17 years ago I was standing in Pamplona with my liter cup of beer, looking at a yellow arrow and wondering what it meant. I was in Pamplona for the San Fermines, also known as the Running of the Bulls. As I stood there staring at it, a tiny little elderly nun passing by stopped and told me, “This is a marker for the Pilgrim Camino to Santiago de Compostela. The camino starts at the border of France and goes all the way across Spain to Santiago. For over a thousand years pilgrims have walked this route. Someday you will return to Spain and walk the camino.” I told her that I thought it was cool you could walk across Spain, and didn’t think any more about it.
I would not start hiking as a hobby until 10 years later. Also I would not become Catholic until 8 years later. (I was not raised Catholic; I entered the church through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) in 2006.)
I had forgotten all about that little exchange with the nun until 12 years later, when I saw the movie “The Way”. I started watching the movie not knowing what it was about, and then it clicked and I thought hey that’s the path that nun told me about a long time ago! The movie was deeply moving to me and I became fascinated with the Camino and walking across Spain. I knew it was something I wanted to do someday. I read a few books about the Camino, including “The Pilgrimage” by Paolo Coelho, and “The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit” by Shirley Maclaine.
One day last year I walked into the REI Atlanta store to browse and saw there were a bunch of people gathering there. I went over and saw that a presentation on how to do the Camino de Santiago was about to begin. It felt like a little twist of fate that I arrived right at that moment, so I stayed and listened to the presentation.
And then again another day last year, totally unplanned, I was at the Appalachian Trail kick off weekend at Amicalola Falls State Park with a friend. We went downstairs to see what presentations were going on, and one on the Camino de Santiago was about to begin. So we stayed and listened to the presentation.
The entire trail would take around a month and a week to do. I would love to do the whole thing, but I could not leave my pets with someone else for that long. So, I decided on a 100 kilometer section from Sarria to the end (Santiago). This would take 6-8 days and I would be able to earn the Compostela- the official document/ certification of completion. I planned the trip for October 2015. I usually do hiking trips with a group and a guide, but I wanted to try something different this time and give it a go on my own. I just wanted an authentic experience with time alone to reflect and to be open to whatever the journey had in store for me. I also knew Spain to be a very safe country, and the Camino is a very busy trail with over 200,000 people walking it annually. I bought a self guided package through Camino Ways, where I could walk at my own pace but my accommodations, breakfasts and dinners, and luggage transfer service were pre-arranged. The week that I booked my self guided trip, a woman named Denise Thiem went missing from the Camino. I had done so much research on crime on the camino- it is essentially non existent. The route has been there for over a thousand years and nothing like that had ever happened. The isolated cases of petty theft or sexual harassment are severely punished. It is supposed to be one of the safest places on the planet. I thought that perhaps maybe she wanted to disappear and cut ties from her family. Sadly, her body was found in September and the suspect confessed to murdering her. My heart broke for her family. Denise was about the same age as me, had recently left her job to travel the world, and I know that if I had known her we would have been friends.
I took a flight from Atlanta to Madrid, another flight to Santiago de Compostela, then a bus to Lugo, and then another bus to Sarria. I arrived in Sarria in the late afternoon and had some time to walk around. The town had a small old quarter and a few old buildings worth a visit: the castle, the convent of Magdalena, and the churches of Santa Marina and El Salvador. There were also some interesting objects sold in the local antique shops. Many fellow pilgrims were relaxing in the few bars on the main street, Calle Mayor. It seemed like a great place to socialize, but I did not know anyone yet. I also stopped at a shop and bought my scallop shell that would be with me all the way to Santiago. The scallop shell is one of the most iconic symbols of the Camino de Santiago and today it is used, along with the yellow arrow, to guide pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostela along its many different routes. I thought about Denise and her unfinished walk on the Camino as I attached the shell to my backpack.
For more information about the scallop shell and it’s symbolism- http://caminoways.com/the-scallop-shell-and-the-camino-de-santiago#.ViGhGNY-C9Z
First day of walking- Sarria to Portomarin- 23 km
As soon as I set out I saw I would never be alone on the Camino. I could always see other people walking in front of and behind me. It was as busy as the local park on a Saturday! It was a calm walk through pretty villages under the shade of oak trees, along quiet country roads. I stopped in to visit the beautiful Romanesque church of Barbadelo. I met a nice couple from Kentucky who had started back at the border with France. I would see them often over the next several days, and we ended up in Santiago at the same time, in line to get the Compostela at the Pilgrims office. I also met these 2 ladies from Spain who were hilarious. They were always fussing with each other, and they had no guidebook and no idea how far they were from the next town, so they were always asking me questions, as if I know the answers. I did have really good walking notes provided by Camino Ways. About half of the time walking this day was in the rain.
Day 2- Portomarin to Palas de Rei- 23 km
This day really, really tested me physically and emotionally. It poured rain the entire time, and I was completely soaked the whole time. The Camino crossed the river Mino and rised uphill steadily. I passed Gonzar and the Romanesque Church of Santa Maria, Castromaior before Eirexe where the Romanesque portal of the church features a sculpture of Daniel and animals, as well as Santiago de Peregrino. I didn’t really talk to many people that day, everyone was just trudging along in the rain. A funny Dutch guy walking behind me commented that it looked like a death march of ninja turtles. Imagine all these people, heads down, with their ponchos covering their heads and backpacks. It really was a sight. The fact that we were all suffering together somehow made it easier to keep going. There were plenty of road crossings that day, and plenty of opportunities to quit and take a taxi. But I never saw anyone quit, and I never heard anyone complain. There was a highlight to the day. In one of the little hamlets, there was this little place called Fuente del Peregrino. Now in most of the bar/ cafes or albergues you stop in, they do not want you to sit and rest or even use the bathroom unless you buy something. When I stepped into this one, I immediately noticed it was not like the others. They said please come in, showed me where the bathrooms were, offered me coffee and tea, pulled me up a chair, and even brought a heater over to me. It was almost suspicious. As I saw other people come in and being treated the same way, I saw a few start crying. Because in those conditions it really was a huge relief to be allowed to rest comfortably out of the rain and be treated so well. It was a Christian albergue and a very special place. The volunteers there talk with the people that come in, but they never preached to us or anything like that. Besides the rain, another thing happened that tested me. I had about 2 km left for the day. A car pulled up behind me, which caught me off guard because I was on a footpath that ran parallel to the road. There were people walking in front of me and behind me, but they were out of sight at that moment. The man rolled down his window and asked me if I wanted a ride to the next town. Of course I said no thank you. After he left I slowed down to let the couple behind me catch up to me. I asked them if he had offered them a ride, and he had not. I’m pretty sure it was just a sweet old man offering to help me, but the idea that maybe he wasn’t messed with my head a bit. I arrived to the inn soaking wet, and when I got to my room I saw that my cell phone was sitting in a puddle of water at the bottom of my backpack, and would not turn on. I was so wet and exhausted, I was just finished. I showered and went back to the lobby bar to get a beer. I think everyone else was beaten down that day also, because no one was overly friendly. I sort of felt like I didn’t exist to anyone. When I felt that sensation of tears starting again, I looked up and saw a sign over the bar that said, “Your Camino starts when you are finished.” That seemed appropriate.
Day 3- Palas de Rei to Melide- 15 km
This day was a MUCH better day! Only half of the walking was in the rain. And, it started being more of the experience I had imagined. With the rain leaving, people’s spirits were high and they were more friendly and open. Leaving Palas de Rei, the Camino continued downhill, passing the village of Casanova and the delightful village of Leboreiro. I met these 2 guys from Texas. One was about my age, and the other was older. The guy my age wanted me to guess how old his friend was. I really don’t like doing that, but I guessed him to be in his early 60’s. He was actually 80! He had been hiking all his life and still works at his job also. This was his third time doing the camino. He looked like he was in his early 60’s, and he hiked like he was 20. They were going farther than I was planning to that day. And at 80 hiking like that, he had never even had a knee replacement or anything like that. Unbelievable. It just reinforced my belief that hiking is one of the best things you can do for your health. It’s not just good for fitness, it nourishes the mental and spiritual health as well. Coming into Melide, I stopped and shared a pizza and beers with Sylvia from Germany, Antonio from Spain, and 2 guys from Ireland.
Day 4- Melide to Arzua- 13 km
NO rain today! The Camino crossed several streams and followed a forest track bringing me to the village of Boente with its church of Santiago. Next was the medieval village of Ribadiso and finally Arzúa. This small town had two churches that I was able to visit, Santa María and La Magdalena. At a cafe I shared a pizza with a group of friends from another part of Spain. I don’t know why it surprised me to see so many Spanish people walking the Camino. I have noticed that not many Peruvians visit Macchu Picchu; not many Chileans go to Patagonia; but there were tons of people from Spain walking the Camino. I had dinner that night with a guy from Ireland. I could not understand a word he said, and I don’t think he could understand me either. Crazy given that we’re both speaking English!
Day 5- Arzua to Rua- 18 km
For most of the day’s walk I was passing through woodlands, sleepy villages, and along streams. I stopped to visit the chapel of Santa Irene with its unique statues of Santiago.
All of my prior nights walking, I had been staying in hotels right on the Camino. This night, I stayed at a casa rural called O Muino de Pena. It was an unexpected treat. The house was an old mill converted into a bed and breakfast, with only 7 rooms. As if 11 miles of walking wasn’t enough for the day, there was a trail behind the casa rural and I went and walked it. It was so beautiful. I had dinner with two sisters from the US, Laura and Linda, and another man Steve who had also come alone. This was our last night before walking into Santiago de Compostela the next day, which would be the end of the journey. When we asked the waiter for a second bottle of wine, he winked and said, “You know, you can do whatever you want tonight. Tomorrow all your sins will be forgiven.” According to Catholic tradition, if you faithfully completed the arduous trek, one’s sins were forgiven. If one completed the pilgrimage during a Holy Year – the infrequent occasion when St. James Day, July 25th, falls on a Sunday – a plenary indulgence was granted, allowing one to bypass purgatory and enter straight into heaven. In the Middle Ages, wealthy aristocrats would often hire people to walk in their name in order to, by proxy, absolve them of their sins without actually setting foot on the Camino.
Day 6- Rua to Santiago de Compostela- 19 km
I walked and talked with Laura for a while and then about halfway through the day, I found myself slowing down. I wanted to enjoy what little was left. And also because I had a bubble blister over an inch long on my heel and another big one on my toe. The next point of interest was Lavacolla, where traditionally pilgrims washed themselves in the river before reaching Santiago de Compostela. Rows of tall eucalyptus trees lined my journey to Monte do Gozo (Mount of Joy) and it is from here that I could catch my first glimpse of the Cathedral of Santiago.
Coming into the city was very special. The bottom of the steps to enter the cathedral and the pilgrims’ office sit adjacent to each other. Many pilgrims were waiting in the line for the office to get their compostela. As I walked by, I saw several people I had met along the way and we all hugged and congratulated each other for making it to the end. I walked into the Cathedral and waited in the line to embrace the statue of Saint James. This is tradition for those who have completed the trek. I attended the evening Mass with the Botafumeiro. The Botafumeiro is a famous thurible found only in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Incense is burned in this swinging metal container, or incensory. The name Botafumeiro means smoke expeller in Galician. This was actually the first time I had been to Mass since Fernando and I separated. Not because I didn’t feel welcome or anything like that, it was just too sad because that was the one thing we always used to do together. I’m glad that it happened this way- attending Mass with people from all over the world whom I had just made this journey with. It was a wonderful welcome home. The Mass is done in Spanish, but when the people say the responses and prayers everyone does so in their own language and it is the most beautiful sound. I enjoyed the Mass so much that I went again the next day.
The Camino is very busy and I met a lot of people that I only got to know a little bit. Someone said it was like speed dating. But I will always remember the people I saw and met on the camino. There was the blind and handicapped man in the picture. And every day I would pass this lady walking alone, she had both ankles wrapped and was going really slow. I tried to talk to her and encourage her one day that we both stopped at the same cafe- She was from Poland and didn’t speak much English or Spanish so we couldn’t really communicate, but we always smiled and said hola and buen Camino. I could tell she was dealing with some serious pain but she just never quit. I had to help her climb up from the trail to the road one day when it was really flooded by giving her a hand to pull herself up. I kept wanting to see her finish but I never saw her in Santiago. The sight of her slowly trudging along is something that will stick with me and I will remember someday when I want to quit something. Another tiny little Korean lady was 84 years old and walking on the Camino with her granddaughter. I did a double take when I saw her out there shuffling along in the pouring rain. Her granddaughter said she had told her they could do anything she wanted for her 84th birthday, and she wanted to walk on the Camino ! She had the biggest smile on her face and was clearly having the time of her life. I know that someday I will recall her smile when I feel like I’m too old for something. It seems there are a lot of people walking the camino because they are searching for something. The few people with whom I spent more time with, I came to learn about their lives and their recent traumas or losses. The Camino is a very healing place for many people, and it was for me too. There were times that I missed the camaraderie of a group, but in doing it the way I did, I really felt like I was getting away from it all and had lots of time to think. And even with the blisters and charley horses I got, I still want to return to walk some more sections of it until I have done the whole route.