Monday, May 31, 2010

Con Pan y Vino, Se Hace el Camino

The following entries are excerpts from the journal I kept while walking the Camino de Santiago, or, Way of St. James, a religious pilgrimage across northern Spain ending in Santiago de Compostela.

It's day 1 of the Camino. Try as I might, I couldn't muster the motivation to do a "pre-camino" entry. I had ample time, but less than ample desire. After a ride on the night train to Ourense, Spain, three out of four of my train compartment roomies had procured a free travel toothbrush, a pair of earplugs, and a nasty crescent shaped burn from the overactive floor heater. We arrived in Ourense in the grey pre-dawn, a foreboding blanket of rain-heavy clouds hanging low in the sky. After a croissant and a coffee on our program director Armando's tab, (thank God because we spent the first portion of our train ride fretting about the ungodly price we were paying for our "godly" pilgrimage, we secured our first Camino stamps from the café and the police station. These splotches of ink bearing the names of the little towns where we would receive them would serve as proof that we had walked the Way to Santiago in return for the pardoning of sins and a free pass into heaven. Yes, our little booklets full of stamps were in essence a passport past the pearly gates. Chalk one up for Medieval Catholicism.

Backpacks strapped, laces tied, water bottles full, we set off to the west of a paved road. Armando warned us with his thick Spanish accent and a dubious grin that the path began with a "colonita", or little hill. Panting, we crested the top of the "colonita", only to realize we hadn't actually started her. The little hill was not so little. 2 km of hiking up a 10% grade left us sweating despite the 45 degree chill and on again-off again rain. It wasn't until 20 km later, (12 miles) that we reached the town of Cea. The first few to arrive, myself and three others, shopped with Armando in the local market for lunch for the group. While he browsed the pig brain, cow tongue, and innocuous looking livers, we realized the growing ache in our legs and shoulders. Next we stopped at the bakery for true Galician (the region of Spain) bread, sold throughout the country as the best of the best. Round loafs the size of your head were pulled fresh from the oven and wrapped in paper for us. We chose an albergue, or refuge for Camino pilgrims, to sit and feast on our sausage, bread, cheese and wine.
Bellies full, fourteen girls, one boy, and a guide slipped back on their soggy sneakers and set back out onto the trail. We walked with a steadfast concentration, avoiding the swampy and aiming for rocks to tread instead. There were times when there was only the crinkle of rain ponchos, the light drizzzle of raindrops on the plastic and the squish of tennis shoes in mud to accompany us.
At some point along the way, the group lost Armando. Unbothered by his absence, we continued to follow the spray painted yellow arrows and stone seashells that direct the way. What we didn't know was that a bar owner had re-routed the yellow arrows to pass in front of his establishment, circumventing the monastery that was to serve as our shelter for the night. 15 km out of our way and Armando-less, someone smart enough to bring a cell phone gave him a call. Nightfall just around the corner, Armando sent the Civil Guard to come and fetch us. 8 of us squeezed into two 4x4s. One of the officers turned around and said, "I bet your police aren't this nice, are they?" In a post-Franco PR move, the officers reminded us to tell people how great the Civil Guard is in Spain. Cold, wet, tired and rescued, we intended to do so.

The 12th century, still active monastery was a stone behemoth of imposing grandeur in the small town. Courtyards with fountains gave way to more courtyards and fountains, leading eventually to our quarters for the evening. In a cavernous hall with a vaulted ceiling were bunkbeds laid out in rows. After a dinner of hot soup, we donned warm dry clothes and huddled together, gratefully falling asleep.

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