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A Pilgrim's Journey:
walking Spain's El Camino, by Jane Al Salem

Editor’s note: My friend Jane Al Salem made the pilgrim’s walk along Spain’s El Camino in October and November of 2007. She sent the most delicious emails, which I saved. When I spent some time with her this summer and fall (2011), she showed me her photos of the trip. They were wonderful. So I asked her if I could post some of them, along with excerpts of her emails. She graciously said yes. So for your reading pleasure, here’s a vicarious adventure on the El Camino with Jane…

Day 1: My trip from the states, through Holland to get here and the train trip from Madrid were easier and more pleasant than I had dreamed possible. It is three in the afternoon and we have walked our allotted distance for the day - ten miles, we gauged it perfectly as my feet, back and knees were just beginning to make complaining noises. I can already tell that this is going to be a very interesting experience. 

First of all is the uniform: As you know, wherever in the world you go and whatever you do there is a uniform and, of course a protocol to match. Here, we are all wearing those hideous trousers with zips at the knee so that they turn into shorts, hiking boots, backpacks with large scallop shells (the symbol of the pilgrims) and hiking sticks, many varieties of wicked fabric tops with fleeces on top and hats. Glamour is severely frowned on as we are supposed to be suffering a bit to gain merit in the next world. 

There is a preponderance of middle aged people but plenty of young people are also walking. So far there has been a well-worn track marked with yellow arrows and many directional signs. Each person you meet you greet with "Buen Camino!" and they respond in kind. 

Tonight is our first night in a hostel. We are in a room with six beds, the showers and toilets are downstairs. The Ritz it ain´t. The hot water had pretty well run out by the time, and I somehow had lost my shampoo so washed my hair with a bar of soap which seemed to work perfectly well. As there are pilgrim hostels there are also pilgrim restaurants and if last night is anything to go by, everybody compares notes and war stories. A very friendly atmosphere. Love, Jane


Jane is in the middle

Day 2:
I realise that I have not explained to some of you what I am doing. Last year, in the spring, my friends Ellen and Gerard walked halfway across the north of Spain, beginning at the French border, on the ancient (over a thousand years) Pilgrim’s Walk to Santiago de Compastella, where it is reputed that the bones of St. James washed ashore. Ellen was so enthusiastic that she convinced me to accompany them when they returned to complete the second half of the walk, about 350 kilometers. As per usual, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but that is half of the fun -- to see what unfolds. 

When you begin the Camino you get a "passport" that you have stamped at every stop. With that you get special rates at the Albergios (hostels) and local restaurants that have a Pilgrim’s menu. The hostels vary quite a bit but generally there are fairly large rooms with bunk beds with probably between six and twelve people per room, men and women together. You pay what you see fit but generally we pay about five Euros ($7.50) per night. Our hostel slept about fifty people with two toilets, four showers and one basin. Somehow there seemed to be time and space for all. Loaves and fishes spring to mind. 

There is also always a kitchen as many of the pilgrims (or Pelegrinos as they are known in Spanish - so now you know where the mineral water got its name) prepare their own food and eat together. The rooms last night did not reach the ceiling so we could see the ancient beams, but it also meant that everyone could potentially hear everyone else. Luckily, there were no champion snorers or tubercular types so we slept well, but I gather that is not always the case so I have earplugs at the ready.

The Pilgrim restaurants or restaurants with Pilgrim menus are always close by and for about seven or eight euros ($10.50) you get a three-course meal, a bottle of wine, and a bottle of mineral water. The food is not fancy but it is tasty and plentiful and because the earliest you can eat is 7:00 pm, the appetite is roaring after all that walking.

I forgot to mention that the weather is unseasonably cold. Yesterday when we set off there was even frost on the ground!  But the day soon brightened up and there was beautiful sunshine if not heat. Our reward at the end of the day was a perfect hunter’s moon, a full moon that was as orange as could be as it hovered and shimmered on the horizon.

Lots of signs along the way...

So far today it was not as cold as yesterday but there were cutting winds and black clouds gathering off to the south so we scampered as fast as we could to stay out of the rain and managed to stay just in front of it all the way. Yesterday, today and tomorrow we walk through totally flat open farmland with very few villages. Many people skip this part of the walk as they find it boring but for us it is the perfect terrain to build ourselves up and it seems sort of a metaphor of taking the good/interesting with the bad/boring. And indeed, if you look closely there is always something to see, clouds in the sky, small lizards, or little end-of-the season flowers. We did another twelve miles again today and plan to keep at that pace for a few more days until we feel confident to pick up the pace a bit.

The last time I was in Spain was probably twenty-five years and while much has remained the same there is a new sense of prosperity. Every village has been a mixture of falling-down wrecks of buildings and newly restored houses. It seems that Spain has done very well out of the European Union. It is almost time for supper and I am beyond peckish so will continue, hopefully, tomorrow.

Day 3:
I have just realised, at this late date, that I have not been very clear about where exactly I am each day for you potential map aficionados. The first day we flew from Amsterdam to Madrid and took a train straight north to Sahagun, the second day was El Burgo Ranero, the third, Mansilla de las Mulas and today the city of Leon, which, if we had stayed on the train, would have been the next stop!

Northern Spain showing the pilgrim's walk

The days are beginning to take on some sort of shape. We rise and shine early, often before sunrise, wash and brush, and either eat some fruit that we bought the day before and then go to the nearest cafe for some coffee (I had forgotten how much I love Spanish coffee - yum yum) for a kick-start to the day, or go straight to the cafe for coffee and a pastry. The Aubergios kick you out at 8:00 am which is when we usually get going, and you are not allowed to go back before 12:00am so that you will not stay over. 

We then do a good two hour stint or a bit more and stop for lunch, which is a huge hunk of fat baguette with either cheese or the very particular Spanish ham that most resembles a thickly cut Parma ham or tortilla (a thick slab of eggs and potato) and yet more coffee. The sandwich is often so big that I can save a goodly portion of it for breakfast the next day. Then a couple more hours on the road and we check into the next Albergio. When you arrive the first thing you must do is take off your incredibly dusty walking boots and put on your "good" shoes which are either Teva sandals or Crocks or some variation thereof. 

Then the bliss of a shower and clean hair, washing out your smalls and whichever shirt has been next to your skin and your socks. They immediately go on the line out back in hopes that they will be dry in a couple of hours. Then we all hit the town, often not much more than hamlets, and run into each other all over town as we search for dinner ingredients or more sock soap, in shops that never have the lights on and look closed and have that imminent going-out-of-business feel to them, even though they have probably been in the family for generations. Then we write postcards, sit around and gab, read books, look on the Internet for various reasons or take little naps. Life reduced to the basics, food, hygiene and communication.

Laundry and a guard dog.

Today was different as rain had been predicted and we wanted to get to Leon before it starts in earnest. When people began stirring at 6:00am we leaped out of bed and packed up in a trice and were on the road with only the fruit part of our breakfast in our tummies. The first hour was almost pitch black and very eerie. We had some trouble dodging puddles from the night before and I certainly had never been abroad at that hour before. But we were rewarded with the moon-set and a beautiful sunrise. After two hours we were in serious coffee withdrawal and staggered into the first cafe we encountered and proceeded to down two cups in record time. Then we hit the trail again and encountered our first hills. Just little trainer hills but a hint of what is to come.

We were just on the outskirts of town when it began to rain and we were like little wet hens by the time we checked into what appeared to us to be the incredibly elegant Hotel Paris. We decided to go soft for a couple of days and the ensuite bathroom is indeed the epitome of luxury. We are worried about our souls though.

It was also our lucky day as it was the local saint's day with huge festivities. The first we knew of it was some wonderful folkloric music and the sound of castanets issuing from an open courtyard. We went in and a dance troupe of young and old people in the most gorgeous national dress you have ever seen were practicing for later in the afternoon. They explained what was going on and we had the great good luck to be staying one block from the cathedral where it was all happening.

I was lying on my bed just enjoying the splendor of the room when I heard more bands so I got up and ran out into the street. The entire street was filled with groups of one sort or another, each one of which was carrying their own banner. To say banner hardly explains what they were. Each of them was from one to three stories tall with a pole that looked more appropriate for the town square than to be carried by one man. Every heavy wooden pole had and L shaped metal piece that hooked over a heavy leather belt of the man carrying the pole. Two other men walked with each pole holding ropes attached to the top to keep them steady.

In this they were only partially successful as they waved, wobbled, and swung about in a very worrying way. They were so heavy that one man could only carry them for a short while and there were dozens of mini dramas as the change overs from man to man were affected. Every now and then one would seriously begin to fall down and large crowds of men looking like nothing more than rugby scrums would rescue the situation in the nick of time

All this in the narrow streets of the ancient part of the town with both sides lined three deep with onlookers and electricity wires strung between the buildings. They ended up in the town square in front of the town hall where they laid each flag against the side of the building gradually filling the square. There was then a long interval with nothing much happening but still the people were lining the street. 

By this time it had begun to rain in earnest and Ellen and Gerard had come down and we were hungry so went for a lunch to match the standard of the hotel. Luckily we were seated next to the window for there followed a lovely parade of beautifully decorated antique farm wagons each pulled by two oxen wearing leather flaps over the front of their heads and often wreathed in vines or with huge loves of round bread suspended from their horns. All the dancers and many other folk dressed in medieval costumes walked between them but sadly each had to have an umbrella because by then it was pouring rain and we were very glad to be inside.

Oh yes - Big mistake yesterday, misinformation abounds.  The pilgrims are called Perigrinos and have nothing whatsoever to do with mineral water.  Now you know how evil rumours get started.

Beautiful vistsa!

Day 4
: Greetings from Leon,

Well, we have done the tourist thing today and in order to keep up the pretense of spiritual enlightenment have gone to the beautiful cathedral and museum and another basilica and, of course, eaten and drunk well.

I am just putting this out to the universe - while in the cathedral museum I was looking at yet more pictures of saints as I have done for all the years of my lackadaisical art history studies. I have always enjoyed all the symbols connected with the pictures, so that you always know who it is you are looking at without having to read the label. 

There is St. Peter with his keys, St. Eustace with the deer with a cross between his antlers, St. Jerome in his fetching red hat sitting in a library with a lion at his feet, St. Sebastian with all those arrows sticking out of him, St. Catherine and her wheel, and (I think) St. Lucy with her eyes on a plate in front of her, unless she is the one with her breasts on a plate. Anyway, the point is that in all the depictions they are wearing medieval clothing and I think it would be a wonderful conceit to paint a series of paintings of saints with contemporary clothing and situations. Spread the word.

I am beginning to get some questions from you about how all this works. Who do we walk with? We mainly walk with each other but there are many solitary pilgrims who want that experience, or silent pilgrims who must have monastic tendencies, or just people walking by themselves through circumstance. Often either singles or groups get to know each other and will walk together, or more frequently meet up at the cafes, pilgrim restaurants, and aubergios along the way. 

In all of those places there is a lot of interaction and advice about what comes next or what has happened the day before. Many friendships are formed from the loosest of associations to lifelong relationships and not a few romances, particularly amongst the younger set. 

You frequently witness tearful partings at the end of an evening as some leave while others continue. Even here in Leon we saw other pilgrims that we knew all over the place and others that we could spot by their "uniforms" that we will probably see in other places in the days to come.

Do you carry everything with you in a pack? One can, most do. Ellen and Gerard do but I send my pack ahead each day to the next aubergio. There is a special service for pilgrims and it is remarkably cheap for which I am daily grateful.

Can you take a day off, or as Judy asked, do you have to continue in "soul searching agony"? I loved the phrase and there is more than a whiff of that sort of mentality about, suffering increases merit, but not in my crowd. 

You do, however, become a little obsessed with the condition of your feet - not surprisingly. And on that front, so far so good so keep your fingers crossed. I did come prepared though. Here is the list of what I brought with me - just in case:  disinfectant wipes, antiseptic cream, regular plasters/band aids, moleskin and a pair of scissors to cut it to shape if needed, German voet cream, Vaseline, dancer's fleece, liner socks, hiking socks and trekking shoes. But you can do whatever you damn well please. Most people are walking, many with old-fashioned staffs but there are plenty of cyclists and even two dishy men on horseback.

Can you sleep with all those bodies all around you and nature taking its noisy course throughout the night?  Mostly, the answer is yes, nothing like all that exercise to make you flop in bed at nine o'clock and sleep flat out, but every now and then not so well, but it doesn't seem to matter too much.

I have just started Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad which has one of the best opening sentences I have read for a long time: "Now that I am dead I know everything." 

Off to another church before an early dinner at one of the pilgrim restaurants as they are the only ones that open before nine at night, and we want to get an early start in the morning to try and avoid more bad weather. Until tomorrow -  Adios - jane

...follow the arrows to stay on the path...

Day 5: if it is Tuesday it must be Hospital de Orbigo

Cariños Amigos, As of this morning, we are back on the road. We are gradually building up to longer and more difficult walks. Today, a slightly longer walk but still with gentle gradient. We had a choice of two branches one of which was shorter but ran alongside a highway, and another that began in the industrial outskirts of Leon but then opened into a purpose-built trail through beautiful and much more verdant territory. Our problem was that the more scenic route was also longer than we thought we could comfortably manage so we cheated a bit and ordered a taxi to take us through the ugly industrial area and drop us at the beginning of the countryside. It was perfect.

We were on the trail by eight o´clock, which is still about half an hour before full sunrise but not really dark either, and we enjoyed every bit of the way with fabulous skies filled with clouds of all colours from an angry and dark grey to huge cumulus beauties. There are many more streams and trees and at one spot an almost perfect doppleganger ( if one can use that expression for inanimate objects) of one of the Monet series pictures of the row of tall skinny (poplar?) trees alongside the river, it felt as if I was actually stepping into a painting that I knew well, extraordinary really.

We had decided to leave the hotel before the coffee shop opened and we agreed to stop at the first available spot for coffee. We had been walking for about an hour and just when we saw a hostel with a sign saying breakfast served, the skies opened up and it began to pour. Now, the folks that had been staying at the hostel were being hustled out the door as we arrived but somehow the hostelier took pity on us and invited us in and gave us breakfast, and we had a lovely chat with him about all his Basque friends and relations that live in California. Then we continued on our way and not another drop of rain all the way. Already the trip has been full of these little miracles and connections. There is a spirit on the Camino that is unique, people here relate to one another differently than any place I have ever been.

Last night we went for dinner at one of the Peregrino restaurants because we knew that we wanted an early start.  Four older women came in after us and, as is the way in such places, they struck up a conversation with us. They had arrived that morning from Ireland, were waiting for a friend to join them from Argentina and were going to begin their walk today. For the last five years they have been meeting like this and had begun the walk in France and expect to complete the pilgrimage this year. One of them, who was quite a bit older than the rest, easily in her mid seventies if not early eighties, very much a grand dame who had had a knee replacement only thirteen weeks before, and full of that particular Irish sort of blarney, was very interested to chat with us. She almost immediately leaned over and announced sotto voice that, "I am not religious. I come to drink the wine." She then asked us where we were from and when she found out that I had come from California said, "Oh, my son lives in Palo Alto do you know it?" O.K.

Something strange is beginning to happen and I expect that it will continue in ways that I cannot predict yet. The first day of walking I was very conscious of how my body was holding up. How are my feet? Does my back hurt? How is my neck? Am I using my stick properly? Can I do this? Oh my God, am I crazy? It then began to improve and despite slightly sore thighs, I began to say, like The Little Engine That Could, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."  Then, this morning, I suddenly realised that I didn't even know I was walking and my concept of time had changed completely. 

Several hours passed by and it was as if it were half an hour. After some time, Ellen and I began having one of the endless philosophical conversations that are such a feature of our relationship. My mind that is usually such a busy place is beginning to slow down and may even stop before long! At the same time I realised that walking is what humans are designed to do and only modern western life has taken us away from that. It is something to consider that most of the world still travels on foot and that as recently as Victorian times it was still how most people got about. 

Questions of the day: How long do we intend to walk? About three to three and a half weeks and then we will rent a car and do some sight-seeing.

Am I worried about losing things? Oh my goodness YES! The first day I had no idea of how to pack and everything was in the pack, higgldy-piggldy, so the first thing was to organise things into bags and compartments as they needed to be unpacked and packed. How many hundreds of times have I zipped and unzipped the pack on my waist looking for this that and the other. So far I have lost and found again my second pair of knickers, my pack of Kleenex, my scissors and heaven only knows what else. The one thing you do not feel is a worry is that people will steal things from my pack. I figure that just about the time we get to Santiago I will know where everything is. Until tomorow with much love - Jane

Day 7: Astorga and Rahanal del Camino

Hola, Over 100,000 people walk some of the Camino each year. Even though that figure is pretty staggering, what is even more amazing is that it retains such a clear sense of its true purpose. I keep thinking that if this were the States that there would be tour buses galore and huge gift shops at every possible stop. As it is, there is a small selection of items that the hostels carry, the scallop shells with the cross of St. James painted on them that many of the pilgrims have hanging off their backpacks, some small badges that you could put on your hat or jacket, rosaries, and occasionally a wooden staff with a small gourd hanging off it that was used in the past as a water bottle, but that is about it. There are lots of hotels, guest houses and hostels but none of them are elaborate and the emphasis is on the walk.

Yesterday when it was writing time, it was pitching down rain and we had had a challenging walk so I just rested my weary bones. I wanted to mention the hostelier in Hospital de Orbigo, where we stayed two nights ago. He was such an unusual character. He was about 25 years old and one of those ethereal creatures that one now and then meets. He had been brought up in many places and doesn't really seem to have come from planet earth. He is either ushering in the spirit of a new age, or mad, or a little of both. As some of us know, the line between madness and spirit can be a very thin one. He had a funny, languid way about him but everything somehow got done very quickly with the minimum of fuss and bother, and he created a wonderful atmosphere.

We ended up staying for a long time after everyone else in the morning, having very lengthy discussions about Indigo Children, his meeting his biological father recently ( the man had been a sperm doner, wonder how he felt about that!), and that he had been mute until he was four and a half, and that he can consciously remember learning how to talk. He is one of those characters whose energy stays with you long after you have left his company. According to him, the word Guru in Hindi is two words together that mean dark and light. Can anyone confirm or refute that? Oh, and on that note: Remember the Pelligrino discussion? I may not have been steering you wrong after all. It turns out that the word for pilgrim in Italian is Pelligrino. And that is where the water is from isn't it?


...Jane on the trail...

So, we got a late start yesterday and the sky was very lowering and it was very humid heavy rain the night before. The entire day was much more Heathcliff and the moors and Pilgrim's Progress than El Cid. 

Somehow because we had started late and already had many cups of coffee and didn't see any nice village on the way we, without even really realising what we were doing, did the entire five hour walk in one go, in part because we didn't want to walk in the rain. It didn't rain then but it was humid all day, and we have gently begun the climb that will culminate with going over a mountain pass day after tomorrow, and the path was strewn with very large rocks that made walking much more difficult and tiring. 

Not stopping was a Bad Idea. You don't feel it so much as you go along but when you stop you just collapse. It began to rain and hard just as we got in.  It was about two thirty by then and we just dropped the bags at the aubergio and went around the corner to the nearest place to eat, having decided, starvation having something to do with this decision, that we would have our main meal of the day then. The first course was a large plate of runner beans (the large flat ones) cooked with lots of garlic and Spanish powdered pimento. They were divine and if it wasn't such bad manners I would have licked the plate. The wine and the bread were terrific too. I then ordered the veal chop. The chop came, thin but so big that it covered almost the entire plate with just two cooked red peppers as garnish, nothing else. I ate every bite and it was the best piece of meat that I have almost ever had, and no it wasn't just the hunger it was superb. When we complimented the waiter he said, "Oh, yes, it is from just down the road."  So for those of you who say that food tasted better in the old days when it was produced on small farms - you are right. 

We then went back, fell into bed and had a nap. Ellen had strained a tendon and it was all swollen, we need to get some medicine for her and a bit of food for ourselves for breakfast so Gerard and I braved the downpour and got what we needed but we, sadly didn't get to look around Astorgas, which was a shame because not only is it a lovely town but it has both a Museum for Chocolate and another for Ham. I wanted badly to go to the Ham Museum because I couldn't think what it could possible contain. Maybe, if we do rent a car for a little bit of touring at the end we can go back. 

Unsurprisingly, we were not really hungry at suppertime so we just went again round the corner to the Gaudi Hotel bar for a drink. Without really thinking about it I decided to have a hot chocolate, with American hot chocolate in mind, as it was cold and drear. Well, what came was Spanish hot chocolate and a very superior version at that (remember the chocolate museum).  You can almost stand a spoon up in a cup of Spanish chocolate and, indeed, I did eat/drink it with a spoon in order to prolong the ecstasy.

We didn't like the aubergio, it was very large, about a hundred beds, in a very old and dark building and it didn't seem very clean but we were so tired when we checked in that we just did it. Imagine our horror when we came back to sleep to see the sign on the door of our room that said that this room was reserved for the invalids that we had missed when the door was open earlier in the day. We feel fine but we couldn't get out of there fast enough today. 

Today was a good day. Much harder walking, more uphill but the weather was warmer and mostly sunny with huge white fluffy clouds and mountain scenery. Absolutely beautiful. The only bad thing were the flies. I ended up using my walking stick as a fly swat which worked fairly well but once and a while not only would one get passed but would somehow end up behind my glasses. Enough to make me screech like a maiden aunt. Yuck! 

We made sure to stop every two hours and had lovely coffees and a fabulous tortilla (as in Spanish made with eggs and potatoes) and tomato sandwiches which were delicious for the same reasons as the veal chop. All the ingredients probably came from a two mile radius.

When we went got to Rahanal del Camino we had the experience of being told that there was no room in the inn for the likes of us. A very irritating Irish woman told us that they only allowed pilgrims who have carried their own packs to stay there. As I have not carried my pack the entire time because of my neck problems (and truth be told I just didn't want to or think I could do it) and Ellen had sent most of her stuff ahead because of her foot. we had to go. So, in sweet revenge, we have treated ourselves to a hotel again and have loved the privacy and plenitude of hot water.  

Tomorrow more climbing so wish us well -  Adios Me Cariños – jane

Day 10: Molino Seco and Cacabelos

All my darling friends, Not to get all New Agey and Self-Helpish on you, if you pay proper attention, the Camino will provide you with every lesson you could ever need to learn in order to live well. You learn how to take proper care of your body (mostly by doing things that hurt quite a bit), that you need to eat when you are hungry, how to get along with others in difficult and irritating situations when you are dog tired, to remember the seasons, and much, much more. 

The perfect metaphor for this is the markings along the route. Being that we are in Spain there is very little continuity and consistency in the markings. Officially, yellow arrows mark the proper direction. However, you may find them on the road itself, on walls, on little signs, on lampposts, on trees, on curbs, high up, low down and all around. There is also the occasional unscrupulous Albergue that will use the arrows to direct you to their doorstep and away from the Camino. 

If this is not enough confusion there are also brass scallop shells set into the pavements (the scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino as I think I have mentioned before), arrows made of stone directly on the path itself, cement bollards with a blue and yellow symbol for the Camino and wooden homemade signs. So one needs to pay close attention at all times and to expect the unexpected and make a few wrong turnings. Several times we were just about to go wrong when some elderly person would spot us and make sure that we were pointed in the right direction.


...sore toes...

I maintain that the Camino is an obsessive's paradise. You see them grimacing with pain as they leap up and down the mountains at a mighty clip, checking their guidebooks all the while and trying to better the recommended times, hardly eating, dressing their poor wounded feet.  "WHOPEE, this is hard and painful.”

While on the subject of hard and painful, Ellen and Gerard said that I had to tell you that yesterday was the first day of the spiritual agony. Well, I don't know about the spiritual but it was certainly very tough. I will let the statistics speak for themselves. We walked for eight hours, from nine in the morning to six at night. We covered 26k/16miles and first climbed up and then descended 400meters/1, 300ft. and I found it to be a very bi-polar experience. 

It was a beautiful day, cool, sunny and clear. We began with the way up and it was smooth and stunningly beautiful and so exhilarating I felt like I was at the top of the world, and I was as strong as an Amazon, and I could go on forever. At the very top is an iron cross on top of a tall pole, and many of the pilgrims leave scarves and stones to mark their prayers. We stopped at the next possible place and had a nice lunch or maybe it was coffee the details are a bit fuzzy by now. 

Then came the agony part. The way down was so long, it seemed to go on forever, it was strewn with rocks, and in places the trail was just bare rock. It was still beautiful but I just had to mostly keep my head down so as not to slip and fall. It was such a let-down after the stupendous ascent, and I was reduced to a quivering wimp. We finally spotted the town we were headed for and wouldn't you know it the auberge was all the way on the other side of town, and we limped in and collapsed on the spot. 

Of course it occasioned my first real blisters and I now need to be very careful and do all the millions of things that one does to keep them from getting worse. Is there a saint for blisters? 

Anyway, back to the lessons of the Camino. It is a hell of a lot easier, nicer, and more exciting to go up than come down. There is an exception to that though and it is an odd one. When we were on an upward trail with big round rocks (that look non-threatening), it required our utmost concentration, and they were slippery and treacherous, but the rocks that were sharp and jagged were a little more difficul,t but gave you much better traction.  Think about it.

I now have gotten into the rhythm of the days here. We get up early, around six-thirty or seven and either have breakfast at the Albergio or hotel, or if there is no breakfast we either stop on our way out of town, or if we are really pushing it, at the first rest stop. We then generally walk about six hours with three breaks. We try and finish our "work" by three in the afternoon and check in wherever we are going to stay. Then we take showers - bliss most of the time but sometimes hell depending on the level of the facilities - and wash out our clothes. 

We are more than a little obsessive ourselves when it comes to drying but often we have to put a few things in a mesh bag and pin them to the back of our packs to dry during the next day. Then I go off and write to you and about seven we have dinner, come back to our lodgings and fall into bed and get up and do it again - are we crazy or what?

I am running out of time before dinner so will write about today's trip tomorrow. But before I do, it seems that many of my female recipients of this group e-mail are very concerned with both the dishy horsemen and the 25 year old seer. Girls, girls, I am ashamed of you. This is supposed to be a SPIRITUAL journey. And to Kaye who wanted to know if I had my own paper toilet seat covers with me. Sorry, Kaye, I almost fell off the chair laughing. Many of the trips to the loo are in the bushes or behind tumbledown huts, and my legs are strengthening by the day from practicing the traveler’s crouch in the public rest rooms.

And on that elevating note, Buenos Noches a Todos - Jane

Day 11: from Arria Queridos Amigos, Well, the bus broke down in Sarria. The three days of mountains finally caught up with me and by the time I staggered into Sarria, I knew that there was really no way that I was going to be on the road the next day, and luckily, Ellen felt the same so we are decadently staying in a hotel for two nights. The first thing I did was to take an hour-long bath, you know the kind where you keep turning on the hot tap with your left foot to keep the temperature nice and warm because you haven't even enough energy to reach over to turn the tap by hand. By supper time my face was almost in my plate and I had a marvelous sleep. Today we went up to a huge monastery in the hills which was nice enough but a bit odd at looked on the outside to be very old but had been restored after a huge fire in the 1950s. A really bad painter had painted murals on most of the interior walls with all the horrible images of tortures and what struck us as many pornographic angels, disappointing.

We are properly into Galicia now and the climate and landscape are completely different. It is much more like England because it rains so much more than in the rest of Spain. We were up in the hills on tracks that the villagers have used for millenia and, as so often happens, you have the feeling that the spirit of those who have been there before still lingers. Many of the tracks have become deep cuts through the land so that the banks are above your head and it feels as if you are in a green tunnel lined on either side with ancient trees. 

It’s the sort of land that surely must be shared by the wee folk. It was by far the most isolated territory we have been through so far. The guide book said that these tracks are very little used by the local people now as most people travel on the roads by car, and within a short while nature will begin to fill them in with vegetation and they will be lost. We walked about five or six hours and only passed two or three hamlets, and they weren't even big enough to have a cafe. The light this time of year changes as does the angle of the sun. Walking in the morning was ethereal with the slanting light bright on the beginnings of the autumn foliage and the fog still lying in the valleys below. As I walked I could hear the acorns and walnuts dropping from the trees and the apple trees are laden with apples ripe for the picking. 

I remembered, as I was walking yesterday, the picture by Caravaggio in the National Gallery of London called the Supper at Emmaus, in which St. Luke is wearing the scallop shell of a pilgrim. I did a little Wikipedia and found some interesting things about the scallop shell. "The scallop resembles the setting sun, which was the focus of Pre-Christian Celtic rituals of the area. We had been seeing souvenirs with Celtic symbols on them all along the route and just this morning at the monastery found out that before the Romans conquered Spain, it had been Celtic like Scotland, Ireland and Brittany. So the Pre-Christian ritual of the way of St. James was a Celtic death journey westwards towards the setting sun terminating at the end of the world (Finisterra) on "the Coast of Death" (Costade Morta) and the "Sea of Darkness" (i.e. the Abyss of Darkness, the Mare Tenebrosum, Latin for Atlantic Ocean, itself named after the dying civilisation of Atlantis).  The notion of "The Sea of Darkness" disgorging St. James' body, so that his relics are (allegedly) buried at Santiago de Compastella itself a metaphor for "rising up out of death", that is, resurrection."

Also, "a pilgrim would carry a scallop shell with him and present himself at castles, churches, abbeys, where he could expect to be given as much sustenance as he could pick up with one scoop. Probably he would be given oats, barley and perhaps beer or wine. Thus, even the poorest household could give charity without being overburdened."

Well, a scallop shell full of oats and a glass of beer are a far cry from the huge and delicious meals that we have been given for very little money along our way. Since I read that I keep trying to imagine trying to travel the distances we have travelled with almost no food and realise for the hundredth time how coddled and soft our lives are. And on that severe note, I bid you adios - Jane 

Day 21: Arzua, Pedrouzo-Area, Santiago, Burgos

Queridos Amigos, Firstly apologies for having been silent for so long but life and lack of internet at crucial times have conspired to keep me out of contact…Well, I am an official Peregrina and I have the certificate to prove it!  It certainly seems unbelievable.

There was such a change in the air once we crossed into Gallicia, I will declare from now that neither Gallicia or the Gallicians are favorites of mine based on our experiences there. Granted it is easier to move three people around than five but that cannot account for the differences we felt.

The type of pilgrim changes as one passes Sarria, as I mentioned before, and those of us who have trekked for a bit longer perhaps succumbing to a tendency towards feeling that bit superior (which I am sure is antithetical to the spirit of the Camino but I never claimed not to be human), and there was a distinct "end of the season" feel in the air after the fifteenth of October. There were either reduced opening hours or places were closed or semi-deserted as we passed by. Wait staff and hoteliers were either extremely incompetent or just couldn't be bothered. We could never really tell which but what was certain was that they could only hold one instruction in their heads at a time. We had some funny and some downright irritating situations come up in the cafes and restaurants where we would end up with all sorts of things we had not ordered and often didn't get what we had ordered.

Then the Camino itself seemed different. We had the impression that the end of the route has been fairly recently changed so that instead of going through the middle of all the little towns and hamlets where we constantly had seen all these little vignettes of life, suddenly, it began to skirt the edge of all the towns and be less of an atmospheric way that had been travelled by pilgrims for millenia and more about avoiding motorways and keeping out of people's way. 

The countryside, while very scenic, was very like much of California and the climate was (very luckily as it is usually wet in Gallicia) very like what I had left behind. Most of what we passed through was tree farms, with a lot of eucalyptus, which added to the California feel, which was very disorienting.

The first night on the road after Eva and Mike joined us, we stayed in a really bad albergue and we could see that the albergues were too much for them after a day's walking so from then on we stayed in small hotels. Just at the same time so much else about the trip was changing. While it was wonderful to have our own bathrooms and not be thrown out at 8 o'clock sharp I found that I missed the camaraderie that you find staying with everyone else. All that conversation about what country you were from where you had joined the Camino, how long it had taken you, where you had come from that day, how your feet were, where the good restaurants were, and where the nearest super-marcado was. We missed the spirit of the Camino.

Poor Gerard, he had, very kindly, booked all the hotels and for some reason each night, for the final five days, the places he had chosen were all located at the far reaches of the town and down a long hill. By the end of each day we would be in trudge mode and those last half hours seemed endless, especially as we knew that we would have to turn around and go back up hill for supper and we constantly gave him a hard time about it.  But, as he pointed out it made for quick getaways in the mornings. 

We had many adventures and the hostel/hotels were such a funny and varied lot, we awaited each night's offering with relish.  On the last night before getting to Santiago, in Pedrouzo-Area our faithful guidebook that had served us so well on the rest of the journey, misguided us at the last minute. All of a sudden we were in this one-horse town that didn't even have a main street and we were dog tired with no place to stay. 

...speaking of dog tired...

We went into the chemist, and he directed us up the hill to a bar that he said had rooms. The bar was run by Mika (who we suspect may be the chemist's sister or cousin) and there was this funny little guest house called Casa Mika with enough rooms at the inn for all of us. There was only one proper restaurant in town and it had the look of a fly-specked Chinese take-out so we asked Mika if she also served dinner, and she certainly did. We asked for two mixed starter plates to share for the entire table and she misunderstood (it's Gallicia remember) and brought one for each of us and they were huge, our hearts sank when we saw them but she was so cheerful and helpful in our hour of need that we picked at what we could and smuggled most of the rest of it out in our napkins. Then came the main courses that were again so huge that we could do no more than pick round the edges. Still, we are very grateful to Mika for her help in our time of need.

The next day was Santiago, the focus of the entire trip. Once again the Gallician curse dogged our heels. So unlike Leon where there were markings everywhere you looked there were almost no markings to tell us where to go to get to the cathedral. We constantly had to stop and ask and even then we felt that we were being led in circles. But arrive we finally did. The Cathedral is overwhelming. There is a huge square with the Cathedral on the east side. We went in immediately, even before going to the hotel. I have never seen so much gold leaf in my life. There is the most enormous alter area and every bit of it is covered in gold. We joined a queue that took us up behind the altar where we could look out over the church and then down into the crypt where there is a very large solid gold casket which they say contain the ashes of St. James. 

...local color...

We then went off to our hotel. We had splashed out a bit and gotten a rather nice room. I liked the room which was way up in the roof with dormer windows. The shade was drawn and when I raised it I almost dropped over.  There, in front of me was the Cathedral with gardens in front and huge fluffy clouds behind.

Once again I am in a cyber cafe writing this and they are listening to either football or motor racing, whatever it is they are cheering wildly and often which doesn't really mix well with the content of my letter so I will tease you on a little longer and hope to finish our journey tomorrow.

Until then - Love to you all - jane

Day 28: Dear Friends,
I find it ironic that when we were in the middle of nowhere and we were staying at the albergues that there was always an internet connection to be had because everyone was travelling without computer.

Then, first when we began staying at the hostels, it became more hit and miss as to whether there would be a computer terminal and by the time we got to the cities it was the assumption that everyone would have their laptops with them and the hotels only had wireless and me with no computer. The cyber cafes were often far away and only open in the evening and as I mentioned also housed computer game arcades, pool halls or bars. Always noisy and wild. So this is the reason that, as time went on, you heard from me less often. I did not intend that my last offering was my final offering so here it is.

Well, I am more than a week and three cities away from Santiago and I think that I finally have a little bit of clarity about those final days of the epic journey. Everything was so different than we had envisioned. We had fully expected to end the trip in a spiritually elevated state or at least be overcome with some life-changing emotional experience. Instead, everything was very "off". For me, I think that it began with all that gold. Throughout the trip I was so aware of all those who went before me and that for so many of them it had been such an arduous trip made with piety and sacrifice and suddenly we are in the land of Baroque excess and the two just didn't go together, indeed it seemed a bit obscene and much of what happened there seemed to be in the category of "giving the punters their money's worth".

a Spanish castle

The first thing we did was to go into the cathedral. Because of the re-routing we didn't enter from the door facing the altar, which certainly would have been dramatic in the extreme. Instead, we came in from the side, almost sidled in you might say, at least that is how it felt. After passing directly in front of this huge, ornate, and more golden than you can imagine, altar we noticed that there was a line to do something so we joined it. Quite quickly we went up some steps that took us behind the altar so that we could look out at the rest of the cathedral which felt very odd and then quickly it went down into a crypt where there was, what looked to be, a solid gold chest about four feet long that was said to contain the ashes of St. James. We then reemerged into the body of the cathedral.

So, there we were in the cathedral, dusty and tired somewhat overwhelmed but jubilant, "We've done it!". We asked a man if he would take our pictures and he cheerfully agreed.  He spoke English with an American accent and Ellen, as she does, struck up a conversation with him and he said that he was from Tennessee. 

She immediately said to him, "Oh, you must be so proud of  Al Gore (who was the governor ofTennessee) getting the Nobel Prize". Whereupon, the man suddenly went apoplectic and spat out a positively venomous denunciation of Gore's positions on abortion and homosexuality and ended up calling him a Druid when he couldn't think of anything worse to describe his work on behalf of the environment. We must have been simply gaping at him in horror by this time because he seemed to suddenly realise that his tone and intensity didn't really belong in that place. We were so stunned that we couldn't think of anything to say (which made us very cross later when we wished desperately that we could have had a snappy retort) and everyone began mumbling this and that the way you do when you have made a blunder and off he went. Needless to say it ruined our Hallmark moment and put a real pall on our arrival.

Shortly thereafter, we too went off, still in a bit of a state of shock, and got our pilgrim passports stamped and got our certificates and made plans to go to mass the next morning where they announce by country and numbers the pilgrims that have arrived the day before.

We then went and checked into our hotel which proved to be a delight. The rooms were charming and we were thrilled to discover, looked directly out over the cathedral hill from just the right distance to make it look like a film set.

We gathered a bit before twelve the next day in hopes of getting "good seats" but had left it a bit late for that and some of us stood and some sat but we were all separated. The mass was a very elaborate affair with many priests from all over the world in attendance in splendid red robes. A nun sang much of the mass which I had not heard before. The mass culminated with a bizarre show. It is common in the Catholic church to use incense at a high mass and it is put into a container with holes in it that is suspended by chains  called a censor and swung about as the priest processes into the church. It is a leftover from the plague times or at least from times when people bathed much less frequently than they do now and it was a purifying ritual. Well, in Santiago they have a censor that is at least three feet (about a meter) high made from solid silver and suspended by a great thick rope from the point in the cathedral ceiling where the apse and the nave meet (if I remember the names of the parts of a cathedral correctly. Cathedrals are built in the shape of a cross, so where the two parts of the cross meet) ,at a minimum,100 feet in the air.

A man stood to one side and pulled on the tail end of the rope like a bell ringer and suddenly, the giant censor began to swing in a huge arc from side to side disappearing into the wings at either side, flying about with billows of smoke issuing forth. I suddenly got the giggles because it looked so like the trapeze at the circus and I fully expected a Victorian lady trapeze artist complete with feathers to materialise when the censor swung back into view. However I was disappointed to see that the man making it swing just gradually slowed it down until it stopped, without a feather to be seen, angelic or otherwise.

We all felt that there was something a bit sinister about Santiago that perplexed and troubled us and our solution to the problem was go on to Finisterre (end of the earth in Spanish), which is where the bones of St, James were said to have washed up. It is a common spot for pilgrims to truly end the Camino. 

It would have been a three day walk but Mike and Eva were leaving before then so we cheated again and rented a car for the day. It, in many ways, made up for the bad energy of the days before. It is a beautiful place reminiscent of the Scottish coast or Big Sur in California, with mountains that run into the sea and dramatic cliffs, and that pure lucid sparkling light that you only get at the seaside. Pilgrims have left mementos, burned prayers and left stones and shoes all over to commemorate the end of their journey. It is truly a much more holy place than any that have been constructed by man. We also had a fabulous lunch of langoustine paella that was definitely not peregrino menu that we are sure was a transcendental experience of some sort.

So what did I get out of the experience? Well, so much that a hundred e-mails would not begin to cover it all, but certain things do come to the fore. We kept having these little happenings all the way along, little serendipities.  Gerard would get lost going to the bus station in Santiago one day and the next day we would be lost again rushing to get the car back to the rental place and we happen on a street that he recognised from the day before and we were back on track. 

Ellen and Gerard, on their first half of the Camino came to a fork in the path and didn't know which one to take and suddenly a robin alighted on one branch of the sign, looked at them and cheeped and off they went on the correct path. Then there was the rain. We just never had any rain. At one point the entire Iberian peninsula was awash in rain, flooding all over the country, except where we were walking. On several days we would walk all day at the edge of a huge black cloud and just as we walked into the albergue it would begin to pour. 

We were in Barcelona (a fabulous treat if you have never been) for three days and each day the weather was fine and on the last day really beautiful. Just when we get into a taxi to go to the airport hotel it begins to sprinkle by the time we reach the hotel it is pouring and continues to rain all night.

Being outside all day, every day, was a new experience for me and I couldn't help but see more and more, to enjoy everything that I saw and be entertained by the smallest things, animate such as watching people going about their ordinary lives, and inanimate the landscape and physical beauty of what I was seeing. I brought no expectation to those experiences, they just occurred randomly and I think because of that I was able to fully and truly savor each one.

So, for me, there is certainly something about what constitutes being on the "right" path. I am led to think that we know we are on the right path when we feel that each day is bringing us grace and blessings which I surely did during this trip.

I wish to say a special thank you to Linda O. who suggested that I take a poem with me to try and memorise.  I took many poems with me and though I memorised none of them, I found that very often one of them would reflect perfectly what were our concerns as we went along.

Mary Oliver's, " Wild Geese" says much of what I feel about this trip.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting - over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

My wish is that each and every one of us finds his or her Camino.

With love to you all at the end (or might it be the beginning ?) of the journey

- jane

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