyping finger a rest that day and headed out. I was halfway up the street when I came across a cluster of Pilgrims. As I got closer I realized I knew every singe one: Kathryn who I had walked with the day before, Brian from Scotland who I’ve run into several times, and Lorcan, the Irish guy who Will and I had met on Days 1 & 2!
They were headed to get smoothies, but they said there was a well-known Pilgrim’s mass in this village at 7pm that evening that began with a Gregorian chant. I said I’d see them there and continued up the hill. I found Tracy and Harry and then got to meet Tino from Galicia and Jesús from La Rioja.
Neither of the Spaniards spoke a word of English, and Harry spoke four languages but Spanish wasn’t one of them, and Tracy didn’t speak Spanish, so I have no idea how they had all been communicating, but they were cheersing and laughing when I arrived. I got to chatting with Jesús and it turned out that he had a sad but inspiring story. He had ridden this Camino 9 times by bike and had walked the entire thing 4 times. He worked in agriculture, and one day he got stung by a wasp and had a severe allergic reaction to where he almost died. He said for the past 5 years, he has had to get monthly medical treatment, and it had so severely impacted his health that he could only now do the Camino in small segments, and that the next day was his last day before heading home. I asked if it were dangerous for him to be here, and he said he had an epinephrine autoinjector, or EpiPen, on him at all times in case of anaphylaxis because before his tongue and throat swelled so much from the sting that he almost suffocated. He said if he gets stung again, he would use the Epipen and call emergency services immediately. However, as noted by the many crosses and markers all among the Camino, we walk through some pretty remote places, many inaccessible by car, so many have died before medical personnel could reach them. I asked him why he would risk himself, but he said what is life if you let fear stop you from doing what you love.
We all chatted and laughed some more and then we carried onto a lovely outdoor area and there was Claude from Canada and Michele from France. More members of my ever-growing Camino family.
As it got later, Tracy, Harry and I headed out to get dinner and somehow we acquired more Pilgrims :).
We barely finished before 7pm and rushed to the church and we were greeted with another stunningly streaked sky that was again reminiscent of the scallop shell, the symbol that marks the Camino.
Inside, the church was already full of Pilgrims. As we sat down, the monks began to sing the beautiful and ancient sounding Gregorian chant and the priest delivered mass in English.
Although I’m more spiritual than religious, it was a good reminder of the origins of the Camino I was walking.
Day 25: Today I walked the Camino to honor and remember my friend Susana. I was walking up to the highest point of the Camino, 1500 meters above sea level, to the Cruz de Ferro (the Iron Cross). It’s a tradition to bring a stone from your place of origin and leave it behind on the mound of rocks the cross sits above. I brought two polished glass stones for me and Susana. I chose glass because of its fragility and beauty but also its strength and durability. And I picked out a dark stone and a light stone to encompass the opposites life gives you: pain and joy, evil and goodness, love and hate, the easy and the difficult.
I knew that I wanted to walk that day entirely by myself. As I walked, I came across Pilgrims I knew: Kathryn first, then later Brian, so I said hi but quickly moved on. As the rise got steeper I came across Tino and Jesús. I stopped to say hello and gave them each a doble beso (the traditional Spanish greeting of a kiss on each cheek), but then I kept on at a fast pace and Tino called out after me, “Estás muy fuerte” as I booked up the hill. I wanted to be alone, except Susana was with me the whole time. I walked and let myself drift into my memories of her. I thought back to when Shelagh and I had first moved to Madrid over two decades before and met this 5 foot sassy, hilarious and refreshingly untraditional woman who felt like a true friend immediately. I could be my unguarded silly self with her from the moment I met her. Susana was with us the whole year we lived there going out to bars, restaurants, traveling around Spain. After I moved to San Francisco, she came to stay with me several times, I visited her in Madrid in 1998, and even stayed with her and her sister May for a month in 2004 when they were teaching Spanish in Osaka, Japan. Then Susana and I lost contact for a time as she was traveling and teaching in other countries, and well life happens. Then when I was going back to Spain in 2016 for the first time in 18 years, I tracked her down, and Susana said, “Yay, you found me!” Then she let me know she had just had to quit her job in England and move back to Madrid to start cancer treatment. We messaged almost daily for a year, and it was awful to know how much my friend was suffering from the treatments. Eventually she lost her several year battle, but I got to visit her one last time. She had lost all her hair due to chemo, but when we sat down together, it was all laughs and smiles.
I share this and the post I wrote below after her passing to keep her memory alive and to share that there once was an amazing person named Susana Ramírez Jimenez and I loved her very much.
April 13, 2018 at 10:37 PM
I met you when Shelagh and I first moved to Madrid in 1995. It was one of those friendships where I felt like we had always known each other, and we were just picking up where we had last left off. I know that you rarely find that kind of friendship chemistry. I’m sorry after several years that fucking cancer won, I’m sorry you had to suffer through all those treatments, I’m sorry that you didn’t even get to see 50 while you still looked 30, I’m sorry I wasn’t there with you yesterday. You were so much in such a small package…wicked smart, so goddamn funny, beautiful with a daring, colorful fashion sense I always envied. When I saw you last in Madrid two years ago this month, even in the midst of chemo you were still a beautiful badass. I love you Chati and time and distance never diminished that. Now that you’re not here anymore, so hard to wrap my head around that, you will always be with me. The world is a poorer place without you in it.
When I got to the Iron Cross, I climbed the hill of stones people had carried with them from all over the world, and I laid my tribute next to a rock painted with a heart that someone else had left.
I walked down the hill wiping my cheeks but feeling lighter. I continued on alone the rest of the day appreciating all the beauty and the colorful riot of the spring flowers.
I came down into the village of El Acebo where I am now. This albergue is quite new and has a spa, so I think I’m going to indulge in my first Camino massage in appreciation of and extremely thankful for the healthy body and resilient feet that got me here.