The pilgrimage is an idea as old as humanity itself. People of all cultures and faiths, as well as those with neither culture nor faith, people in every historical age and era, living under every form of economic organization and without regard to race, sex, social status or wealth – from the very beginning, people have been pilgrims.
The image of the pilgrim conjures up a picture of a lonely wanderer traveling an endless road, a walking stick in one hand and a rosary in the other. This iconic image, high up on a distant hill, calls to mind existential crisis, suffering, perhaps even penance, and if not physical, then at least spiritual fulfillment. It transcends the everyday in the hope of achieving something greater, something otherwise inaccessbile, around the next bend, some sort of reward above and beyond one’s daily bread.
The image of the pilgrim brings to mind bleeding blisters and inflamed tendons, shoulders sagging under the weight of an overstuffed rucksack, a picture of one who has tread too much ground and can now only limp. Bad hygiene, cold, mud, rain, blizzards and burning sun, long nights in a room full of the exhaled air and muffled noises of other wanderers. The very idea of this leaves one speechless and silently asking himself: what would compel anyone living in the modern world to renounce every vestige of civilization in order to wage a hopeless battle against the elements and follow the voice of the night, the ghost on the hill? How could anyone alive today walk away from all the conforts of contemporary life for the sole purpose of exposing himself to pain, horrific weather, and loss of privacy even in sleep?
And then the answer comes: neither is of any importance. It is all very simple. You get a call. Santiago beckons. It tells you what you will do, and it promises you that one day you will know why you did in. What will happen is set; your only freedom lies in deciding when and how. Or at least that is how it seems before you set off. Later you discover that even this was decided for you.
At last, the moment arrives. The die is cast. You decide on the when, but the how remains a major issue.
The road to Santiago cannot be planned in advance. It may accept you with open arms upon your arrival or summarily send you home, and far more experience the latter than the former. I was called, and I wished for nothing more fervently than to answer the call completely. I was determined to be thoroughly prepared, as I have always believed that success in anything is more than ninety percent preparation. The rest is execution and a little bit of – very necessary – luck. But to this day I’m not sure whether it is only the first two that I control, or whether the third might also be within my sphere of influence.
So I began making preparations. I began familiarizing myself with the geography, history, and spirituality of El Camino, the Way of St. James, the Road to Santiago. I used the experiences of others. I devoured books. I browsed the internet, obsessively writing down every detail of any importance. And soon I began to form in my head and my heart the “virtual path” I intended to follow. More than anything, I wanted to experience El Camino first-hand, in its entirety, both physically and spiritually – without it chewing me up and spitting me out.
Becoming pilgrims: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
From the Slovene town of Slovenske Konjice to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, we covered 2,650 kilometers by air and land, spending the night in Refuge Municipal.
Every journey begins at home – even Jacob’s. It began early in the morning, or rather late at night, as the flight to Madrid from Venice was in the morning. The moment the radio woke me up and I came to my senses, I felt a mild anxiety running through me. I realized that for one month I would be away from home, traversing a path over 900 kilometers long that would lead me into the unknown. The anxiety intensified, pushing me further under the covers. The anxiety provoked by the word “unknown” had nothing to do with being uncertain about the place itself. What with all the books I had read and all the websites I had perused, not to mention my thorough examination of it on Google Maps, I felt I had the geographical and historical aspects of the path well in hand. The anxiety of the unknown was about me. I didn’t have the slightest idea how my body would hold up under the regime of daily walking, how my ego would take to communal sleeping and showering, or how El Camino and I would get along more generally. It seemed foolish to be leaving the safety of home, the comfort of my warm bed, and the luxury of my bathroom. But then I remembered the words of Paul Coelhho, who himself walked the Road to Santiago in 1986: “A boat is safest when anchored at port, but that is not what boats are made for.” With those words, my doubts and anxieties vanished, and I jumped up out of bed.
I relished my morning shower, wondering if there would be enough hot water for this where I was going (I love to shower in very hot water – hot enough to fill the bathroom with steam and turn my skin light red). I put on a light pair of runner’s underwear, lined hiking pants (it’s April and I’m already cold), a long-sleeve T-shirt, a windbreaker and seamless hiking socks, and looked at myself in the mirror. Together with my hiking shoes and parka, this would be my get-up for the next month. I visually caressed all the clothes in my closet, and, remembering the propensity of my 20-year-old daughter to “borrow” whatever clothes, purses and cosmetics she could find in there, hoped that I might return to find them in the same condition. In a way it’s flattering that likes to wear my clothes, but seeing mt favorite dress wadded up on the chair by her desk, occasionally even with her book-filled backpack on top of it, makes my hair stand on end.
With a longing look, I bid farewell to my bed, went into my daughter’s room and hugged and kissed her goodbye as she slept. Going downstairs I could smell the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, so I stopped in the kitchen, where my husband Iztok was spreading butter and honey on his toast.
I sat there sipping my coffee, lost in thought. At last, the day had arrived. Three months of intensive planning, not to mention one false start, were behind me. The departure day was originally supposed to have been April 1. My cousin Marjana and I were to set off on our own, with our husbands joining us in three weeks somewhere around Leon. The time leading up to our departure was carefully planned to include a trip to the hairdresser (so my roots wouldn’t be too visible toward the end of the trip), a manicure just prior to departure (so that my nails wouldn’t grow to an unruly length during the trip), and a farewell party the night before departure for close friends. The plan had to be scrapped toward the end of the party, however, when my son had an accident on his bicycle. Instead of spending the night riding to the airport, I spent it at the emergency room in Celje. I called Marjana from there and told her we would have to postpone our departure. While on the phone with her in the waiting room, I looked up to see Mirjana and Valentin Steblovnik, whom I recognized from the pictures in their book about their own journey to Santiago, which I had read as part of my own preparations. I had never seen them in person, and I started to walk over to them and introduce myself. But I changed my mind. It wasn’t the right time for us to meet. It wasn’t even the right time for me to set out on my own venture. I had chosen the wrong when, and El Camino had intervened. The conditions weren’t right just yet; both my son and daughter, though now fully grown, would need me to be there for a few more days. They required a lot of my effort and attention, and so the departure date was postponed until April 20. This time, we intended for all four of us to leave together, but Marjana’s husband got tied up, so it ended up being just the three of us.
Upon arrival at the airport in Venice, all remaining anxiety evaporated. We quickly switched into “airport mode” and put all our cremes and pastes into transparent bags, as we were taking our backpacks as carry-on luggage. My nine-pound backpack presented no problem, but my husband and Marjana’s packs were over 20 pounds each – well over the airlines’ limit for carry-on. The friendly agent at the counter offered them the option of gate-checking at no-charge, but, stubborn as they both are, they would not be persuaded that it would be more convenient for them to check their hand luggage in Venice and pick them up at the airport in Pamplona. The agent gave in and turned a blind eye to the weight issue, thereby allowing them to lug their overloaded backpacks from plane to plane.
The flight to Madrid passed quickly, but, as had always been the case in Madrid, the wind made takeoff and landing rocky. Judging by feeling, I’d have to say Madrid airport is one of the largest and windiest in Europe. This conclusion is also supported by the many windmills set up in the hills surrounding Castile, the windy country of Don Quixote and his battle with the windmills.
We had an hour and a half until our flight to Pamplona – just long enough to have breakfast and enjoy a cup of coffee. Over our breakfast, we joked that the first miracle of El Camino had already taken place: just before that I had stuck my reading glasses in a pocket in my backpack and grumbled at the fact that I didn’t have a hard-shell case like Iztok had, meaning that my glasses, crammed as they were into an already over-filled pocket, were likely to be damaged. I didn’t actually want such a case, but I got one anyway, as Iztok discovered that he had already lost his glasses somewhere along the way. Having nothing else to do with empty case, he gave it to me, saying, “Here you go. El Camino has already given you your first wish.”
Pamplona is one of the places one can get on the road to Santiago, but it is not at the beginning. And we three are the sort of pilgrims who aren’t inclined to take the easy way out of anything. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right, and so there was never any question of starting off in Pamplona and sparing ourselves a few days’ hiking – including the demanding first day, which includes the climb into the Pyrenees. We new that taking such a shortcut would leave us with that “why-didn’t-we-start-at-the-beginning” feeling later on.
There are several ways to make the El Camino pilgrimage. The most popular, the Camino Frances, is over 560 miles long and stretches from the starting point at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (which, as the name implies, lies at the foot of the Pyrenees), through Santiago de Compostele, to the Atlantic coast and Cape Finisterre, literally the end of the world. To get from home to the starting point in decent time requires multiple means of transportation. After landing in Pamplona, we had to run for a taxi to take us from the airport to the bus station, where we had to catch the bus to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, some two hours’ drive from there. As soon as we set foot outside the airport there were plenty of taxi drivers right there, pointing the way to the next cab in line. (Spanish cabbies are very concerned with “fairness”, and customers are doled out on a first-come-first-served basis. The driver took us around to the back of the car and loaded our bags into the trunk, pointing to the rain clouds overhead and explaining in a combination of Spanish and demonstrative gesturing that we were in for a week of rain. His smug grin seemed to say “What on earth are you all doing here on a day like this. Didn’t you read the forecast?”
I was prepared for the fact that we were going to be on the road for a month and so couldn’t expect to have great weather the whole time (whatever great weather means on a pilgrimage anyway), and, ready as I was to get to El Camino in a hurry, this cabbie was starting to get on my nerves. “Your taxi has a roof and wipers,” I said. “A rainy week won’t kill you.” For a moment he seemed taken aback, but then he burst out laughing. Apparently he had understood me.
We climbed into the car, Iztok in the front and we two girls in the back. The driver took up a conversation with Iztok. Of course, the first thing he wanted to know was where we were from, and when it became clear that he was confusing Slovenia with Slovakia, I glanced at Iztok, who is very patriotic, out of the corner of my eye. Whenever anyone doesn’t know where Slovenia is, it puts him in a bad mood. He pointed to the Atletico Madrid team flag hanging from the rearview mirror and asked who the best goal keeper in the world was. The cabbie was obviously not as dumb as he looked. “Ah, Eslovenia!”
What we didn’t learn in school, we learn from soccer.
He dropped us off at the bus station, unloaded our backpacks, and became the first native Spaniard to take his leave from us in the customary way: “Buen Camino”. From this point forward, instead of saying good morning or goodbye, we would be wishing everyone a “good path”.
It took a few minutes for us to buy our tickets, which apparently also required the purchase of some sort of international travel insurance. At least that’s what we concluded, since between here and our destination of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which is in French and Spanish Pamplona, we would be crossing Spanish-French border in the Pyrenees. The bus was waiting for us at the platform and was surrounded by other travelers – all of them fellow pilgrims or peregrinos in Spanish. We were all somewhat shy, surreptitiously looking at each other as we waited, sizing up each others’ backpacks and hiking shoes, listening to snippets of conversations and trying to guess where the people were from. A diminutive woman showed up, opened the luggage compartment so we could put our bags in, opened the door to the bus and sat down behind the wheel. Despite the fact that we were all from different cultures, everyone looked surprised. We were simply not used to seeing a small woman driving such a large bus.
“Maybe this is why we had to buy the extra insurance,” my husband sarcastically commented. (He’s a lawyer, after all.) Hearing his comment reminded me of one of the few real advantages of speaking a relatively unknown language: no one outside your own country understands what you say. Relieved, Marjana and I just smiled at his sexist remark. Later on, when we were coming down out of the Pyrenees on a road similar to the one leading out of the Vršič Pass in the Slovene Alps, the gentle hands of that little woman performed some impressive gymnastics with that steering wheel that made it seem more like a hula-hoop, and caused Iztok to suddenly exclaim: “That babe knows how to drive!” In Slovene, the word “babe” can be an insulting term for a woman, but in certain contexts it can also mean a woman who is particularly competent. I’m pretty sure that second meaning is what Iztok was aiming for. It wasn’t meant to be demeaning, in any case.
During the bus ride I related the tragic story of the origin of the Pyrenees, the tragic story of Pyrene and Hercules. Due to his father’s infidelity, Hercules was thrown at the mercy of his angry stepmother, the Goddess Hera. It’s no surprise that his darker side prevailed so much of the time. Each of us has a light and a dark side; the kind of person one is depends primarily on how often and how strongly one or the other side prevails. And in Hercules’ case, his dark side dominated precisely at those times when he experienced good things or was shown hospitality. He ruthlessly took advantage of it and raped beautiful Pyrene, the daughter of the very king who had offered him refuge. But the horror didn’t end there. The unhappy Pyrene gave birth to a snake and, in desperation, fled into the woods, where she was torn apart by wild animals. When Hercules discovered her remains, he broke down and wept unconsolably. But it was too late. This was not “crying over spilt milk,” as the British say, but over death itself. In his desperation, Hercules began collecting stones to build her a monument. He ended up collecting a mountain of rocks, and demanded that nature grieve along with him and preserve her name. In sheer desperation, the unwitting hero cried out: “Pyrene, Pyrene…”, and from the moutainous rock pile the echo of his voice returned, preserving her name to this very day: the Pyrenees.
Large rain drops began dotting the winshield of the bus, so large that they may well have been the tears of Hercules from thousands of years before. Iztok and Marjana stared sadly out the window. I don’t know if this was due to the tragic story of the Pyrenees or because it had begun raining in accordance with the cab driver’s prediction, but either way I wanted to cheer them up.
“It’s a good thing our cabbie’s got his cab to stay dry in,” I said, with an encouraging smile. The attempt failed; they didn’t even crack a smile. I knew immediately it was my odd sense of humor, perhaps with a touch of cynicism that was funny to me and to no one else.
By the time the bus reached the station in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, it had stopped raining. We had left home at 2:30 am, driven from Slovenske Konjice to Venice, flown to Madrid, changed planes and continued on to Pamplona, taken a taxi from the airport to the bus station, and ridden the bus from there to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The time was almost 4:30. We practically fell out of the bus. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my husband give the driver a thumbs-up, to which she responded, “Buen Camino.”
We put our backpacks on and set off behind another hiker who had rather decisively started up the road. Given his determination, we assumed he knew where he was going, and that because he, too, had a rucksack on his back and hiking shoes on his feet, he must be heading for the same destination as we were – the hiker registration office. And in fact we did climb up the Rue de la Citadelle and through the city gates to house number 39, into which all our fellow travelers on the bus disappeared and came back out as certified pilgrims with their own pilgrim passports.
Officially you are not a pilgrim (Spanish: peregrin) until you receive (read: purchase for three euros) a “pilgrim’s passport” or Credential de peregrino, in which you collect stamps from the lodges (overnight accommodations for hikers), as well as from bars and churches, as proof that you completed that stretch of the path. By filling out the passport, you gain access to the lodges, as well as the kompostelo, confirmation that you completed the pilgrimage, once you reach Santiago. Admission into the group gives one a rather solemn feeling, despite its being in such a crowd of people all speaking loudly (albeit in a very relaxed way) at the same time, and in different languages. The office is staffed by volunteers from various countries. We were received by an older French gentleman who spoke a little English. He asked us where we were from. Iztok fired back immediately: “Slovenia”. I waited to see what drama would unfold and the lesson our friendly receptionist would learn if he said, “Aha, Slovaquie?” But instead, he smiled and said “Ah, Slovénie? Ljubljana?”, and Iztok’s grim expression turned into a smile. We continued the conversation very much at ease, half in English, half in French, and another quarter in hand gestures. We filled our passports in with our personal information and were given a piece of paper with information about the lodges (Spanish: albergues). I looked it over and realized that I had a similar document stored on my phone, so I didn’t bother taking the paper version.
The list of accommodations is an essential aid for the pilgrim. On it is listed everything you need to plan the stages of each day and to make changes in the event that something goes wrong. Its columns provide the regions, distances in kilometers between them, and everything found in them, such as grocery stores, ATMs, restaurants, markets, physicians, pharmacies, water wells, and post offices. There is information about places in any given area to seek shelter in and what they are called, the owner(s) – important information to have, since at private shelters one can reserve a bed in advance, while at state and church shelter the rule is first come, first served – the number of available beds, price, services offered (i.e. a kitchen, laundry facilities, breakfast, dinner, and wi-fi), their phone numbers, addresses, email addresses, and web sites. As we discovered on our own journey, this document is truly indispensible.
The volunteer gave us a weather update for the next day, gave us a trail map for crossing the Pyrenees, and informed us that this would be the hardest day of the journey, as it involves hiking almost 16 miles uphill, from 518 to 4,700 feet above sea level, to get to the first lodge. He also warned us of the unpredictable weather in the mountains, the danger of storms, sudden fog, and the possibility of straying from the marked path and getting lost. I had read that many pilgrims had met with accidents, some of them fatal, which is why they began closing the Lepoeder Pass, the path through the Pyrenees that follows the so-called Route Napoleon, from November 1st through March 31st. During this time, pilgrims use the street that runs through Ibanet Pass. We listened carefully to the instructions of our French volunteer, although I think we Slovenes are quite familiar with the dangers of being in the mountains.
In addition to the passport, we also needed St. James’s shell, for centuries the symbol of pilgrims making their way to Santiago on El Camino. It lets people know who you are, and its notches symbolically represent the coming together of pilgrims from different paths in the holy city of Santiago di Compostels. Those who make the pilgrimage to the end of the world, to Cape Fisterra, have the privilege of looking for this souvenir on the Atlantic coast, where a ship landed more than two thousand years ago carrying the relics of St. Jacob. At one time, the mussel also had a practical meaning, as it was just the right size for use as a cup for water or a ladel for food. Today it could certainly be used to eat a nice Spanish risotto (paella), and if it was with seafood, all the better. We bought some of Jacob’s mussels and tied them to our backpacks. We were now ready to go find the first lodge. The French volunteer pointed us toward the state-run facility a few meters ahead and told us to come back for directions to another one if it was full. He said goodbye, shook our hands, and with a big smile, wished us Buen Camino. We thanked him with a “Merci!” and set off on the lively Rue de la Citadelle. It’s customary for pilgrims to wish each other a pleasant journey, but if a native says this to you, the proper response is gracias.
The lodge was in one of a string of old houses. Visitors stepped through an old front entrance into a hallway that had that musty smell of the Middle Ages. From the covered hall, one entered the building through a doorway on the left, where the dining room and kitchen had been. The older woman (I could just as easily say old woman, since she must have been over eighty) was fiddling around with the stove and mumbling something half-audibly to herself, while a young girl who spoke English was sitting at the dining table with a large notebook and a metal cash drawer. She greeted us and asked Iztok and me if we were married. Surprised at the question, we answered in the affirmative before we could even think to ask why this was of interest and whether we were obligated to provide such information. It turned out the question was justified, as they had only the top half of a bunk bed available, along with a more expensive private room and bath. We quickly decided to pay extra and have our own room. The girl asked us for our pilgrim passports, entered us into her big notebook, put the money into the cash box, and stamped our passports with our first Credential de peregrino. The woman behind the stove spoke up and told us, in French, that breakfast was at 6:30 in the morning, then the young girl put her notebook under her arm, grabbed the cash box, and showed us our room, which was across from the kitchen. She then pointed Marjana down the stairs and to the common sleeping area, put up a “No vacancy” sign at the front entrance, and left. Her work was done. The lodge was full, the pilgrims all assigned to their rooms, and nothing was left to do except repeat the process with the new arrivals the next afternoon.
Our room was simple: two beds with nightstands and a small closet. The beds were covered with two pink bedspreads and sheets of indeterminate color and age, so we decided to sleep on and under our sleeping bags. Iztok and I have slept very close together on a narrow bed since the very first night we spent together in our student dormitory. Back then we consistently slept in each other’s arms, covers pulled up to our chins, despite the heat that made us slightly sweaty. And over time we got to the point that we were cold if we didn’t have each other for warmth. The few nights we’ve spent apart in our thirty years together, we’ve been cold even covered in thick blankets. Our habit of sleeping so close together is probably slightly pathological, and it’s a good thing we haven’t mentioned it to some up-and-coming therapist who would go looking for some unconscious abandonment issues left over from childhood. Be that as it may, we were still traumatized, and so would spend our time on El Camino, where there were no double beds, sleeping on one twin bed while paying for two. We spread the sleeping bags on one of the beds and opened the window, letting out the moldy smell of the Middle Ages.
I went looking for Marjana. I found here in a damp basement room with eight bunk beds covered in sleeping bags and backpacks. On the bottom bunk bed, next to Marjana’s backpack, lay Korejc, asleep and covered to his chin. Marjana came out of the bathroom, and I offered her the option of sleeping in our room on the extra bed. It didn’t take her long to take me up on the offer. She collected her things and came to our room.
We hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast at the airport in Madrid, so we decided to eat something before going to look at St. John at the foot of the pass, when we would be able to translate the long name of the little town on the French side of the Pyrenees. Our stomachs were growling, so we stopped at the first restaurant we found. I was looking forward to this, since I love fish, and the regional specialty was trout. But we soon discovered that the food on the menu wasn’t available until after seven, before which only pizza was on hand. So we had pizza and beer and set of to explore the town. We spent the most time on the bridge over the Nive river, admiring the old buildings made of pink and grey schists. We also climbed up to the fort, from which we had an amazing view of the entire place. Walking along the wall, we discovere that the main street in the old town, the Rue de la Citadelle that runs through the city gates, the Porte St-Jacques do Porte d’Espagne, was by far the most charming of them all.
It was getting late, and so we stopped at the store to get some provisions for the climb throught the Pyrenees the following day. We bought half-liter bottles of water (Iztok and I had not brought water bottled with us for filling at the wells), nuts, prunes, rolls, ham, and sheep cheese, which was considered a local specialty. We were going to try at least one of the local delicacies. My trout had gooten away, along with the second local dish, the pipérade (omlette with onion, peppers and ham from nearby Bayonne).
Tired and eagerly anticipating the first day of hiking, we set off up the Rue de la Citadelle and toward our lodge for the last time. On the way we encountered a number of familiar faces from the bus ride. They seemed quite distant. In most cases we just nodded in passing in acknowledgement of their familiarity, and in some cases we did not even do that.
The room was still musty. I locked myself into the bathroom and stepped with some trepidation into the shower, which clearly had not been cleaned in quite some time. The water was warm, but not hot. The bathtub drain was clogged, and I was left standing in a tub full of water.
“Get used to it,” I said to myself. “It’s going to be like this for a month, and if this is as bad as it gets…”
Later it turned out that this French lodge was by far the worst of the lot. In none of the Spanish lodges did we run into musty smells, dirty bathrooms, clogged drains, or lukewarm (or excessively hot) bathwater.
Marjana got into her bed and crawled into her sleeping bag, and Iztok and I lay down on the other bed on top of my sleeping bag, covered ourselves with Iztok’s, and were soon sound asleep.
Crossing the Pyrenees
Thursday, April 21, 2016
From Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, through the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles, Spain, with overnight stay at the Refuge de Peregrinos lodge. Distance covered: 15.7
I was awakened by the sound of running water in the bathroom. Marjana, I discovered, was already up, and I reached for my phone on the nightstand. It was already fifteen after six, and today was the first hiking day. I began cultivating a new hobby: the morning ritual of starting out on El Camino. I wanted to get up, but my left foot stopped just short of the floor. I’m just a little superstitious, so I put the right foot down first. The bathroom was now free, so I put on my Crocks and was happy to have them along for comfort, even if the lining in them made them somewhat heavy. I was surprised I hadn’t even once woken up during the night with premenstrual hot flashe (I can’t stand these awful but very common words for the thing that starts with “v” and is reminiscent of the Nibelungs.)
I searched my memory: amazingly, the last hot flash that I could remember having was at the Madrid airport. Was El Camino working its magic on me even before I had set foot on it?
It’s not that I have no feelings about hot flash I would certainly not agree with the claim that they arise due to the confusion of an estrogen-starved hypothalamus. Would the hypothalamus of such a perfect creation as the female body become confused at the reduction in estrogen that occurs at the conclusion of a woman’s reproductive life? Hello? And would the biological thermostat therefore malfunction? The female body works to perfection, and its thermostat measures temperature accurately, allowing the body to generate the proper amount of heat. The real cause must surely remain as yet undiscovered. I do, however, believe that stress does increase the output of heat. In any case, it was time to take the morning shower, pack up our belongings, and get underway.
Iztok already had his hiking shoes on and was folding up his sleeping bag. “I don’t know why I didn’t bring my flip-flops,” he sighed. “I don’t have anything comfortable to put on after hiking all day.” I looked at Marjana, who tried to offer him some consolation as she was packing away her own flip-flops. “You can buy them somewhere along the way,” she said. But I was thinking: “It’s already stared. For the next three days all he’ll talk about is what he forgot to bring.”
We messed around with our backpacks for quite a while, not yet having a routine. We weren’t ready for breakfast until a little before seven. I looked in the bathroom to see if we’d forgotten anything, and Iztok looked under the bed. “Look what I found!” he exclaimed with surprise. In his hands were a pair of flip-flops, exactly his size. Like a guardian angel, El Camino was looking out for us! After a short debate as to whether it would be appropriate for him to simply take them, we all agreed it was. We had heard that there were places in the overnight lodges where you leave things you didn’t need anymore and take anything you happen to need. “You can even the score by leaving something you don’t need anymore somewhere else,” Marjana said, and Iztok flipped the flip-flops into his backpack. The day before I had found a case for my glasses, now Iztok had found flip-flops. It had to be coincidence, I thought. We’re not going to go around attributing everything that happens to the “energy” of El Camino.
We went into the dining hall across from our room. The kitchen was run by the still-elderly woman, who was rather gruffly pouring tea and coffee for the newest crop of pilgrims, standing obediently in line with cups in their hands. You had the feeling that this old woman had gripped the bronze handles of pots and pans so often in previous centuries that she eventually smoothed them out, in much the same way that the toes of St. Peter are smoothed out by the fingers of the many believers who caress them in the Vatican cathedral. It’s amazing what a soft touch, if repeated often enough, can do to hard metal. She must have been mumbling under her breath for several centuries as well. So it was with some trepidation that we got into line, and because I didn’t take a cup right away, she mumbled half audibly to Iztok, without looking up: “Prenez une tasse de café”.
I knew she meant me. I dutifully took a cup and attempted to make amends in French for the fact that she had had to remind me. “Café avec du lait, s’il vous plaît,” I said, but it was no use. Her eyes firmly fixed on my cup, she grimly poured my coffee. We also took a plate, on which the woman placed a serving of butter and marmelade.
“Prendre des couverts,” the woman said. Oops – another mistake. I hadn’t taken any silverware. This time I didn’t even try to make things right, since it would have had no effect, and the woman again mumbled something, probably to do with how clueless people are, forgetting as they do to take their cups and utensils. She, on the other hand, had been saying the same things her whole life, giving the same warnings and instructions.
We waited a few moments for a free table and then sat down. In the middle of the table were baskets filled with sliced baguettes. I hungrily reached for one and began spreading butter on it, surreptitiously observing the others. They came across as quite withdrawn. It seemed in part to be a sort of pre-start silence, but was also partly due no doubt to the energy of the old woman, whose imposing presence hung in the air. After all those years in the same place, working day after day among the same tables, handing out the same cups and utensils, she and the place had merged into one. She had become that kitchen and dining room. The people – us – she never even saw.
I glanced at the faces seated around the table. We fell into two age groups: young people with no children, and older people around my age, probably with adult children. I tried to guess what had brought them to El Camino. The younger ones probably came to reflect on what they wanted from life in the future, before putting together careers and starting families, while those of us in the older crowd were just taking some time for ourselevs. And that for a whole month. To take a break. To step out of the whirlpool of needs and obligations. To think about what you have to do and what you want. Missing was the middle generation – people with young children. They were too busy with the daily struggles of making a living and supporting a family.
Sitting on my left was a man my age, conversing in English with his younger neighbor. Judging by his accent, he was neither British nor American, and I soon found out he was Terry from Australia. He began talking about Australia and was surprised that I knew something about the region he was from, a place called Bondi Beach. I explained that a friend of mine who had recently been to Australia had had a lot of great things to say about Bondi Beach, so much so that the name had stuck in my memory. “He was especially taken with the Aussie girls in bikinis on the beach,” I explained, as Terry listened with interest. “He called them mermaids.” Terry found this hilarious.
The young man sitting next to Terry grabbed the empty bread basket and shouted “We’re out of bread!” Realizing she was being addressed, the old woman raised her eyes and looked at the empty basket. With sliding steps, she came to the table, shook her head and grumbled. It took quite some time for her to actually take the basket from the young man’s hand and slide into the kitchen with it. She began looking through the kitchen cabinets, slamming the doors as she went, until she found a packet of toast, put a few slices into the basket, and then came back and gruffly placed it back on the table. No one touched the toast. We were all trying to put this horrible breakfast behind us as quickly as possible. The old woman was just piddling around in the kitchen, convinced that her self-sacrificing work entitled her to a free ticket to heaven.
Back in the musty hallway, I put on my backpack and walked out the door, taking my first step on the pathway to the end of the world. The street lights were still on, since at that latitude the sun doesn’t rise until about an hour after it does at home. A tightly-packed row of broze St. James’s shells were laid out there, and we followed them through the city gates and toward the Pyrenees. The paved road soon began to incline upward. Iztok led the way, with Marjana behind him, tapping the ground with her metal-tipped walking sticks. I brought up the rear. At the start of the climb I saw a rather large, fenced in vegetable garden. I walked up to the fence and saw they had potatoes that were about the same size as ours at home during this time. The garden was full of artichokes, something we hardly have at home. I had planted a few some years back and ended up with a couple of small, atrophied little artichokes, but they didn’t survive the winter, as I had neglected to prune them close to the ground beforehand. Maybe I should have replanted and taken proper care of them.
Leaning against the garden fence was a large, thick stick, similar to the massive walking sticks used by pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Apparently, El Camino had put it there for me, so I took it and used it for support during the climb. I looked back and was surprised to see that there were quite a lot of us on St. James’s Way. Every ten meters or so was another pilgrim – and we had earned that title ourselves, having now put the first few miles behind us. I somewhat shyly wished everyone I passed buen Camino and most of them were equally shy in wishing me the same in return.
After about two hours of hiking, we stopped for our first coffee in Orrison at a hostel that would be the last building we would see before reaching the Roncesvalles monastery, which was our final destination for the day. Here the atmosphere was noticeably more relaxed, and pilgrims conversed, asking each other where they were from and in how many days they intended to complete the journey. Little by little we began to open up and give ourselves the opportunity to take in the local environment and become part of it. The hike through the Pyrenees was quite peaceful. Here and there we saw the herds of cattle that replaced the sheep and horses at the higher altitudes. The birds were singing, and clouds were floating across the sky. Thoughts came and went automatically, intermingling as they went.
In the air you could feel the energy of the soldiers who had crossed the Pyrenees in large numbers centuries before. I could see them in my mind, the soldiers of the army of Charlemagne, the Father of Europe, marching across the mountain range. Charlemagne dreamed he had to cross the Pyrenees and penetrate the Iberian Peninsula that was occupied by the Moors who had come from another tribe and were of a different race and religion. They also had tried to expand across the Pyrenees and into Europe, but the Franks had defeated them, and the Muslim army was forced to retreat back behind the natural barrier between Spain and France, and they never crossed the Pyrenees again.
Now I was walking in the footsteps of an army from the time of Napoleon, the French, the British, and the Portugese, who walked this path and fought for territory, creed, country, power and influence. I could sense their trials as they crossed these mountains fearing for their lives and facing hunger, exhaustion, and bitter cold, wanting only to go home. No matter what army they belonged to or in which era they lived, soldiers in the end are people too.
The whole first day’s climb was on paved road, but most pilgrims preferred to walk along the grassy shoulders, as it was easier on the legs. The higher I climbed and the closer it got to twelve o’clock, the more I thought about my daughter Maša, who was taking her anatomy exam at exactly noon. Images of my long-deceased father flashed before me. His grand daughter was about to take an anatomy exam. She was following in his footsteps. I felt a little stab in my heart. Could it be the stab of his secret expectations? The stab of knowing that I hadn’t done what my daughter was now doing? That I hadn’t made the effort after high school to go take the entrance exams for medical school. Who wants to spend the summer studying anyway? I had done quite enough of that just for the state’s leaving exam at the end of high school. I liked the idea of being a doctor, but I wasn’t prepared to do what would have to be done to make it happen. I wasn’t even willing to sacrifice a month of holidays. When you really want something and feel called to do it, you’re prepared to do most anything to achieve it, to invest the required effort, time, and energy. You’re prepared to make the sacrifice, but I wasn’t. I preferred to spend my vacation at the seaside and study business instead. Business was great – no entrance exams, employability after graduation, plus I’d have time to travel and have a social life. So went my reasoning. I suppose we would all be Olympic gold-medalists if we didn’t have to make the necessary effort to get there.
Maša has never taken the path of least resistance. She heard about Druga gimnazija in the city of Maribor (Translator’s Note: “Druga gimnazija” is the name of a high school, considered to be among the elite schools in Slovenia) and decided to enroll. A very unusual decision, I thought, as there is a perfectly satisfactory and conveniently located high school in our town of Slovenske Konjice that Maša would be able to walk to every day, and that in any case has the same basic curriculum as any other high school in Slovenia. But she decided to go with the greater challenge and was accepted into the International Baccalaureate program. And now the years have flown by and she’s in medical school in Maribor. Today, Iztok and I are walking for her, so that she’ll pass her anatomy exam.
It looked like we would soon be at the top of the pass. Dark clouds began rolling in, and the sun only rarely peaked through. I had already long since burned up the apple I’d eaten back in Orrison, and I was beginning to run out of energy. It was time for a rest stop. We sat for a while in the grass by the side of the road and enjoyed the view. At the top of the hill off in the distance, a mare and a foal were affectionately playing together. Iztok took out his camera and excitedly took several pictures of them. Marjana offered us some energy tablets, which I took together with a banana, honey and hot chocolate. I wolfed them down with great gusto, and soon we were on our way again. We knew we had to get to Roncesvalles, the monastery at the foot of the Spanish Pyrenees, by evening, and before that we would have to cross the Lepoeder Pass and go down into the valley. I rememebred Bojana Vranjek’s book about the Camino de Santiago. She was overtaken by nightfall on her way down from the Pyrenees. She managed to get to the lodge in the dark, but it was after ten o’clock. The hostel was closed, and they wouldn’t let her in. She was forced to spend her first night outside, and if that wasn’t enough, it happened to be raining as well. We were making pretty good time, however, and we were prepared for any type of weather.
The dark clouds amassed in the sky, signaling that the first drops of rain would not be long in coming. We pilgrims all started rummaging through our backpacks and getting out our raincoats. The message I had gotten from all the books I read was echoing in my head: everything on the Road to Santiago happens instantly, so you have to react immediately. If you think one of your socks is giving ou blisters, change it right away. If you think there’s going to be a storm, put your raincoat on at once. If you feel like you need to tighten the shoulder straps on your pack, do it now. Otherwise it will already be too late. You’ll get that blister, be wet, or have a pain in your shoulders. And this time was no exception: no sooner did we have our panchos on, when it started coming down in sheets. It didn’t last long.
At exactly nine o’clock we found ourselves standing by the statue of Mary that looks out over the Pyrenees. With my fists clenched and my thoughts with Maša, I continued on the sloping path down through the grassy mountainside. Mary in Russian is Maša, and as if it were only yesterday, I remembered my days as a second-grader reading the story of Maša in Ciciban (TN: Ciciban is a Slovene children’s magazine). It was the first time in my life that I heard the name Maša, and I thought it was the most beautiful name in the world. I repeated it silently and told myself that if I ever had a little girl, her name would be Maša. And that’s exactly what happened.
We turned onto off the road and onto a narrow path, past a large stone engraved with the distance remaining to Santiago: Saint Jacques de Compostelle 475 miles. The number 475 didn’t awaken any particular feeling in me; it didn’t seem like a lot or a little, not impossible, but simply the distance we still had to walk. Soon after that we came to Fontaine de Roland, a well named after Roland, the tragic hero, where we stopped and filled our water bottles. We crossed the French-Spanish border at the large triangular stone with the bilingual inscription “Navarra Nafarroa”.
Leading into an oak forest, the path narrowed and started to get muddy I had always imagined the Pyrenees as being overgrown, and was surprised that the part we had been walking on was grassy. Where on earth could Pyros, the Slovene alpha male bear who saved the browm bear population in the Pyrenees from extinction, possibly be hiding in such a barren area? All the male bears slouching through the woods are his descendants. The dominant Slovenian bear, drove all the others away so that he could reproduce, including with his own offspring. He drove the other Slovene male, Balouj, who had likewise been relocated to the Pyrenees, into a area that was difficult to access, where he fell from a precipice and died. Pyros’s dominance has led biologists to consider castrating him, bringing him back to Slovenia, or even shooting him. The poor creature was relocated, performed his duties to perfection, and was now to be punished in the name of maintaining population heterogeneity.
I looked at my cell phone, impatiently waiting for a message from Maša about how her exam had gone. For an oral exam, it seemed to me that it had gone on unusually long. Then came the short SMS, together with three smileys: “Passed”.
“Congratulation,” I answered. Now I could truly concentrate on the task at hand; from noon until now, I had been more there than here.
All three of us were hungry, so we decided to stop at the first suitable place and have one of the snacks we were carrying. We came out of the woods, sat down and had our snack outside a cabin that provided shelter in bad weather. We enjoyed the food, the rest, and the view. Everything was perfect. I had a big appetite and was surprised when I smelled sheep cheese in the container in front of us. For god only knows how many years, I had had almost no sense of smell – something for which I had blamed my long history of smoking. It seemed apparent to me that the very first day on El Camino was already bringing about changes in my body. I hadn’t had hot flash since the day before, and now, fifteen years after I quit smoking, my sense of smell had returned.
We finished eating and continued the climb up. Soon we reached the pass. Beyond the hollow there were patches os snow. The path led down along the slope and through the low oak forest. The sky cleared up, and the sun warmed things up, but not enough for me to take off the poncho that I was wearing on top of my windbreaker. On both I had only opened the zipper.
We arrived at the monument to Roland, who was killed at the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778. I still remembered the tragic story of the hero of the Song of Roland from high school. He was in the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army on its march back across the Pyrenees. As they retreated, the army completely destroyed Pamplona, the Basque city. They got revenge on them on the place where I was standing, the place the people of Basque knew well and where they Franks had to get in line. The people had light weaponry, and after the attack they scattered quickly enough to escape retaliation. Roland was killed, and the epic story of his death is well-known to this day. Of course, they couldn’t frame his death as a consequence of the revenge of the Basque Christians on Christian Franks, so they changed the story to say that he was killed by Muslim Saracens. In this way they hoped to give his death meaning as part of a battle between believers and non-believers.
At that moment I heard the voice of a woman walking behind me who we had met that morning, the voice of Alexandra from Germany. She had obviously been thinking similar thoughts, as she said to me in English: “Human life is of such little value, and so frail. It’s amazing how many falsehoods this world revolves around.”
Once again, black clouds were gathering overhead, and once again we had to dress for rain. The capricious weather in the Pyrenees has cost many people their lives, but has also saved the lives of many others. In another battle on the same site but more than a thousand years later, the fog enabled the English-Portugese to escape the French under Napoleon. A significant number of lives on both sides were spared thanks to the weather. Taking large strides, I began the descent, and the first drops of rain began to fall. I smiled to myself. After a full day of hiking in the fresh air of the great outdoors, listening to the song of the birds and all the laughter and two-word farewells of other pilgrims, I felt fantastic. “It looks like this Camino really is going to be buen,” I said to myself, glancing at the Augustinian monastery, founded in the 19th century to serve pilgrims. The pathway led past the well in the outdoor courtyard to the large entrance to the monastery and on to the inner courtyard. I walked in and was greeted by a friendly gentleman who directed me to unload my things and lay them against the wall. He asked if I was looking for a place to stay overnight, and pointed me to a short line in front of a glass door.
Apparently, the monastery had recently been renovated. The floor was paved with beige stones, roughly the size of bricks. I imagine this was the old floor, just cleaned and repaired. The arches were composed of the same stones, only larger, and the unassuming benches by the newly-smoothed beige walls were made of bright, thick wood. The enormous reception counter behind the glass door was made of the same wood, as were the steps leading to the upper-level rooms.
Another man conversed with us while we were waiting in line by the glass doors. He asked us how we had spent our day, how the weather had been, and where we were from. When it was my turn, the woman by the door invited me to come in. She handed me a form requesting my personal information, including my reason for having decided to make this journey. I hesitated for a moment and then circled “spiritual reasons”. I sneaked a peek at Marjana’s answers and saw that she had, of course, circled “religious reasons”. I then got out my pilgrim’s passport and gave it to the gentleman, who proceeded to stamp, date, and sign it before collecting twelve euros from me for the overnight stay, ten for dinner, and three for breakfast. He asked me where I was from. When I told him, his face lit up. “Slovenia is a marvelous country,” he said, beaming. “For some years now I’ve been going to Bovec, and I love your mountains and the river – what’s the name of it? – that crystal-clear, turquoise beauty?”
I looked over at Iztok, who was standing behind me, and let him answer for me. “The Soča,” he said.
The man smiled. “Soča, that’s it,” he said. “What a lovely world we live in.” And with that he began singing: And I think to myself what a wonderful world. I don’t know what got into me, but I started singing along with him – something I would never normally do in front of others out of sheer embarrassment. It just came out of me. I see skies of blue and clouds of white… And we finished the song together. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night, and I think to myself what a wonderful world.
I wasn’t embarrassed singing in front of strangers – was this me? I put away my passport, and the woman who had invited me in instructed me to take off my hiking shoes and put them in a special place to the left of the entrance and come back with my backpack so that I could go up the stairs to the guest rooms. During registration I had been given the number of my bed, which was on the third floor.
The rooms had also been renovated and furnished with new, natural wood bunk beds. It was a long space with small windows on one side and bunk beds on the other, arranged in pairs and forming little rooms separated by wooden walls. At the end of each bunk bed were two built-in cabinets for storing your belongings, and in the center were four electric outlets. In short, everything you needed.
Iztok and I spread our sleeping bags out on the lower bed, while Marjana took the upper bed of the neighboring bunk, the lower level of which was occupied by a young woman from Korea dressed in leopard-skin tights and wearing glasses that I had noticed the day before at the registration office. We immediately fell into a conversation, and she told me that, at the tender age of nineteen, she wanted to see Europe. She was from Venice and wanted to hike the Road to Santiago, go to Paris from there, and then return home. She was already homesick for her mother and boyfriend and had seen many beautiful things that were a source of amazement and precluded any regret about her decision to take this trip. An interesting girl, I thought, traveling such a distance by herself, and leaving her boyfriend behind in Korea.
Heading for the bathroom, I grabbed my toiletry kit and the sweat pants I had brought along for wearing during “free time,” as well as for after hiking and showering and also for sleeping in. I literally shouted for joy when I saw the clean bathroom with liquid soap in the shower, a shelf for personal items, and hangers for towel and clothes. And when I turned the handle on the faucet – hot water! I stayed under it for quite a while, enjoying every minute. While I was there, I also used the soap to wash my underwear. On El Camino, this is normal daily practice. No one hiking it carries enough underwear to change every day, much less to walk all that way lugging dirty underwear around on his back. Everyone washes it in the evening and lets it dry overnight.
After showering, it was time to examine my feet and rub cream on them. The feet are the most-taxed part of the body on long hikes, and they require special care. I put my reading glasses on so that I could give them a detailed examination. I was pleased to see that there were no signs of blisters or red pressure marks, so I simply applied the foot rub. Then I put on the thick, terry socks that I had brought for “free time” use, along with my lined Crocks.
Now it was time to explore the hostel. We went looking for the common area, which was quite large and was located on the ground floor in a room with a vaulted ceiling. There was also a charming kitchen and a huge number of white tables and benches. The wifi network password was written on the wall in big letters, but we surmised right away that it wasn’t working, since there was no one there aside from two Japanese people who were making themselves some dinner and an older man writing energetically in a notebook. And in fact, the telephone did not connect to the internet, so we left. In the hallway we came across a “take and leave” room where guests could leave things they didn’t need and take things they did.
We went through the inner courtyard, past the church, and turned toward the village, which consisted of a few houses. Passing the Capilla del Espiritu Santo, a chapel for pilgrims built by Charlemagne as a mass tomb for knights who fell at the battle on the pass, we came to a restaurant with a winding line of pilgrims waiting for dinner. The hostess asked us how many were in our party and assigned us to our tables. She also brought a young Spanish man named Victor to our table, along with a German man named Hans, who by my estimation must have been around fifty-five.
Everything moved along fairly quickly. They brought us a pot of soup, full of steaming, creamy, dark green vegetable soup, a bowl filled to the brim with pasta, a bottle of water and another of Spanish red wine. Hans was beside himself at how dinner was organized and asked me enthusiastically what I thought of it. “It’s pretty touristic,” I answered. “It reminds me of those mass events they put on at large tourist attractions. A bus picks everyone up at their hotels and takes them to a big area outside of town, where they sit at tables and eat Spanish food and drink Spanish drinks while watching some cheesy, commercialized performance by people in traditional costume, after which they load everyone back on the bus and drop them off at their hotels.
Our German companion had other ideas. “The important thing is that it’s all well-organized and efficient. We’re hungry, and they are set up to feed as many people as possible in the shortest possible time.”
“And in the shortest possible time, they reap the largest possible profit. That’s what drives them. As soon as we finish eating, we’ll be ushered out so they can prepare the tables for the next round at nine o’clock.”
Victor the Spaniard just smiled. Even before the arrival of the main course, chicken or fish with potatoes, we’d polished off the wine. We were living it up and talking at the top of our lungs, as well as with our hands. Iztok was all the more thrilled by the fact that Hans was familiar with Slovenia, as he had friends in Ljubljana who he visited every year. He had traveled to many countries and generally knew quite a lot. And he spoke of Ljubljana and Bled in superlatives.
After dinner we stopped by the church to attend mass and the blessing of the pilgrims – Marjana for religious reasons, and I for spiritual ones. The highlight of the ceremony came when the priest invited all pilgrims to the altar. He listed all our countries of origin (Eslovenia in our case) and blessed us.
You who always show mercy toward those who love You
And who are never far from those who seek You
Be with Your servants on this pilgrimage
And lead them on their way, according to Your will.
Be their companion on the path,
Their guide at the crossroads,
The strength in their weakness,
Their defense against all danger,
Their home away from home,
Their light in the darkness,
Their comfort in despair,
And the firmness in their intent,
That with Your guidance they may arrive at their destination unharmed,
And return home with greater mercy and virtue.
Marjana and I both believed that we would be watched over and protected along the way, and that we would return home strengthened – she in her religion, and I in my more spiritual, perhaps even pagan, way.
Friday, April 22, 2016
From Roncesvalles to Larrasoana, with overnight stay in Albergue Municipal.
Distance covered: 17.98 miles
It was still dark when I awoke. Most pigrims were up; some were already on their way out, backpacked and bare-footed. They hadn’t turned the lights on in the lodge yet, but you could see enough to get through the long hallway and to the bathroom, where the lights were activated by motion sensors. Along the entire path, most of the hostels and bar restrooms had sensor-activated lights, and water faucets were turned on by pressing a knob, at which time water would flow for a specific legth of time and then automatically shut off. I found it to be very economical of the Spaniards to have adopted such a system, and certainly more effective than a sign saying “Please turn off the lights” or “Save water,” although I did grumble once or twice in the shower when the water was set to run for only a very short time, meaning I had to push the button thirty times before I was clean. Everyone made a real effort to be as quiet as possible during the morning hygiene, packing, and leaving routine. A handful of pilgrims were still asleep, and we didn’t want to wake them up. It was only the second day, so we hadn’t yet mastered the fine art of morning packing. We still needed considerable time to get going. By the time we made it to the snack bar, our shoes were practically the only ones left on the shelf, and it was almost daylight outside. The Spanish actually call all the snack bars and coffee shops along St. James’s Way “bars,” little places where you order and pay at the counter, and then either take your food and beverages with you or consume them quickly at a table and, depending on the time of year, warm up or cool off before continuing, refreshed, on your way.
Again we had to stand in a long, winding line that extended out the door and was moving very slowly. As we soon discovered, this was because you first had to go to the counter for your hot beverage (one of several kinds of coffee with various optional additives, hot tea, or hot chocolate). Only once you had your drink in hand would the stern Spanish girl by the door collect your breakfast oder form and let you through. Plates were evenly distributed around the tables, each one with a baked baguette cut in half or in thirds and a portion of butter and jam, accompanied by a glass of orange juice. Probably like most Slovenes, I’m not used to this sort of institutional food, or to standing in lines like these. We are so few in number that we don’t need to organize events on this scale, thank God, and can afford to place more emphasis on the individual. Our omniscient German friend Hans, the great advocate of well-organized mass tourism, was sitting at the adjacent table, holding forth about how the area where the line formed for warm beverages was too narrow and how much time would be saved if they had two servers behind the counter at breakfast instead of just one. I couldn’t help thinking of the tyrannical Steve Jobs pushing his programmer to reduce the boot-up time of Apple computers, so I said to Hans: “It’s not just time, but human lives that would be saved.”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you read the biography of Steve Jobs?” I asked. He shook his head. “I don’t recall the exact figures, so I’ll have to estimate, but the basic point remains. His programmer came to him to brag about how his computer only needed two minutes to boot up. Jobs told his to cut that time to one minute. The programmer responded that this was not possible. Jobs asked him if would say the same thing in a situation where someone’s life was in danger, and the programmer responded that of course he would not hesitate; in such a situation he would simply act. Jobs then explained that he estimated they would sell millions of the computers they were developing. If the average person lives somewhat less than 70 years, this comes to around 600,000 hours. If we assume that these millions of computer users boot up their machines 300 times a year, and if the boot-up time were cut from two minutes down to one, this would save 300 million minutes, or 5 million hours, per year – the equivalent of more than eight human lifetimes. He then asked the programmer if he did not wish to save at least eight lives per year. The program walked away speechless, and ended up reducing boot-up time, not to one minute, but to half that.”
Everyone at the table, including Hans, laughed out loud. But I still say a silent thank you to Steve Jobs everytime I start up my Apple, though I barely have time to say it, as booting up today only takes a few seconds.
We put our rucksacks on our shoulders and, saying goodbye to Roncesvalles, got back on St. James’s way, which initially follows the main road. On the side the road was a sign showing the direction to Santiago de Compostelo, still 490 miles away. This number referred to actual walking miles, and not “as the crow flies”. The day before in the Pyrenees we had comes across the sentence “765 kilometers [TN: 475 miles] to Santiago” engraved in a rock. This was supposed to be the distance on foot, but later it turned out we had walked a good bit more than that.
Pictures taken next to these road signs are practically mandatory for every pilgrim, and so we again waited in line, this time to capture the moment for all time. It was our sacred duty, after all.
The path turned and led into a low forest, and a few miles into it we came to a pleasant bar with a big sign that said desayunos (breakfast). I thought to myself how, the next time I hiked El Camino, I was going to wait until I got here to have breakfast instead of waiting in that ridiculous line in Roncesvalles.
But of course, I knew full well there wasn’t going to be a next time.
The path continued on past the little roadside villages we had driven past on the bus coming the other way two days earlier. Houses were lined up all along the main road, but we pilgrims were the only ones on it. Hemingway had once walked here. He had gone trout fishing here and thoroughly enjoyed the area, overgrown with hazel, ash and maple trees.
After walking for quite a long time, we stopped for coffee. A truck, which turned out to be a sort of traveling store, stopped on the side of the road. A middle-aged farmer climbed out from behind the wheel of the smallish pickup and into the truck bed, where he began to sell various items to the rather considerable crowd of locals that gathered around him. Most likely his prices were lower than those in the shops, and we bought some ham, cheese, bread, tomatoes and bananas from him as well.
The path now led out of the villages, forests, and fields and was becoming muddy. I had read about these stretches on El Camino, places where the mud was so thick that your feet sank down into it and were hard to pull out, making progress very slow. We were moving along at normal speed, however, as the most critical stretches had recently been paved with large stone inlays. El Camino must bring a lot of money into Spain, so it is only fair that the Spaniards do what they can to make the path easier on pilgrims. The more pilgrims they meet, the more satisfied are the locals, who wish every one of them buen Camino.
I was relaxed, without a care in the world, full of energy, and in a good mood. I began to observe the incredible natural environment, and with my newly reactivated sense of smell, began taking in the aroma of every breeze, and as I walked I listened to the song of the birds. I regularly passed other pilgrims, greeted them with a smile, and was greeted each time with the same smile in return. The previous day we had been somewhat dour, lost in our own thoughts and reserved. I was surprised to see all this change on just the second day of hiking. Now faces reflected satisfaction as people marveled at the sleeping cat at the side of the road, the blossoming cherry or the isolated tree. I remembered the volunteer at the hostel and started singing: And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
The path continued down into a dense beech tree forest that blocked out most of the sunlight. At the rest area where we stopped for a snack, a man came and handed us a flyer announcing the opening of a lodge in Larrosoana, our destination for the day. The new hostel was fully equipped with double rooms with attached bath, a fireplace in the common area, laundry facilities, wi-fi, and a kitchen – all for the not unreasonable price of twelve euros. Outside it was overcast, and we were cold, muddy and in need of everything the newly-built facility was offering. To top it all off, it was a private lodge, meaning rooms could be reserved. I don’t know why, but despite my being well aware that on El Camino one must always take action immediately when the opportunity presents itself, in this case I did not. My cell phone was packed away in a water-tight bag that was hard to open, and in a momentary fit of laziness, I decided to postpone calling. Very often, what begins as later turns into never, and indeed, at that very moment we were greeted by a fellow pilgrim, a tall man with a kindly smile and black, shoulder-length hair. My curiosity was aroused, although he was probably about the same age as my son. The path turned, leading into a wooded area with slender trees with lichen-covered trunks. The lichens looked like little white dots. “Nice,” I thought. “Polkadots are making a comeback this year. Maybe one of the big fashion designers got the inspiration for that from hiking El Camino.” It wouldn’t have been the first time: George Lucas got the inspiration for the Imperial Storm Troopers in Star Wars from the Gaudi architecture in Barcelona.
Off to the left, the woods thinned out, and a breathtaking view of the valley opened up. In a clearing by the path, an attractive pilgrim was resting and eating an apple. Again I was greeted with buen Camino. I returned the gesture and began the steep descent. I wondered what it was about that boy that had so attracted me. His smile, of course! It was spontaneous, from the heart, and included not only the mouth, but also the eyes. In everyday life I’m used to those imported forced smiles from America, those things-couldn’t-be-better smiles people use to deny the shaking floor beneath them or falling rocks overhead. One must always have things under control. Now there is even something called “smile therapy,” where one is supposed to double over from forced laughter. But despite the valliant effort, the difference is obvious. A forced smile is always from the lips, but the eyes are the mirror of the heart, and the mirror never lies. This boy’s heart was smiling, so his outer smile was true.
We were walking pretty tightly together in line, and I marvelled at how people were physically in condition for all-day hiking. In certain places it was very muddy, so I was careful to step on stones as we crossed the valley. I soon got across and arrived at the point where the path was paved with concrete tiles. To the right the path led to the bridge; to the left it merged with the road that led uphill and along which St. James’s Way continued. I knew I had arrived at Zubiri, “the village to the bridge). In a village with a few hundred residents, the medieval stone bridge over the Argo river plays a key role and has great power. They call it Puente de la Rabia, or Rabies Bridge, as it is thought to heal all animals that walk under it of all diseases, including rabies. The bridge also plays a preventive role: If an animal circles its main support, column it will be immune to rabies. I wonder what the locals might say today if I asked them whether they had to have their dogs vaccinated against rabies, or whether the vet just walked them around the support column of the bridge. ☺
I continued along St. James’s Way and saw an enormous building off in the distance that spolied the beauty of the entire valley, like the iron works in Labin [TN: Labin is a town on the coast of Croatia]. Here it was a magnesium plant. I had to walk quite a while before it disappeared entirely from view.
All day I had been unable to stop thinking about the blessing from the previous evening. I felt more than a little deprived, as I had grown up under urban socialism and so had not had any religious instruction and did not attend Mass. Worst of all, I had been deprived of the chance to pray. How much easier my life would have been had I been able from a young age to seek comfort and refuge in church during hard times; to find mercy, forgive, and be forgiven, and to confess and do pennance for my sins. How much easier it would have been!
More hungry than tired, we came to the bridge over the Argo river, beyond which was Larrasoaña, a colorless and unattractive village that was our destination for the day. As I sat on the fence waiting for Marjana and Iztok and folding up my poncho, the smiling young man I had seen that morning went past. “There were storms all around us, but it didn’t rain,” he said.
“Yes, it was gorgeous, black skies above us, lightning shredding the horizon, while the path itself was sunny the entire time.”
“That’s a very good sign. It means that El Camino will bring us only good fortune.”
“Absolutely,” I responded as he stepped onto the bridge. We then had the customary introductions, and I was surprised to discover that the young man, Nikos, was from Greece but had been living in Brussels for several years.
Shortly thereafter, Marjana showed up, followed by Iztok. Marjana reached into her pocket and pulled out the leaflet with directions to the new hostel, which we found at the side of the road after about a ten-minute walk. We stepped into the little foyer lined with shelves full of muddy hiking shoes and continued through the next door and into a day room with sofas and a lit fireplace. Lovely music was emanating from somewhere in the background, and the hikers, freshly-showered and dressed in clean clothes, all carried blissful smiles on their faces, their cheeks still red from hiking all day in the cold air. The enticing aroma of the evening meal was wafting from the kitchen, and I almost cried when the hotel owner asked us if we had a reservation, as I knew what was coming. When I answered in the negative, he said he was very sorry, but they were booked solid for the night. I swallowed the pre-drool saliva in my mouth those smells from the kitchen were producing, and we headed off to locate the old hostel in town. The state-owned facility still had vacancies, so we paid and were given a single-use sheet and pillow. A young girl at the reception desk showed us the kitchen and common area and accompanied us to the adjacent building where our room was. It was clean, and the room was pleasantly warm from the heat of three portable electric heaters. Iztok and I put our backpacks on the upper bed.
I unpacked the bag containing the bedding, curious how this was going to look. The sheet and cushion were made of a material similar to winter cover for garden , and the sheet had elastic on the corners, making it easy to fit over the laminated matress. I put the pillow case on and left to take a shower.
In the bathroom Aleksandra from Germany was washing her pants and socks. I took my time in the shower, taking full advantage of the hot water, which seemed to wash away my tiredness and warm me up nicely after a day spent out in the cold. I examined my feet and found to my satisfaction that there were no calluses. I carefully rubbed skin cream on my feet and noticed I was hungry. We had to wait another two hours or so for dinner, as Larrasoana is a very small place with only one “bar” for pilgrims, and they start serving dinner there at seven. I went to the common area and checked to see whether the wi-fi connection was working. Of course it wasn’t. We would be spending the night at the third hostel that promised free internet and had the password posted in big letters, but couldn’t manage to make it work anywhere in the place. It went without saying that the local bar and the hostel had an agreement going: no internet connection at the latter meant guaranteed business for the former. At every bar, the wireless internet worked flawlessly, even in the most remote regions. You had go to the counter to get the password; it wasn’t posted anywhere.
We headed to the restaurant, where they were in the process of preparing dinner. We walked into the warm dining area with a large, stone fireplace. Almost all the tables were occupied by pilgrims from our lodge. Most of them were sitting with their drinks in one hand and their cell phones in the other. I smiled. “It’s true what that German guy Hans said,” I remarked to Iztok. Pilgrims today value wi-fi more than they value water.”
With smiles on our faces, we ordered whatever our hearts desired. They say you should listen to your body, after all. I quelled my craving for sweets with an ice cream sandwich, and quenched my thirst with water, while Marjana and Iztok wanted something salty and bitter, and so ordered salty, roasted peanuts and beer. Soon, we too were staring down at our phones, sending messages to loved ones that we were ok and looking at photos from the day’s hike.
At seven we were invited into the dining room where there was a long, covered table. Food was coming, and we were all very excited, having lively conversations and getting to know the people sitting around us. A smallish American about five years my senior was sitting to my left. His name was Bill, and he was from Minnesota. He had been obsessed with El Camino since the moment he heard of it. He had barely managed to persuade his employer to give him two months of unpaid vacation and was unable to obtain his wife’s blessing. He went anyway, for the call of El Camino was too strong. Although he began the trip in less than stellar physical condition, his body adjusted quite well to the full-day hikes. In addition, he was also diabetic and that day had given himself only one injection, a very small amount, as hiking burns a tremendous amount of sugar.
A friendly waitress came to the table, brought us some dark red wine, and took our dinner order. It didn’t take long to start feeling the wine, and after a few sips it was decided that, in keeping with pigrim tradition, we should each stand up one at a time and say our name and where we were from. It turned out we had quite a mix of people from all over the world: Australia, the US, Great Britian, Sweden, Canada, Korea, Belgium, Holland, Irleand, Germany. There was even one man from China who was living in Canada, along with Victor, the native Spaniard we had met the day before.
Among such a varied bunch of people from so many places, Slovenia was the least-known of all, and I could see on the faces of my fellow pilgrims that they didn’t have the slightest idea where (or what) Slovenia was. Of course it was only a matter of time before Iztok brought the subject up himself in order to teach the others about our country in his own, hopefully memorable, way. With Inge, the Swedish girl, sitting to his right, he began a discussion of the snowy winters and skiing in Sweden, and sang the praises of our skiier, Tina Maze. It appeared, however, that our Swedish friend didn’t keep up too much with sports and remembered her only vaguely. But all the men knew who she was, and the Americans weren’t such big fans, as she was stiff competition for Lindsey Vohn. Iztok wasn’t too thrilled with the outcome of the conversation. The wine had gone to his head, and his nationalism began to show.
“Inge, I can’t believe you don’t know the country that has brought Sweden such successes.”
“What do you mean?”
“You remember the legendary Swedish alpine skiier?”
Inge thought for a moment. “Ingemar Stenmak?”
I knew what the next question would be.
“Correct. And what kind of skiis was he skiing on?”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you.”
“On Slovene skiis, of course. Elan.”
No sooner had he said the name, when his face darkened, and I knew exactly why. Elan was no longer a Slovene-owned company.
Hans decided to assist Iztok in his campaign for the recognition of Slovenia. “The worst thing for me was when the Slovene Peter Prevec won the world ski jump championship. Germany has 80 million people, but we still had to settle for Severin Freund’s silver medal while Slovenia, with its population of only 2 million, took the gold.”
Iztok really got his back up when the American had the temerity to ask exactly where on this map this little country of 2 million was.
“It’s where the love is. We have ‘love’ in our name, after all,” I quipped.
Iztok, on the other hand, felt obligated to point out the exactl location of the country. Despite the innocuous nature of the question, his voiced betrayed his displeasure at having to answer it. To him, possession of such basic geographical knowledge was part of being an educated person. “It’s between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia.”
The American responded with an unimpressed “Mhm,” so Iztok went for the throat.
“Your soon-to-be first lady is from Slovenia.”
“Bill Clinton isn’t from Slovenia.”
“He is also not a woman. The name of your next first lady will be Melanija.”
Iztok had opened a can of worms, and putting the lid back on was not going to be easy. A very lively discussion broke out about the American elections and whether Clinton or Trump had the best prospects for winning. About all everyone could agree on was that the name Slovenia did indeed include the word “love,” and that the candidate for America’s next first lady was from there.
It was now almost ten o’clock, so we hurried back to the lodge, as they turned the lights out at ten. After the storms that had passed through that day, the sky was a clear, dark blue, almost black. It was dark enough that the stars stood out in stark relief. When I was little I had been fascinated by the idea that, at any given moment, any of the stars we see up in the heavens may have in actuality burned out long ago, but were so far away that their light was only now reaching us. I have been looking up at the night sky and wondering which stars were still in existence ever since. It seemed beyond question to me that my own eyes were lying to me, sending my brain a picture of something that, in that particular moment, did not exist. This evening the stars were so real that I couldn’t begin to try and decide which of them were illusory.
A little piece of the Milky Way slightly vieled the broad band of stars. I thought about its origins on that ancient day when the Greek God Hera was sleeping, her bare breasts full of milk. At the time it was known that drinking her milk would make one immortal. Her unfaithful husband Zeus, with his collection of illegitimate offspring, wanted to make Hercules, one of those extra-marital children, immortal. There had already been a prophecy that this would happen, and Zeus wanted to assist in moving the process forward (and who, after all, but the highest of the gods would be responsible for helping make prophecies come true?), so he lay the boy on the breast of Hera as she slept. It is not known exactly what awakened her, but it is highly likely to have been the vacuum-like power of Hercules’ mouth, since even as a child he was already the strongest man alive. Sensing something suspicious, Hera opened her eyes and, seeing the unfamiliar child at her breast, furiously threw him aside, causing her milk to spray out into space. From this is derived the English name “Milky Way,” the French “Voie lactée,” and the Latin “Via Lactea” – the same name expressed in different languages. Poor Hercules! Perhaps it was the childhood trauma of being violently thrown from Hera’s breast, the source of eternal life, that caused Hercules’ dark side to prevail so often for so much of his life.
An Australian, a Greek, and a Belgian in Basque Country
Saturday, April 23, 2016
From Larrosoana to Cizur Menor, overnight stay in Albergue de Maribel Roncal. Distance hiked: 14.03 miles
People tend to sharpen their skills and streamline processes quickly, so by the third morning I was already used to packing up my things quickly and quietly in the dark. Things had to be put in in a particular order, otherwise I couldn’t get it closed.
I had never carried a backpack before. Whenever we had gone to the mountains in the past, my husband had always carried my belongings in his pack, as I absolutely loved to traverse the hills unburdened and with empty hands. I didn’t even like to carry a walking stick; I wanted to have my hands free to help me keep my balance and to grab onto something if necessary. But there is simply no hiking St. James’s Way without a rucksack, and this had been clear from the start. So I began carefully considering how to have everything I needed without any unnecessary weight. The backpack itself, which I had bought especially for this trip, was quite light (a little over 5.3 ounces), but this was because it was made from extremely thin material, and I was worried that it might not survive the whole month intact. It had a special zipper that came with its own warranty. I was reassured by the fact that, if necessary, I could always buy another pack on the way. At the very bottom I had packed a T-shirt that I intended to burn at the end as part of a symbolic purification ritual, so the first thing I had to put in the backpack was my sleeping bag. It was extremely warm and ultra-light, weighing in at less than a pound. Next came my Crocks, the only extra pair of shoes I carried with me. They took up a lot of room and were heavily lined, but they performed extremely well. Without the lining I could wear them to wet places like the shower, while with the lining they served beautifully for lounging and free time. The third day I even hiked in them when my regular hiking shoes began rubbing against my left Achilles tendon, causing intense pain. I therefore hiked in my Crocks, and quite comfortably, until my Achilles tendon was no longer sensitive to being touched.
In packing, I had to roll up my towel and poncho in order to maximize space. These were followed by an extra, thinner pair of hiking pants, a spare T-shirt with long sleeves, and a sort of runner’s kit composed of tights, a short-sleeve T-shirt, and a zippered jacket with hood that I liked to put on after showering, and also sleep in. On top I put my toiletry kit, cap, and gloves. My toiletries included oil, day and night facial cream, a foot mask and cream, several sample tubes of high-protection-factor sun cream, toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, mascara and blue eye liner. In the lower outer compartment I kept my hiking socks, thick terry “free time” socks, two pairs of extra underwear, and an undershirt. In the upper external pocket I had a handy first aid kit with bandaids of various sizes and a blister prevention stick, medicines (antibiotics, medication for urinary tract infection, and medicines for other infections, as well as for muscle soreness), magnesium in daily-dose bags, all four “worry stones” which I intended to leave in Cruz de Ferro, and a head lamp. In the hidden internal compartment I carried money in small bills, a credit card, and an international health card. All together, this weighed 9.03 lbs. In addition, I wore winter hiking pants, a long-sleeve T-shirt, a wind-proof jacket, and an overcoat with a hood. In one of the jacket pockets I kept my reading glasses, and in the other were my pilgrim’s passport and ID card in a waterproof bag. That was all I needed for the entire month. I only put on the extra long-sleeve T-shirt twice and would not have missed it had I left it at home, as most hostels have laundry facilities, the price for which is three euros per wash and another three for drying. Every 2-3 days Marjana and I washed all the clothes we had been hiking in, so we rarely had occasion to wear the extra items we’d brought along.
Marjana and Iztok were also up and ready to go in record time by the third day. We had breakfast in the kitchen and left the unattractive town of Larrasoano quickly. By day three we had already reached Basque country, with its strange faces and mysterious people, the ancestors of whom remain unknown. In terms of their physical constitution there is no one else like them in all the world – at least that’s what anthropologists say, and they should know. Their blood is unusual as well, and is often type O, which is supposed to have originally been the blood type of hunters.
Even today, people with type-O blood are supposed to prefer a meat-based diet. They are tall and long-legged with small feet, black hair and eyes, and an aquiline nose. Some call them a rabbit-faced people due to their triangular facial shape. Everything about them is manifestly old. Euskara, the Basque language, is the oldest of all the European languages, going back perhaps as far as the stone age. Their legendary wooden kaiku cup is at least 10 thousand years old. They use it to heat milk, but by the reverse of the usual method. They poor the milk into it, then add grill-heated rocks that not only heat the milk, but also add their own particular flavor. It sounds delicious. Although they live in a very highly-trafficked region, the Basque people are highly reserved. Maybe this is how they have managed to preserve their old customs and language. They intermarry, and even go so far as to say that children of mixed couples are cursed.
The Australian Terry brought me out of my reverie. “Buen Camino,” he said, sitting on a tree stump and fumbling with his backpack.
“Buen Camino, Terry,” I said. “How are you today?”
“Fine for the moment. No complaints.” He heaved his pack onto his shoulders and we started out side by side and walking together for quite a while. He talked, and I listened, adding only the occasional nod or incredulous “Really?”. Terry had been the star of a popular Australian TV show. He was hiking St. James’s Way to escape his admiring fans, co-stars, ex-wife, adult children – in short, his entire life, which had sucked him into a vortex where a year goes by in a day. He had come here hoping that he could step away from the whirlwind and better take stock of his life from an appropriate physical distance, from another continent, and at a more moderate speed, measured in human footsteps and counted off day by day on the Road to Santiago. He had sloughed off the identity of television show hero and become Terry, the pilgrim from Australia.
“Really?” I sighed again as the path through the woods led us downward and to a stream, where the smile of Greek Nikos and long dreadlocks of Belgian Arne were waiting for Terry. “Hurry up, Terry,” Arne said, “Tonight we’re partying in Pamplona. Look we’re almost there already.” Through the thicket of trees, we caught a glimpse of Pamplona. Niko introduced me to Arne, his Belgian traveling companion. They had worked together in Brussels at a refugee camp, and together we headed in the direction of Pamplona. Terry wanted to know what life in the camp was like,
Arne brushed his dreadlocks aside. “Fucking awful,” he said. “We provide the refugees with water, food, a warm, dry place to stay, and adequate sanitation and hygiene, but that is fucking all.”
“Yeah,” Niko chimed in, “It’s tough when you can’t live or survive at home and have to flee abroad and then end up reduced to merely eating and sleeping, locked away with hundreds of others. It’s fucking murder. They’re all from different countries, but they do have one thing in common: the desire for peace, schooling, work – in short, for a life. Of course. Refugees have fucking rights, too. They have a right to life, to security, to non-discrimination, to be treated with dignity. People have always relocated, so how could it be any different in the age of globalization? When goods and services are traded worldwide? Just look at this fucking hiking pole. If you knew where the raw materials and components came from, who made the machines that produced it, who put it together, packed it, transported it, and sold it, you’d probably discover that it had gone around the world three fucking times. And now it’s going to traverse the entire fucking Camino with me. But people can’t leave their own birthplace. It’s fucking ridiculous.”
“Europeans have also sometimes migrated in search of a better life – to Australia, Africa or America. My own ancestors were immigrants.”
“But your ancestors went to Australia mostly to realize their dreams. With refugees in the camp, it’s about fucking survival.”
“I feel sorry for those people,” said the still-smiling Nikos, “because they’re forced to leave their country. We’ve drawn the borders too strictly, too clearly, too impenetrably. The earth should belong to everyone on the planet, just like the air, water and sun. We’ve taking the demarcations and territoriality too far.”
“Yes,” Terry agreed, “land ownership is something we take for granted. I first started thinking about it when I was in Manhattan and people were telling me about how brilliant the Dutchman Minuit was, in contrast to the dumb Indian chief Seyses, who lived with his tribe on the land that is present-day Manhattan sold it to the Dutch in exchange for a few trinkets and pocket change. People are so full of themselves when they tell you about that. They beat their chests and try to guess how much Manhattan is worth today. But tell me how the negotiators were able to translate the word ‘ownership’ when the Indians didn’t even have the concept of land ownership? Seyes couldn’t possibly have imagined that someone could own land, nor did he have any need to do so. Minuit bought the land, but Seyes thought he had given him permission to hunt with the tribe on the same territory. The meaning was lost in translation.”
“Such a contract is legally invalid,” I opined. “The will of the parties is primary.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Terry snapped. “Even if Seyses didn’t know what he was doing, he at least got some pocket money. If the two sides had fought for the land, many of the Dutch and most of the Indians would have died.”
“Maybe that would have been better than being locked away in fucking reservations,” Arne fumed. “Now the decendants of those fucking greedy asshole Americans are so into ‘having’ that they’ve claimed the whole moon as their own and have divided it up and sold it. Fucking insane. If things, thoughts, ideas, law, solidarity, and basically fucking everything else crosses borders, then it’s totally fucking normal that people will too.”
Nikos, his smile still intact on his face, tried to calm Arne down. “Of course. It’s been like that forever. It’s a necessity, not a risk. We need to change out view of migrations. They’re a part of life.”
“Yeah, I also think the earth belongs to all earthlings,” said Terry, in his inimitible cheesy-TV-star way. It reminded me of the statements of those beauty pageant winners who talk about wanting end world hunger.
Apparently Arne and his rebellious dreadlocks took umbridge at this as well. “Oh, Terry, you remember what you guys did to the fucking aboriginees?” He put his hands together, looked up at the sky and yelled, “Please stop the world – I want to get off!” We all laughed, the planet continued turning, and Arne and his dreadlocks stayed with us.
Across the Puente de la Magdalena bridge we came into the old city center along the old fortress mote. Even before the year 1000, Pamplona was considered poor in natural resources, and the population lived in poverty, starvation, and exposure to robbery. But with the help of the pilgrims hiking St. James’s Way, it began to develop.
Saint Fermin was from Pamplone and today is its patron saint. In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway described the Running of the Bulls, a customary event held during the San Fermin holiday. The city became famous for it. Along with us, there were quite a lot of tourists, pilgrims, and also local people, as the lively Día de San Jorge celebration was underway. Spanish men give the women close to them flowers, especially roses, and books. And the city streets, so familiar to all of us from the pictures of the Running of the Bulls, were full of dancers dancing their traditional dances with such ease, mostly on tip-toe. Some of them were dancing dressed as dolls more than five meters tall with only one leg showing. I had a wonderful time watching the pairs freely whirling their bodies and doll costumes freely around one another. It was all we could do not to get lost in the throng and it was only at the end of town that I ran first into Iztok and then, a little later, Marjana.
In the big park by the Citadel we indulged in a little refreshment: open-faced sandwiches and snack foods which, if you’ve ever seen The Way, the popular American movie about St. James’s Way starring Martin Sheen, are not called tapas in Pamplona, but are referred to by another words which, despite its having been written on the menu of the charming little bar where we were, I no longer recall. In short, we ordered the tapas which are not tapas in Pamplona, but look the same and are just as delicious. Even before I took my first sip of water, I got online and began surfing around the park. I was so busy swimming in the vast ocean of the internet that I didn’t even notice that Marjana and Iztok had disappeared. When I realized they weren’t there, I got up and continued on the path in a hurry. I fixed my gaze on the ground in front of me, looking for the brassy St. James Shells that had been leading me through the labyrinth of little streets, byways and detours of Pamplona. Reaching the university, I left Pamplona and soon came to Cizur Menor, a sleepy little town where people who have business at nearby Navarre University often stay the night. There, in front of the first hostel, I found Iztok and Marjana. Iztok had had enough hiking for one day, so we decided to stay there. As it turned out, Albergue de Maribel Roncal lodge was very nice, spread out among several buildings, all connected by a large inner courtyard with a small fish pond stocked with goldfish. They also had a kitchen. Iztok wanted the pigrim’s special for dinner, so we waited until seven, when the bar nearby began serving.
Our Spanish friend Victor joined us for dinner. He, Marjana and Iztok were predicting the outcome of the upcoming soccer match between Madrid and Barcelona, which would be happening in a few days. They were discussing Jan Oblak’s excellent defensive skills, and they hoped that Atletico would win on the stellar defensive performance of a Slovene for whom even the seasoned players of Barcelona were rarely a match. I listened with only half an ear. Soccer isn’t really my thing. In fact, before coming to Spain I hadn’t even been aware that the best goal keeper in the world was Slovene, and that he earned his daily bread – many, many loaves of it – playing for Madrid.
The main course arrived. I may not love soccer, but I do love fish, and I was in Basque country, where the contemporary cuisine was rich in fish dishes unknown in the Mediterranian. I ordered a sort of mystery fish that was simply called fish, while the other three got paella.
“The paella is excellent. Almost as good as mom’s.”
“My condolences about your mother,” I said. “Marjana told me she passed away recently. Did you not know your father?”
Tears welled up in Victor’s eyes, and he wiped them with a paper napkin. I felt bad for having asked the question. “No. My dad was an architect from Brazil. He came to Madrid to oversee the construction of a bridge he designed. He met my mother, she got pregnant, and then he took off once the bridge was finished. He had a wife and two children in Brazil.”
“Did he know your mother was pregnant?”
“Yes, she told him. He told her she would have to care for the child herself, and that’s exactly what she did all these years. I was almost her only family. She had a job and had a couple of co-workers that she would spend time with, but I never met them. And that was it.”
Inge interrupted him from the next table. “I hear Atletica’s goalie is the best in the world,” she said, addressing herself to Iztok. He’s quite a hero in Madrid. Who would have thought he’d be from Slovenia?”
“It goes without saying. Slovenes get the job done. Victor and I have already talked about his game, and we think he will be the key to Atletica’s victory in the upcoming match.” Iztok’s words belied his inferiority complex at being from such a small country. There may also have been a hint of nationalism somewhere in there.
Victor spoke up. “I’ll tell you something, Inge. I’m glad I met pilgrims from Slovenia. They have an awesome goalie, the future first lady of the United States, and they even have love in their name.”
We all laughed, but the Slovene contingent was getting a big head. Marjana would have to pray for forgiveness tonight, for all three of us. Victor was also laughing through his tears, and I was amazed at how he was able to function normally and cry at the same time. Whenever I cry – and I rarely do – I can do nothing else. I cry with my whole body. I sob, my shoulders shake, I wring my hands, my eyes turn red and swell up, my voice quivers, and I can’t utter even a single intelligible sentence. But Victor looked completely normal, as if he were just telling a normal, everyday story. Only the traces of tears on his face gave him away.
Inge returned to the conversation at her own table, and Victor continued, tears and all, without any impetus from us. “Mom showed her love with food. She would always ask me if I was hungry, what I want to eat, put food on my plate and insist that I eat every last bite. Again and again she would repeat the story of how dad told her she would have to go it alone, and while she was doing the dishes, she would talk with great satisfaction about how she was still taking care of me. And everytime I succeeded or failed at something, she would make me flan, fried churros, or milk rice, either as a reward or a consolation, depending. Initially I would eat everything just to make her happy, but after a while I would ask for some dessert, and she would smile and go straight to the kitchen to whip up something sweet. And so we were both happy. She made me happy by cooking and I made her happy by eating. Day after day I ate more and more, and after awhile I started to put on weight…”
Marjana stood up, walked over to the counter, grabbed a few napkins and brought them over to him.
“Until she died. Then everything came crashing down. Suddenly I was without the two thing my whole life was based around: mom and her food. I began to just sort of vegetate. I’d go to work and come home and go to work and come home. I didn’t have any appetite, so I lost weight. My whole life I’d been eating almost nothing but what she fixed for me, and now nothing else tasted good. My life lost its meaning. I have to say I am very grateful to my boss, who knew what I was going through and gave me the number of a psychologist friend of his. With his help, I came to understand what I was going through. I made progress quickly, and he was the one who advised me to hike the Camino. He thought a month of walking and reflecting would be a good basis for a new beginning. Plus, the company of other hikers would help me initiate contact with people I had been ignoring all these years.”
Victor spoke like rain, and every so often he took a napkin from the pile and wiped his eyes with it. We listened attentively – so attentively, in fact, that we hardly knew we had ordered and eaten dessert.
“Your psychologist has an interesting approach,” Marjana said. “I mean, that he would recommend this trip as a sort of therapy.”
“He’s done the pilgrimage himself several times. The first time he went alone, and after that he brought along a few of his patients. He told me I was still young and an excellent candidate for therapy, so I could go without him. And now I’m here, I’ve gotten to know you all over, and even though it’s only been a few days, I feel like I trust you with my whole story. I’m not ashamed of it, and I’m not repressing it. And I’m eating so that my body gets just enough of what it needs, and I pray intensively for myself and for my late mother and even for my father, who I never knew and don’t even know if he’s alive today.”
We finished eating, and the waitress collected our plates and Victor’s pile of tear-soaked napkins. We emptied our glasses and left.
I didn’t fall asleep for a long time that night. At home I go to bed when I’m sleepy, but here on El Camino, I was going to bed from exhaustion. My body wanted, not so much sleep, but rest. That night I lay awake resting for several hours. I had an unpleasant tension in my legs similar to restless leg syndrome, the genetic proclivity for which I inherited from my mother’s side. But this tension was different. I felt as if I had squeezed all the food out of my leg muscles during the day, leaving them empty, hungry, starving. And now they were having to refuel. Only once that was done did my legs fall asleep. And me with them.
The Death of a Slovene on El Camino Six Days Before
Sunday, June 24, 2016
From Cizur Menor to Lorca, with an overnight stay in Albergue De Lorca Jose Ramon Distance hiked: 21.7 miles
I awoke while it was still dark. I heard little noises all around me, the sounds of zippers opening and closing and bed squeaking. As my eyes adjusted to the light I began to see figures, quite a lot of them, stooping over their backpacks and stuffing them with their belongings. Iztok whispered to me that it was sprinkling outside. I dressed and packed my things in the dark, took a shower, and then went into the kitchen, where all the pilgrims were making themselves breakfast. We put on some coffee and ate a little something we called a “mazalica”, which is where you spread butter and jam on bread and then drown it in hot coffee with milk. I think my husband learned about this from Yugoslav army.
It was still dark when we got underway, walking in our raincoats along the wet sidewalk of the mausoleum that was Cizur Menor. Soon we came upon a cart track situated among rape fields that dazzled us with their blue coloring. At the horizon the fields and the sky came together in a dark bluish hue. The rain, which by now had subsided, had washed the dust from the fields, and the sunlight, which had only been a faint glow from off in the distance, suddenly came bursting forth in dazzling rays that lit up the sky. It was a magical morning. The birds were singing at full volume (where were they hiding in those fields?) and seemed as pleased as I was to greet the new day. How beautiful it was! We climbed up the path to the Alto del Pedron pass, the Peak of Forgiveness, and communed fully with the natural environment. I don’t know if it was the energy of that environment that pushed me to start thinking about forgiveness on that climb, or whether it was just the name of the mountain, but whatever it was, all at once my mind was flooded with thoughts – and reservations – about forgiveness. For a long time I had lived in the illusion that I had forgiven everyone for everything. Then I realized that to forgive completely means to forget. The Greek word translated in the Bible as “forgiveness” literally means “to forget”. I know that forgiveness is a gift only to the one who gives it, for it liberates him or her from resentment, bitterness, anger. I know also that the past cannot be changed, but you can prepare for a better future. Nonetheless, forgiveness remains a very tough nut to crack, and I’ve been breaking my own teeth on it for years. Once in a great while I manage it, but mostly I come up short. My defense mechanisms are too strong. Or better, they’re pointing in the wrong direction. Instead of aiming at forgetting, they aim instead at denial. When someone hurts me, I shield myself from the pain by repressing it. I supress my anger and desire for revenge. Then one day all that hidden bile errupts and exposes my wounds, and only then am I willing to evaluate the loss I’ve suffered. When I feel that pain in its full intensity, I also sometimes recognize a part of my own guilt, and then comes the next step – often the hardest of them all: forgiveness of oneself. It takes a very honest view of the relationship to look at the one who has caused you pain and see the same vulnerable human being within him that is within you. But this alone is the beginning of real forgiveness. And to get to it means treading a hard path. Forgiveness is not a state or condition, but is essentially a challenge everyone must constantly stive to meet.
At the peak I stopped and looked down at the line of hikers and horses, the statue dedicated to the pilgrims on St. James’s Way and the timeless, perhaps even eternal nature of the pilgrimage. The phrase “Where the wind and the stars cross paths” is engraved on one of the figures. Here there is no room for grievances, punishments or revenge. At this crossroads, one forgives.
As we decended along the Sierra de Pedron, the Peak of Forgiveness seemed to have affected Marjana as well. “It’s a good thing to forgive and be forgiven. Imagine doing something wrong and not being able to make amends your entire life,” she said, talking half to me and half to herself. “And you only live once.”
“Of course,” I responded, “if people didn’t forgive and weren’t forgiven, the burden would be too great. We all sin; we all make mistakes, and we have to recognize and admit them, correct them, and learn from them so we can move forward in life unburdened until we make the next mistake. Forgiveness isn’t easy.” I’ve never had a problem admitting a mistake, provided I knew I had made it. Admitting it, however, is one thing; forgiving it is another.
Mirjana had an easier time of it. “I find prayer helps me,” she said. “ I pray for the mercy to forgive and I pray for the mercy to be forgiven. Because forgiveness is mercy. Life is much nicer if you don’t live with resentment. Even toward yourself. Even though self-forgiveness is the hardest of all. And if someone else makes a mistake and causes you harm, you have to forgive him, realizing that he himself probably isn’t aware, or is simply unable to admit it.”
I wasn’t sure she was expecting a response to her philosophy, but I offered one anyway. “But it’s also true that if someone doesn’t recognize his mistake and correct it, he can’t learn anything from it. And if he doesn’t learn from it, he’ll just end up repeating it. The thing to do is to forgive and then remove yourself from the situation enough to be sure you won’t be hurt again by the same mistake. Don’t you think so?”
I didn’t need to wait for the answer, as I already knew it, so I continued quickly down the steep, stone path. I know it is her conviction, or better, her faith, that one must accept and forgive in all cases, and pray for mercy for oneself and others. When someone smites you on one cheek, offer him the other also – that’s her stance. Is it wrong that I am willing to be smitten on only one cheek?
We came to the Fuente de la Teja, from which the devil is supposed to have offered water to pilgrims in exchange for their agreement to deny St. James. The pilgrims of course rejected the offer. I wasn’t too keen on drinking from it either, although there was no one at the well to offer anyone anything. Although I was thirsty, I had too much on my mind just then to think about the history of this water.
Of course prayer helped Marjana forgive. Prayer helps throughout life. Prayers are good thoughts, and thoughts are energy. By repeating prayers, we increase their energy, and energy is what accomplishes tasks. Positive energy creates positive action. Prayer becomes manifest. Marjana says that prayer is the breath of faith, the soul’s conversation with God. Once again I felt regret for the fact that prayer was no longer a part of my life.
The steep and rocky decent really took everything out of me (almost literally), so I was quite happy when it leveled off and became a pleasant hiking trail that led all the way to Obanos. It pains me to think about the tragic history of Obanos, the story of the Duke of Aquitaine and his sister, who decided while on the pigrimage to Santiago to stay in Obanos and help passing pilgrims. Her brother vigorously opposed her decision. And since brothers of course know what is best for their sisters, the Duke set off for Obanos to try and convince her to return home. He was unsuccessful, however, and he was so angered by her refusal that he killed her in a violent rage. As a pennance he himself went on a pilgrimage to Santiago and soon after shot himself not far from Obanos. His skull is still preserved in a silver cast as a memorial. I can’t even conceive of the emotional crisis that his irreversible mistake must have unleashed.
I thought of my own brother and how grateful I was to have him. As far back as I can remember I have loved him unconditionally. How simple and fulfilling such a relationship is! I expect nothing of him and I love him just as he is. I have no wish to change him, I respect his decisions, and I accept his actions. Our communication brings me great joy, and I am happy just knowing he is there.
How much more difficult it is to live with conditional love, conditional relationships where you love someone only for how they benefit you, or love the things you possess or their characteristics. A mother-in-law can love her daughter-in-law if she drives her places, gives her gifts, and arranges things for her in daily life. A sister loves her brother so she can show him off to friends and relatives. A grandson may love his grandmother because she gives him money. A friend can love a friend for his fame, and a husband can love his wife for her beauty. There may be many reasons, but all of them are founded on the gain the accrues to the one who loves conditionally. And then you ask yourself how many of your relationships are based on unconditional love? Would the mother-in-law still love her daughter-in-law if she gained nothing thereby? Would the sister still love the brother if he didn’t come to her birthday celebration? Would the grandson still come visit his grandmother without her financial support? Would the husband continue to love his wife if she refused sexual relations with him? Such questions are numberless. And if any of them is answered in the negative, there is little alternative but to face the fact that the relationship is conditional. You have to see that one never learns to look at people as something other than as mere objects of gratification when relationships are conditional. They probably grew up in an environment where people were valued only for what could be gotten from them. And the recognition of this creates space for forgiveness. Marjana prays, forgives, and turns the other cheek. I pretend I wasn’t slapped, that it doesn’t hurt, and then finally admit to the pain, understand the person who caused it, forgive him, and turn the other cheek – away from him.
We all must put our own relationships under the microscope and see whether we really know the reasons why we love someone. And if we find them? Slavoj Žižek, the Slovene philosopher, puts it bluntly: If you have a reason for loving someone, you don’t love him.
We left Obanos via Puente la Reine, the royal bridge, and soon found ourselves walking through fields filled with long rows of blossoming thyme. It tempted me for several miles, and finally I could no longer resist. I turned off the path, took off my shoes and socks, and walked barefoot over the blooming thyme. Every step of my feet intensified its aroma. Now it was not the dust of El Camino, but the intoxicating scent of thyme that clung to my naked earth-starved soles.
Since ancient times it has been known that there are certain areas of the earth that have special energy. Like the physical body, Mother Earth also has vital areas where the heart beats faster and louder. Like the physical body, Mother Earth also has veins and arteries pulsating with life energy. And in the old days, people blazed new trails in those places. It was along these paths that they began looking up at the heavens and to their surprise discovered, and also intuitively sensed, that the flow of this energy coincided with the starlight hitting the earth, the astral energy currents. And they traversed these pathways, circulating, emitting, and absorbing life energy. As they walked, their feet, which connected them to their source, kicked up the dust, at first a little, then in ever greater amounts. The dust went higher and higher until it reached up to the sky, and sometimes there was so much of it that it formed a roadway in the heavens. The ancestors of the Slovenes knew, of course, that this was the soul’s road to heaven. They knew as well that every soul stopped on the way in Papal Rome. And so they named this astral path the Roman Road [TN: Milky Way in English]. The Roman Road is an interesting name, and the Slovenes are the only ones who use it rather than referring to Hero and her spilled milk. The Spanish also say the Roman Road arose out of the dust and not from milk, and so the most popular expression for it is Camino de Santigo, St. James’s Way. And yet every dictionary, including Google Translate, say that the Spanish for the heavenly road is Vía láctea.
I walked barefoot back and forth. I could feel how El Camino had accepted me, and I had accepted El Camino. I had become a part of it, and it a part of me. The first to arrive after me was Marjana, followed by Iztok, and as soon as I saw them I put my shoes and socks back on my thyme-scented feet. We then gritted our teeth and began the steep climb.
I had heard much debate about whether it is better to walk El Camino alone, go with other people, or keep to yourself and your own thoughts. I don’t think this is a particularly important issue; on El Camino, things happen of themselves. Each walks essentially alone and at his or her own pace in any case, reserving the evening bar visits for socializing. The three of us were in the habit of leaving the hostel every morning together and then walking separately, but never too far apart to catch up with each other at every stop. Here and there we would also tackle a stretch of road together.
The sun was blazing down, and for the first time on El Camino it felt hot. The land again flattened out, and a gentle breeze provided a bit of relief from the heat. Walking through the grain fields and vineyards, we came to the Cirauqui region. St. James’s Way then went down and across the old Roman bridge and seemed to get lost among the wide fields and vineyards, becoming visible again at the bridge over the Salado river, a salty river referred to as far back as the Middle Ages in the Codex Calixtinus, which warns travellers not to let their horses drink from it, despite encouragement by local to do so, as it would be fatal for the animals. It tells the story of some wayfarers who were sitting on the banks of the river, watching two Navarrians sharpening special knives used for skinning horses. The travellers asked them if the river water was drinkable, as their horses were thirsty. The Navarrians nodded, the innocent travellers trusted them, and their horses perished soon after drinking from the river. The Navarrians then immediately skinned the horses with their newly-sharpened knives. As I crossed the bridge, I couldn’t help marveling at the naïvety of those pilgrims.
The path began rising. I was already tired of walking, as we had already covered 21 miles since morning, the sun was beating down on my back, I was hungry, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to put one foot in front of the other. We had overnight reservations in Lorca, which was at the top of the hill I was currently doing battle with. To keep my mind occupied, I concentrated on the question of whether the name was in any way connected to the last name of the legendary Spanish playwright and poet Federica Garcie Lorca. I knew that the equally legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen had named his daughter Lorca after him. It was also the place where the king of Navarra, also known as The Restorer, died, and it blew my mind when, there before the village of Lorca at the end of the climb, off in the distance I caught a glimpse of a cross off to the side of the path indicating that someone had died there. I read the inscription and discovered to my amazement that the name of the deceased was Drago, that he was from Slovenia, and that he had passed away six days earlier. What’s more, the very day that I was standing on the place where he died would have been his 60th birthday.
I waited for Iztok and Marjana to catch up so that together we could honor the memory of our fellow countryman, whom El Camino would now keep forever. We tied a little Slovene flag that Marjana had pinned to her backpack to the cross and walked on, lost in thought. At the hostel, we asked one of the employees about the death of the Slovene pilgrim. He made the sign of the cross and told us that he had died instantly, so neither those with him, nor those walking behind, were able to help him. “Death is a terrible thing,” he sighed, “but I can only hope my own death is as easy as his was. One minute you’re walking and talking, the next minute you’re gone. What more could you ask for?”
We followed him up the stairs to our sleeping quarters in silence. This time we hit the jackpot: a room with two bunk beds and a private bath. They also served us a delicious, home-cooked meal, after which we collapsed into bed from sheer exhaustion. It had been a long day, and we had covered just over 21 miles.
For a long time I couldn’t fall asleep. I thought of my late father and his own relationship to death. He was in the habit of saying that you began dying the instant you were born. He thought of death as a part of life. In addition to house calls, as a physician he also had occasion to visit the morgue, and he remembered each person he saw there. I don’t remember which was his last; the last one I remember was number 87. He attached various adjectives to death: terrible, too early, unhappy…I had no difficulty understanding all of them until one day the adjective he used was “beautiful”. It happened on a lovely spring day. He came home and told me he had witnessed such a beautiful death that day – the kind of death he wanted for himself. He had gone to the morgue to view the body of a little old lady who had made herself some coffee and, while sipping it on the bench in front of her house, had suffered a stroke. The cup had fallen from her hand and shattered, and she had collapsed on the table, dead. “Such a beautiful death,” he said.
I remember looking at him and feeling bewildered, unable at such a young age to understand how death could be beautiful. I only grasped it much later as an adult. And now I know that Drago had a beautiful death.
The Day My Childhood Trauma Erupted
Monday, April 25, 2016
From Lorca to Los Arcos, with overnight stay in Fuente Casa de Austria. Distance hiked: 20.41 miles
We awoke before 6 am and left Lorca in the dark. We didn’t want to wait to have breakfast at the lodge, which wasn’t until seven. Walking each at his own tempo and with his own thoughts, we quickly separated. I walked along the path through the fields, where so many pilgrims before me had walked, and I thought about the steps from Lorca onward that our fellow Slovene, Drago, didn’t live to see. We were all born once, and one day we all will die. No one wishes to die, not even those who believe in an afterlife in heaven and expect to go there themselves. No. Life is difficult, beautiful, and fragile. And you never know when your time will be up.
I reached the town of Villatuerto and ducked into the first roadside bar for a little breakfast consisting of warm, fragrant crescent rolls and a large coffee with cream. Soon Iztok and Marjana joined me and we ate our breakfast almost entirely in silence, finished our coffee, and continued on our way. I soon found myself in the town of Estella, which had experienced a rennaisance in the 13th century, when it became known as Estella bella, Estelle the beautiful. The Codex Calixtinus describes it as a hospitable town overflowing with good bread and excellent wine, meat, and fish. Today there wasn’t much nice about it, never mind beautiful.
From a distance I could see the Irache settlement, which gets it name from the fact that it can be seen from a distance. In the Basque language, iratze means “distant”. This is the home of the secluded Benedictine monastery which one day will be converted into a luxury hotel. Like every pilgrim, I stopped in front of the entrance to the Bodegas Irache, the monastery vinyard. No pilgrim could refuse a glass of wine from the Fuente de vino drinking well. The well has two spigots: one for red wine and the other for water. Wine well would probably be a more accurate term, or perhaps we need to coin a new word altogether. Winerwell, maybe. Anyway, I’m not the technical type, so I wasn’t sure how they had designed the wine spigot so that the wine comes out in thin streams that cannot be used to fill bottles. If you try, the flow shuts off. It’s true that there’s a surveillance camera on the ceiling, but I doubt anyone shuts the spigot off from another room. I bent down, put my hand under the spigot, and sipped the wine eagerly. I wondered how much wine they had on hand for pilgrims, since the spigot shuts off at a certain time, and if you’re late you miss out. The winerwell is an excellent promotional attraction. Everyone gets their picture taken beside it, and when they get home they tell all their friends.
I continued on my way, leaving Irache behind and heading out into the lovely countryside repleat with vinyards, fields, and hills. After Villamayor de Monjardin the trails became a good bit wider and more isolated, but were well marked with stones inlaid with St. James’ shells and a yellow arrow. I was overwhelmed at the beauty of the landscape, gently rolling hills dotted with wineries and forests and an array of colors dominated by the fresh green of spring. How beautiful is our world. And how beautiful life is on El Camino.
I came to a rest stop in the middle of the fields, where there were a few tables and chairs. A young boy was selling coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and bananas out of a trailer. The sound of classical music was wafting through the air – Vivaldi. I took my glass of OJ and sat down in a chair, turned my face toward the sun, and listened. I remembered Ivan Gričnik, a man from my region of Slovenia, who wrote a little book about El Camino in which he described how every day he would just walk and watch the dance of life unfolding on, by, and over the path. He watched and truly only watched. The stone beneath his feet, the flower in the grass, the bird in the tree, the star in the sky. And he enojyed it fully, because he knew there was no such thing in our day-to-day lives as only watching. “When people look at the dance that we call creation,” he said, “they’re always thinking, talking, analyzing and philosophizing. Words upon words, noise upon noise.” This statement brought to mind the passage in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being about how we pollute the world with noise, including music. Music and noise. We hear music piped in from all over, coming from all the speakers – real and imaginary – that surround us and create a disquieting background that we hear but do not listen to. I remembered his words, words whose crystal-clear truth took my breath away: “Music should be like a rose that blooms in a field of silence.” I had found that field of silence on El Camino, where Vivaldi’s spring was in full bloom. I was only here and now, and it was wonderful. Immersed, light, pure in thought and happy, I continued along the wide, winding white road through green grass, past flowering cherry trees full of singing birds, through the spring itself. Soon there were indications that I was nearing a populated area, and shortly thereafter I arrived at Los Arcos. Marjana and Iztok were waiting for me on the main road in front of the Feunte Casa de Austria hostel.
Iztok came walking toward me. “We took the last beds in the lodge. All they had left were three top beds.”
A panic came over me. “Why only upper-level? How are we going to sleep on top?” As if it were only yesterday, an anxiety took hold from nearly fifty years before, when I woke up in the middle of the night in my mother’s lap to find my father wiping blood from my injured forehead. I had fallen out of bed, and in the process had pulled the electric cable of my night light, a glass dog, and this had come tumbling down onto me and left a gash in my forehead. All three of us were scared to death, although the worst damage was to the glass puppy, who had suffered a shattered ear. I had never fallen out of bed since then, but the mere thought of sleeping on the top level of a bunk bed was eough to cause a panic attack. I went inside to the reception desk and explained that I had had a fear of falling out of bed since childhood, and asked her if she could give me something on the “ground floor.” The perspiration on my forhead, shaking hands, and panicky voice convinced her to give me a free bed in a small room that was a few euros more.
Visibly relieved, I paid the difference, and Iztok and I retired to our small sleeping quarters. As always, we took our showers first, washed out underwear (Marjana also washed her T-shirt and socks), and then went into town. Los Arcos has kitchens that serve all day, so we were able to get a full “pilgrim’s meal” at once – the meal you get everywhere, but which in the smaller towns is available only from seven o’clock on. It’s served in three courses: an appetizer, which can be an ensalada mixta (a large house salad with lettuce, tomato, corn and tuna), spaghetti or rice, the main course (your choice of beef, pork, chicken, fish or vegetarian alternative), and dessert (flan, ice cream, milk rice or fruit). The price, which ranges from about 9-12 euros, includes a beverage, plus water and wine. Interestingly, they bring a full bottle of wine to every table (red, of course), and you drink as much as you like. I don’t know why it’s like that, but I must say the wine goes right to your head. It seems everything on El Camino is stronger, and one’s intoxication is no exception.
Full and slightly tipsy, we had a look at the church and on the way back to the lodge looked for an ice cream parlor where we could try the local specialty rosquillas de Los Arcos, a pastry made of flour, egg, sugar and orange juice and fried in olive oil. We found a place, but they didn’t have rosquillas. Despite having eaten the milk rice dessert included in the meal we had just had, we bought large cookies topped with a cream made of butter and sugar and covered in chocolate. We wolfed them down (if I may use the vernacular), and I assuaged my guilt at eating junk food in such large quantities with the rationalization that you burn a lot of glycogen in your muscles when you physically exert yourself, so you need a rich meal in order to recuperate overnight.
The charm of the Fuente Casa de Austria hostel comes largely from its common areas. After a whole day of hiking, it was so nice to have a shower and a meal, topped off with sweet pastry, and then settle into a stuffed chair in front of a lit fire place. There were a number of tables and benches in the room, as well as a comfortable counch by the wall, along which were shelves full of books in various languages. From the common area, the glass wall looked out on the inner courtyard, where people had hung their socks, towels, and underwear out to dry. I took a book about El Camino and became ingrossed in the section on the Codex Calixtinus, the more then 900-year-old manuscript containing a collection of writings on El Camino – prayers, sermons of St. James, and practical travel advice for pilgrims. St. James’s Way is described as the very narrow path that leads to life. On the other hand, it says that the road to death is roomy and wide. It says the pilgrim’s way is for the good, and that there is no room on it for the undisciplined, or for those who are looking for enjoyment. On this path, virtue and bodily fortitude grow, and forgiveness for sins is attained. It says the pilgrim’s path is the path of the righteous, of the love of the saints, of faith in the resurrection and the reward of the blessed, the release from hell, and the certainty of heaven. It leads us away from delicious food, gluttony and obesity, shapes us, blunts the desires of the flesh that so assault the fortress of the soul, the pure spirit, leads us to contemplation, humbles the arrogant, raises the humble, and loves the impoverished. It hates the greedy, but loves those who give to the poor. It rewards those who live simply and do good works, rescues the miserly and the unjust from the talons of sin. I looked up from my reading. There really was no room on El Camino for sin. There was no pride, sloth, rage, gluttony (here I almost wrote “slight tendency toward gluttony,” and merely tending toward sin doesn’t make one a sinner 😉 ), craving, envy or greed.
I stared into the flames in the fire place and thought of the man whole stole the codex, and who is now serving time in prison. I felt sorry for them. He couldn’t forgive. He was driven by revenge, and now has plenty of time to think about forgiveness from behind bars. This is because the The Codex Calixtinus mysteriously disappeared from its place in the cathedral of Santiago de Composteli. Due to its inestimable value, it was assumed that it had been taken by a foreign art lover who was no longer in Spain. But they were mistaken. Almost exactly one year after its disappearance, they found the codex lying on a pile of old newspapers in the garage of an electrician who had worked at the cathedral. He had been fired after 25 years of working there, and he had stolen the codex and thrown it in his garage as an act of revenge. It was recovered and returned to its rightful place, while the former electrician still has five years of prison time to serve for the stealing of a priceless relic. Has he repented for his act?
A Korean Gives me a Bag of Happiness
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
From Los Arcos to Logrono, with overnight stay in Albergue Peregrino. Distance hiked: 17.8 miles
We decided to stay for breakfast at the Fuente Casa de Austria lodge for two reasons. The first was that we had heard they had excellent breakfasts, and the second was that they began serving at 6:30. The other hostels generally didn’t put breakfast out until seven, which was a good half hour longer than we wanted to wait. As soon as you open your eyes in the morning, the first thing you want to do is hit the road. It’s a bit like sailing, where you can’t wait to set sail. I don’t know what to call that drive to get underway, but I do know it’s probably somewhere in all of us, and it is definitely in all pilgrims. It’s the force that drove me every day to finish showering as quickly as possible so as not to delay setting off. Because we got up somewhere between 5:00 and 5:30, we were ready to go around 6:30, and no one and nothing was going to make us wait another half our for breakfast.
By 6:30 the common area of the Fuente Casa de Austria, which in the morning serves as a dining hall, is already packed. They served us warm, whole-grain and rye bread, homemade butter, jam and honey. The baskets on the table contained home-baked cookies, and the aroma of coffee and tea filled the air. The bread was a nice change of pace, since up until now all we had had were baguettes. At breakfast we talked with a young couple from Bulgaria who worked in Switzerland and were using their vacation time to come to El Camino for some physical and spiritual regeneration. The girl seemed to me to be very mature. She said they had come to walk St. James’s Way as a way of strengthening their relationship. “No matter how you slice it, this is going to be much more beneficial for us than any of our previous vacations where we partied all night with friends and slept all day,” she said. “Here we are overcoming our laziness together, fortifying our bodies, and we have a lot of time to get to know each other, as well as ourselves, better.” As she spoke, she looked at her husband lovingly.
“I read a book by a Slovene couple who also took their yearly vacation here and wrote about their experiences walking the trail,” I said. “At the end of the book they say they’ll never hold hands the same way again.”
The woman’s husband took her hand. “I’m sure we won’t either,” he said.
Now, as I write these words, they seem sugar-coated and hoaky, like something out of an American soap opera. On El Camino, they are sincere, genuine and spontaneous.
After breakfast I put my backpack on in the reception area and stepped out onto the city pavement, still shrouded in darkness. A young man from Korea named Yang stopped me on the street. I had spoken to him once before on the climb up the Pyrenees. He was tall – taller than I am – with the typical Asian facial features, a long nose, high, full cheeks, a long beard and jet black hair. With Asians I have a hard time guessing age, and can only estimate within a very large range. I would say Yang was somewhere between 40 and 60 years old. He was dressed in top-knotch, brand-name athletic apparel. What stood out to me most of all was the fact that his hiking pants were creased from ironing. He wanted to give me something. He reached into his pocket and handed me a miniature cloth bag wrapped in cellophane. In English he explained that this was a “lucky bag” that Koreans gave to each other for luck and happiness. He wished me these as well, and said I would have them if I always remembered to carry the bag with me everywhere I went. I gratefully put it in the pocket of my hiking pants, but by the time I looked up to thank him, he was already off ahead of me. I reached back into my pocket for my “lucky bag”. As I felt it with my fingers, I was overcome by the recognition that on El Camino you are only a pilgrim, a person who exists and wants to be happy. How many times had I thought of the words of Anne Frank that had moved me so deeply ever since I read her diary as a child. I don’t remember the exact quotation, but it went something like this: “How different we human beings are, and yet utterly the same. We all live to be happy.”
I quicky arrived at the edge of town, and before me lay a mostly straight country road which, after an hour or so, turned upward toward the town of Sansol. From here there was a marvelous view of the neighboring village, Torres del Rio. I went down through the little valley and stopped for coffee on the terrace of the first roadside bar. I sipped my coffee, greeted passers-by, and exchanged pleasantries with them. I could almost physically feel the sameness I shared with the other hikers, our universal substance, flesh and blood embued with the overwhelming energy of life. It’s incredible. For most of us, everyday life pushes this awareness so far down that we don’t even know it’s there.
I felt the urge to drop Bojana a line. I had met her only recently, on the very day I had bought my ticket for El Camino. I had seen her invitation on Facebook to attend a presentation on the just-published book El Camino, the mysticism of the InVisible World. I didn’t know who she was or how she got on my Facebook friend list. But because I had read the book Psi, I knew that behind all coincidence there is a plan, and behind every plan, coincidence. So I immediately understood that this was simply a part of my plan for El Camino that life itself had designed and in which I was participating. At the presentation I met Bojana Vranjek, a firey red-head who described her physical and spiritual journey on both the visible and invisible paths of El Camino with great passion. I saw immediately that she believed in miracles and meaningful coincidences. Even toward the beginning of her pilgrimage, at the Alto del Pedronu, the Peak of Forgiveness, a swarm of butterflies, those masters of change, had brought to her the message that she was on a path of transformation. Along the way she collected feathers, angelic signs, as she put it. She had dedicated quite a lot of time to the strong energetic point that was only a few meters away from me now, by the octagonal Iglesia del Santo Sepulcroni, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by the Knights Templar in the village of Torres del Rio. Here she had been baffled by the fact that one of the side columns of the entrance had been hot while the others were stone cold. I decided it was time to write to her.
“Bojana, I have just finished my coffee in Torres del Rio and am going to go touch the pillar of the church here. I’ll let you know how hot it is. I haven’t seen any butterlies or found any feathers yet, but I’m enjoying myself immensely. Take care.” This was what I needed to say to her.
I continued on my way, left the village, and came to a wide plateau and the Virgen del Poyo chapel, where the miraculous and stubborn statue of Mary is located. They’ve tried several time to move it to Viana, but it has always found its own way back to the chapel. I was really hungry by the time I reached Viana, a former principality that gave Prince Filip, current heir to the Spanish throne, the title of Prince of Viana. I was walking along the sidewalk when Marjana called. I stopped, looked back, and at that moment heard a resounding thud. Right in front of me, from one of the uppermost floors, a whisk broom had fallen and crashed to the ground. If Marjana hadn’t called me, it would have fallen on my head and might even have killed me. Narrow is the road to Santiago and wide the road to death, I thought to myself, wondering what El Camino was trying to tell me by throwing a broom at me. Actually, it was more of a mop than a broom. Was this a sign that I needed to “mop up” some things in my life? When Iztok joined us later, we tried to find the meaning of this event. Marjana had saved me from a falling mop. What did this mean?
It was time for lunch and we were in a city, which meant we had quite a large range of options. If you’re in one of the villages at lunchtime, you more or less have to content yourself with a boccadillo (sandwich). We got to the center of town and found a nice place across from the church, where they had the standard selection for a “pilgrim’s lunch”: paello, pizza, omlettes made of egg or potato (the latter known as tortilla de patatas), ensalada mixta, and meat and fish entrees. Over lunch we talked about Bojana, who had had a déjà vu experience in Viana. Upon arrival in the town, she had a strong feeling that she had been there before. Déjà vu is supposed to be the product of a brain anomaly, although according to some estimates, 80% of people have experienced it. According to the theory, the brain simply tricks us into thinking we’ve seen a particular place before because the feelings we have when we see the place remind us of stimuli we have experienced in the past. Whatever the case, Bojana’s brain had tricked her in Viana, and I almost had a mop go through mine.
Cesare Borgia, member of the notorious Borgia family and illegitimate son of the Pope, also died unprepared in Viana. “I made arrangements for everything in my life, except for death,” he said. “Now I shall have to meet it completely unprepared.” After lunch we tried our luck and tried to get into the church where he is buried, but the door was locked.
With Iztok and Marjana at my side, I continue on the path out of Viana. It was a lovely rose bush in full bloom. We were full and happy, brimming with energy, and in the mood for a lively discussion. Marjana, who I had asked to teach me all about the seven deadly sins over the course of the trip, had promised the day before to tell me a story that would serve as a starting point for thinking about vanity, the worst of all sins. Now seemed like the perfect opportunity for her to relate that parable.
“Go ahead and tell us the story of the Pharisee and the toll collector.”
“I already know that story,” Iztok interjected, “but I don’t remember who the Pharisees were. The word has a negative sound.”
Marjana, who knows all about faith, prayer and parables, also knew who the Pharisees were. “The Pharisees were a religious sect who lived like regular people, but who placed a lot of emphasis on knowledge of and respect for religious doctrine. They consistently lived by the commandments, but they forgot that the most important was to love God and one’s fellow man.” She cleared her throat, perhaps because she needed to, or perhaps to make sure she had our attention. “The parable tells the story of a Pharisee and a toll collector. It starts with the Pharisee praying in a temple. He brags about how good he’s been, how he fasted and tithed and strove to follow the Law, and how God needed to acknowledge his achievements. He also emphasizes how much better he is than others, the greedy money-changers, the unjust, the inifdels, and of course, the good-for-nothing tolll collector.
Iztok jumped in. “Now I remember. The word Pharisee is used metaphorically as a synonym for hypocrite.
“Given his prayer, I’d say he was more of a braggart, or maybe a person who missed the point,” I remarked. “What bothers me is the fact that his prayer, which was really more of a brag than a prayer, did not contain even a hint of the first commandment: love thy neighbor as thyself.”
“Of course. Love is the essential thing. Despite his knowledge of scripture, the Pharisee had forgotten the two fundamental virtues: love and humility. In criticizing the toll collector and the sinners, he neglected to love his neighbor. Even positive abilities and good deeds can be sins if used as a pretext for vanity and pride. Hence the rule that when you do right, you need not fear being seen, but only that you are doing right in order to be seen.”
This brought to mind the time I was at an event put on by a charity organization. I will never forget how guilty I felt when they brought all the disabled people who had received donations onto the stage and announced how much each one had received. The more serious the disability, the greater the sum and the louder the applause. It was excrutiating listening to the crowd applauding these people’s handicaps. My conscious kept me from clapping, and feeling deeply ashamed, I left early. My conscience prevented me from falling into the trap of vanity, which often does similar, or even the same good works as love does. But only vanity seeks bragging rights. Although it is true that those disabled people had received financial support they would not otherwise have had, and which made their lives easier, I still wonder how they interpreted the applause. Was it too high a price to pay for the help they received?
Lost in thought for a few moments, my attention came back to Marjana, who was explaining about the toll collector. “What were toll collectors like back then?” I asked her. “Now I imagine them as smiling students sitting in the toll booths on the freeway.”
Marjana smiled. “That has changed a little over the last few centuries,” she said. “In the days of the Pharisees they were officials with a very bad reputation for taking more than they were entitled to.”
“The one in the parable probably wasn’t an exception either,” Iztok remarked.
“His life was not ideal or exemplary in any case, but he was sincere. He stood far in the background, bowed his head, and said “God have mercy on me, a poor sinner!” He was aware of his sinfulness and had nothing to boast about. He simply put all his faith in God’s mercy, which is of course better than bragging about human justice. The toll collector wanted to convert, but the Pharisee wanted other people, the sinners, to convert.”
“It’s so easy to expect others to change. I know full well that the only one who can change a person is the person himself, but so often I catch myself basically expecting it from others. It’s hard to live by all the commandments every day.”
Life is hard because we make it that way. The crosses we bear are the ones we put on our own backs. I had a question for Marjana, who knew so much about life’s ups and downs.
“Why do you think life is so hard?”
“It’s hard because of the constant battle we fight with our own egos. We allow it to puff itself up, and we put our faith in it and its abilities and achievements, instead of in God-in-us and in His mercy. And then our vanity and self-centeredness grow, giving rise to the abnegation of others. If we only knew how to tame our egos, it would be so much easier.”
The more Marjana talked, the more excited she became, until she reached full throttle. “This is because we’ve forgotten about humility, modesty. There is a hidden power in humility that protects and prevents us from being affected by the negativity of others. If we’re under stress or worked up over something, we’re robbed of spiritual energy and thrown off balance.”
Humility. Something we hardly find anywhere anymore. As if the word had a negative connotation.
“It seems to me it’s the entire global economy that encourages sin. The more you sin, the better you do. The more vanity, greed, envy and gluttony there is, the more we buy, accumulate, show off to others and to ourselves.”
“We all sin. The only question is how many and how badly. But let me finish the parable, because there’s still another deadly sin we haven’t mentioned, and that’s the hypocrisy of the toll collector. This is when you pretend to God and to yourself that you have the humility of the toll collector and enjoy the pretense in belief that it will make a favorable impression on God.”
“This is what I call hypocrisy. The Pharisee toll collector in the story could be a symbolic representation of the hypocrite.”
“Yes, of course. We all know we can fool others, and even ourselves, to a certain extent, but the ruse doesn’t work on God. And vanity is the deadliest of all sins, being the root of all the others.”
“I understand why it’s the biggest sin. If the foundation of everything is love, if the most basic commandment is love thy neighbor as thyself, then the conviction that we are better than others, that we don’t need the other, is the worst sin of all, as it violates the main tennet of Christianity.”
“Of course. In vainity we see only ourselves, walking all over others and exploiting and ridiculing them, destroying our relationships. The opposite of vanity is humility, which allows us to create room for the other, a place for relationship, which alone can fulfill a human being. But humility today has been nearly eradicated. And that is really a disaster.” I don’t consider Marjana a vain person. I don’t know why she was speaking in the first person plural.
Emerging from the pine grove, we came to La Rioja, named after the red color of Rioja. After that conversation we dispersed, each going at his own tempo, each absorbed in his own thoughts. I couldn’t get the idea of envy out of my head, and I was taken aback to discover in how many ways I was subject to it. I want very much to be appreciated, and I have a powerful need to be loved by everyone. I have difficulty forgiving, feel a desire for revenge when someone has hurt me, do not take criticism well, and am really thrown for a loop when I fail at something. I have an intense need to get my way and vanquish competitors. I want to forgive from the heart, to accept criticism and opposition, to at least consider the possibility that when someone reprimands me, it might be for good reason. I want to remain upbeat in the face of rejection and neglect, to be happy in anonymity and not take on a self-satisfied attitude in word or deed. It goes without saying that I am not always right, so I’m in no position to get defensive when criticized. I need to listento what they are saying and not let vanity conceal the truth. Humility is actually the opposite of all of those vain reactions of mine. For the first time in my life, I felt the wish to be humble. Until that moment, I had associated humility with subservience, servitude, spinelessness. Wrong! Humility does not mean bowing before someone, but rather bowing to them. Humility is acknowledgment of the truth. The humble look upon themselves honestly and objectively. We need not over- or underestimate ourselves, but only recognize our limitations. Only then can we give joy to others and show them that they are just as important as eneryone else in the world. In this way, humility bears its fruit: peace of mind, openness, and joy.
And in the next moment I realized that on El Camino, you simply are humble. As a pilgrim, you understand that you are imperfect, that you have your good and bad sides. You are happy to see the same better side in others that you have yourself and are not consumed by envy or jealousy. Interpersonal relationships are good, and there is a feeling of safety and balance in seeing that all are part of the same whole.
Upon arrival in the capital city of Logrono, our destination for the day, we again came together and stopped in at the first lodge we came across. We showered, rubbed moisturizer into our feet, changed clothes, put our laundry in the wash, and went into town for dinner.
Coming into the center of town, our attention was drawn to Saint James sitting atop his horse at the main entrance to the Iglesia de Santiago del Real, the bellicose Moor-slayer, Santiago Matamoros on his white steed. Just over twelve miles south of Logrono lies Clavijo, site of the miracle that occurred in 844 when Saint James appeared on his white horse and led the Christians in the Battle of Clavijo. This was one of the first decisive victories of Christianity over Islam, and James was said to have personally killed 60,000 Moors. It was for this that he became the patron saint of Spain and acquired the name Matamoros – the Moor-slayer.
We entered the church, where James is depicted as a pilgrim. Saint James had already become a pilgrim when he sailed to Spain from far-off Judea. Before that he had been a fisherman on Sea of Galilee , so he quickly found a common language with the fisherman on the Atlantic. But he also wanted them to share a common faith, so he introduced them to the Gospel. This continued until the year 40, which found him in Zaragoza. There, Mary appeared to him and told him to return home to Judea. It is not known whether he knew what awaited him there, nor whether he thought much about his return. To make a long story short, he went back, and in the year 44 was arrested and imprisoned, whipped, and beheaded by sword in Jerusalem on the orders of Herod Agrippa. His corpse miraculously returned to Spain. An unmanned raft washed up on the shore of Galicia, where he was buried, and the early Spanish Christians built a crypt for his relics. While they could. The Romans persecuted them on religious grounds and succeeded in driving them out, and both they and St. James, together with the area where his remains were located, were forgotten for almost 800 years.
In 813, a hermit saw an especially bright star. He had a feeling that he simply had to follow it. He then heard heavenly music coming from the direction of the star, and he followed it to a bightly lighted field, where he discovered a marble crypt. The inscription on the stone revealed that it contained the remains of “James, son of Zebedee and Salome.” Since then, the region has been called Compostela, which is said to come from the Latin campus stellae – the star-lit field. It could also be from campus tellure, the graveyard, but I prefer stars to graves, so I associate Compostela with the former.
The discovery of James’s remains happened at just the right time. At that time, Christian Spain was geographically squeezed into a narrow band on the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula, and most of the peninsula was occupied by the Moors. The discovery of the relics strengthened the people and established a bulwark of the Chirstian tradition against Islam. The King at the time immediately seized the opportunity to prop himself up and bolster confidence in the fight against the Arab “heathen”. He had a shrine and monastery built on the site of James’s grave and also became the first pilgrim to the holy site. And so El Camino became St. James’s Way, Camino de Santiago. In addition to the story of the discovery of the relics, news of the miracle at the Battle of Clavijo also spread. These two legends helped Church authorities acquire mass support in the fight against the Arabs. Santiago Cathedral officials also assisted considerably in this effort, hiring story-tellers to travel throughout the country and spread the “news” about the miracles of St. James and his relics. The business-minded church leaders knew there were a number of pilgrims who visited and contributed money to a shrine in proportion to the effectiveness of its marketing, and they put this into very effective practice even before the word “marketing” had been invented.
As far back as the Middle Ages, El Camino tied together a number of different economic interests: church officials promoted pilgrimages, the Benedictines built the first tourist lodges, the Knights Templar, protectors of the pilgrims along the path, introduced the first checks so pilgrims could deposit money at the start of their journey and withdraw it as needed, and the Codex Calixtinus – the first tourist guidebook, was published.
Marjana took her time praying in the church, so we waited for her on the bench outside. Iztok’s feet were hurting, and I hoped he wasn’t going to get some sort of infection. I looked at the spot he said was hurting, but there was no redness or swelling. This was what you had to worry about; otherwise, pain just came and went. Marjana and I laughed at the discovery that as soon as either of us stood up after taking a rest, some muscle we didn’t even know we had started hurting. But after a few steps it passed, as if the muscle had been “broken in” and was now at the right tension and in harmony with the other muscles around it.
At that moment, Victor showed up. “Got an infection?” he asked.
“No, thank God,” Iztok replied. “How are you? You’re looking pretty lively.”
“I’m great today. We’re all great. We’re making good time.”
We glanced over at the kids playing Game of the Goose, which was depicted on the sidewalk in front of the church.
“That game is related to St. James’s Way,” Victor interjected. “They say the object of the game is as hard to reach as it is to make the full pilgrimage to Santiago.”
“I think the worst is behind us,” I opined. “We made the decision to go, took the first step, and walked the first few days without any major difficulties.”
This time we treated ourselves to dinner at a somewhat pricier restaurant than usual, where the pilgrim’s menu meals were twelve euros. For my entrée I decided to try the pimientos rellenos, a local specialty consisting of bell peppers stuffed with ground meat, and was quite pleased with my choice. They say green peppers get their exquisite taste from the high quality of the water and the extensive precipitation that falls at the time the peppers most need it. With our meal we drank excellent Tinto wine from La Rioja. In this area they have been very careful about the quality a wine going very far back, and even banned the importing of wine in iron carts, as they believe the vibration harms the wine.
After dinner I went on Facebook and found Bojana’s reply. “Snežana, it’s probably still too cold for the butterflies. I think of you every day and hope you get to the end without any snow. A little longer and you’ll be on the Meseta, and now that everything is green, it will a special treat for both the eyes and the body. Could you feel the temperature difference in the columns? I still remember it well. Buen Camino and hugs.”
Yes, Bojana, I did feel the difference. The left column was noticeably warmer than the right one. You are also probably right about the butterflies, those symbols of metamorphosis: it’s still too cold for them. Nonetheless, today on the outskirts of Logrono I saw two white butterflies, two swallows that still hadn’t quite brought the spring with them, flying over the path.
Do We Long for Happiness?
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
From Logrono to Najera, with overnight stay in Albergue Peregrino. Distance hiked: 18.64 miles
In the early morning I was awakened by a dream in which I felt as if I were in paradise. I was in a sunlit cherry orchard, flying through the air from cherry to cherry, and was inexpressibly happy. But the moment I landed on a cherry, I was overcome with the fear that I would lose the ability to fly and be unable to move on. I tried again and again, each time with the happy result that I could still fly, and flying was very fulfilling.
Happiness. Is this really what we are yearning for? Slavoj Žižek [TN: Žižek is Slovenia’s most famous academic philosopher] says it’s not. He says happiness is not at all what people are after; what they want is creativity, the rush that comes with absorbtion in creative activity. As soon as we sense that we are near that certain “something,” we are willing to suffer for it, even to die for it, and this creative fever is what we really want, what we are yearning for. Not happiness.
For some time I lay in bed, reliving that dream of happiness and thinking about Žižek’s words. I didn’t stop until Iztok and Marjana woke up. As usual we got dressed in the dark and made our way to the dining room with its handy little kitchen to fix ourselves some breakfast. We had bought bread, butter, jam and milk the day before, and we boiled some water to make instant coffee. We ate almost without saying a word and then set off on the path again one after the other.
The town was still asleep. Only here and there did one encounter a local resident on the street. The way through town was long and on the outskirts became a paved walking path with lines of people going both directions: pilgrims were walking out, and joggers on their morning run were coming in.
People are energetic and active creatures by nature, and are very interested in feeling good. Most of us are aware that physical and intellectual movement is the foundation of well-being, but here too, as everywhere else, the coin has a flip side: we also want to conserve energy and seek short cuts. Some take a long time to realize that there are no shortcuts, and some never do. And even when we do discover this, here and there we still feel the need to put it to the test. A whole series of things that reduce the need for physical and mental labor works to reinforce our natural tendency to be lazy. These lead to absurdities, such as the decline in the sale of oranges due to the fact that people don’t feel like making the effort to peel them. The computer age has also done its part to bolster intellectual laziness, offering us the copy/paste function that allows us to “glue” pieces of writing together that would otherwise require much more thought, time, and creativity. Overcoming laziness represents a real challenge for all of us, which is only human, since laziness is a part of human nature. Those who give into it pay the price in bodily neglect, poor physical conditioning, mood shifts and depression. In my experience, they also tend to seek refuge in alcohol or other addictions. The joggers I encountered that morning were succeeding in their own struggle against sloth.
The hiking path was very long and ended at a recreation area by a lake. From there on I walked along the path along the wooded shore. It was pleasantly warm and the birds were singing. Fields of grain, vinyards and grasslands stretched out across the landscape. The daisies, those loves-me-loves-me-not flowers that little girls weave into little wreaths and wear, were in bloom and carpeted the path on either side. On El Camino you notice the beauty of these things, feel its invitation, and take the time to respond. I took off my backpack, shoes and socks and walked barefoot through the daisies. I was deeply grateful that the soles of my feet were not blistered. It used to be that blisters were the main topic of conversation among the pilgrims on El Camino. I remember the book by Nacet Novak, who made the pilgrimage fourteen years ago. Many passages in the book are dedicated to blisters and how to deal with them. It also describes the best method: first the blister has to be drained with a needle, then betadine is injected into the open wound and underneath the bubble and the whole area bandaged. Novak also swears by Compeed bandages for blisters. I took his advice and used them myself. It was hard to decide among such a large selection of bandage types for the toes, the heel, the sole, and so on. I didn’t end up needing them myself, but I gave a number of them away to other hikers who had brought normal bandages that didn’t do them much good. They couldn’t say enough about Compeed, though, as these bandages act as a second skin and dissolve on their own after a few days, along with the blister. In addition to the bandages, Compeed also has a stick you can apply to any area where you feel that a blister might be forming. I think this is quite effective, as I used the stick several times and hiked the entire trail without a blister. In Cizur Menor I even saw a Compeed vending machine that allowed contemporary hikers a chance to save time and spare themselves unnecessary discomfort. If you hike El Camino with shoes that are already broken in and seamless hiking socks, apply skin cream to your feet every evening, and take care not to let them stay wet very long, you probably won’t get blisters. And if, the instant you feel a pebble in your shoe, you get it out immediately, and apply the stick balsam without delay anytime you feel like a blister might be forming in a certain spot, then the probability of remaining blister-free becomes a near-certainty. This recognition has become widespread among pilgrims in recent years, to the enxtent that blisters today are hardly an issue.
In the middle of the daisy carpet, I lay down on my back and looked up at the sky. I gazed at the puffy white clouds sailing across the heavens and thought back to my days in elementary school when we had to write an essay titled “Where are You Going, Little Clouds, Where?” Alternating between writing and chewing our pencils, we wrote about how we imagined our lives would unfold. I still vividly recall what I wrote. I said that I wanted to work in commerce, with people, as I thought this would be a lively and engaging profession. I wanted to get married and have two children with my husband, if possible a boy and a girl. I also wrote that I wanted to travel. And now I realized that each of those goals had become a reality. I think we make our basic plan in childhood for how our lives should be, and we generally follow it. Because we believe. This is the faith that actually moves mountains. If you believe, if you are convinced that something is in harmony with the truth, you attain a power like that of Steve Job’s co-worker, who was certain he had seen a solution to some problem while visiting a competitor, and wanted to duplicate it himself. He tried and tried for months, almost giving up, because the task seeemed impossible. He wanted to quit, but he believed the solution existed and therefore must be possible. And the conviction that it was possible led him to find it. Later he discovered that he had not, in fact, seen what he thought he had seen while scoping out the competition, and that he had actually invented something considered to be impossible. “Impossible” is a temporal category: what is impossible today will be possible tomorrow. And at infinity’s end, which doesn’t exist, everything will be possible.
The verb “to believe” extended to infinity is “I believe”. You believe if you are in the long run convinced of the existence or reality of something, perhaps of a particular religious teaching, or of the possibility of achieving something, or of someone’s sincerity. Faith can also be an opinion transmitted by tradition as to the existence of something mysterious. We all believe in someone or something. Some believe in the god of Christianity, others that a four-leaf clover brings good luck and a black cat crossing your path, bad luck. We believe in a better future. We believe it will all turn out well in the end. This is what keeps us going. Our faith has infinite energy. It gives us the power of being, of simple existence. It gives us the power to move forward, when we don’t know where we are going or what it all means.
I heard something that sounded like my name. It was Yanga, the Korean man.
“Buen Camino,” he called to me.
“Buen Camino,” I answered. “Wait for me. We’ll go together.” I quickly put my shoes on and joined him. He asked me if I was carrying the little “bag of happiness” with me. I reached into the pocket of my hiking pants and showed it to him.
“It’s proven to bring good luck,” he said.
You hear that, Žižek? Even the Koreans want to be happy. That’s why they give people these little happiness bags.
“How did you decide to hike El Camino?” I asked him. “Where did you hear about it?”
“I read Paulo Coelho’s book about it.”
Every Korean person I met on this trip – and I met quite a few – told me they had heard about El Camino from Coelho’s book The Pilgrimage, which had made the best-seller list in Korea.
“Yeah, I heard that was a big hit in Korea,” I said. “Especially among men.”
“Did you read it?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “there’s a Slovene translation.
Coelho had gone on the pilgrimage with a guide thrity-two years earlier, before it became popular. Only 1801 of pilgrims get Compostela that year and he was probably not one of them, as the pilgrimage ended before Santiago, in O’Cebreiro.
“The pilgrimage finished at O’Cebreiro,” Yang said, as if he reading my mind. “He learned how to overcome fear and find the willingness to fight for his dreams. He gathered the courage for the fight and found the sword that would help him begin. He said dreams were the food of the soul, like nutrients for the body, and I couldn’t agree more!”
Koreans have an even stronger work ethic than the Japanese, and more fighting spirit, so it’s no wonder they went wild over Coelho’s book. What I got from it was above all a sense of his valliant struggle to realize his dreams. I agreed with him that not everyone fights this battle, and also with his statement that in one’s youth one has the courage needed to fight it, but not the knowledge. Over the years we gain the knowledge but lose the courage, so by the time we know what we’re doing, we’ve lost the will to fight for our dreams and end up fighting ourselves instead. We become our own worst enemy. We kill our own dreams because we’re afraid to fight the good fight. In Coelho’s view, the first sign that we’re killing our own dreams is that in our fear of the fight we make the excuse that we don’t have time. Life becomes a peaceful Sunday afternoon that gives a brief respite. But soon our dead dreams begin to decay within us and destroy the environment we live in. We become less and less empathetic to the people around us and finally become cruel to ourselves. Illness and phychosis begin to appear. And finally one day, our dead and decayed dreams become suffocating air, and we seek to escape Coelho’s excrutiatingly peaceful Sunday afternoon.
“My life became a Sunday afternoon,” Yang said. “That’s why I came here – to find the sword and fight the good fight. If you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about.”
Of course I knew. Coelho found his own sword at the end of the path, and he fought the good fight with it. He discovered that his sword was a fountain pen. On the path her gather courage, overcame his fear of defeat and disappointment, found his weapon in the battle for his dreams, and drove the Sunday afternoon out of his life once and for all. He began living the life of his dreams, the life of a writer, and wrote the book The Pilgrimage.
“I’m really happy doing what I do,” Yang continued. “I work for my livelihood, I have a person I love, I have money. But I’m not living my dream. My dream is to help people.”
Slavoj Žižek, I’m not sure but whether you didn’t just win one there. Yang is happy, but it’s not enough. He wants to live his dream, to fight the good fight, to brandish the sword. Coelho’s good fight, the fight to realize one’s dreams, is Žižek’s creative fever, the fever for which the person is prepared to suffer, and in extreme cases even die.
“And did you have this recognition on El Camino?” I asked Yang. “Did you find your sword here?”
“No, this is my dream from childhood. I remember watching a film about orphans in Africa and an older woman who lived in some delapidated hut. Every day she went to the grocery store and got vegetables and bread that were to be thrown out. In the morning she would then take this and make soup in a big kettle in front of the hut, and hungry children would come there before school for a hot breakfast. If you had seen the anticipation in their eyes as they stood there waiting for their turn with their empty bowls! And the gratitude when they were full. For some this was the only food they got all day.” In his voice you could sense how moved he was. If he hadn’t been Korean, he almost certainly would have burst into tears. “You see, the work of that uneducated, unschooled woman was noble. It gave her life meaning in a way few people will ever know.”
His words touched my heart, and I was overcome by an intense desire to embrace him. Camino, what are you doing to me? My old trauma from God only knows what that made me want to avoid physical contact with anyone I hadn’t known for years disappeared and was replaced by the spontaneous urge to hug Yang, a stranger from an entirely foreign culture. What on earth would he think if I actually did it?
“I’m happy you made this decision,” I said to him. “I don’t know if you’ll be happy or wealthy living your dream, but I know you’ll be fulfilled and rich.”
“As soon as I get back home, I’m getting down to work. I’ve waited too long already. There’s plenty of the necessary aid available in Seoul.”
Just then, Iztok caught up with us. Following the macadam road uphill, we arrived in the pale town of Navarette, passed through it, and turned off into the vinyards that stretch out all the way to Najera. We chose the first hostel we saw on the outskirts of town. Marjana was waiting for us in front of it, and we checked in together. After the usual showering, changing, and putting our underwear in the washing machine, we went to explore the town and, more importantly, find a good meal somewhere. I wasn’t all that thrilled with Najera. Over the centuries it seemed to have lost its glory as former home of the king of Navarre. We left to go to sleep right after dinner.
I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about my father and something that happened a few years before his death. He had an old farm house in Haloze, where he spent his free weekends. He surprised even himself once when he took a day off and went there during the week. The house was on a hill all by itself, the next-to-last on a dead-end street. On the other side of the little hill, at the end of the street, lived a young couple with two elementary school-aged children. The day of my father mid-week visit to Haloze, a hornet bit the twelve-year-old boy, Matej. He broke out in hives and began to swell up. In a panic his mother told him to clean himself up so she could take him to the hospital. She didn’t know why, but she had a feeling that my father was in Haloze. She went to look and was very relieved to see his car. When she told him what had happened, he grabbed his medical bag and went to the family’s house. The boy was already in anaphylactic shock and was suffocating. My father gave him a shot of adrenalin that quickly began to take effect. If my father hadn’t gone to Haloze that day, the boy would have died before his mother could have gotten him to the hospital. He described the immense gratitude he felt at having been given the opportunity to save such a young life. He said that was enough by itself to make his life meaningful, even if it was the only thing he ever did.
I thought of Yang and prayed that his dream would come true as well.
The German woman on a pilgrimage with her three-year-old son
Thursday, April 28, 2016
From Najera to Redecilla del Camino, with overnight stay in Albergue de Peregrinos de Santiago. Distance hiked: 20.13 miles
That morning I woke up very tired. I didn’t know what was wrong. I left the lodge and followed St. James’s Way out of the city. It was the eighth day of walking, and I started on mile number two-hundreFrom Najera, thed, completing it without difficulty. I’ve been thankful for my genes my entire life. They gave me height, a symetrical body, and long arms and legs. My body had served me well. I never got sick outside of the occasional virus, overcame increasing physical stress without regular workouts, and two years ago even the climb up Mount Triglav didn’t tire me out. I didn’t even work up a good sweat, and I was never sore. About a year earlier I had begun jogging regularly, and from the very first day I was able to run nearly four miles without strain, and this became my daily routine. I was almost never tired, and when I was, I always knew the reason. But this time I didn’t have the foggiest notion as to why I would wake up in the morning so exhausted.
From Najera the path led across a wooded slope to a plateau, along a wide path through flat terrain. Soon the vinyards were replaced by a vast grain field. It was the beginning of Tierra de Campos, the Spanish granary. Along the way everyone was passing me and it was with great difficulty that I arrived in Azofra. I stopped at the first bar and was incredibly happy to see Marjana, who had taken a coffee break. I complained about how tired I had been since getting up.
Marjana began rummaging through her backpack and pulled out a package of salted peanuts. “You need salt,” she said. “Eat some peanuts.”
Obligingly, I took the bag and had some. Marjana is an experienced mountaineer who goes hiking in the hills every weekend, and it is not for no reason that she always carries something salty with her. She put a half-liter bottle of water in front of me and told me I had better drink all of it. I finished off both the peanuts and the water and then I ordered coffee, and by the time I left the place I was feeling better. Within an hour I was back to walking at my usual pace without a hint of fatigue. I had a feeling that it really had been a salt deficiency.
From Azofra I continnued down the path through the gently rolling plains that go all the way to Santa Domingo de la Calzada. The region takes its name from Domingo de Viloria, who cleared the forrest, built a bridge, and paved the road (calzado in Spanish), hence the addition of the adjective “road” to the town’s name. He founded the lodge and was posthumously declared a saint. Today he is the patron saint of road and bridge builders, and the miracle of St. Domingo from the 14th century takes its name from him as well. An unusual feature of the cathedral in Santo Domingo are the roosters and hens that live in it. The reason has to do with a story of unrequited love and a resuscitated hen that goes as follows: A German pilgrim who came to St. James’s Way with his parents rejected the advances of the daughter of the owner of the lodge where they were staying, and so they accused him of stealing. They put a noose around the neck of the young man’s head and hanged him. As the parents were leaving Santiago, they saw their son, still alive with the rope around his neck., riding on the shoulders of St. Domingo. They informed the judge about this, who just then was sitting at the table dining. “Your son is as dead as the baked chickens on my plate,” the judge said to them. At which time the chickens got up and began clacking. The judge ordered that the son be taken down and a coop built in the church for the chickens. A Slovene folk song tells a variation of this tale in which St. James is the savior rather than St. Domingo. In this version, a pilgrim and his son are accused of stealing by the owner of the inn where they are staying. They protest their innocence, but to no avail. The father was sentenced to the gallows, but the son asked to be hanged in his father’s place. The sad father made the pilgrimage to St. James, and when he returned a month later, he stepped up to the gallows with the intention of ending his own life there. But as he was about to do it, his son spoke to him from the gallows:
Saint James stood here
He didn’t let me die
He’s still with me
He keeps me alive
The father rushed to the judge, who was just about to feast on baked hen, and told him what was happening. The judge rebuked him:
Your son is as alive
As the hen lying on my dish!
And look! The hen is crawling off the plate! Take the son down at once, sell the innkeeper’s possessions, and give the proceeds to both pigrims. Glory be to God and to St. James.
But whether it was the son or the father who was accused, St. Domingo or St. James that was the savior, two chickens or one on the plate, either way the church still has a coop with a hen and rooster that get changed out every three weeks. Three weeks of living in a church is more than enough for any chicken.
After seeing them myself, I got back on the path and headed out. The yellow arrows guided me along the way through the fields. I thought of the Slovene pilgrims who centuries earlier had probably brought back with them to Slovenia the song of St. James from the Camino. I was wondering who had been the first pilgrim from Slovenia to walk this road, when I suddenly shuddered in surprise. A tall, attractive young girl passed me pushing a stroller.
“Buen Camino,” she said, and from the stroller came the voice of a little boy looing up at me: “Buen Camino.”
“Buen Camino,” I answered, stepping up my pace to catch up with them. “Where are you from?”
I don’t know why, but on El Camino the very first question that follows any introduction is where the person is from, although we long since discovered that where we’re from determines nothing about us other than our native language. We all walked, ate, slept, and thought the same, had similar problems and identical blisters that we treated the same way, regardless of our countries of origin. The same things touched us, shook us; we all identified with the same heroes and empathized with them in the same ways. But the factoid of where each of us was from really just took the place of our last names. On El Camino, your last name has no significance. The pilgrims walking the Road to St. James were German Hans, Spanish Victor, American Bill, Belgian Arne, Slovene Iztok. No one knew the last name of anyone else.
“I’m from Germany,” said the young mother. I then immediately followed up with the ubiquitous second question. “What’s your name?”
“Eva,” she responded.
German Eva. I bent over the stroller and asked the little boy in German, “Und wie heisst du?”
“Klaus,” said the boy. “Und wie heisst du?” He probably thought he’d found someone other than his mother who spoke German. He didn’t know how limited my knowledge of German was.
“How old are you?” I asked him, unable to come out with anything else, although I was able to make out that he was three.
“And how old are you?” he asked me.
“A lot,” I said. He looked lost in thought. Apparently I’d confused him.
After a brief silence he looked back at me. “I’ve come to the Camino to look for my father,” he said. “Mommy lost him here.”
Taken aback, I looked at Eva, certain that I had misunderstood and needing some clarification. “My German is pretty bad,” I said in English. “I understood your son to say that his father disappeared on El Camino and that he had come here to find him.”
After a brief silence, it became clear that my German wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Eva’s face turned stoney and I felt like a stupid blonde. Embarrassed, I rushed to apologize.
“I’m so sorry I asked. I didn’t mean to be nosey. Forget I asked.”
“No need to apologize,” she said. “I actually did lose Klaus’s father before I even knew I was pregnant. I got to know him here on the Camino and I lost him here too about four years ago.”
“So you’re hiking El Camino for the second time?” I asked in amazement.
“Yes,” she said. “The first time I came right after graduation. I met Klaus’s father Steven on the second day. He was from Australia and we walked together almost to Santiago, but we parted company in Pedrouzo because he was boarding a bus to meet his parents, who were waiting for him in Santiago to take him back with them to Australia. He said he was going to tell them that he intended to stay a while longer in Europe, that he was canceling the flight, and that he would come meet up with me the next day and we would go to Santiago together. We planned to attend the pilgrim’s evening Mass at the cathedral. He wanted to come back with me to Germany. We saw each other for the last time in Pedrouzo. He didn’t come back for me, I didn’t see him at Mass, and I returned home the next day.” She gave Klaus an affectionate look.
“Does he know he has a son?” I asked her cautiously.
“Of course not. All I knew about him was his name and that he was from Sydney. I have no idea how I could possibly find him with nothing but that to go on. Besides, I never even thought of doing anything like that. He went home and forgot all about me. I didn’t want him to reconsider his decision just because of the pregnancy.”
We took a few steps together, and then she spoke again. “I told Klaus that his father was very far away in Australia and that I had met him and lost him on the Camino. He wanted to know where that was, so I decided to show him. We’re taking the same route, walking at the same pace, and staying at the same hostels as I did with his father four years ago. People look down on me, of course, because they don’t think a three-year-old kid has any business being on a pilgrimage, but I don’t see it that way. This pigrimage is very important for both of us.”
A young German couple who obviously already knew Klaus caught up with us, stepped up to the stroller, and joined the conversation. I quickly took my leave, saying goodbye to Eva and waving to Klaus as I picked up the pace. As I walked away, I felt angry at the fact that criticism and condemnation were rights that people claim for themselves in the belief that they know what’s best for others. Everyone does whatever they think is best in that moment. If the person thought some other course of action would be better, they’d choose it. If we were in that person’s shoes, and had the same past experiences and the same beliefs, we would make exactly the same choices, even if we don’t think so. Eva had decided to bring her three-year-old child to the Camino. I didn’t know why I should judge her for that. She was spending every day with him out in the fresh, warm air, and he was having one experience after the other.
Passing the expansive fields, I arrived in Granon, where I caught up first with Iztok and then with Marjana. I told them Eva’s story, ending it with her complaint that she felt looked down on by others. Predictably, Marjana reminded me of the biblical story of how the Jews, in accordance with Jewish law, had decided to stone an adultress. I had heard what Jesus said about this so many times since I was a child that I knew what was coming. “When they asked Jesus what he would do,” she said, “he said the one who was without sin should cast the first stone. And everyone left. Not one of them even picked up a rock. But of course, more than two thousand years later, we’re throwing stones left and right.” Recalling the recent scandal surrounding a high school principal in Slovenia who had been caught on video having sex with a teacher in his office and, as a result, committed suicide a few days later, she continued. “It wasn’t long ago that a hail storm of stones from all over Slovenia rained down on that poor principal and ended up killing him. As if the rest of us were all so pure and innocent.”
“Words have tremendous power,” Iztok opined. “Poorly chosen words can do someone real damage, or even cause a total emotional breakdown, as in the case of that principal. We have to know what we’re doing before we start looking around for stones to throw.”
How true that is, I thought to myself.
We talked about the extent to which people condemn each other, and especially about how horrible the consequences can be, all the way to Redecilla del Camino, our destination for the day.
The Canadian who was there when Drago died
Friday, April 29, 2016
From Redecilla del Camino to Villafranca Montes de Oca, with overnight stay in Albergue San Antonio Abad. Distance hiked: 15.41 miles
We set off from Redecilla del Camino without breakfast. We had planned on having it instead in Castildelgado, a village a few miles away, but we miscalculated. The bar was still closed, so we continued on and soon came to to the next village, Viloria de Rioja, birthplace of St. Domingo. We were almost at the end of our rope when we saw that the restaurant there was also closed. All we had with us to eat were two energy tablets, a quarter of a baguette, a few dates, and some honey. Marjana and I decided to take the energy pills, Iztok had the baguette with honey, and we all ate a few dates. This would have to suffice until we reached Belorado, five miles away. Running on literally just about nothing but those dates, we came to a pleasant hostel with a pool just outside of Belorado. Without waiting for Marjana or Iztok, I went ahead and ordered myself the fried eggs, sunny side up that I had been craving ever since we crossed the Pyrenees on day one. They say you should listen to your body, so I treated myself this time, even though I seldom have eggs for breakfast at home. I also ordered some all-natural orange juice and a grande café con lecche (large coffee with cream). At home I had been drinking my coffee black for years, but I figured a little milkfat was a necessary dietary supplement when hiking El Camino. I also don’t drink beer at home, other than with the occasional pizza, but on the trail I got a real craving for it every day around lunch time.
Marjana was the first to join me, and Iztok followed later. Both of them laughed when they saw my fried eggs. Fortified by a good breakfast, we pushed onward through Belorado, a rather unappealing town known for its leather goods. Once out of town we found ourselves on a trail leading through fields that became increasingly green, and than soon took on a slight upward incline. There was a time when pilgrims used to gather their strength here for the approaching mountain range with the unusual name of Oca, which is Spanish for goose. God only knows why a mountain range would be called goose, but we do know that pilgrims in the Middle Ages used to have to prepare themselves both physically and mentally before crossing these mountains, as the woods were full of robbers and thieves – as if the lack of food and equipement and the prevalence of disease wasn’t enough. Pilgrims today are in far less danger here, although there are still exceptions that prove the rule, one of which occurred last year when a young American girl lost her life. A local man, apparently out of his mind, put up some yellow arrow-shaped signs pointing to his farm, and the girl fell for his trick. When she arrived at the farm, the insane man killed her and buried her.
The trail began to slope steeply downward into a forest, and the landscape changed. The charm of the area was enhanced by moss-covered oak trees and thick ferns. The path through the clearing went up toward Villafranca Montes de Oca, where our day came to an end, despite the fact that we had barely put fifteen miles behind us. This was because the next stage included and up-and-down trek through the woods of Montes de Oca, where there hadn’t been a lodge anywhere in sight for more than seven miles.
Villafranca was where the wife of King Henry II ordered the building of the Hospital de la Reina pilgrims’ lodge, which was very popular due to the copious meals they served there. Much later, it became the Municipal state hostel, but it was closed at the time of our visit, so we climbed a little further to the San Antonio Abad hotel, which had added a wing to accommodate hikers. All the lower bunks were taken, so Iztok and I got separate beds up top. I desperately hoped someone would trade us our two twin-sized upper bunks for one double on the lower level.
I spoke to a rather secretive young Canadian man named Michael, about whom it was said that he was a war veteran, and that he drank a lot. Judging by his scarred and swollen face, I figured the rumors weren’t too far from the truth. I explained to him that I couldn’t sleep on the top bunk due to a childhood trauma, and asked if we might trade places.
“I’ll trade you for one upper bunk and a beer,” he said, as if he’d prepared the answer in advance.
“Offer accepted, thanks!” I responded, geneuinely grateful for the favor.
After the usual washing, changing, and skin-cream-applying routine, I put on my Crocks and went with the other pilgrims to get some dinner before it was too late. The Koreans were having a birthday celebration for someone on the grass to the right of the lodge entrance. They had spread a sleeping bag out on the ground, and the five men and one woman were sitting cross-legged on it. As I was passing, they invited me to going them. The birthday boy had brought some sort of Korean schnapps with him in his backpack. They poured it into small plastic cups and – Gun-bae! – rasied a toast to him. They did this quite often. No sooner had they finished off whatever strange food it was that they were snacking on – Yang said it was kim chee, Korean pickled cabbage loaded with chilis – then they were raising their little cups to the guest of honor yet again. I consented to having a cup of the stuff myself, but I wasn’t about to try the kim chee. It just looked and smelled to foreign to me. But Yang had told me that, although the Koreans all felt wonderful on the Camino, they missed their customary cuisine terribly. And now here I was, expected to eat the last morsels of this precious mana they had brought with them all the way from Korea, despite the fact that I absolutely did not want it. A jar of small fermented fish emitting a positively revolting smell was making the rounds, and for the first time I saw that having a poor sense of smell is not always a disadvantage. I took the jar from the person next to me and passed it right along as the phrase “Gun-bae!” once again rang out. I finished off my drink, thanked them, and said goodbye.
I caught a glimpse of Iztok on the terrace of the hotel. He was sitting at a table with Michael, Marjana and an older woman I hadn’t seen before.
“I don’t know what the Camino is trying to tell me,” she was saying, and then stopped abruptly when she saw me approaching. Iztok introduced me to Peggy, who, like Michael, was from Canada. As far as I could see, she was well past sixty, but she was still an amazing woman. In her youth, I thought, she must have been incredibly beautiful, and really, she still was. I don’t know where the idea that someone “must have been beautiful when they were young” comes from, or why we have this idea that only young women can be pretty. Peggy had incredibly big, alive, velvet-blue eyes, gray hair pulled back in a pony tail, just the right size nose, and sensuous, pink lips that opened to reveal two rows of flawlessly white teeth. Given her age, I guessed they were dentures, but I can’t say for sure. They looked natural enough, and so did she – from head to toe. Her skin was appropriately wrinkled for her age, but in an appealing way, and they lent her face a sort of noble beauty.
“She was with Drago when he died,” Marjana informed me.
I couldn’t believe it. “Impossible,” I said.
“Of course it’s possible,” Peggy interjected. “I’ll repeat the story for you. Drago caught up with me a little bit outside of Obanos and started talking to me. He told me he was from Slovenia, and we started talking about your country. We walked together quite a ways, talking the whole time. When we were crossing the bridge over the Salado river, he grabbed hold of the rail for just a split second and excused himself. He said he was feeling weak. Right then, two pilgrims from the Netherlands joined us, and together we began the climb up the hill towards Lorca. They were explaining how difficult the hike through the Pyrenees had been for them, when Drago suddenly collapsed face-down on the ground. We turned him over onto his back, the two Dutch guys tried to resuscitate him, and I ran to a nearby house and asked them to call for help. The medics came immediately, but there was no helping Drago at that point. I had a feeling that he had died instantaneously.”
Although I didn’t know Drago, I felt comforted by the idea that he had died on the spot and wasn’t alone when it happened.
“I had come to El Camino after seeing the movie The Way, hoping to overcome the death of my husband. It’s been a good year since he passed, by I still dream about him every night, and I still spend every day with him. I’m sick of hearing myself telling other people how he died, but I can’t seem to stop. He died while having dinner, instantaneously, just like Drago. We were sitting there eating, and then he just laid his knife and fork on the plate and said “I love you, Peggy.” And then he just fell out of the chair and died. In more than forty years of being together, he never said that to me. I felt his love every day in his touch, his embrace, his kisses,” she said, a smile spread across her face. “But he said it out loud only once, the last day of his life. Since Drago’s death I’ve been asking myself why Camino brought me such an experience. Why? Does anyone have any idea?”
We sat in silence for a few moments, staring into space. And each of us knew that this was something bigger than any of us, something unquestionable that couldn’t be explained by human rationality.
“One minute you’re here, and the next you’re gone,” Michael said after a long silence, his wounds showing ever more unmistakeably on his face. I suddenly was overcome by the painful memory of the death of my grandmother, who died around the same time as Peggy’s husband, except that she had been in the process of dying for about three weeks, a few months before her hundredth birthday. Her physical body simply wore out, her organs began failing, and she was literally shutting down day by day. First she felt pain in her arms and legs, then she groaned in pain for a few days and then went to the hospital. For the first few days she went to the bathroom on her own, but then she had to have someone with her in case she fell and hurt herself. Finally they put a diaper on her, and from that day on she never got up again. Slowly her digestion started giving out. It was horrifyingly real when her head, or perhaps her survival instinct, commanded her to eat while her digestive system was breaking down. After almost a century, it had had enough activity. It was spent. And whenever my grandmother’s will to live flared up and she wanted to eat, this was the message it gave her: enough. You gave her some yogurt, and woe unto her when it reached her stomach! She couldn’t speak. All she could do was close her eyes and groan in pain. Her stomach would eventually empty itself, the yogurt would move on, and the pain would ease, finally stopping altogether once the digestive system had concluded its forced labor. Most insufferable of all was the fact that her mind never stopped working. She was fully aware of what was happening to her. She considered and arranged every detail having to do with her funeral and her estate. Fourteen days after walking upright into the hospital, her organs had failed one by one, and her body had given out, and they carried her out in a box. In contrast to Cesara Borge, she had time to prepare herself for death. And I had great difficulty forgiving everyone – if indeed I ever have – for not letting her die at home in familiar, natural surroundings, surrounded by her loved ones.
When I came back to the lodge to go to sleep, I found one of the Korean birthday celebrants, whose primary duty had apparently been to promote alcohol consumption, somewhere about halfway between sitting and lying on the sleeping bag in front of the entrance. Yang had told me that people in Korea drink copious amounts of liquor. In any group there’s always someone who eggs the others on to drink more, and it isn’t considered honorable to decline the offer, even if it means a raging hangover later. And, as in other places in the world, these drinking binges in Korea have a tendency to end in arguments and physical altercations.
Sometime in the wee hours, I had to use the bathroom. There was a light on in the common area, and I saw Yang meditating at a low table in the corner. Sitting there with legs crossed, hands resting palms-up on his thighs and his face like stone, he seemed like an apparition. His eyes were open, but he didn’t see me. He was elsewhere. Most likely somewhere where he could realize his dreams, fight the good fight, and selflessly help his fellow man.
Iztok’s hiking shoes remain on the Camino
Saturday, April 30, 2016
From Villafranca Montes de Oca to Cardeñuela Riopico, with Marjana spending the night at the Albergue Camino de Santiago. Distance hiked: 15.47 miles and 8 miles by taxi to Burgos
Saturday morning we all woke up earlier than usual. I got dressed in the dark and took my backpack to the common area, which was like an ant hill. Zippers were zipping left and right, people were dressing and loading up their wind breakers and toiletry bags, rummaging through various pockets and compartments for thing that should have been there, and sometimes were. Like every morning, I layered my clothing, finishing with my cap and gloves. This meant that I could add or remove layers on the trail as needed. I stepped outside into the cold morning air, in total darkness. I stood there for a few moments while my eyes adjusted, and then I saw the faint glow of the white path going steeply up the hill. Breathing heavily as I walked, I noticed there was a whole line of people behind me. Some had head lamps on, lighting the path before me as I led the way. The uphill climb began to level off and we quickly reached 3789 feet. By then it daylight and I was able to enjoy the breathtaking panoramic view of the expansive woods. I don’t where all the others disappeared to, but I came to the momument to the Republicans who were shot during the Spanish Civil War. For quite a while I stood there trying to guess the meaning of the inscription, which I finally deciphered: “It was not their death that was senseless, but their execution. May they rest in peace.” Here at the top of Monte de Oca, there was abundant peace for them to rest in.
My hunger forced me to move on. The trail began sloping downward, and I walked the forest trail for quite a long time before reaching San Juan de Ortega. The region is named after Juan de Ortega, a student of St. Domingo and major proponent of St. James’s Way. Criminal elements scattered throughout Monte de Oca opposed his work, but he nonetheless established a lodge for pilgrims and paved the roads and bridges. After seven miles of hiking I was ready for a substantial breakfast and couldn’t wait to get to a bar. Most such places on the Camino are very nice, and they cater especially to hikers. In the morning you get breakfast, which is usually a tostada consisting of a toasted baguette, since there is hardly any other kind of bread to be had on El Camino. There you are, hiking through every grain field in Spain, and you can’t find a slice of dark or whole grain bread anywhere. One serving is a third of a toasted baguette cut in half and served with butter and jam. If you took a sandwich instead, this was also served on one-third of a baguette, with ham, cheese, and egg. Almost everywhere you could also get ham or bacon and eggs, and croissants were available all day, along with muffins, tortilla wraps, and St. James’s cake. In the larger places the sweet pastries were freshly baked each day, whereas in smaller establishments they had the pre-packaged variety with extended shelf life.
When I got to the bar in San Juan de Ortega, I found it still closed. Two hikers were already waiting for the doors to open, and they reassured me that the place would be opening in five minutes, right at eight o’clock. And it did. By that time a large group of us had gathered, and when the owner unlocked the door we practically stormed the place. We lucked out: the heat was on and the owner was fast, and we quickly had croissants, muffins and full cups of aromatic coffee in front of us. We weren’t quite as fortunate on the freshness front, though. The baked goods were store bought. After a long day of hiking, anything would be better than this, but the owner made a simple and quick enough profit from it that he didn’t need to take it up a notch. Looking at the sad faces of pilgrims as they came in and saw all those pastries lying there on display wrapped in celophane, it seemed to me that this was a great business opportunity for somebody: a place that offered fresh, pilgrim-style food to people who’d been trekking through several miles of mountain range with narry a snack bar in sight would clean up.
The trail continued past a church called Milagro de la Luz, Miracle of Light. Out of habit, I stepped up to the door and turned the handle. I could hardly believe my eyes when the door actually opened. Except for during Mass, most churches were locked. I went in and saw a kneeling figure in the first row, hands clasped and eyes fixed firmly on the altar. I recognized her. It was Alexandra from Germany, and she had reached her destination. It appeared that she had spent the night in the local hostel. A pilgrimage to this church used to be the last hope for childless women, and I knew that was why Alexandra was there. Queen Isabella of Castile, wife of Ferdinand of Aragon, gave birth to three children after visiting this church, and she gave the church the canopy over the saint’s grave as a token of her gratitude. Quietly so as not to disturb Alexandra, I had a look at the capital to the left of the altar that depicts the Christmas story. It’s something special because at every equinox a ray of sunlight falls on it for a few minutes. I sat down on a pew, wishing with all my heart that Alexandra’s prayer too would be answered. Then I left the church and continued on my way.
I caught up with Itok and walked with him. His pigrimage on El Camino was nearing its end. The next day his plan was to take the train from Burgoso to Pamplona, spend the night at the airport, take the early flight to Madrid and then connect to Venice, where we had left our car. He needed to return home, as the May first holidays were over, and he couldn’t leave his law practice unattended. Marjana and I would be going it alone from this point forward.
We walked through the forest and the wide valley and came to Atapuerca, where cannibals lived 800,000 years ago. What a number! Only a few years ago, they unearthed the skeletons of ten prehistoric people, all victims of their own cannibalistic nature. They called them Homo Antecessor. At first I shuddered at the thought of people gnawing on the bones of other people, but then I began to wonder if it really was that horrifying after all. They killed and ate because they were hungry. They did it to survive. And for tens of thousands of years thereafter, people slaughtered other people for power, for authority, for control, over different ideologies and faiths, or just because they were different. Are those more noble reasons? Homo homini lupus – man is wolf to man. The wolf kills for the sake of killing, destroys for the sake of destruction.
Climbing up the stony trail we reached the plateau, from where we could see all the way to Burgos, one of the larger cities in the Castile region, and Leon, cradle of Castilian literary Spanish. With the marriage of Isabella of Castile (the one who bore three children after praying at the Milagro de la Luz) to Ferdinand of Aragon, the two most powerful states merged to form a new Spanish state. With the town in view, we began the descent along the wide path through the fields, arriving at the first bar in Cardeñuela Riopico, where we were supposed to wait for Marjana and then say goodbye for the day. Iztok and I had reservations at a hotel in Burgos, and Marjana was going to stay the night at the local lodge. She and I had arranged to meet the next day at exactly noon in front of the Burgos cathedral and conitnue from there on our own.
On the terrace in front of the bar I saw Klaus’s stroller, which had a flat tire. Bill, the American from Minnesota, came out of the bar and Eva was holding Klaus in her lap. She seemed pretty shaken up.
“I called Eva a taxi,” Bill said. “It will take her to Burgos. At the gas station they’ll be able to fix the valve on the stroller wheel.”
“Yeah, I saw one of them was flat. The two of us are also taking a taxi to Burgos,” I said to Eva, “so we can go together, and Iztok will help you with the stroller.”
“Yes, please, that would be wonderful,” Eva said. “I’m totally incompetent when it comes to these things.”
While we were waiting, we sat down at a table. “And how are you doing on the Camino?” I asked Bill. “Had any crisis moments yet?”
“It’s going very well. My feet hurt and my backpack is too heavy, but who am I to complain? It’s amazing to constantly be burning off all my blood sugar so I don’t need the insulin injections.”
I had read about the powerful pharmaceutical industry’s overzealous promotion of regular insulin injections as natural and harmless. Their position seems to be that diabetes today isn’t a problem. If the body doesn’t produce enough insulin at any given time, you just inject it. This is of course a very profitable position for them to take, since millions of diabetics wordwide mean billions of dollars in sales. But things aren’t necessarily that simple; excessive vacillation of blood sugar levels over long periods can damage the body, and Bill knew it.
“On El Camino I see that physical activity and the right diet can do wonders. When I get home I’m going to adapt my lifestyle to my diabetes.”
At that moment, Mirjana came strolling up the trail, a bouquet of flowers in her hand. Iztok was of course leaving his tattered hiking shoes by the side of the trail, as so many do with their footwear once it’s outlived its usefulness. We even saw some haning high up from electrical wires. Iztok took his shoes off and we put them on one of the stones by the side of the road with the St. James’s shells and yellow arrows. Marjana arranged the flowers in them, and we took pictures of ourselves with and without the shoes, one of each of us alone and one with Klaus, and finally one group photo taken by the taxi driver. We said goodbye to Marjana and Bill, loaded the stroller into the trunk of the taxi, and set off for Burgos, Iztok sitting in the front seat and Eva and I in the back, and Klaus riding between us.
The driver dropped us off in the center of town, and we looked for a bench while Iztok busied himself with the stroller wheel. Eva showed him what tools she had, and she had everything that was needed, except for a pump. While they were working on the tire, I took Klaus to have a look at the little tourist train that had stopped not far from us.
Once the makeshift repair was done, Iztok and Eva began stopping cyclists and mothers with strollers to ask if anyone had a pump. Sure enough, one mother reached into the bag she had hanging from her stoller’s handle and pulled one out, and soon little Klaus was mobile again. Visibly relieved, Eva gave us both a hug, and Klaus followed suit, first hugging Iztok and then me before waving to us and climbing into his stroller. He was ready to continue the trek.
We found the hotel, took off our backpacks, and with our appetites at full throttle, went looking for some dinner. On the streets of Burgos we quickly understood why they called the city la fria – the cold one. The short summers can be very hot, but it isn’t uncommon for it to be chilly even in June thanks to the sharp continental climate. And this was the end of April. We were freezing. The local use thick wool to protect them from the cold, which is why Burgos is known as the city of wool, wool which comes from the sheep of the Meseta planes. But as we quickly discovered, it is more than that. In additon to the freezing temperatures and the wool, Burgos is also home to a product we Slovenes know very well: they call it morcilla, but we know it as blood sausage. It was available every place we went. Because we come from a country full of meats of all kinds, Iztok and I generally stayed away from it, but we were impressed with the different varieties you could get here: some with rice, others with onion and pepper, baked, pan-seared, or fried.
After dinner we walked around the town, bought a few souvenirs to take home, and headed for bed. In the middle of the night I woke up and was relieved to feel Iztok beside me. I hated the thought that he would not be there the next night. I propped myself up on my elbows and watched him sleeping in the dim light of the street lamp coming through the window. Together we had hiked a good 175 miles of the Camino, and we had thoroughly enjoyed it. Iztok found it very difficult to leave. El Camino had captured him the moment he heard about it, and he was hooked the instant he set foot on it. It was hard for both of us to accept the fact that he wouldn’t be finishing. I watched his tranquil breathing, as tranquil as his foot steps on the Camino had been. It was a good thing he had been with us at the beginning; otherwise Marjana and I might have pushed ourselves too hard setting out. Knowing us, that’s exactly what would have happened. We would have been too eager, and we would have had problems because of it.
The first nine days were behind us, we had covered on average a little less than eighteen miles a day, and our bodies were fortified and ready to march onward. I still had 372 miles to Fisterra. In our twenty-nine years of marriage, we had been separated only a few times, and never for more than a week. Now it was going to be three. I wasn’t afraid of the remaining hike; I was afraid of how much I was going to miss him.
No Room at the Inn
Sunday, May 1, 2016
From Burgos to Hornillos del Camino on foot, then to Hontanas, with overnight accommodations at the Albergue RP Meso el Puntido. Distance hiked: 14.73 miles
It was already light outside when I woke up. Iztok and I went to breakfast. The long tables were decked out with all kinds of food: fruit, salami and cheese, pastries, jams and marmelades, honey, egg dishes, various kinds of bread, juices and hot beverages. People were silently loading up their plates with food, carrying it back to their seats, and eating it mechanically. I wanted to say something to the man in front of me, but the odd look he gave me disuaded me. Among pilgrims, breakfast was a very socially active time, even if people had just met each other for the first time. It was spontaneous, and there was genuine concern for the joys and sorrows of the person one was in communication with. Pilgrims are so stronly connected that everyone’s ups and downs are experienced by everyone else as their own. As Hemingway put it: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you.”
We were all sincerely interested in the others, and all shared in the joy of anyone’s success, and we all pitched in to help as best we could whenever anyone ran into trouble, just as we would try to help ourselves. This seemed to go without saying. And all of us pilgrims were enormously grateful for the help.
Now I was in this dining room with people who had put on their masks for daily life, and didn’t occur to any of them to strike up a conversation with anyone else. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and back on the trail. The lovely dining hall and impressive spread weren’t doing anything for me.
After breakfast, Iztok and I went into town looking for the Santa Maria cathedral in Burgos. We were overwhelmed by its majesty and power, and it became my second-favorite cathedral, after the Sagrada Familia. I remember the chapel, where El Cid and his wife are interred, most of all. We learned about him in school: the hero in the fight against the Moors, subject of the Song of El Cid, whose honorific nickname, bestowed on his by his adversary, means “master” in Arabic.
Hanging on the wall of the chapel with the gliterring, snow-white sarcophagi of the master of the reconquest and his spouse was a picture of a woman I didn’t recognize. I did, however, recognize the artist. Stepping closer to read the inscription I saw that it was, of course, Leonardo da Vinci. Magdalena was portrayed with the same brush strokes as Mona Lisa. It’s amazing how you can recognize a painter simply by his way of using the brush. I was also moved by the statue of Christ on the cross. I don’t know who the sculptor was, but the image will always remain with me as a symbol of suffering. The suffering I saw radiating from his face literally caused me physical pain. How strong (or maybe gentle?) he must have been to be able to say in that moment “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do.”
Through the enormous glass door of the chapel, where Mass was being held, I saw Marjana. She was praying feverishly. I glanced at my watch, found Iztok, and together we left for the coffee shop on the square in front of the cathedral, where we had arranged to meet Marjana. I took Iztok’s hand and squeezed it tightly. He squeezed mine in return, and we both knew what it meant: that the time to say goodbye was approaching, and it was going to be hard for both of us. We hadn’t even parted yet, and we were already missing eah other.
Suddenly we heard a voice calling out. “Iztok! Iztok from Slovenia!” We looked back and saw Inge coming towards us, with Victor alongside her. “Yesterday we watched the soccer match between Atletico and Barcelona!” Inge shouted, still at a distance. “Your fellow Slovene Jan Oblak played so well that Madrid won, if you can imagine. You Slovenes aren’t just paving the road to success for the Swedes, but also for the Spanish!”
Although one could detect a hint of sarcasm in her words, Iztok grew about ten centimeters upon hearing them. He looked with such smug satisfaction at the people on the street who stopped when they heard the words soccer, Madrid, Barcelona, Slovenia, and Oblak. Swollen with national pride, he answered in a loud voice. “Yes, the Slovene was the strongest link in the chain. I don’t want to brag, but this is really nothing unusual.”
I thought about how I ought to write to the Slovene government and inform them of Iztok’s superlative efforts to promote the country’s image. Secretly, I half expected a lightning bolt to strike him dead on the spot for all his national pride. But nothing happened. It seemed El Camino was willing to overlook this transgression.
At that moment, Marjana joined us and we all went for our late morning cup of coffee. Time stops for no one, and too soon it was time for Iztok and I to go our separate ways for a while. First Inge and Victor said goodbye, followed by Marjana and me, then she and I left Burgos, following the yellow arrows through Arco de San Martin, the erstwhile entrance to the Jewish quarter. We hiked quite a distance before we actually left the town, walking together for the first few miles and indulging a little in the freedom. Iztok values rules, order, and moderation very highly and he adheres to them strictly in all cases. With him there are no exceptions that prove the rule, and he never spares himself or anyone else. Marjana and I aren’t always so strict with ourselves. Until now, although we had walked separately and each at her own tempo, we had stricly followed the arrow signs. Even when we came to a fork in the road where one way was significantly shorter, less steep, and less demanding than the other, we knew we had to take the latter because that was the one Iztok would take. Now that sense of being restricted was gone, and it was as if we needed to test our newfound liberty. So when we came to a country road and two arrow signs both indicated that we should go left, we decided to go straight instead. We convinced each other that this was a short cut, and continued to insist that this was the case even after we ended up at a highway crossing and a network of little rivers with no bridges. At our age, we knew well enough that there were no shortcuts in life, but we decided El Camino was the place to try anyway. We learned our lesson quickly, however, and quickly made our way back to the two yellow arrow signs whose guidance we had previously disregarded.
Just then, a pilgrim who seemed to be about my age passed by. “Buen Camino,” he said. “Where are you from?”
“From Slovenia,” I answered.
“Well, then we’re neighbors. I’m from Italy. My name is Giovanni.”
“I’m Snežana and this is Marjana, my husband’s cousin.”
“That’s interesting, I’m here with my cousin’s husband. His name is Adrianno. He’s back there somewhere. How are your feet holding up?”
“Fine. No problems so far.”
“My achilles tendon hurts,” Giovanni said. “I think it’s infected. But I’m pushing ahead anyway. Pain and suffering have a cleansing effect. Only pain makes perfection possible.”
Marjana and I began walking in stride with him.
“Pain and suffering are things we have to accept, along with everything else life gives us. Pain purifies and enhances. If we accept it with love and dedication, it’s sufficient payment for our sins. I believe God looks for those who suffer.”
He was starting to seem a little weird. I thought I’d found myself a masochist pilgrim.
“I don’t suffer physical pain, but psychological pain puts me on the floor,” I said. “I do everything I can to avoid it. I don’t like suffering and pain.” Suspicious, I watched Giovanni out of the corner of my eye. His view of suffering seemed very odd.
“It only seems that way. The spirit isn’t interested in enjoyment, fun, and pleasant experiences, but in its own progress, which brings it closer to its Creator. And this is very often reached most quickly through suffering and pain.”
This one really was an oddball, I thought. I began looking for a polite way to extricate myself from his company, but Marjana jumped in before I could say anything. “Pain, suffering and sadness are just kisses from Jesus. It tells you you’ve gotten close enough to him for him to kiss you.”
I looked at Marjana in amazement. Where had that statement come from? Giovanni, on the other hand, literally applauded. “Well said! I would never have been able to express it that beautifully.”
Giovanni began walking at a faster speed, and Marjana and I fell behind him. Each of was alone with his own thoughts. I thought about the conversation we’d just had, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Of course, I do imagine suffering to be more drastic than it is, like the suffering of Christ on the cross, fatally wounded, in intolerable pain both physical and mental, and visited on him by his fellow human beings. I could see the statue that had so shaken me that morning, that embodiment of suffering in the Burgos cathedral. Of course, you also suffer when your friends don’t approve of your behavior, if you hurt someone you love, and you suffer out of empathy with others. And this suffering makes moving forward possible, because its only when unpleasant feelings are present that we ask what is wrong, what we could change about our behavior so we don’t hurt others, what we can do to help others who are suffereing, and through our deep empathy we them, lessen our own. A psychologist friend of mine once said to me that we never change until something bad happens to us. The order of events thus goes something like this: Something bad happens, so you suffer. That suffering stimulates a certain behavioral response intended to negate the consequences of the bad thing that has happened, and this, in turn, causes a change for the better. This change is then your progress. When I thought about suffering in this way, Giovanni no longer seemed like a masochist, nor Marjana a religious fanatic.
We arrived in Raba de las Calzadas, a little village dotted with stone houses. At the edge of the village, we stretched out on the grass on the side of the trail and ate a banana and apple, our afternoon snack. Then we headed off again, each at our own speed and with our own thoughts.
Walking among the grain fields and hilly landscape, we came to Hornillos del Camino. The region gets its name from forniellos, the Spanish word for furnace for the production of lime. This area used to be an important rest stop, with several restaurants for pilgrims and a shelter for lepers. But today there aren’t enough beds for pilgrims, as it’s a day’s walk from Burgos, from where almost all the “old” pilgrims set off after first getting on the Camino at the previous entry point, where they are joined by a crowd of “new” people, who select Burgos as their starting point and get their pilgrim’s passport there. But Marjana and I figured this out too late. The first three lodges we came to had “no vacancy” signs on the door.
At the fourth hostel we found Giovanni and his friend sitting out front, the friend apparently texting someone on shiny new iPhone 6. Giovanni spoke to us as we were approaching. “This last one is full too,” he said. If you’re looking for a place to sleep too, I suggest we take a taxi to the next place. I spoke to the recpeitonist here, and he said we’d have to drive about 22 miles on the main road to get to a hostel that’s only a six-mile walk from here. But it’s already six o’clock, and we aren’t in any condition to walk that far.”
“We aren’t either,” Marjana said. “How much is a taxi?” Of course, she is in charge of our finances, so it’s good she asked. Iztok was the group treasurer until Burgos. Now it was Marjana.
“Sixty euros,” Giovanni answered. “I’ll try to talk him down a little.”
And so it was that fifteen minutes later, thanks to a series of coincidences, against our will we climbed into a cab. Sitting between Marjana and me in the back seat, the still-texting Adrianno introduced himself to us.
“How nice it is to be riding in a car,” he enthused, “and between two beautiful women at that. Mama mia, I’m in heaven!”
“Stop it, Adrianno,” Giovanni castigated him. “Get serious. It’s a disgrace we’re taking a taxi on El Camino. Not a word about this to anyone!”
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” said Marjana, her sense of fairness flaring up. “There was nothing else to do unless we wanted to sleep outside.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Giovanni sneered. “I didn’t come to the Camino to take taxis. If I weren’t with Adrianno, I’d walk the six miles even if it meant sleeping outside. It wouldn’t kill me.”
“I’m incredibly sorry to miss these six miles of countryside,” I said. But no one was listening. We had arrived in Hontanas, where there were supposed to be some lodges with vacancies. As soon as we caught sight of the first pilgrims, Giovanni asked the driver to turn onto a side street so no one would see we had come by taxi. When we arrived at the lodge, there were pilgrims sitting outside waiting for dinner. They saw us immediately.
“You came by cab?”
We were exposed, though Giovanni did his best to deny it. All Marjana and I could get was a pricey double room, and despite Giovanni’s most valiant efforts, the taxi driver had refused to take less than the full 65 euros, making this a very costly day. We did, however, get a delicious dinner in the company of Arne and Nikos. At least that. They listened sympathetically as we moaned about how El Camino had forced us into a taxi we’d have sooner avoided at all cost. We asked them what we had missed on the six mile stretch of omitted trail.
Arne’s dreadlocks began waiving, as they always did when he had something to say. “What did you miss? Not a damn thing!”
“It’s true you missed nothing,” Nikos confirmed, his eyes sparkling as he spoke. “And I do mean nothing. I’d have gladly paid 65 euros to miss that stretch if I’d known what was there.”
Arne sighed. “I’ll tell you what it looked like so you’ll have some idea. The trail winds around through a whole galaxy full of small and even smaller hills that are interesting for about the first ten minutes, until you realize there all fucking identical. You walk up a little and then down a little and then back up a little, and you do that umpteen fucking times. Then you get to a hollow where there’s one fucking hostel, the San Bol, out in the middle of nowhere, like some kind of horror movie, and at three o’clock they’re already fucking booked solid.
Marjana and I laughed at his colorful explanation, and Nikos took the opportunity to tell us about how there had once been a hamlet there, but for some unknown reason all the inhabitants had abandoned it some 500 years ago. Then Arne took the floor again.
“While we were busy cursing the San Bol for not having any free beds, we hiked up to a plateau full of windmills. And then we walked and walked and fucking walked some more, thinking when we reached the edge of the horizon, we’d be at our destination. But we were mistaken. When we got to the edge of the horizon all we could see was the next horizon off in the distance, and again we walked and fucking walked. And when we thought we were going to go fucking crazy from all this fucking walking, we were suddenly standing right there in the valley in front of Hontanas.”
Arne had been nodding throughout his speech, making his dreadlocks sway back and forth. “If you want to know what I think, the people of San Bol left out of sheer desperation at having to live in such a fucking desolate place, and no one’s had any desire to settle there since.”
Marjana and I knew Nikos and Arne were exaggerating so we wouldn’t worry too much about having missed out on something worthwhile. And they really did somehow manage to fill in those ten missed miles with their descriptions, so I was ready to continue on the next morning as if nothing had been omitted.
After dinner we met Giovanni and Adrianno at the bar. They were in the company of someone we didn’t know. Giovanni introduced him to us as Thomas from America, a man whose life had been characterized by pain, suffering and sadness as far back as he could remember.
“But as Marjana explained to me today,” Giovanni said, “pain, suffering and grief are only kisses from Jesus. They tell you he’s close enough to kiss you.”
Only bad things encourage personal growth. At least that’s how I, who had come to El Camino for spiritual, and not for religious reasons, understood that statement. Whatever spiritual reasons are.
A Good Day to Die, Cry, and Love
Monday, May 2, 2016
From Hontanas to Fromista, with overnight accommodations at the Albergue Municipal del Peregrinos. Distance hiked: 22 miles
When daylight broke and illuminated the landscape, we marched off in a straight line, heading for San Anton. Giovanni was at the head of the line, followed my Marjana, Thomas, me, Adrianno, and Nikos, our caboose, whose friend Arne was still sleeping. Giovanni was singing, mostly Beatles songs. I was impressed that he knew the lyrics by heart. I myself didn’t know any songs well enough to sing them all the way through from memory. I was deep in thought, and all I was thinking about was Global Love Day. I knew that there was too little singing in my life, and that I didn’t listen enough to the lyrics of songs. How nice it was when we all helped Giovanni belt out the refrains together! Though we were from all parts of the globe, we all liked the same music and joined in it together. Lennon, the genius shot down by his own fan. Did Lennon’s killer know the lyrics of his songs by heart and sing them? Who knows. I gazed up at the blue sky and watched the clouds wafting by. What on earth had inspired Yoko Ono to write Lennon a postcard with the words “I’m a cloud. Look for me in the sky” before she had even met him? With those words, she had captures his imagination and his heart, and they wafted through life together until he died on the steps in front of their home. And now he himself is a cloud, and we can look for him in the sky.
We arrived at San Anton. The pilgrimage trail and road pass underneath an arch that connects the monastery and the church. The monastery was thought to be a place for miracles, because during the Middle Ages many came there and were cured of ergotism, a disease also known as Saint Anthony’s Fire that is caused by a fungus that principally infects rye. This grain-attacking parasite is so toxic that infection was usually fatal. It often appeared after a bad harvest, when bad grain was used to bake bread. Pilgrims in the Spanish grain belt along St. James’ Way enriched their diets with wheat bread, as was common practice in that area. They were healed because they didn’t rye bread, but instead of attributing their recovery to wheat flower, they believed it was the work of Saint Anthony. The monastery was truly mirculous, though, as pilgrims not only were cured, but also received a gift, the Cruz del Peregrino, a T-shaped symbol of Christian dedication that guaranteed protection on the pilgrimage. Antonite monks adopted it as their trademark and wore it, and even today it remains one of the mystical symbols on the Road to Santiago.
I was passing under the arch just as the first gentle rays of morning sunlight announced the arrival of day. Just behind me I heard footsteps. It was Marjana. For her, this pilgrimage revolved around prayer. Every day she prayed for one of her loved ones – her husband and child, her father and deceased mother, her brothers and sisters, her friends.
“Did you not get enough sleep?” I asked her. “Your eyes are all puffy.”
“No, I slept very well. I dreamed about my mother. She visited me and asked me with a smiled how we were all doing since she’s been gone.” Mirjana’s voice was shaking. “She told me not to worry about her, that she was fine. Then she left, and I woke up in tears. I’ve been crying all morning. That’s why my eyes are swollen. For some years I couldn’t remember what she looked like. I couldn’t recall her face or her voice. But in the dream I saw her so vividly. And she was so beautiful. And the sound of her voice…I feel so warm inside just remembering her. It was a wonderful dream.”
Her tears began flowing again, and I figured this would happen several times before the day was over. Even before the dream, she had already dedicated that day to praying for her mother, so it isn’t surprising that her subconscious memories of her mother’s face and voice would come out in a dream just then. I believed that she would get over her mother’s death on this pilgrimage. It was time for her to come to terms with it and forgive both her mother and herself. The tears were a good sign.
I stopped to take a picture of the stone wall of the monastery in the morning sunlight. In the meantime everyone scattered and I headed for Castrojeriz on my own. Victor was sitting on the terrace of the first bar I came to in town. He waved for me to come join him.
“Buen Camino,” he said, “How’s it going?”
“Great. No blisters or infections for the moment.”
“And there probably won’t be from now on. I bought new shoes, but everything’s ok for the time being.”
“I hope those new shoes don’t give you blisters. They say you need shoes that are already broken in.” “I hope so too. I had no choice. The soles of the old ones were coming off. I had to throw them away.”
I looked around. “What town is this?”
“Castrojeriz,” said Victor. “It used to be a stronghold in the Christian battle against the Arabs during the Reconquista. My history teacher drove me nuts with the Reconquista. I memorized everything.”
“We talked about that in history class too, but I’ve forgotten pretty much everything, although I do know that Reconquista is Spanish for ‘reconquest,’” I said, pretending that this made me a certified polyglot. “Tell me what you learned. After all, without the Reconquista, the Camino wouldn’t be St. James’ Way. You still remember any of that stuff?”
“Some of it. I remember how long it lasted – almost eight centuries. It started in the year 714 when the Moors pushed into the Iberian Peninsula from the south and conquored most of its territory. They crossed the entire Pyrenees range and got to Tours in France, where they were stopped by Charles Martel in 732.”
“I remember that was the only time they crossed the Pyrenees,” I said, interrupting him. “Later they tried again and failed.”
Victor continued talking as if I hadn’t spoken. “But the Reconquista itself started in 718 with the liberation of Galicia and Leon, and ended in 1492, when the Emirate of Granada was conquored.”
“That’s the same year Columbus discovered America,” I interjected again, hoping this time to become part of the conversation. But Victor was not easily dissuaded. He kept right on with his history lesson as I sat there and tried to listen. But something was distracting me: I had again become aware of my nasty, intractable habit of interrupting people. Maybe it was my vain streak, I said to myself, and focused once again on Victor’s story.
“From a religious perspective, the Reconquista represented a battle between Chritianity or Catholicism on one side and Islam on the other, but it ended with the Islamic forces retreating completely from all Western European territories.”
“Nice going, Victor,” I said. “You’re history teacher obviously drove you nuts for a reason. You even remember the exact years.” I had to pause for a moment. There was a tear on Victor’s cheek, and I collected myself before continuing. “St. James’ Way basically became a part of the Reconquista because the Church discovered relics that could only have belonged to St. James, and this ignited the liberation movement against the Moors, who belonged to another religion. Did you read Shirley Maclaine’s book about the Camino?”
“She did it in 1994, and in the book she describes how she thought a lot about the ancient animosity between Muslims and Christians. Some say she even predicted the fall of the Twin Towers, which happened seven years after she made the pilgrimage. She says that Arabs have long considered Christians to be non-believers and accomplices of Satan, while Christians view Arabs as heathen who rule over them and rule by the sword. She came to the conclusion that in this respect, time hadn’t brought about much change.”
“True enough,” said Victor. “The only thing that’s changed is the external appearance, mostly due to technological advances. Otherwise, things are basically the same.”
Today as I write this, there are reports on the radio that two Muslim refugees slit the throat of an 84-year-old priest at a church in France. Time really hasn’t brought much in the way of change.
I finished my coffee, told Victor we’d see each other later, and continued on my way.
In Castrojerezit there’s a church named after Saint Domingo. On the outer façade are two deathlike stone heads that will stop you in your tracks. These figures compel you to reflect on transience (O Mors) and eternity (O Aeternitas). Thomas did a double-take when he saw them, and said, maybe to me, maybe to himself, or possibly without even realizing he was speaking, “Our physical bodies are impermanent. We see that, feel it, touch it. But what is it in us that will remain forever? Do we know that? Transitoriness is here with us. Where is eternity?”
Marjana came up from somewhere behind me. We stopped for lunch, and of course tried the garlic soup, which is a local delicacy. It was extremely good, like everything we ate on El Camino. I don’t know whether it’s that northern Spanish cuisine is that fantastic, or whether everything just tastes better after the hunger that comes from physical exertion, but I do know that everything on the Camino is intensified, including the taste of food.
After lunch, Marjana again burst into tears. We caught up with Adrianno, Marjana in tears and I in silence, and he was very happy to see us. We came up alongside him and we started talking about our families. He told us his story, the story of a well-groomed and charming man who broke women’s hearts. He was sixty-three years old, had two grown, well-educated children, and had been a successful politician. The daughter was a lecturer at Oxford, and the son at Columbia in the US. She lived in London with her family, and he in New York. All together he had three grandchildren already, and had been married more than forty years. For over a decade, he and his wife had been sleeping in separate beds, and in addition to her he had two single, independent, adult lovers: one younger (forty-three years old) and the other ten years older than he was. Both were very successful in their careers and financially independent, and neither wanted a husband. They were both more than satisfied with an attentive lover who should not, however, have too much time for them, since they themselves didn’t have all that much time for him. This rectangular relationship went on for a number of years, at the fast pace of the 21st century, when Adrianno decided it was time to slow down, retire, end his relationship with both of his lovers, and live out the rest of his life happily with his wife. He also hoped to made amends for his sins, which is why he had decided to make the pilgrimage on St. James’ Way.
That’s just how it is on the Camino. You meet another pilgrim on the way, exchange a few words, and the next thing you know, despite the fact that you hardly know each other, you’re exchanging life stories. Considering the powerful bond among pilgrims and the feeling you get that you already know someone or have seen them somewhere before, this isn’t so strange.
Adrianno’s voice brought me out of my reverie. “What do you think about my decision?”
“Sounds ok to me,” I answered. “Do those two know about each other?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they sense it. My wife knows about at least one of them. I mean I came here to reprent for my sins, after all. And before I get home I’m going to break it off with both lovers. Every day I go to Mass and every day I pray to have the strength to do what I promised myself I’d do.”
The view was expansive along the rolling, macadamized path that disappeared at the top of the flat-topped mountain. We caught up with Giovanni as he was standing by the trail, looking out across the expanse and taking deep breaths.
“It’s a good day to die,” he said suddenly. I didn’t know what to think about this. What was going on with him that he kept talking about the beauty of pain and suffering, and now about days that it would be good to die on?
My mouth opened on its own. “It’s a good day to cry,” I heard myself say. I don’t know what made me say it. Maybe it was because I had been expecting to have a good, cleansing cry myself, having read so much in books by other pilgrims about how everyone who makes this journey ends up spontaneously weeping. This can be spiritually cleansing, and I had been waiting in anticipation the whole time to see whether it would happen to me the same way. So far it hadn’t. But it had happened to Marjana just that day, although I understood her tears to have come from painful memories of her mother’s death. In other words, she had had a reason.
“It’s a good day to love,” said Adrianno. What kinds of Italians were these? One wants only to suffer while dying and the other one just wants to make love. They obviously had their own way of thinking. And what kind of Slovenes were Marjana and I? One sobs all day long while the other compares the beautiful day to crying. At least Adrianno must have had such thoughts as he watched Marjana’s periodic outbursts from under those eyebrows. He certainly knew all about a woman’s tears and had certainly noticed them, but for a long time he didn’t utter a word. If you ask me, many a woman had cried a river over him.
“Marjana, why did you come to El Camino?” he asked casually.
“I answered the call of Saint James. I was chosen to come pray for the forgiveness of my family and friends for all my sins. And I’ve been praying most intensively that they be shown mercy and that they forgive themselves.”
“Very noble of you. I also prayed a lot as a child. I really wanted a bicycle, and every day in the morning when I woke up, and again at night before I went to sleep, I prayed to God that I would get it. A few years later I still had no bike. I realized that God doesn’t work that way, and so I switched tactics. I stole a bike and then prayed every day for forgiveness.”
Marjana and I both laughed at the joke, and her water works dried up for a while. But it’s probably not necessary to dry up the tears that cleanse. They stop by themselves when their work is done.
Leaving the flat plateau of the mountain top, we went down and onto a flat plain of grain fields that stretched as far as the eye could see. We were far away from the world of duties and obligations, and of the masks were wore in our daily lives. On the Camino you’re in a sort of strange physical and mental state; you have the feeling somehow that your mind is turned off because you don’t really need it. All that’s needed is to follow the yellow arrows. When you set your brain on minimum power, your senses and emotions are turned up to maximum. Thoughts come and go of their own accord (from where, I wonder?). I used not to be able to understand the statement of the fox in The Little Prince that says “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” I couldn’t imagine what it meant to “look with the heart,” But on El Camino, it simply happened. Here you are always looking with the heart.
In the afternoon, the trail would around and through the fields by a canal, a waterway for grain transport that was a full 128 miles long and went all the way to the Atlantic coast. Mules trudged through this area pulling freight ships. Sometimes the ships were so loaded down that it took 400 mules just to move them. I had no idea how they got so many in one place. The trail was fairly monotonous. At the Fromista flood gate we turned towards the town to look for accommodations.
After my shower, I went to hang my wet underwear and towel in the courtyard in front of the lodge. Other freshly-washed pilgrims were already out drinking in the sun. I hung up my laundry and looked for a free chair. I took off my Crocks and put my feet on the soft green grass and let out a sigh of satisfaction. I thought about the numerous times I had sighed just like that on the Camino at the sight of a flower next to the trail or a solitary tree in the middle of a field, upon hearing the song of a bird, feeling the water running down my sweaty skin in the shower, or laying my backpack down after hiking all day. Two Germans sat down at the next table and also put their bare feet in the grass. One of them gave a sigh of satisfaction just like I had. Then Belgian Arne piped up, his long dreadlock flapping as usual.
“We walk, walk, walk and drink and walk, walk and eat and walk, walk and sleep and walk, and all the time we are extremely happy. We all must be fucking idiots,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. We were all grinning when older Korean man smiled and finished Arne’s thought.
“That is fucking true,” he said.
In the Vastness You See the Smallness of Humanity
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
From Fromista to Calzadilla de la Cueza, with overnight accommodations at the Albergue Municipal del Peregrinos. Distance hiked: 24.27 miles
Walking by the side of a stream, I came to Villalcazar de Sirga, where I stopped in at the first bar for breakfast. Marjana was already sitting at the counter waiting for her coffee. I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich. I ate half and took the rest with me, as I find sandwiches made from a third of a baguette too much for one meal. I wanted to take a peak at the local church, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Virgen Blanca, because I had read about miraculous healings that had occurred under the statue of Mary back during the Middle Ages. But like most of the others, it was closed. Many times along the way I regretted having encountered such a long string of closed churches. I know it takes all kinds to make a world, and if a church unlocked, someone will sooner or later steal or vandalize something. But I still think it would be possible to arrange it so that churches could remain open with constant supervision so as to be available to believers and unbelievers who might at any moment stop in for a bit of quiet time or inspiration, or even just to admire the creative work of their ancestors.
I continued along the road until I reached Carrion de los Condes, where Count Beni Gomez, whose two sons were to have married the daughters of El Cid, the hero in the battles against the Moors, had his headquarters. Instead of marrying the daughters, the two sons stripped them, beat them, and left them for dead. But they miscalculated. The daughters recovered, and the sons paid for their brutal attack with their lives. In Carrion de los Condes I saw Giovanni, who spent a good time looking over the southern portal of the Iglesia de Santa Maria del Camino church. He noticed me as well. “Did you know that once upon a time in this area they had to hand over two virgins to the Moors?” he asked me.
“I’d heard that,” I said. “That was the price they had to pay for peace.”
“That scenario is depicted here,” he said, pointing to the scene. “People living here prayed for their liberation and Mary sent a herd of bulls there to drive the Moors out and save the virgins.”
This reminded me of a story of my own home town. “In Slovenske Konjice where I’m from,” I said, “there was a dragon that lived in an underground cave beneath a mountain, and they had to bring it six virgins every year to be devoured. When it came time for the count’s daughter to be eaten, Saint George arrived on his horse and killed the dragon.”
“Can you imagine their desperation?” Giovanni continued. “The suffering of the unlucky ones?”
This time I held my tongue. Historians claim the Moors never made this demand, but I didn’t want to tell Giovanni that. It wasn’t important anyway. I turned around and returned to the trail, but I soon heard footsteps behind me.
“I’ve suffered since I was a child,” Giovanni said as soon as he caught up with me. “I had a cruel father.”
I listened to his words, amazed that he was willing to tell me anything personal.
“He was a violent drunk and he beat me until I was nineteen and big enough to stand up to him. But in front of other people he played the ideal father.”
“It’s a shame you didn’t stand up to him sooner.”
“Everyone is always so full of good advice about what they would have done in my place! Who stops to consider that I might have been scared? That I didn’t dare do anything?”
I wa quiet. I resolved to stop talking and just listen. After a few moment, Giovanni continued.
“It wasn’t until I was nineteen that I felt strong enough to hit him back. Since then nothing’s happened. I wanted to go to college, so I secretly asked my aunt, his sister, if I could come live with her in Milan. I told her about my father’s drinking and violence. She took me in and went to see dad. I don’t know what that conversation was like, but I never saw my father again. I only know that every month he sent my aunt money for me.”
My curiosity got the better of me. “Is he still alive?”
“A few years after I graduated I received word that he had died. I didn’t go to the funeral. Now I regret that decision.”
“And do you have a family?” I asked. I really am incorrigibly impatient. I’m constantly interrogating people.
“I don’t know.”
How I managed to resist asking him a series of at least ten more questions is a mystery, but after a little while he related more of his story without any prompting from me.
“While I was in college I fell in love with a girl from a very wealthy and well-known family, and I wanted to make her mine in every possible way. I was overjoyed when she began spending time with me, but later I found out she was only toying with me. When I proposed to her, she flatly turned me down and told me she would only marry someone appropriate to her status. How that hurt! No sooner had the old wounds started to heal, when they we reopened.”
He grew quiet and contemplative, and I chose not to disturb him in his thoughts. When he again began to speak, I sensed that he had closed himself up again.
“I got a job and worked from morning until evening. Eventually I opened my own practice, the business grew, and I became a real businessman with my own dental clinic. I made a lot of money, and that proved to the world that I was worthy, that I existed. You might not believe this, but the fact is that the more money I made, the more respect I got and the more my reputation grew. I suddenly became Mr. Popular. Everyone invited me to their dinners and parties. I ended up quitting my actual profession and devoting myself full-time to just running the clinic.”
Giovanni again became pensive. I could see it was hard for him to talk about all this. I was surprised at his feelings, and I empathized – not only with him, but with all pilgrims and all people. We all have our stories of suffering, disappointment, powerlessness and resistence, sometimes even of abuse and total abnegation. Of course we have our brighter stories too, but somehow it’s the dark ones that seem to have the greatest impact on our lives, that shape our character, drive our behavior, and determine the shape of our hearts. Was Giovanni’s theory of suffering true?
“What an unhappy childhood I had,” he sighed.
“And I had a happy one,” I said, trying to console him. “And today we’re both on the Camino.”
For a long time he was silent. Then I asked him, “What did you do then?”
“I married the prettiest young woman I could find and showed her off. I was that man’s man with the gorgeous girl who everybody’s envious of! We had two children, but I didn’t have time for them. I had to keep bringing in more money to get more popularity and respect. I became the darling of the tabloid press, and I liked it. Greed drove me and made my success and happiness dependent on earnings, and people actually gave me recognition based on my wealth. I bought a villa with a large garden, plus another one at the coast, along with a yacht. I stocked the garage with cars and was very ostentatious with my wealth.”
The trail led to a country road in a forest, part the ruins of a Franciscan abbey.
Giovanni read the inscription aloud: “Abadia de Santa Maria de Benivivere,” he said. “It was an abbey famous for its riches, as evidenced by the word beniviver – the good life – in its name. But is the good life really about amassing riches? In my own life it hasn’t worked out that way.”
We walked a little while in silence, then he said, “About a year ago I had a stroke. I was lucky, or not, that they were able to save me and bring me back to my senses. I completely changed my life. If I hadn’t, I’d be dead now. I weighed over 220 pounds, had high blood pressure, and was totally out of shape. I was out of breath just walking up a flight of stairs, and I couldn’t even get out of bed in the morning without antidepressants. I sold my company, villa, and yacht, sold my cars, left the house to my wife, and moved into a one-room apartment. Then I bought a bicycle and enrolled in a yoga class.”
“That’s kind of extreme. I’m impressed you managed all that in the span of one year.”
“It wasn’t easy. And it still isn’t. Even now I’m not sure I’ve really forgiven my father for beating me the way he did, even though I know he thought he was doing what was best for me. But I do know I’ve forgiven my first love for the way she messed around with me. I just can’t forgive myself. It hurts. It’s clear to me that I accumulated a lot of things to prove to myself that I was worthy of love. For years I was terrified of real human intimacy, and yet I craved it at the same time. I’m still not clear about it all. I took pleasure in controlling people with my money. But now I can’t just accept the fact that human beings are just like that and let it go. We worship people who earn millions, but we won’t even look at the poor.”
“Even the poor want to be you. They also want to rake in millions.”
“Yeah, that’s true. Like it or not, suffering is a part of live, and it starts with our arrival in the world. We can run from it, but there’s no getting away. It’s not that we look for it. It’s just that we suffer because we can’t accept what we can’t change.”
He was on again about suffering, so I tried as best I could to cheer him up. “Sophocles said the greatest happiness was not being born. Our own philosopher Slavoj Žižek responded that very few people had managed that.” Maybe we couldn’t manage to avoid our birth, but I did manage, at least, to put a grin on the face of the ever-serious Giovani.
“Never heard of him,” he said.
“Google him. Oh, I forgot, you don’t Google. Just go borrow one of his books. A lot of them are available in English.I bet you’ll devour them. A lot of what he says seems right up your alley.”
I admired Giovanni for the ease with which he recognized that wealth would never be enough, that the source of happiness wasn’t property. He was trying to achieve some sort of internal balance that he thought would come about by purification through suffering. He renounced his immoderate lifestyle and began developing his talents and deepening his personal relationships. This required a strong will, and he certainly seemed to have it. Marjana told me that he got up most every morning before five while the rest of us were still asleep and did yoga. He had no cell phone, no email and no Facebook profile. He ate very little, and he was very strict, both with himself and with others. I was glad he had confided in me. It’s true that most people here were in the habit of telling their life stories to each other with little inhibition, but Giovanni was a special case, and he had a huge problem letting people get close to him, even though he also knew that without it he would never be happy, regardless of what Slavoj Žižek might have to say about it.
From the large terrace of the bar we saw a large group of pilgrims that included Marjana and Adrianno. Still ahead of us were almost eleven miles of perfectly flat road with no bars and no shade, so we had to be sure and fortify ourselves before setting off. I said goodbye to Giovanni, and he took to the road. I wached him as he walked away and asked myself if he hadn’t taken his asceticism, which had reduced him literally to skin and bones, a little too far. So far I had only ever seen him eat breakfast, and I knew he never had dinner.
It was a beautiful sunny day. Being early May, the temperature was pleasantly warm but not too hot, and before us lay the perfectly straight, white road, surrounded by an endless green vastness, Via Aquitania, through which gold from the mines was transported from Astorga to Bordeaux in France. It was every pilgrim’s worst nightmare. During summer, there is no refuge anywhere from the blazing sun. No place to get food or water. This part of the journey must be very carefully planned. I remembered the story of a Slovene named Ivan who had crossed the Meseta in the summer heat. In his book he describes how he hiked and hiked with the intense heat bearing down on him from every direction: from the sun above him, from the sandy road below him, and even radiating out from inside him. Then a miracle happened: the driver of a passing refrigerated truck saw him and pulled over, and without saying a word, handed him two ice-cold beers. Until he felt the cold in his hands, he wasn’t sure whether this was real or an hallucination. He downed the first one on the spot, and at that moment a second pilgrim approached. Ivan asked him if he’d like a cold beer, and the man responded with the English words “You’re crazy.” When Ivan actually procured the freezing cold can, the man could hardly believe his eyes. He took it and began jumping around and shouting This is a miracle! This is a bloody miracle! And indeed it was.
Soon after setting off on the journey, every pilgrim notices something: you only look back when you need to pee or do some other thing that requires a little privacy. In that case, you look back to make sure the nearest person behind you is far enough away that you can sneak off to the side of the road and take care of your business unnoticed. Otherwise, the eyes of pilgrims are always looking strictly ahead in the direction of the yellow arrows and into the future. There were no hikers visible behind me, and I was sure Thomas wouldn’t notice, so I just went right there on the side of the road. Finishing as quickly as possible, I continued on my way until I spotted a mighty tree in the middle of a wide field. In northern Spain, you often see isolated trees in the middle of large fields. I had a feeling that this one was a survivor from ancient times, back before the field was even ploughed by tractor. Most likely it offered a place where farmers could have a bite to eat or even catch a nap here and there. I liked it that even though today the fields are ploughed by hi-tech, enclosed tractors with air conditioning, and these trees are really just in the way, they still haven’t been cut down.
I caught up with Thomas again, and he began talking in detail about The Way, the movie which had motivated so many Americans, including him, to come here, and the memoirs of John Adams.
“I read that in 1780, before he was president, John Adams hiked the Camino. He was forced to go, but in the other direction. He was heading for Paris but the ship encountered problems and he had to disembark on the Spanish coast, so he decided to travel by land. That’s when he discovered the Camino, and he always regretted that he never had time later in life to come back and walk the entire way from east to west. Are there any famous historical figures in Slovenia that hiked the Camino?”
“Yes. Ulrik II, a member of the royal family in Celje that was one of the top ruling clans of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, walked the Camino as far back as 1430.”
“Such a small nation, and at the top of Europe!”
“Yes, that’s when we got our 15 minutes,” I quipped. “And we haven’t seen them since. Ulrik II was the last male heir, and as fate would have it, he was killed in Belgrade.”
I became lost in thought. For years I had been actually angry at Frederik II, the lover of Veronika of Desenice. His infidelity is what removed the Slovenes from their dominant position in European politics. He was party to the succession agreement whereby the territory of Slovenia would be transferred to the Habsburgs once the Celje dynasty died out. His father Herman was responsible for the death of Veronika Desenice, as Friderik most likely was for that of his own wife, the mother of his children. With so much blood on your hands, it’s not too likely that fate will smile on, is it? Herman’s grandson and Friderik’s son, Ulrik II, the last male member of the ruling dynasty in Celje, was cursed.
During his life, Ulrik II desperately wanted to be a knight, and because the initiation of knights was conducted on a pilgrimage, he decided to walk St. James’s Way. The journey would require a lot of money that he didn’t have, so he borrowed it from his father, Friderik II and his aunt, the Hungarian Queen Barbara Celjska, who was married to the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Sigismund of Luxembourg. In 1430, Ulrik set off from Compostela, acompanied by cavalrymen, stopping in to see King John II of Castile in April, and arrived at his final destination on horseback in mid-May.
While I was preoccupied with these thoughts, Thomas disappeared somewhere. It’s easy to get lost in an endless expanse and become just a little speck on the horizon that sooner or later disappears into nothing. Just as we set off on our own life path and somewhere along the way disappear into the nothing of our own horizon, while behind us walk other tiny specks that grow, see new horizons, and finally come to the last one.
At the intersection of the Via Aquitania with the centuries-old Canada Real Leonesa cattle trail that leads from Andalusia to the northern part of the province of Leon, I saw one such speck ahead of me that soon became a solid dot and finally transformed into Marjana. “I’m so tired already,” I whined, “and the end is nowhere in sight. I see tiny specks up ahead that disappear into nothing, and then when I get there I just see another horizon and more specks that are also disappearing.”
“It seems like the guidebook underestimated the distance. From Fromista to Calzadilla de la Cueza is supposed to be a little under 22 miles, but we’re already past that and we’re not to the end yet. But don’t lose hope. We just have to keep going, keep moving ahead. We can’t afford to stop.”
“For a while now I’ve just been mechanically moving my legs left, right, left, right.”
We continued on for some time, and then we spotted something far off on the horizon. We looked in fear to see if this, too, would disappear. The speck became a dot, then something like a bell tower, and finally was revealed to be the belfry of a cemetery. It’s a good thing we found a room available at the hostel there, because there was no way we were going to walk any further once we got to Calzadilla de la Cueza, certainly not with my poor, swollen ankles. I examined them carefully in the shower, and what I saw worried me. And when I went to the bathroom I noticed that my urine, of which there wasn’t much, was dark yellow. I went and Googled this to see what it might mean, and found some reassurance in what I read. Under the search heading “swollen ankles” I found a sentence from Staša Lepej’s book about the Camino: “I’m worried about how I’m going to walk tomorrow. My swollen ankles look like puffed-up pastries jutting out of my boots.”
I laughed at myself for thinking my ankles were so swollen. After all, they weren’t jutting out of anything at this point. My concerns fell away, and before dinner I downed a liter of water.
During the night I woke up to the sound of a song by James Taylor – You’ve Got a Friend. I instantly knew that only Adrianno would be playing that, as it was his favorite song, and Thomas had already warned me about his odd nocturnal habits. I looked over at Adrianno’s bed, where he was sitting cross-legged with a head lamp on his head, a cup of milk in one hand, and a box of cookies next to him. His mobile phone was playing the song, and he was signing along:
…Close your eyes and think of me,
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night…..
He bit into a cookie that broke apart with a loud crack amidst the tossing, turning and grumbling of the others in the room.
…You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall…
People were saying shhhh! and Be quiet!, but Adrianno continued singing as if he didn’t hear them.
…All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
You’ve got a friend….
When the song was over and the cookies and the milk were gone, Adrianno turned off his head lamp, lay down, and went to sleep. And the rest of us went with him.
The Swiss Oppose All Changes
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
From Calzadilla de la Cueza to Bercianos del Real Camino, with overnight accommodations at the Albergue Municipal la Trinidad. Distance hiked: 21.53 miles
People over the centuries have probably been aware of human smallness in the vast scheme of things. As evidence we could cite the common use of diminutive language forms in names – e.g., Calzadilla (“little street”) or Terradillos (“small piece of land”). From the Little Cooking Street I followed the country path to the Little Templar Estates – from Calzadilla de la Cueza to Terradillos de los Templarios. The land here once belonged to the Knights Templar, a religious and military order, the order of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ whose original purpose was to protect Christian pilgrims in Palestine.
The trail led through grain fields along hilly terrain. Here and there groups of trees, mostly poplars, caressed the eye. My step was quick and light, as the swelling in my ankles had gone down and my bladdar was once again producing urine in the right color and amount. I came to San Nicolas del Real Camino, where I stopped in at a bar. There I met Thomas and Giovanni, who were talking with someone I didn’t know about Adrianno’s strage nocturnal behaviors. Giovanni was explaining to him that Adrianno hadn’t slept at all the previous night, which was why he went into the kitchen to warm up some milk. When he was a child, his mother had always brought him warm milk when he couldn’t sleep. I didn’t stay long; I just drank my coffee and left.I followed St. James’s Way as it rolled up and down, until the last ascent brought me to the town of Sahagun. It was lunch time, so Marjana had waited for on the outskirts. We looked for a nice bar on the main square and treated ourselves to puerro, a local delicacy originally brought to the area by French monks and consisting of trout in a leek sauce.
We left the bar together, but separated even before we reached the city limit. I walked straight along the royal French trail Real Camino Frances, which soon turned out to be rather monotonous and constantly zig-zagged along an old country road. On a shady bench by the side of the road I noticed Fabian, a guy from Switzerland who I had met the previous day at lunch just before turning onto the Via Aquitania. He waved enthusiastically for me to join him.
“It’s snack time,” he said, procuring two cans of tuna from the side pocket of his backpack. “Let’s eat!”
He took out one of those famous red Swiss army knives, opened the cans, and handed me one of them. Then he wiped the knife with a paper napkin and carefully closed it.
“Just look what a fine afternoon,” he exclaimed. “We have food, water, fresh air…what more could we need?” He put the Swiss army knife back in its pocket and took out a bag full of plastic forks. “And tonight we’ll have a roof over our heads and sleep like a baby.” He handed me a plastic knife and glanced down at his Swiss watch. “It’s 3:43,” he announced, as if knowing the exact time of day had some particular importance. On the Camino, time is measured more in miles than in hours.
We ate our tuna and enjoyed the rest, the food, the moment, the natural beauty.
“Is it good?” he inquired.
Not wanting to speak with a mouth full of tuna, I nodded. Fabian smoothed out a wrinkle that had formed on his shirt.
“For years I’ve been eating at the finest restaurants, including places with stars in the Michelin guide, but I’ve never tasted anything better than this tuna. How little a person needs to be happy. A little food, water, air and shelter. Nothing else. And something that connects everything together and that each of us brings with us into the world. You know what I mean?”
“Exactly. Love of self, of others, of animals and nature and life. Everything else is gravy. Everything else is unnecessary.”
Everything else but a sharp Swiss knife and quartz watch, I thought to myself.
“Things that we accumulate and think we own in reality own us.”
I chewed my tuna and nodded. This tuna was actually one of the best foods I’d ever tasted. It had such a pristine, simple taste. The taste of tuna.
“The last time I went to get food for my dog,” Fabian continued, “I was horrified when I saw all the furniture for dogs and cats. Can you imagine – sets of chairs for a dog? An armchair with a little table for a cat?”
“Seems I little unusual,” I said, smiling. “You might find something like that in, say, California, where you have so many childless rich old women who have poodles instead of grandchildren. But in Switzerland? A country that embodies moderation and conservatism? Where the biggest deviation from the norm is a purple cow, and even that’s intended for foreign markets? [TN: The purple cow is a reference to the trademark of the chocolate manufacturer Milka.]
Fabian laughed out loud. Not too loud, of course, but in moderation. “It’s interesting to see the opinion you, as a Slovene, have of the Swiss,” he said.
“We have always gotten an earful about Switzerland. In fact, since I was a child people have been talking about how we could become a little Switzerland and have banks and make chocolate, cheese and watches. Now I tend to think it’s good we didn’t go that route. We would take a position of neutrality, without classification or change. I remember once when they found gold near a Swiss village and wanted to open a gold mine there. The people of the village were offered another area just as nice to live in – in fact, the plan was to practically just move the entire village there – plus seveeral thousand euros per person in compensation, but the entire village revolted at the idea of the change. That’s the permanence the Swiss want. They could have had the same village in an even nicer location and had more money to boot, but no, they didn’t want change.”
“I remember that,” Fabian said. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe they didn’t want to sell out? Or that they may have wanted to preserve the natural environment as it was, even if it meant having less gold? No, it seems you Slovenes value money above all else, and will make any change to get it.” For a Swiss guy, Fabian was getting pretty carried away. “Of course we don’t like change. A few years back we had a referendum where we rejected a minimum income of 2300 euros a month for every adult citizen. This would have allowed us to pursue more creative activities that would give us joy instead of having to worry about just making ends meet. Of course the initiative failed. You know what a change it would have been!”
We had long since finished off the tuna, and Fabian took the empty cans and plastic forks and gently put them back into the little pastic bag that he then gently put into a second plastic bag, just in case an errant drop of oil might find its way out of the first one before he found a trash can. He looked at his watch.
We got up and got back on the trail.
“Our referendum initiatives never pass. We always say no. That’s also why a referendum initiative was passed prohibiting the construction of minarets. The Swiss landscape must always remain just as it is, including architecturally. We also do not want to have parallel societies: outsiders who come to live in Switzerland have to follow our rules. We don’t even like our own changes, much less imported ones.”
We came to a garbage recepticle, and Fabian threw the plastic bag into it, after which he painstakingly wiped his hand with a napkin. I asked him how he himself had voted on the ballot initiative to provide a guaranteed minimum income.
“I voted no,” he said. “I’m Swiss, remember?” His tone became more serious. “OK, not really. I voted no because I think if no one needed to work, most people would become lazy and passive, not creative. Creativity is such a powerful force, that it will always find a way to break through, regardless of whether your basic needs are even met or not. Think of all the great works that were created in poverty.”
We continued to debate what releases and what limits creativity, what would happen if XYZ were the case, and what we thought about human nature in general. We got into it so much, in fact, that we didn’t notice how far we’d walked until we found ourselves at our final destination for the day – Bercianos del Real Camino. Marjana was there waiting for me at reception, worried about where I was and hoping I’d show up in time to get a bed, as this was a church-owned hostel and so operated on a first-come-first-served basis with no reservations possible. Fabian and I were lucky: we got the last two free beds.
After the usual settling-in ritual, we waited in the common area of the Municipal la Trinidad lodge for the blessing of the pilgrims. I was still thinking about Fabian’s Swiss creativity, Coelho’s temperamental good fight that has to be fought, and Žižek’s creative passion that fulfills you if you’re prepared to suffer and die for it. Marjana was talking to Thomas about Slovenia, while Adrianno and Giovanni were looking at a map of tomorrow’s trail. I went over to the bookshelf and browsed the titles, among which was Martin Eden by Jack London. Recalling Giovani’s first love, I took it off the shelf. It might be of help to him, I thought. I sat down on the couch and began leafing through it.
“You know what it’s about?” I asked. Adrianno, Thomas and Marjana all shook their heads. “Well then, I’ll tell you. Martin Eden was a poor boy who fell in love with a girl from a rich family. They loved each other, but the girl rejected his marriage proposal because he was poor.”
I looked at Giovanni out of the corner of my eye. He was staring blankly into space.
“Martin was disappointed in love, living in poverty and without social support, and he almost didn’t make it. Then he wrote a book and became famous. From then on people fawned all over him. Even the girl who had rejected him came looking for him and asked if he would marry her. He couldn’t believe it. He said he was the very same person he had been before he wrote the book, and she only wanted to marry him now for his fame. People now valued and appreciated him for his fame, not for the flesh-and-blood human being he actually was. He was so devastated at realizing this that he hopped aboard a ship and drowned himself out at sea.”
Giovanni was rubbing his face with his hand. Those couldn’t be tears, I thought. Giovanni doesn’t cry. He got up, turned his back to us and stared out of the window.
“Why can people love people for who they are?” Thomas asked, visibly moved. How come it’s so important how much money they have or what their position in society is?”
“We do love them as they are,” Marjana said. “Money is a part of being human. Position also. You can love someone for the money he has, or for his fame. That’s just how it is.”
“Or for his political power,” I interjected.
“I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Adrianno opined. “It’s just conditional love. Some relationships are based on conditional love, and in some the love is unconditional. My two lovers would leave me instantly if I didn’t have political influence and plenty of cash to give them.”
Then it was Giovanni’s turn. “It can also happen that the very same relationship goes from conditional to unconditional love, and vice-versa.”
“I think you’re right,” I said. I imagine a lot of newlyweds have very conditional relationships, but as the years go by, many of those conditions fall by the wayside.”
“By the golden anniversary,” Marjana added, “I suspect unconditional love may be predominant. It would be interesting to see if any studies have been done on that.”
“It’s time for the blessing,” said Adrianno, who never missed a religious ritual. “It’s time.”
We got up and went into the other room, where two attendants – a married couple from Trinidad – were waiting for us. They introduced themselves and asked us to form a circle and hold hands. There were about twenty of us all together. The male attendant, who was also in the circle, was holding his wife’s hand on one side, and the hand of a Bugarian woman on the other. He closed his eyes and began to pray:
Father, let me be a conduit of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow peace.
Where there is guilt, let me bring forgiveness.
Where there is discord, let me instill harmony.
Where there is doubt, let me awaken faith.
Where there is desperation, let me offer hope.
Where there is darkness, let me dispel it with light.
Where there is grief, let me create joy.
Where there is suffering, let me give encouragement.
Everything leads to You.
And teach me also this, Father:
That it is better to console than to be consoled,
to understand than to be understood,
to give love rather than to expect it.
For he who gives, receives.
He who forgives is forgiven.
And he who dies arises to eternal life.
When he finished praying, he lit a large candle and told everyone to gaze into the flame and say, either aloud or silently but each in his or her own language, what the flame was telling them. The candle was passed from person to person, beginning with the female attendant.
“When the dust of El Camino and of life sticks to our shoes, Compostela, princess of the stars, will you tell me how to achieve love?”
She passed the candle to the next person, and as it went around, some people spoke the words the candle inspired in them out loud, some in a whisper, and some did not speak them, but everyone was serious and solemn. Fabian gave his usual seriousness a special nuance this time. When the candle got around to him, he stared into the flame for a long time. But just as I was sure he would complete the ritual in silence, he spoke at normal volume in German.
“If I had everything except love, I would have nothing. There is no fear. Love is given everyone in the cradle. We are human, but without love we would be mere robots of flesh and bone. We seek love within ourselves. By it we have faith and hope. By it alone can we forgive.”
He finished and passed the candle on. Eventually it was passed to me. As soon as I took it in my hand, I felt the bond among all of us pilgrims. From the first day on, we had been powerfully connected, connected by the call of the Camino and our decision to answer it. Different people from different corners of the world, different cultures, different races, speaking different languages, all connected by El Camino. I fixed my gaze on the candle flame, and it spoke to me.
“Vsi smo eno, vsi smo ljubezen, vsi smo življenje. [English: We are all one, all love, all life. –TN]
I think everyone understood – or better, felt – what I was saying, though the only other Slovene speaker in the room was Marjana.
After the blessing we spent a wonderful evening in harmony together, as if we were at home, and enjoyed a wonderful dinner cooked for us with love by a volunteer staff member who had come here with her husband from far-away Trinidad. The hostel operated on voluntary contributions kept in a lock box at the reception desk. The money was used to buy the ingredients for the breakfasts and dinners. The dinner was served by the two married attendants, after which we all helped clean the place up and wash the dishes. We stayed up together talking until ten o’clock, when they turned the lights out.
In Search of Klaus’s Father
Thursday, May 5, 2016
From Bercianos del Real Camino to Puente Villarente, with overnight accommodations at the Albergue San Pelayo. Distance hiked: 20.76 miles
I walked along the tree lined path that ran alongside a country road for a good two hours, but there was still no end in sight. Expansive grain fields on both sides stretched out into the distance and offered a home to a few rare groups of trees. The landscape was the same throughout, and the only audible noice was the sound of frogs croaking. The village of El Burgo Ranero actually got its name from the frogs. A few centuries ago, there used to be wolves in this area. Some priest and pilgrim from Bologna saw a wolf attack one of his fellow pilgrims. Now all that’s left are the frogs. Ribbit.
I don’t know whether I first thought about a snack and then saw the rest area with wooden tables and benches by the side of the road, or whether it was the other way around. I stopped there in any case and rummaged through my backpack for a banana, something that is part of almost every pilgrim’s daily diet. You need them mostly for potassium. In addition to bananas, my own daily menu included apples and lemons. I just sort of had the feeling that I needed lemons for vitamin C. Every morning at home I have a glass of lemonade made from the juice of one lemon, but on the Camino I just peeled and ate lemons like oranges. I enjoyed the way their sourness spread through my mouth. Probably most Slovenes put apples on a pedestal when it comes to their health benefits since, just like people in the English-speaking world, we grew up hearing the old expression “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” I was also careful to take in magnesium every day, as you supposedly use up more of it under conditions of increased physical activity. I had little plastic bags containing each day’s dose, which I let dissolve directly on my tongue. I noticed that most pilgrims took their magnesium in powdered form.
I was just about to be on my way again when Adrianno showed up. He looked as if someone had just died. Not someone, everyone. He sat at the next table, so I assumed he didn’t see me. I called to him by name, and he slowly looked over at me.
“I broke things off with both of my mistresses today,” he said. “I sent them an SMS. Basta. Finito.” Then he mechanically repeated himself: “Basta. Finito.”
I felt uncomfortable and wasn’t sure what to say, so I just reached for the first sentence that came to me.
“Adrianno, everything will turn out as it should.”
He stared at the ground and didn’t answer.
“See you this evening,” I said, and headed back to the trail by the country road.
A little later I came to Mansilla de las Mulas at the end of Mezeta. Before coming to El Camino, I had been a little bit worried about how I was going to make it across 125 miles of flat farmland, as I had read that Mezeta’s endless fields with no shelter from the burning sun were murder for hikers, in addition to being monolithic, brown, and boring as hell. Many a hiker has caved in to this region’s reputation and traversed this stretch by train, and so I had ventured into the area with some trepidation. But now I was glad I did. Maybe part of it was because it was May, which meant the land was still green and the sun pleasantly warm. The vastness of the area evoked a sense of freedom, and if the view at a distance remained unchanged day after day, the immediate surroundings contained an abundant variety of flowers, birds, beetles and lizards, and everything was blooming and buzzing. But after Mansilla de las Mulas, I felt as if I were entering an industrial area. I was starving by the time I got to Puente Villarente, and I went in search of the lovely San Pelayo lodge, where Marjana was waiting for me, and where we would be staying.
While we were waiting to check in, we saw Klaus’s stroller over by the entrance and began talking about him. Everyone already knew the story. Victor overheard our conversation. “Klaus tells everyone that Eva lost his father on the Camino,” he said, and looking over toward the reception desk, he added: “I’m going to try to find his address.”
“Give it a try,” I said, trying to encourage him as I left to look for a free bed.
The San Pelayo has unisex bathrooms. I chuckled to myself when I saw three Koreans, each in front of his own mirror, grooming themselves with such care. On the shower hooks, they had those toiletry bags that fold out in three sections and in terms of space put women’s purses to shame. I didn’t see a single woman, not even a Korean woman, on El Camino who had with her even a third of the cosmetics these Korean guys had brought along. Their cases were packed full of shampoos, liquid soap, shaving cream, facial cremes and masks, foot cremes, sunscreen, every kind of moist tissue, brushes and combs, razors and razor blades. One businesswoman told me that the cosmetics market for men in Korea was exceptionally large and well-developed. I went to have my shower, wash my underwear, change clothes and put some crème on my feet. When I finished all that and came back, the three Koreans were still grooming themselves.
I went to the reception area and sat down at a table, where I saw Victor leaning on a counter and speaking in Spanish to the receptionist. In front of her was a sign saying completo – no vacancy. But Victor was quite the smooth talker. He persuaded her to get the occupancy records from July, 2012 out of the cabinet, and together they went through them looking for the names Eva and Steven, who had stayed at the lodge at that time. The receptionist ran her finger up and down the pages and Victor followed it with his eyes. Suddenly the finger stopped.
“Eva,” she said, “and Steven,”
She wrote down Steven’s last name and address on a piece of paper and handed it to Victor. Tears were running down his face. He took the paper and hugged the receptionist, thanking her and telling her what a good thing she had done. He came to the table, where Arne and Nikos had joined us, and handed Marjana the little paper scrap. We passed it around so everyone could see what it was. Steven’s last name was Wright. Steven Wright from Sydney.
“Awesome,” Arne said. “And if Steven has a wife and kids in Australia, he’s in for a shock when he hears about Klaus.”
“And the wife will divorce him if she finds out about Eva,” Nikos commented, his smile momentarily vanishing.
“This isn’t something to play around with,” Marjana said. “There could be serious repercussions.”
Victor had other ideas. “He has a right to know,” he said. “If I had a kid somewhere in the world, I’d want to know. We just have to exercise some discretion. Terry knows half of Sydney. We should get him to help us.”
“He’s not staying here tonight,” I said. “Anybody seen him?”
“No,” Nikos answered, “he stayed behind in the last village. One of us is bound to run into him tomorrow.”
“Yeah, he’ll wake up at the crack of dawn and catch up to us. The first one of us to see him should tell him what’s up and ask for his help. We have to be very discreet, though. Eva can’t get wind of this, and Klaus most certainly mustn’t.” Arne gulped down the last of his beer and stood up. “Fucking life.”
“Let’s go get dinner,” Nikos said.
That night I woke up suddenly, for just a moment. I heard tossing and turning and a loud sigh. It was Adrianno. “Amore mio,” he was saying, “ti amo, ti amo, ti amo…”
I turned over and in an instant fell back asleep.
Terry Promises to Help
Friday, May 6, 2016
From Puente Villarente to Leon, with overnight accommodations at the Albergue Benedictines Carvajal. Distance hiked: 7.95 miles
In the morning I went to the breakfast room where Marjana was eating at a big table, accompanied by several male pilgrims. I joined them, ordered a tostado, and listened to their conversation. They were discussing Adrianno’s phone calls from the previous night. Giovanni said it had taken about ten minutes for him to reconcile with both mistresses, one after the other. Curiously, everyone listened with great interest and no comment. They were already quite used to Adrianno’s odd nocturnal habits. They knew they never lasted long, so they just waited for Adrianno to finish so they could go back to sleep. The British guy David began explaining how he had come to the Camino with three friends, but one of them, Timothy, had developed thrombosis and, unable to fly with this condition, been forced to return home by train the previous day. Since the other friend in the group had decided to accompany Timothy home, David was left to complete the hike by himself. Every pilgrim fears that something like this might happen and prevent him or her from reaching the finish line and hugging the statue of St. James in the cathedral in Santiago. Many are forced to drop out early due to bleeding blisters, infections, swollen ankles, and the like. Even professional athletes are vulnerable to tissue infections. I met one such athlete, a young Finnish man named Janne. He was very active and had come to the Camino to improve his physical conditioning and mental focus, but an infection sent him home soon after starting out. I thought of Drago, who also wouldn’t be finishing, because El Camino had finished him instead.
I finished my coffe and stared out of the window. It was raining. I put my rain coat on and stepped out onto the wet trail full of anticipation. I was looking forward to the new day and could feel how precious it was to be making the pilgrimage. I had all my time to myself. When I look back on years past, it seems like I was always concerned about adjusting to other people day after day and putting their needs and wishes ahead of my own. I grew up during a time when every day was filled with “musts,” much like what Chinese youth grow up with today. At least that’s the impression I got when one fifteen-year-old girl from China, stayed with us. I wanted her stay to be pleasant, so I tried to accommodate her wishes at every turn. I asked her what she wanted to do, what she would like to eat, and anything else I could do for her. But she didn’t want anything. She just consistently reported where she had to be and when, what uniform she needed to wear, what sort of report she had to write. She even had to choose a different last name during her time in Slovenia so as not to cause her hosts any embarrassment by making them try to pronounce the real one. We we asked her to tell us what her actual last name was so we could try to pronounce it, she flatly told us that she was not allowed to say it while in our country.
I never would have noticed all her “musts,” however, if it had been for an event that occurred a year before her visit, when I was with a group of young people and a girl I didn’t know suddenly said to me, “You say ‘must’ in every sentence. Have you ever asked yourself what you want?” I was profoundly shocked at my inability to answer this question. I was just like the young Chinese girl living automatically by the principle of “I must.” I sensed that it was time for me to stop and think about myself and my own wishes. And I was grateful that I could afford the luxury of taking a month for myself alone. As I hiked the Camino, I discovered that I was very good company. I hiked most of the trail by myself, at my own pace, without accommodating anyone else. When I wanted to stop, I stopped; when I wanted to pass someone, I passed them. I did what I wanted to do, not what I had to do. I walked because I wanted to walk, not because I was obliged to. I felt so free!
I came to a labyrinth of roads with a mix-master of underpasses and overpasses interspersed with industrial buildings and buzzing with the noise of automobiles and manufacturing. Horrible and disruptive is what I would have called this at any other time. A shame I took this route. But amazingly, none of this ugliness bothered me; I was happy to be there, and I accepted the surroundings as they were. I saw that I did not need to be in the middle of a flowering garden to be happy. The happiness I felt on the Road to Santiago wasn’t due to the beauty of nature that surrounds you most of the way. You walk through the rain in wet shoes, through industrial suburbs that are nothing but asphalt and noise, and you feel fantastic. I couldn’t understand how it was possible that the external environment had virtually no effect on me.
For a moment I thought I saw Terry ahead of me. I sped up, and of course it was him. I quickly passed him.
“Buen Camino,” I greeted him.
“Buen Camino, you strong, fast Slovene! How long did you train for this hike?”
“This is nothing for a Slovene. We have such beautiful hills that we are always hiking in them. Just wait until you come visit. You’ll be at it every day, and in no time you’ll be in excellent shape!”
“I really am curious about Slovenia now.”
“Well then, make up for lost time and get over there.” I paused for a moment before touching on a sensitive subject. “I know one woman who’s hiking with us and is just as fast as strong as I am, but she’s from Germany, and quite a bit younger than me. We’ve stayed at the same lodge several times. She keeps up with us even while pushing her boy Klaus in a stroller.”
“Eva. Who here hasn’t heard of her and her kid?”
“Did you know that Klaus’s father is Australian?”
I was surprised when he shook his head. On the Camino, unusual stories spread like wildfire. Even stories, legends and myths going back centuries came together and merged with those of contemporary pilgrims. I quickly summarized the story as Eva had confided it to me some days earlier. Terry didn’t say anything; for a while we walked side by side without a word.
“Yesterday,” I said, finally breaking the silence, “we stayed at the same hostel as Eva and Klaus, and also the one Eva and Steven were at four years ago. Victor talked the receptionist into going through the records from that time, and they found the last name and the address of Klaus’s father. His name is Steven Wright, and he’s from Australia. Victor also has the address. Yesterday we spoke at length about what to do. Everyone agreed that the best thing to do would be to find him and very discreetly let him know that he has a son, then let him do whatever he decides to do. Just so he knows.”
“I think that’s a good idea.”
“But the thing is, someone should probably do it personally. We can’t just find him on Facebook and post on his wall that his son is hiking the Camino. We all sort of felt like, since you’re Australian, you might be the best person for the job.”
“Yes, I could ask my assistant to take care of it personally. She’s very tactful, and she’s in Sydney every day.”
“Of course we have no intention of mentioning a word of this to Eva. It may be that Steven doesn’t want anything to do with the past, or he may have a family over there.”
“Of course. That’s understood. I’ll ask Victor for the address and ask my assistant to look Steven up and tell him on the sly that he’s got a son here.”
We came to a bar by the side of the road.
“I’m going to have some breakfast,” Terry said. “Would you like to join me?”
“I’ve already eaten, thanks. I don’t have much farther to walk anyway. Today I’m only going as far as Leon.”
“OK, see you later then,” he said, heading toward the bar.
Some seven miles later I arrived in Leon, where Marjana and I planned to stay the night. It wasn’t even eleven o’clock yet and we were already standing in front of the door of the hostel in the Benedictine monastery, waiting for it to open. We intended to see the sights in Leon in the afternoon and find a place for me to get my nails, which had by this time grown too long, manicured. I also wanted to buy some hiking sandals, as I had really missed having them during the hot days in Mezeta.
After checking in, we found a bar and had breakfast: eggs and bacon and a cup of coffee. On the way to the cathedral we found an ATM and withdrew some cash, then we stopped at a hair salon that offered manicures. I got in immediately and got my nails filed and lacquered by a very nice girl. Then it was on to the sporting goods store, which we found by asking around. We found the local people to be extremely friendly, but they only spoke Spanish, which meant that we understood a few words here and there and the rest was communicated with hand signals. All in all it took us about half an hour to find what we were looking for.
At the store, they recommended some very comfortable hiking sandals. Walking in them was like walking barefoot on a soft, billowing rug. I was just about to to buy them when it started pouring rain. I looked at the weather forecast on my trusty, all-knowing cellular sidekick that counted my steps and connected me with other people, and I saw that the next ten days were going to be wet and cold. I saw that these sandals would end up being just extra weight in an already-overstuffed backpack, so I decided an umbrella would be a more sensible acquisition. We stopped in at another store and bought two identical non-foldable umbrellas with smileys on them. We decided against the fold-up variety, since they weren’t as resilient; one strong gust of wind and they’re inside-out. We chose the smiley-faces as an expression of our mood. Those umbrella held up well, not only in Leon, but the rest of the way also. As it happened, there were periods of rain, some longer and some shorter, every day, and the trail was flat, so walking with the umbrellas didn’t bother us. As a bonus, the smiley faces allowed us to spot each other quickly whenever one got ahead of the other and stopped at a bar or lodge. Many of our fellow pilgrims took delight in our smiley-face umbrellas and would say “Looks like the Slovene girls are here!” whenever they spotted them in a bar.
When we got to the cathedral, we discovered that entry was not cheap, but as soon as we stepped inside we were immediately impressed by the immaculate stained glass windows. There were supposed to be 125 of them in all, some of which were up to 40 feet high. The singing of the monks’ choir in the background added a particular charm, and I gazed for a long time at the colors merging one into another like the mosaics in the kaleidoscope I so loved as a child. My attention was also drawn to the statue of the Holy Mother, Virgen de la Esperanze, the Virgin of Hope, as I had never before seen her depicted as pregnant.
Otherwise, the cathedral was cold and dank, so as soon as we were finished there, Marjana and I went looking for a cozy bar where we could have some coffee and warm up a bit. There we met two hikers from Iceland who had started their pilgrimage in Leon. We fell into conversation, and of course they knew where Slovenia was. A year before, Marjana and I had been to Iceland, and even then we saw how being from two small countries (Iceland has only about fifteen percent as many people as Slovenia) brought us together. We told them that, to us, Icelanders were quite the extremists, living as they were in an active volcanic area where the ground shook beneath their feet and constantly made ominous gurgling noises. Being so isolated up north on barren, cold, thinly-populated land that was shrouded in darkness half the year and bathed in sunlight the other half, it was no wonder they were so headstrong, stubborn, eccentric and rebellious. They responded that Slovenes were extremists too, only without the trembling ground. They also knew about Humar, who died in the Himalayas, and who embodied Žižek’s passion — the passion some are prepared to suffer and die for, and that drives them to extremes. It continued to drive him even after he very narrowly escaped death thanks to a long and intensive search-and-rescue effort. He simply wasn’t satisfied with a happy everyday life; his passion kept pushing him back to the mountain, where he finally paid the ultimate price.
We talked about whether people from small nations have a greater drive to go to extremes, and Marjana and I told them about Jure Robič, the world’s greatest extreme cyclist, who won the ultramarathon across the US on the world’s most demanding athletic competition. He road with a butchered behind and peed and took mini-naps still on his bike, leaning against trees by the road. He wasn’t going to stop. Very extreme. And he, too, paid for it with his life.
We also talked about Šterk, the sailor whose empty sailboat was found off the coast of Australia, and about Martin Strel, the swimmer who took on the dangerous waters of South America. The intensity of the conversation, together with the heating in the bar, kept me warm for the rest of the day despite the weather.
We finished our coffee, wished our two Icelanders Buen Camino, and headed back to the hostel. We regretted having spent so much of the day in town, as we already missed being out on the trail. We got back to the lodge just in time for dinner, where we joined David and two Americans with whom we had had breakfast. When David began expressing his gratitude to Marjana, and I gave her a questioning look, and David explained what had happened.
“Ever since I was a child, I’ve been afraid of heights,” he said. I don’t know where I got that fear; maybe I came into the world with it. When I got to the iron bridge over the highway today on the way to Leon, I panicked. I couldn’t step out onto it. I backtracked a little and looked for some alternative way around, but couldn’t find anything, so I came back. I saw a couple of pilgrims walking up the steps, but I didn’t want to ask them to accompany me. Then I saw Marjana and asked her for help. She took my hand and walked me over the bridge. Marjana, thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
“It was nothing,” she said, with a dismissive wave of her hand.
“What are you talking about?” David said, placing his hand on hers. “Without you I wouldn’t have managed it. I’ll never forget this.”
Each of us has their own fears, many of which are entirely irrational. Irecalled an old co-worker of mine who had a phobia of boots. The fear appeared in adulthood, when she was taking her boots off to put on house shoes. Suddenly she just panicked, screamed, and even threw her dress off, but she couldn’t get the boots off her feet. Her husband could barely get her calm enough for him to help her. Since that day, she had never again worn boots, and even the thought of putting them on sent her into a panic.
If you saw David, you would never in your wildest dreams imagine that a man like him could be afraid to cross a highway overpass, and that he would be so grateful to someone for holding his hand and leading him across. I thought of the Seena, the Finnish girl who had come up to me on the trail a few days before and thanked me for putting her wet shoes on the radiator to dry the previous evening. She had been surprised to find herself with dry shoes the next morning, and she had hurried all morning to catch up with me so she could thank me with a hug. I also could still feel the gratitude of Eva for helping her with the broken ari valve on the stroller, and I could feel both her and Klaus’s embrace and hear their words of thanks. Things are just more intense on El Camino. And that includes gratitude.
After dinner we left together and went to the blessing of the pilgrims led by nuns at the monastery chruch. As the nuns sang quietly, one of the younger ones read the Letter to the Corinthians:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
The reading left almost everyone in tears. It was followed by the blessing, and by the time we left the church to go to sleep it was almost ten o’clock.
Even before coming here I was worried how I would sleep in shared sleeping quarters. In all the books I read by pilgrims before me, it was said that you couldn’t sleep well due to the loud snoring of a few. For this reason I had brought ear plugs along with me. But I never used them. I was never once awakened by anyone’s snoring. Many times before falling asleep I would hear someone breathing loudly, coughing, or snoring, but it didn’t bother me enough to keep me awake. Even at the Benedictine monastery in Leon, where I got less sleep than anywhere else, it wasn’t snoring that disturbed my slumber. It was something else. The musty, centuries-old room, a sort of half-basement divided into sections for men and women, was enormous and ran along the entire length of the monastery. About eighty women were sleeping in it. It felt like there was no oxygen, and the place was so dank that you could seee the condensation on smooth surfaces. All night I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that in this room packed full of female energy, a necessary ingredient for good sleep was missing. That ingredient was male energy.
Giving Love Enriches the Giver
Saturday, May 7, 2016
From Leon to Hospital de Orbigo, with overnight accommodations at the Albergue Verde. Distance hiked: 21.56 miles
Marjana also slept poorly, so we hurried to get out of the monastery as soon as possible. Even by the time we reached the trail, the streets of Leon were still empty. We were already to the outskirts of town when we found an open bar, where a number of our fellow pilgrims were having breakfast. A young, handsome and well-build Spanish boy was skillfully taking and filling orders, and I soon had my large coffee with cream with the heart-shaped foam on top. Seeing it made me smile, and I gave him a grateful nod, which he noticed and returned. Louis Armstrong was coming through the speakers, telling us that it was a wonderful world, but we already knew that. This song was the hit of El Camino, and I recalled the Dutch guy in Roncesvalles who prodded me to sing with him.
As I was leaving the bar, I ran into Giovanni.
“Oh, here you two are,” he said. “The Camino keeps bringing us together whether we like it or not. Adrianno missed you very much yesterday. He got up in the middle of the night and walked from room to room looking for you. Luckily, no one got upset with him.”
Adrianno and his weird nocturnal activities. Him walking around calling our names in the dark must have been quite a sight.
“And where is he?” I asked Giovanni. “He’s sleeping. Like every morning, he’ll be the last one out of the hostel and will hurry the rest of the day.”
I looked back at Marjana. She was talking to David and Thomas, and the latter came up to me and gave me a hug.
“I’m so glad to see you!” he said. “Everyone missed you yesterday.”
“We missed you too.”
We left and continued on the path together, first as a group and later in a single-file line. After a while Adrianno caught up with us. Thomas, David, and Giovanni made fun of him for his nocturnal search for us the night before.
In a couple of hours we came to Santuario Virgen del Camino. Adrianno, who was up on all the miracles that had transpired on St. James’s Way, told us the story of the Virgen del Camino, the Virgin of the Way, who appeard to some sheppard back in 1505. She promised him that wherever he threw a rock, a chapel would be built there. He threw a rock that landed where we were standing, and the rest is history. That same virgin miraculously also brough a Spaniard from Algeria to the chapel some years after it was built. He was chained up inside a wooden chest with a guard to ensure he stayed there.
“Imagine what an overnight transformation that must have caused in their relationship,” Adrianno dramatized. “Their roles blurred. The Spaniard was no longer an imprisoned conqueror, and the guard was no longer guarding anything. Once consumed with hatred, now they were just two people touched by the recognition that their animosity had been meaningless, that love and good will toward one’s fellow man was what counted. They both dedicated the rest of their lives to the Virgin Mary.”
We walked along the unpaved trails that ran alongside a country road and over a small hill. David came up from behind me, his walking stick rhythmically tapping the ground.
“Your fast. I hardly caught up with you.”
“The hiking gets easier and easier every day. And I feel lighter. I’ve always admired the lightness of ballet dances, how their bodies seem as light as feathers. I feel more and more featherish too, every day I spend on the Camino.”
“I know what you mean. I feel like I’m being transformed from a beast of burden to a race horse.”
I looked at him. “You’re doing quite well,” I said. “How old are you?”
“Sixty-seven. I left two seven-year-olds at home. And I don’t mean grandchildren. I also have a young wife. I have to get in better shape just to keep up with them,”
The trail turned onto a road with less-traffic in Villar de Mazarife.
“Is she your first wife?” I asked, feeling bold.
“You’re kidding, right? I have an ex as old as I am and three adult children, all of them older than my current wife. When I got my first grandchild I started worrying about my age. They started calling me grandpa, and I wasn’t ready for it. Life passed me by too quickly, and I wanted to be young again and in the prime of life. Once I stood in front of the mirror and I saw this old man with grey hair and a beer gut, so I dyed my hair, went to a fashion consultant, and started going to the gym. I ended up losing both my gut and my wife and marrying a new, younger one. I liked it when young men looked at her, and when we had twins, I liked being called ‘daddy’ again.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “But only for a while. The twins keep me so busy that I hardly have time for myself. I would so love to just sit and watch TV in peace once in a while instead of helping the kids with their homework or read a book out in the garden instead of playing ball. And what I wouldn’t give to go to bed early on a Saturday night instead of going out with my wife.”
Again he was quiet. We were still walking fast, and all you could hear was the tapping of his walking stick on the ground.
Men. They think they’re so smart, but as soon as they begin to age they run out and buy a motorcycle, get a younger lover, and think they’re in heaven. But you can’t fool Mother Nature.
“Now it is what it is. I only now see what a good marriage I had with my ex-wife. All those years she was always supported, and we were a happy family.”
“If you ask me, you should come to the Camino in your sixties to reflect on the fact of aging and accept the role of grandfather when the time comes.”
“I know, you’re right. I was thinking about that too. But it is what it is. I’ve decided to call me ex-wife and ask for her forgiveness. What she put up with on my account! And that after loving me all those years and giving me three kids.”
The country road went on for quite some time, transitioning eventually into a trail. We walked on in silence. David was probably choosing the words he would use in asking his former wife for forgiveness. I myself was feeling sorry for absolutely everyone. How short and, at the same time, beautiful life is. If only we were satisfied with what we are and what we have, it would be so much easier. Why are we always trying to get somewhere else? Again I thought of Slavoj Žižek, who says that we don’t really want what we think we want. In reality, what we want is only to possess the object of our longing, our desire, and to have it remain. Unfulfilled. Until it fades away.
I’ve had about enough of Žižek and how right he is about everything.
We all got together at a bench in front of the Hospital de Orbigo and crossed the bridge over the Orbigo river together. Constructed of no less than twenty arches stretching out over three-hundred meters, it’s the longest bridge on St. James’s Way. Puente de Orbigo was the place where the lovesick Leonese knight Suero de Quiñones staged a pas d’armes. Every Thursday he would hang an iron necklet around his neck as a sign of his unrequited love for his lady. One day in the holy year of 1432, he decided he could no longer go on living “in between.” He would either get rid of the necklet once and for all or he would tighten it. His solution was the pas d’armes. He would stand at the bridge over the river for thirty days and challenge any knight who tried to cross it to a fight. If he survived that ordeal, he would take off the necklet once and for all; if he didn’t, well, it wouldn’t much matter then. Don Suero fought and defeated 166 knights and survived the thirty days. Then he took the necklet off and was free.
My days on the Camino were not spent fighting. They passed by peacefully, because my ego was asleep while my body was turned up to full power. The ego retreated because I didn’t need it to hike. I thought about my mid-life crisis and the revolt of my ego, which resisted the diminishment of its role. From the time I was a teenager until the day I started a family and had a home and career, I had needed it very much, and had thus correspondingly strengthened it. Then it began to take over my life to the extent that it interefered with my peace of mind, so I started reducing its sphere of influence. And how it resisted, kicked and screamed! It took a good year for it to settle down a bit and at least partially back off.
There are four lodges in Puente de Orbigo, but when we passed the third one with a completo sign out front, we started to worry that we’d have to hike almost four more miles to the next village. We would see when we got to the fourth and last one, which was a little outside of the village and also a little bit off the trail. We arrived there cold, wet, tired and hungry. We’d put almost 22 miles behind us that day, and it was all we could do to climb the stairs to the front entrance. We were greeted at the door by a friendly Spanish man, who invited us in, and we felt like we’d died and gone to heaven. The place was big, warm, and inviting, with a lit fireplace and a landing scattered with throw pillows to sit on. In the kitchen to the right of the entrance, a girl was working behind the stove, singing as she cooked, and straight ahead was the sleeping area with beds covered with snow-white sheets and pillows. We showered, put on dry clothes, and stretched out on the floor cushions in front of the fire to wait for dinner. Cold, wet, tired and hungry, this was all we needed.
The singing chef invited us to the table. She told us she had prepared a vegan meal, and that we were sure to like it, as it had been prepared with love. And, she said, since giving love enriches the giver, they had prepared a little surprise for us to enrich our evening: a little live music. Two guitarists came into the room and played beautifully for us throughout the whole meal. Although the Verde lodge didn’t serve alcohol, we left drunk on the love we received there.
My Neighbor’s Cow Means I Have Milk
Sunday, May 8, 2016
From Hospital de Orbigo to El Ganso, with overnight accommodations at the Albergue Gabino. Distance hiked: 19.9 miles
It was pouring rain. I was glad to have an umbrella and dry hair, but my shoes were soaked through. I soon began shivering as I plodded along the trail through the fields and hilly terrain. Still, I was happy to be in that border world – a world of indeterminance, without definition or obligation. All I had to do was follow the yellow arrows, the little signs that Father Elias Valina, the priest from O’Cebreira, had had put up all along the trail decades previously. They were spaced so close together that it would be difficult to get lost. I didn’t need to worry about knowing whether to turn left or right or whether I was on the right path; I just followed the arrows. Everyday life, however, is a hike on an unmarked trail with no discernable meaning and no known destination or outcome. So much nicer to be hiking the well-maintained, predetermined, predictable and guaranteed path of St. James’ Way instead. In real life, the question of the meaning of existence and life that stays with us throughout and drives us to that final – and for most of us, terrifying – ultimate end gnaws as us every second of every day. You can see it on the unfulfilled faces of innumerable strangers. We go to great pains to forgive, love unconditionally, believe, hope, and to be rational, just, kind, and moderate, because we know that this leads to spiritual growth and fulfillment. On the Camino, it is not necessary to take pains. Here it just happens. You feel that you are a little part of the whole, a part of a Oneness where everything is connected to everything else in a field of unconditional love. Here you overcome the universal fear of separation and approach the idea of unconditional love. You open your heart, and you love and are loved without a reason.
The light oak forests and grain fields came one after the other. Time passed. I breathed deeply and again became aware that I was wet, freezing and hungry. But it wasn’t the least bit important. I believed in St. James’ Way. I knew that it would take care of everything, and I was grateful simply for that moment. From a plateau I could see the outline of Astorga in the distance, dominating the surroundings like a walled fortress. At that moment I heard steps behind me.
“Buen Camino.” It was my Siwss friend Fabian.
“How are you doing today? Are you hungry?” he asked, carefully brushing the water off of his raincoat.
“I’ll eat something in Astorga.”
“Me too. Probably something chocolate. Coco used to be imported here from the Spanish colonies via the port in Galacia, and Astorga was the hub of the Spanish chocolate industry.”
“As far as I’m concerned, only the Swiss make real chocolate. When I was little we used to go to Austria and pick up boxes of Milka that you couldn’t get in Yugoslavia. We used to call all chocolate ‘Milka’.”
“The Spanish Milka in Astorga is called Angelicas. It’s made with whole almonds and is quite famous. I intend to buy some to eat along the way.”
The sound of a bell rang out. It was coming from the clock on the bell tower of Town Hall, where two dolls in traditional folk costumes banged a gong. Swiss Fabian looked with his Swiss precision at his Swiss watch and shook his head.
“They’re two minutes behind,” he said. “Come on, let’s go to that bar over there.” He pointed to the sign in front of the bar advertising what was claimed to be the best chocolate con churras in town. Inside the place smelled of fritters and chocolate. We sat down in a corner and were quickly served some kind of sticks made of dough fried in oil and dipped in melted chocolate. We talked about the Spanish and their battle during the Reconquista and the watershed year of 1492 when they were liberated at home and then began in the same year to enslave and even exterminate people all over the world, beginning with the arrival of Columbus in America.
“We were so successful that Spanish today is a world language more widely spoken than English,” Fabian said. “But we’re shocked when Spanish people on St. James’ Way don’t speak English. But they don’t learn foreign languages in school, as their own language is so globally prominent.”
I nodded, scraped out the last remnants of chocolate sauce in my cup with the last churros, and took my leave. I wanted to see Gaudi’s building in Astorga that today houses the St. James’ Way museum and where you can see the original Cruz de Ferro cross – the replica of which I would be climbing to the next day.
The trail leads right past the Bishop’s palace designed by Gaudi. The rather non-descript building didn’t seem particularly Gaudi-esque to me. Gaudi himself was, after all, quite the outlier, and his works stood out from the crowd – something I couldn’t say about the palace in Astorga. He was simply the kind of person who never just followed along, but extended and reformulated things, putting them on a new footing or giving them a new perspective. So for instance when confronted with the idea that birds have wings in order to fly, he added that hens also have wings but don’t use them to fly. He wasn’t content to use straight lines, but dared to draw soft and curved lines as well. He understood that everything humanity had done had already existed in nature’s book, and from it he took his inspiration. His works are highly eccentric, which is why they caused such a stir and provoked so much criticism and disapproval during his lifetime. But it is also for that reason that he is so admired and sometimes even idolized today. His uniqueness put him into the history books, and the very word “architect” is associated with him. What was his ephemeral work like? And what was he like as a person, as a unique expression of Oneness?
To Gaudi, faith was everything. He was humble and thankful for God’s gift to him, his artistic talent as revealed in his amazing capacity to design unusual spaces. He lived in the crypt of the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família while it was being built, and he dedictaed his life exclusively to his work and evening prayer. The trinkets of the material world meant nothing to him. He was extraordinarily humble, both in his living arrangements and his eating habits. He wasn’t in the least subject to pride, desire, envy, gluttony, sloth or greed. He only struggled with the last remaining deadly sin: anger. Anger is how a person responds to a prohibition or limitation, and his customers and patrons often forbade him to implement his ideas or be as bold as he wished, thus destroying the perfection of what he saw in his mind. This evoked anger, even fury, and this was further fueled by his incredible creative passion. This is probably why he never finished the Bishop’s palace in Astorga. He was aware of his sin and he prayed feverishly to be free of it. He went on long daily walks to calm himself and, in 1926, went on one of those walks and never returned. He was hit by a streetcar and taken to a hospital for the poor, where he died just as he had wanted to: poor and accepted only because of his love for God.
I saw the former Bishop’s palace only from the outside and did not go to the museum, but instead continued the hike and contemplated Gaudi and his sin of anger. How hard it is to cling to sin and live happily and in inner equilibrium! Today I am utterly convinced that sin embitters the life of the sinner. How many times have I become angry, swore, “gone ballistic”, and essentially ruined a whole day or several days? In cultivating anger, envy, pride and the other sins, you create hell here and now, primarily for yourself. Even St. Turibius, a Bishop in Astorga centuries ago, left town in a rage after his conviction and, upon reaching the outskirts said, with no thought of forgiveness, “I will not take even the dust of this town with me!” and shook off his sandals. I don’t think he’s in hell now because he was angry; I think he created his own hell right then and there. And if he had forgiven instead of holding onto anger and said to himself “I forgive the judges who condemned me, for they know not what they do,” he wouldn’t have bothered about the dust on his shoes, but would have moved happily onward toward the new life that lay ahead of him.
I also came to the outskirts of Astorga and followed St. James’ Way toward the west into the mysterious region of Maragateria, which is composed of 50 villages and 5000 proud and upstanding people whose origin no one knows. They may have come from Mauretania, or they may be a mix of Mauri and Goth immigrants, and their name may have been derived from Mauregatus the Usurper, the eighth-century king who is supposed to have paid for peace be sending 100 virgins to the Moors every year. Not very likely, but what is probable is that the Maragatos got their name from the word mercader or trader, as they earned their livlihoods primarily through importing and trading. With the arrival of the locomotive and the decline of the horse and cart, the village of Foncebadon was a ghost town for several centuries, until El Camino brought it back to life a few years ago. Like the people of Basque, the Maragatos have preserved their traditional dances. The customary folk uniform for men is comprised of wide, black pants and black velvet spats, while the women are adroned in precious silver jewelry.
As I ambled along the country road that wound through the low brush and desolate villages, I looked in vain for the dubious Maragatos. Nikos caught up to me, and he brought sad news with him. Arne’s father had had a stroke and was at a hospital in Brussels. Arne had caught a bus in Astorga and was on his way home. Nikos was visibly shaken and without his customary double-smile, and he said he had been praying for Arne’s father ever since leaving Astorga. The news shook me up as well. I hoped with all my heart that Arne’s father would recover. Poor Arne. I missed his rebellious attitude, his waving dreadlocks, and his fucking overuse of the word fucking. His absence would leave a little hole in my experience from now on.
I don’t know what was with me that day, but everyone kept hurrying past me, and after a few hours of walking I ended up arriving dead last at the hostel in El Ganso. At the entrance I almost bumped right into Adrianno and Marjana, who were just on their way to the store. They had decided to cook us dinner, as there were no bars in the area. I checked in and went through the usual post-hike ritual, then I went to the kitchen where Adrianno was slaving away at the stove while Giovanni was making the salad. Thomas was sitting at a long table and had already filled his bowl with steaming-hot potato soup. I sat down on the counch by the stove, where Fabian was meticulously stacking firewood into a perfectly-shaped pile.
“I didn’t know you could cook anything,” I said to Thomas, “much less potato soup. I saw a show where they asked Americans what a potato was and no one knew. But everyone knew what french fries were. But not a single one had any idea that french fries were made from potatoes and potatoes grow in the ground.”
“Well, you were in New York,” Tom said, “so you know you just don’t see potatoes there, but you see and smell french fries wherever you go. I’ve been cooking since I was little. I used to cook for all seven of my siblings, as I was the oldest.”
With that last sentence, his voice took on a melancholic tone, so I didn’t pursue the subject. Adrianno apparently noticed it as well and changed the subject.
“When I was in Rogaška Slatina on vacation, I saw how Slovenes have vegetable gardens behind their houses.”
“Yes, a lot of us grow vegetables at home. That way you know they’re not covered in god knows what kind of chemicals. But economically, it’s not worth it. It’s cheaper for me to buy vegetables at the store than it is to grow them myself, even though the ones in the store have to be imported from all over the place.”
“So you Slovenes live quite connected to nature, much as we do,” Fabian interjected. “I would say so,” I answered. Last year my daughter hosted an exchange student from a high school in Shanghai, and she couldn’t get over it when she saw that apples grow on trees. All she knew was you buy them at the store. She never thought about where they came from.”
“We Italians are gourmets,” Adrianno boasted as he tossed noodles into the boiling water in front of him. “All we care about is taste and presentation. Anyway, what vegetables? We prefer pasta.”
“Speak for yourself,” Giovanni retorted from behind the salad bowl.
Nikos sat down with Fabian and me. I had to hand it to our neighbors to the west, and I wasn’t afraid to admit it.
“You Italians definitely have a sense of the asthetic,” I said. “I love Italian clothes, shoes, tiles, furniture, never mind the arts like painting and music, where everyone admires you.”
“I second that,” said Fabian. “They say the Italians went through centuries of war but gave us Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Puccini, while we Swiss had centuries of peace and invented the cuckoo clock.”
“So far I’ve heard that you Slovenes have fantastic hills for hiking, that you’re tough – which seems especially true considering the fact that I can hardly keep up with you and Marjana –, that you’re the land of love and even have love in your name, and you have a famous philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, who spends more time in New York than in Slovenia because the Americans love him for saying the most complicated things in a simple way. You have the best goal keeper in the world, the best Alpine skiier, and Peter Prevec, the world champion ski jumper…”
“And our first lady will be a Slovene,” Thomas interrupted, holding his breath. But Adrianno didn’t miss a beat.
“A real beauty!” he said, whistling.
Giovanni cut in with a question. “Do you guys maybe have any bad characteristics?” I didn’t hesitate.
“They say we’re envious, especially of our neighbors, and especially when they buy cows.”
“You better explain that one,” Marjana opined.
“OK, it’s like this. If my neighbor buys a cow, as a true envious Slovene I would then say that I hope it dies. Thomas, if your neighbor bought a cow, you as a competitive American would say that is he bought one, I should buy two. If Nikos had a neighbor who bought a cow, as a Greek he would say thank god, now the rest of us will get some milk.”
“And not only milk,” Adrianno added. “They’d get some cheese every now and again also, as my Calabrian relative would say.”
Thomas turned serious. “Maybe the Americans also have faults? I’ve been thinking about what you said before, that Americans are vain, that they think they’re better and smarter than everyone else, and…”
“Of course. I constantly hear and read this demand I’m a US citizen. And everyone is supposed to fall to the ground and play by your rules, even if you were on their land. I remember how I laughed at a report from the American orgnaization Amnesty International that said Slovenia was at the top of the list of human rights violators, while the US wasn’t even in the top thirty, even when Guantanamo was overflowing. Our little country of two million was overrun with terrible violations, but you with your 305 million were the paragon of respect for human rights. Ridiculous.”
Being the pacifist, Fabian needed to throw in his two-cents-worth. “America arbitrarily took on the role of world policeman. It interferes in everything. I can’t imagine how they just take it for granted that they should bomb Belgrade. Basically only recently, about fifteen years ago, and only a few hundred kilometers from Switzerland.”
I sat there in amazement as the cold-blooded Swiss guy got so worked up, while the hot-headed Greek kept his cool.
“They say we Greeks are lazy, and since I’ve been living in Belgium, I’d have to say that may just be true. What do they say about Italians?”
We were becoming more and more citizens of our respective countries and less and less pilgrims. I knew Adrianno was a politican both by profession and at heart, so I was happy when he spoke.
“That we’re incredible lovers and all the women fall for us Casanovas.”
The uproarious that followed made us all pilgrims again. The EU defines the Camino with words like toerance, solidarity, dialogue, coming together, freedom, and rights. But much in the national identities of each of us was tainted with the opposite of that. As a part of the pilgrimage, we had all put our national identities to one side. We had not. however, shaken them off completely. Sometimes they appeared at a certain moment, as they did on this occasion, but then they vanished again among our many other professed values.
That evening I didn’t fall asleep for a long time. I thought about the proverbial Slovene envy, and also my own. I came to the conclusion that, as a rule, I’m really not at all envious, if envy is a condition of great dissatisfaction at seeing someone else with something we ourselves want. I do desire things, but I don’t feel any discomfort, and certainly not deep dissatisfaction, when someone else has them. Often when I see something someone else has, I catch myself saying “I want that too!” But of course, in the next moment I feel guilty, since I know we cannot simply accumulate material things. And the diesire to do so isn’t good either, because if you don’t have the desire, you already have everything. When I calm my conscience by reprenting and telling myself that I will strive to be better – which according to Marjana’s view means that it will be forgiven me – I see that in reality I’m actually happy when other people have nice things that bring them, not happiness, of course, but satisfaction. I don’t think that’s envy, because I don’t feel even a hint of dissatisfaction or regret that someone has what I don’t. If I apply that to the proverbial cow that, according to popular legend, I’m supposed to hope will die, I find only my own wish to have one too, and not that my neighbor would lose his. I wouldn’t wish to have two, like the competitive Americans; one would suffice. And I swear that it almost certainly would not even occur to me that my neighbor might want to get milk – or cheese – from me.
I hope that all these things are true of me, and that I don’t actually feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction that someone else has something I want, but don’t know it because I repress it out of awareness. No, it’s certainly not like that. Still, it is true that I am on El Camino because of the envy of another person.
A World of Worries
Monday, May 9, 2016
From El Ganso to Molinaseca with overnight accommodations at the Albergue Floriana. Distance hiked: 21.02 miles
In the morning I came down to the kitchen showered, dressed and packed. A few pilgrims were preparing breakfast. I sat down next to Marjana and spread some butter on a baguette.
“Today it’s on to Cruz de Ferro,” a slightly older woman said to me in English. I knew from her strong accent that she was French.
“Yeah, our backpacks will be lighter tomorrow after we unload the stones we’ve brought with us from home.”
“Our hearts too,” Marjana said. “We’re also going to unload a lot of worries, our own as well as those of our loved ones.”
“Nothing with me is going to be any lighter. You’re supposed to bring a stone from your garden, but I don’t have a garden, so I can’t unload my cares, even though I have a ton of them.”
“You don’t have to take it that literally. You could have taken a rock from in front of your apartment building or your balcony or apartment. That would have counted.”
“That didn’t even occur to me,” she said, smiling. “I take rules a little too seriously. But hey, at least now I have a reason to hike the Camino a second time. This time I’ll try just leaving my worries behind straight away. In the end they’re in my heart anyway, and not in some rock.”
“True,” I said, stading up and putting my backpack on to leave. “And we’ve all been carrying our hearts with us since we left home.”
The morning was damp and foggy. It was hard to tell whether it was raining or not. I decied to put my raincoat on but left my cap off for the moment. I walked along the forest path, which ran alongside a country road. At times the trail was stoney, sometimes there were puddles, and once in a while a creek would cross it. The forest was very dense and the trees short, with slim trunks that were covered with lichens. The mist came all the way to the ground. It was magical. The only sound was the echo of my footsteps, and I merged with the landscape and wished that the trail would never end. All to quickly I arrived at Rabanal del Camino, which was once the last rest stop for pilgrims before the dangerous crossing of the Montes de Leon mountains. These woods used to be full of bandits and wolves.
I left the settlement, and the trail split off from the road and began climbing up towards Foncebadon, a stoney, fairy-tale-like village that was experiencing a renaissance. Until the 19th century, it had been a protectorate of the king and was specially charged with looking after pilgrims and maintaining the trail. Eventually the area died out and was taken over by wild dogs, fear of whom spread among pilgrims. Shirley MacLaine, who hiked the Camino in 1994, writes about this in her book. The whole time she made use of a mental defense she had prepared, whereby she visualized a beautiful red heart and filled it with all the love she could muster and then sent the image out until it reached the pack of dogs, keeping them at bay. At that time Foncebadon was completely abandoned. Eight years later, a Slovene named Nace Novak wrote about this, explaining that some time previously they had removed a number of stray dogs, as in packs they were dangerous to passers by. He himself had seen four of them when he entered the village, but these were the lazy sort that posed no threat. By that time, the “museum” snack bar there had already opened, but the real re-enlivening of the village came a few years later, and now quite a few of the houses are occupied.
As I was admiring the old stone houses, I was disturbed by a bus full of pilgrims from Germany that had stopped in the village. The pilgrims literally poured out of it. I assumed they would be climbing up to the Cruz de Ferro, unloading their worries, and then getting back on the bus. A majority of pilgrims complete the pilgrimage in stages like this and receive the official confirmation of completion, the Komposelo. Anyone who hikes at least 100 kilometers (62.14 miles) – even in short stages – or bikes at least the last 200 to Santiago gets the certificate. These pilgrimages in stages (I call them staged pilgrimages) work like this: pilgrims are taken to certain sites by bus, whereupon they hike a few miles and find the same bus waiting for them at the next stop. The bus then takes them somewhere for lunch and a little sightseeing, to pilgrim’s Mass at a church, and then onto a hotel for the night. This cycle is repeated until they arrive in – or more accurately, are brought – to Santiago. This is an altogether different sort of pilgrimage, and these “staged pilgrims” are distinguishable even by sight from those that do it the old-fashioned way. They walk together in large groups dressed in freshly-pressed white T-shirts and new sneakers and carrying no heavy backpacks, and generally just clown around and enjoy themselves. Those of us who take the long way, on the other hand, tend to walk slowly, each at his or her own pace, fully loaded down with provisions. We were all absorbed in our own thoughts, and so were quite disturbed by the arrival of our staged counterparts. We hurried in front of them in silence, at peace, and with our own thoughts. In Foncebadon I decided to slow down and let the whole group pass me. Only once they and their commotion were safely past did I begin the climb to Crux de Ferro, the Iron Cross.
In my backpack I was carrying four stones: one for my son, one for my daughter, one for my husband, and one for me. In my pocket I had a written copy of the prayer you’re supposed to say when unloading your cares. I took it out and began memorizing it: “God, let this rock, symbol of my trials on this pilgrimage that I lay at the foot of the Savior’s Cross, weight on the side of my good deeds at the final judgment, and tip the scales in my favor. May it happen thus.” Then I repeated the prayer three more times, once for my son Gašper, once for Maša, and once for Iztok. I repeated this cycle three times and was ready.
I heard the German pilgrims getting back on the bus that was waiting for them in the parking lot, and near them I saw a pile – almost a mountain – of stones sticking out of which was a long, oak pole with a small iron cross affixed to the top. The was a replica of a Roman guidepost or altar dedicated to the Roman god Mercury, protector of travellers, that was later adopted by the Christians, and the original of which was kept at the museum in Astorga. For centuries it has been a tradition for pilgrims to lay a stone from their gardens at the foot of this altar, thereby symbolically leaving their worries behind. I put my backpack down by the pile, took my four stones out, and waited for the bus to leave. Then I climbed the mountain of worries left by thousands of pilgrims of all eras and from all over the world. Right at the top I took out and held the worries of my son Gašper. His was the heaviest stone, because he had the biggest worries. We are all confronted with problems in everyday life which become our challenges. We all have to face them daily and try to solve them. It is meaningless to turn them into worries that at most only make the problems worse. It is meaningless to be concerned about the future.
Every time I think about this, I am reminded of the story of Jožek and Ančka. Jožek had come to ask Ančka to marry him. Overjoyed, Ančka went down to the cellar to get some wine so she and her friends and family could drink to the good news, but they waited for her in vain. While in the cellar, she had seen a hook on the ceiling and thought about how she and Jožek, with their strong genes and healthy lifestyle, would have a tall- well-built son. One day he would go down into the cellar to get some wine, overlook that hook on the ceiling, hit his head on it and die. So vividly did she imagine her son lying dead on the floor under the hook, that she began weeping unconsolably and stayed down in the cellar with her empty jug in her hand. And after a while, everyone was down there crying with her, since each time someone came down to find her, she recounted the story, beginning with the phrase “What if…?”
Each day of our lives we are busy worrying instead of simply taking the hook down. My son is one who has relatively few problems in life and a whole lot of worries. That is why his rock was the heaviest, and my prayer for him the most fervent: “Life! With this rock, symbol of Gašper’s cares and concerns and my trials on this pilgrimage that I now lay on this mountain of worries from all over the world, let me also cast of the worries of my son so that he may more easily and peacefully carry out the tasks of daily life that you assign him, without restlessness or fear. May it happen thus.” Having said the prayer, I set the stone down. And in that instant, the dark blue sky opened up, and a ray of sunlight burst through and lit up the mountain. I took this as a good omen. The sun’s rays are a symbol of light, warmth, and goodness. I proceeded to repeat my prayer half-aloud for the rest of my family, laying each rock down, and then finally concluded with myself.
For many pilgrims, this ritual brings symbolic relief to the soul. Each of us is at once both rational and irrational. Rituals help us strengthen our faith, love and hope, and we all both need them and act them out, even when we think we do not. I used to have a friend who claimed never to participate in rituals, nor to have any use for them. I asked her how it was possible for her to be married. Marriage is a fine example of a widespread, popular ritual that strengthens our faith, love and hope, regardless of whether it is a civil or a church wedding. Even the reception is a form of ritual, and the ceremonial cutting of the cake, with the bride and groom feeding each other, carries obvious symbolic meaning.
I climbed gently down the pleasant trail, enjoying the amazing view of the Sierra Telena mountains – the polar opposite of the flat Mezeta with its straight paths. Here the trail meandered left and right, up and down, interspersed with breathtaking vistas. On the last descent, the view stretched out across the wide valley of the Sil river and all the way to Ponferrada. The steep and stoney trail led down into El Acebo.
I caught up with Marjana. We were both wet, cold and hungry, and we couldn’t wait to get out of the weather and eat something, so we stopped at the first restaurant we came across. This turned out to be an excellent decision. As soon as we walked in we saw a big fireplace with a crackling fire going, and we took a table as close to it as we could get. Once seated, we ordered omelettes with cheese and a couple of large coffees with cream, changed shoes and socks, and put the wet ones by the fire to dry. We then proceeded to enjoy the best, fluffiest, softest and most delicious egg and cheese omelette I have ever had or ever will have in my life, each mouthful enhanced with warm croutons. I was warm, dry and fed, and I was happy. I needed nothing else.
We finished our meals and continued on our way. We were still in Leon, but we could already sense Galicia in the distance.
“My step is so light now,” Thomas said as he caught up with us, “now that I’ve unloaded my American cares at the Cruz de Ferro. I don’t know why I never did that before now.”
“Because, as cheesy as it sounds, life is for learning,” I responded, not wanting to miss an opportunity to share my profound wisdom with my companions. “The cruel thing is that we don’t really want the lessons, and we fail to learn from the experiences of others, so we have to go through it all ourselves.”
“I had the misfortune of being born to an evil mother. It’s taken me almost fifty years to be able to live with that.”
He used the word evil, and not only did a shiver run down my spine, but I could since the same sort of reaction in Marjana as well. We both understood the unambiguous meaning of that word. How horrible to hear it used in connection with one’s mother, and what a shock it was for us just to hear the words “evil mother” used together. Marjana and I had both been raised by loving mothers and had grown up believing that a mother and her child were genetically programmed to love each other. We grew up in a fairy tale life where, at best, only a stepmother could be wicked, never a mother. Now that we were older, we knew that even there, there were exceptions that proved the rule. Nonetheless, Thomas’s statement left us both speechless.
“I don’t understand why God gave her eight children and I was the first,” he said.
“What was your father like?” I asked him.
“I don’t really know. He was never home, at least not during the day. He was busy running his company, which was quite successful. He enjoyed his work more than he enjoyed my mother’s company, so we were left more or less at her mercy. Or lack thereof. We always longed for mom’s love, and though we could never get it, that didn’t keep us from trying. We thought sooner or later we would earn at least a little praise or a smile from her if we just did a little better in school, behaved better at home, and so on. But we were mistaken. Today, of course, I understand that you can’t get live from a person who doesn’t have it to give in the first place.”
For a while we walked in silence. I admired Marjana, who walked calmly, listened, and didn’t ask anything. I had to bite my tongue not to ask Thomas if he was married. Fortunately, he copped on quickly on his own.
“I was surprised when I met a nice girl and we started meeting. Although I knew she was the right one for me, I hesitated for a long time before proposing. I was afraid she’s turn me down. We didn’t get married until we’d been together for two years. She got pregnant right after that, and we had two kids one after the other.”
Of course, he had grown up believing that he wasn’t worthy of love. That’s why he was so surprised to meet a woman who wanted to marry him. These were my thoughts, but I kept them to myself.
Then Thomas began to talk. He talked and talked without a pause, his words pouring out like rain until he had told the whole story of how he had gone to work for his father’s very successful company, how his wife had left him for his best friend, who was the president of a bank and who got her a job there, how she had taken the kids with her, and how even his father had considered him a loser and so left the company to his daughter, Thomas’s younger sister, who was married to a very extravagant attorney. All this had devastated Thomas and drove him to seek psychotherapy. Over time, the therapist helped him get back on his feet, establish regular and genuine contact with his children, and eventually buy the company from his sister, who always needed money to offset the unrestrained spending of her husband, who was living large at her expense.
After he finished the story, Thomas stopped talking. I thought about his flood of words. Naturally, his belief in his own unworthiness had been the reason his wife left him for his best friend, why his father considered him a lost cause, and why he hadn’t had an authentic relationship with his kids. Only after he had hit rock bottom did he seek help. I tried to bite my tongue again, but this time the question came out anyway.
“Are you still seeing the therapist?”
“No,” he said. “In a moment of crisis I found myself going into a church. I was desperate, but after a long conversation with the priest, I rediscovered my faith. This has seen me through the difficult times since then. After a while, that faith replaced therapy. I started going to church regularly, re-established contact with my mother, and began praying that I would be able to forgive her. But I still had frequent outbursts of anger. I was aware of my sin, and that it was only ruining my own life, so I strove to grow beyond it. After seeing the film The Way, I felt that also needed to make the pilgrimage.
Poor Thomas, I thought. Poor everyone.
Thomas fell behind, and Marjana and I pressed ahead on the country road, from which the trail later split off and was marked periodically by steeply downhill stretches. Soon chestnut trees appeared on either side, a signal that we were getting close to Galacia, the best-known region for chestnut trees in Europe. We crossed the bridge into Molinaseco, our destination for the day, found a hostel, and checked in.
A Smile is the Same in Every Language
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
From Molinaseca to Villafranca de Bierzo, with overnight stay at the Albergue Hospital S. Nicolas el Real. Distance hiked: 20.42 miles
The trail went along the main road all the way to the bridge that crosses over the Boeza River into Ponferrada. The town is actually named after the iron bridge, the Pons Ferrata, and is marked by the Templars castle, the castle of the knights who were the protectors and “bankers” of the pilgrims on St. James’ Way. They were active from the year 1118 until 1308. They were established in order to protect pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem after the First Crusade, when the town again became Christian. They became the official papal army, and they worked at the crossroads of three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is said that the Templars knew truths that life in those days could have neither accepted nor even tolerated. At the beginning of the 13th century they came to America, well before Columbus. Indeed, they charted the route which Columbus later traveled. The Templars also familiarized the Native American tribes with the Christian symbol of the cross, so that it was not new to them when Columbus arrived. Strangely enough, considering the dearth of mines in Europe, they also had a lot of silver. Through the spoils of war, gifts from pilgrims, and in return for military assistance in the war against the Muslims, they acquired extensive property. They also safeguarded money being transported across Europe and allowed pilgrims to store money in various European cities, and the certificates of deposit they issued became accepted in exchange for cash along the way, thus making the Templars the originators of the bank check. They lent money and the Frankish state became their main debtor, which ultimately led to their downfall. On Friday, October 13, 1308, King Philip the Fair had all the Templars arrested and imprisoned on French territory in order to escape having to pay back the loans. And this is why Friday the 13th even now is considered an unlucky day. And well before that, around the year 1200, the Templars are supposed to have found a statue of Mary and her baby that had been hidden in an oak tree to protect it from the Moorish conquerors. It is said that it was brought from the Holy Land in the fifth century by Toribio, the very same bishop who later shook the dust of Astroga from his sandals as he departed. They say the statue was discovered when the baby Jesus cried out just as the tree was about to be cut down. And right on St. James’ Way is the basilica of Ponferrada, home of the statue of Mary, the small, brown woman, in front of whose door I saw the symbol of the holy year of mercy, the work of the Slovene Jesuit theologian and artist, Marko Ivan Rupnik. A certain feeling of home overcomes you when in every church in another country you find something created by one of your fellow countrymen.
“Buen Camino,” said a voice behind me. It was American Bill.
“Buen Camino,” I said. I was very happy to see him after several days of being apart. We traded updates about how the pilgrimage was going for each of us, and he was very happy to have made the decision to do it, as he had learned to accept life as it is. He believed that this acceptance would help him maintain inner equilibrium when he returned home. He was looking at the symbol on the church.
“I admire that sign of the holy year of mercy,” I said. “It was created by a Slovene.”
I didn’t know that. I’ve seen it on churches in Minessota. It draws attention, which is the purpose of any sign. When it draws your attention, you immediately ask yourself what it means.” He came and stood beside me and for a few moments we looked at the picture in silence before he continued his explanation.
“It depicts the mercy of the Father who sends his Son to find rebellious, lost, dead humanity. This symbolizes Christ, who, like any good sheppard, lovingly took in the lost sheep, Adam.”
“We human beings in our everyday lives are like such sheep,” I opined. “Rebellious on one hand and lost on the other, unless we live in harmony with the love that is within us.”
“Yes, of course,” Bill responded. “You see God as the life force, so you see it that way. Only love, first and foremost toward ourselves and everyone else, can give rise to mercy, empathy, sympathy, and so on.” Again we fell silent and I looked at the picture for a few moments before speaking.
“To me the most symbolic thing is that man and God share a common eye.”
“I thought for a long time about how to interpret that. If you look closely, you see how their faces blend into one another, their gaze meets, and they’re even looking through the same eye. The Son with Adam’s, and by virtue of the mercy he’s received Adam begins to look at himself, others, and the world through God’s eyes.”
“Of course,” I joked. To me, that’s internal balance, harmony between the heart and the head. At the end of the day, both the heart and the head are looking through the same eyes, and of they look together, they look identically, and we can sleep well at night.”
“Not only sleep well, but live well.”
“You explained the symbolism of the image very nicely,” I acknowledged.
“I go to church a lot in Minessota,” he said, adding with an air of mystery, “and I can assure you that when a person is touched by God’s mercy, his life is changed. For a moment you’re struck dumb. This change is also shown in the picture, where the scene is painted in dark blue colors that get increasingly lighter in the middle. Christ carries man out of the dark night of sin and death.”
“Yes, it’s sort of a borderland, just as St. James’ Way is in a certain sense a borderland.”
“Vesica piscis, between heaven and earth, a liminal space where you come when you leave one room but haven’t yet entered the other. In that room you live on the edge. And on that edge you need faith.”
“This sort of in-between place is also the space between life and death. This is what people say who’ve had a near death experience. They stood at the edge of death but returned to life instead of crossing over. I’ve read what they’ve said about how they were encompassed by a being of light and how they felt its love, recognized its mercy, saw through its eyes and returned to life changed.”
“I read about such things too some years back. They were chosen to be given a deeper insight into life, and the knowing that they experienced, the knowing that that’s just how it is, changed them. But we have to draw from faith in order to live in mercy and not to judge, but to give love and forgiveness unconditionally.”
“Yes,” I concluded, “to ourselves as well as to others.”
For a few moments we paused to give some space and time to our what we had mutually recognized.
“Did you notice how well I understand pictures in Slovene?” Bill asked with a smile.
And it’s true: pictures are like smiles, identical in every language.
I entered the basilica. Marjana was sitting in the first pew praying. Bill was kneeling one row behind her, praying as well. I looked at dark Mary and walked back outside, along St. James’ Way, through the park, and out of the town.
Ponferrada is home to several smaller settlements, beyond which the stoney trail leads through sparsely populated areas, through vinyards and woods. As I walked, I thought about the moment of my mother’s death. I was with her in her room when she was in the last stages of cancer, grey and with a face that was no longer her own, pumped full of morphine and breathing unevenly. Just how much the disease had ravaged her became clear to me when a friend came to visit her after not having come for a week. I could see the horror on her face when she saw the change. She broke down in tears and had to leave the room. She couldn’t see her friend Sonja anymore. All that was there was the disease. I noticed in between her irregular breaths that she was still receiving infusions. Although she could no longer eat, the body was being fed. But the food only prolonged the agony. Her sister, my aunt, had arranged for her to receive these infusions at home once she could no longer eat on her own.
“So she won’t starve to death,” she had said. I disagreed. I didn’t see any point in prolonging her agony. But I didn’t voice my objection. All I cared about was that she died at home, surrounded by those closest to her and without pain. I held her hand and listened. The pauses between each exhalation and subsequent inhalation were getting longer. Just as it seemed as if she would not take another breath, she would suddenly gasp for air like a diver who had just come to the surface. As I watched her, a strong wish spontaneously appeared that she wouldn’t take another breath – a wish that made me feel horribly guilty and that I tried to repress. I wanted to open my mouth and say “Mommy, breathe!” but every time I tried, the wish reappeared and nothing came out. I counted the seconds between her breaths: ten, twenty, thirty, forty…and collapsed into unconsolable weaping. I held her hand and looked through the tears at – actually stared into – her face, which seemed to be changing every second. She became what she had been before: my mom. Her face was no longer grey, and I felt as if the disease that had so altered and ravaged her had sudddenly left her. Her sister returned about half an hour later, and upon seeing her, burst into tears.
“Sonja, you’ve become just like you were before,” she sobbed.
I came to the main trail that led downward. I think I had already long ago forgiven myself for my wish that mother would stop breathing. I knew I simply did not want her to suffer any longer in a life that could no longer offer her any human dignity. I had read about a dying woman surrounded by all her relatives, who were there praying for her. Twice they thought she had died, but both times she began breathing again. Then she opened her eyes and asked them to stop praying for her life. She said she had already tried to leave twice, but their prayers had brought her back, and that they should let her go, as the place she was going was lovely. The family honored her wishes, and she died peacefully.
Passing through the hillside vinyards and charming countryside, I arrived in Villafranca de Bierzo, “Little Compostela”. For sick or disabled pilgrims who couldn’t make it across the Cebreiro Pass, this used to be the end of the trail. At the stairs to the Gate of Mercy, the Puerta del Pedron, they received the same absolution as at Tomb of the Apostle.
The name Villafranca means city of the French, in this case of the French Benedictines who settled here to look after the pilgrims who came through. They were the ones who brought winemaking to the region. Marjana and I stayed the night in a former monastery that was comfortable to the point of oppulence. We were given a very spacious double room with private bath, and this was just the beginning. For dinner we were treated to the specialty of the region: pulpo gallego, Galician octopus. Prepared with roughly-ground salt, olive oil and sweet chili powder and served on a wooden plate with locally-produced red wine, this was a royal feast.
Just before falling asleep, I realized that I had been walking for twenty days and had covered almost 375 miles – 371.56, or 18.57 per day to be exact.
The Slovene Girls Do a Shot
Wednesday, May 11, 2016
From Villafranca de Bierzo, with overnight stay at the Albergue Hunta de Galicias. Distance hiked: 18.9 miles
After Little Compostelo, the path splits. I apparently went the wrong way and spent a nice, long time walking along a less than attractive foot path next to a road. The alternative I missed was Camino Duro. Marjana did not make the same mistake. When we met up afterward, she enthusiastically described the part of the trail I’d missed, which had veered away from the road and gone steeply up into hills, first through a pine forest that changed into leafy woods, continued across naked peaks, and then descended again through a magnificent forest with enormous chestnut trees. After the fork in the road, she came all the way to Trabadelo, where our paths came together and we went together for our morning coffee. Next time, which will be never, I’m taking the path Marjana took.
From Trabadelo the path continued across a valley and through little settlements, climbing steeply through thick leafy woods and on to the remote, picturesque village of La Laguna, the last in the province of Leon, where I stopped to eat an apple. Upon passing the village, the trail continued to climb, the woods thinned out, and an incredible view opened out on to the hills of the region.
On the side of the path I encountered a sign indicating that I was entering Galacia, the land of mysterious, deeply-rooted, pre-Christian thought shaped by ancient cultures. The biggest mark had been made by the Celts, who are still strongly connected to it to this day. They believe in the supernatural powers of stones and of the sea, and in a strange way they also maintain a belief in witches: they claim that, while they do not believe in them, they certainly do exist.
The village of O’Cebreiro, which is registered as a protected historical monument, is so beautiful that it is actually cheesy. In 1300, a holy miracle occurred in the church, the miracle of Santo Milagro. On a stormy winter night, a devout farmer made his way with great difficulty to the village church and attended Mass. The monk who was leading the Mass thought he was an idiot for coming on foot in a storm just to get a piece of bread and a sip of wine. But just as he was thinking this, the bread and wine were transformed into actual flesh and blood. Both are on display in two bottles in the Capilla del Santo Milagro, the Capella of the Holy Miracle, in Santiago, and the goblet and holy bread are a part of the Galician coat of arms.
The hostel in O’Cebreiro was almost new, but architecturally it was the most horrible lodge I had ever seen. The architect had most definitely never been a pilgrim and had not even stopped for a moment to consider the needs of such people. At a superb location with a breathtaking view, the the three-storey building was leaning into a hill with the street and entrance being at the top level. From the outside, it was beautiful; from the inside, it felt like you were in a modern concentration camp. The third storey housed an enormous sleeping room, bigger than I’d ever seen, with bunk beds arranged in such a way that you could hardly walk between them. Because there we groupings of two horizontal bunk beds together, your bed was attached to your neighbor’s. Basically we slept such that one person had his head up and the other down, meaning you were turned toward your neighbor’s bed and were looking at his feet in the sleeping bag, while your neighbor had his head at your feet. The room had a low ceiling and almost no windows, and even with such a large number of pilgrims, there was no dividing wall. In addition, the bathroom was two floors down, so if you needed to go in the middle of the night, well, bon voyage! And the pilgrims in my age group had no choice but to make the trek, the men with prostate difficulties sometimes several times. Of course, compared to the 560 miles we’d already walked, these few extra meters weren’t a challenge in themselves, but considering how new this place was, it certainly could have been designed for more functionality.
We went downstairs to the second floor, which was dedicated entirely to an enormous kitchen and dining hall. The kitchen was fully equipped, but there wasn’t a single container to cook in anywhere, so no one used it. On the first floor was a glass wall with a marvelous view of the valley, but they had installed shelves that covered it completely, so only our hiking shoes could enjoy it. Indeed, our shoes were given the brightest and best-ventilated spot in the whole place. It could have been such a lovely place for people. The showers for both men and women were also here – sans shower curtains or doors. I was amazed there were even doors for the toilets. It’s true that we pilgrims had become quite intimately connected, but we were still used to a modicum of privacy. Moreover, all the hiking hadn’t taken away our sense of beauty or comfort, and it wouldn’t have cost them any more to build a much homier, cozier place.
Marjana and I took a very quick shower, put our clothes in the wash, and set off to get some dinner, where we were joined by Thomas. After dinner I went to put our wet laundry into the drier, and when I returned I found Thomas explaining something confidential to Marjana. I didn’t want to disturb them, and since I knew they would both be going to Mass at seven anyway, I decided to climb the hill with the cross at the top that looked out over the village. I had to laugh at myself for deciding I needed yet another uphill hike that day. Suddenly I got an ominous twinge in my stomach, and I immediately panicked: what if I’d taken in a little contaminated water and poisoned myself? I could already see myself having to break off the pilgrimage early, sobbing as I said goodbye to Marjana. In the grip of fear I called Iztok, and he told me to go back to the hostel immediately and drink some hard alcohol. That sounded like a good idea, so I went back, grabbed Marjana (who had just returned from Mass), and together we went and found an old Galacian restaurant, heading straight for the bar upon entrance. Quite a few other pilgrims had found there way there as well, and were being served by a sassy but nimble older woman who was able to cook, serve tea and bus tables all at the same time. I managed to get across to her that my stomach was hurting and I needed to drink something. We actually managed to communicate quite well, and I was able to understand that she had a few varieties of herbal schnapps, some weaker and some stronger – the kind men drink. She pointed to a local man sitting with a shot glass full of clear liquid in front of him, and we told the waitress to bring each of us one of the same. When our shots arrived, it drew the attention of everyone at the bar. They watched with great interest, waiting to see what would happen.
As soon as we tossed back our shots, the group let out a collective “Wow!”, and I ordered another round. The waitress asked if I was sure about that, and I said I was. She returned with a bottle of what looked like some kind of plumb brandy, crossed herself and said “Padre mio.” By now all eyes were intently fixed on us. Again we downed our shots in one go, and again came the monosyllabic “Wow!”
We paid and got up to leave with all eyes on us, probably in the expectation that we would fall over or pass out on the spot and I didn’t spend too much time worrying about it either. My stomach was back to normal, and in a sleeping area packed with more than a hundred people, I slept like a baby. I only woke up twice during the night, both times because Adrianno was saying “Basta, basta”. He told me the next morning that he had been trying to get people to stop snoring so loudly. But nobody heard him. Only clapping disturbed their slumber.
The Camino Offers Everyone an Experience of Love
Thursday, May 12, 2016
From O’Cebreira to San Memede do Camino, with overnight stay at the Albergue Paloma Y Liena. Distance hiked: 22.35 miles
It was cold and lightly drizzling when I set out from O’Cebreira, and the macadam trail passed through a small wooded area. I felt wonderful and was in a good mood. I knew that today’s hike consisted of only slight up and down inclines, as we had almost reached the top of the hill yesterday. Running along the street in San Roque, the trail narrowed, and I caught a gimpse of Marjana’s smiley-face unbrella. I closed my own, set it down next to hers, and walked in. Thomas, Giovanni, Adrianno and Marjana already had a table. Everyone was eating except Adrianno, who never had breakfast. He had already told me several times how, as a political functionary, he traveled a lot and stayed at the finest hotels. Each morning at breakfast, he would just look over the tables full of food, drink his coffee, and leave. I ordered fried eggs and a large latte. It was warm thanks to the stove heater, and we ate and made fun of Adrianno for his nocturnal clapping. We left the bar together and began the steep climb to the very top of the pass in a single-file line. This was the final steep climb on the Road to Santiago. I had hardly gone a few steps before my shoes were wet, although I was at least still warm from breakfast. Right then a light snow began to fall. Thomas began jumping for joy. He had never in his life seen a snowflake. The trail widened, and Giovanni caught up with me.
“How nice! I have wet feet, I’m freezing, I’m aboutto hike at least twenty miles in rain and snow, but I don’t care. Look at what a lovely blizzard we’re walking through! I’m grateful for it. And at this moment, happy. I think this will be one of the scenes I see pass before my eyes just before I die.”
I didn’t answer him right away, but after some time, I began thinking aloud. “I don’t get it. They say you go on a pilgrimage to get rid of your binding attachment to your identity. OK, I get that much. If we consider identity to be a collection of deeply-rooted beliefs about ourselves, and if I put those aside here on the Camino and by doing so became happy overnight, does this mean that what I think about myself is bad? Why are we all so happy here, walking without identity, without all our deep-seated beliefs about ourselves? Why do those central and deepest convictions through which we filter the events that pass through our experience go to sleep on the Camino? This makes absolutely no sense to me.”
“You know what I think? I think that on the Camino, the way we are is how we truly are in reality. It’s in our nature to forgive, love unconditionally, believe and hope, be rational, fair, kind and moderate. Each of us is a little part of the same whole, and on the Camino we sense that. We don’t need any identity, any filters, because we know that we can trust. We don’t have to do anything.”
“Except follow the yellow signs.”
Snowflakes were crashing into my jacket and melting on my face. I found that on the Camino I no longer needed my secret prayer, or mantra even, that I’d adopted so many years before: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Here you trust and accept. Nothing needs to be done.
We came into the valley in Triacastelo, the site of the old pilgrim’s jail and the lime quarry from which pilgrims would take and carry the rocks used to build the Santiago cathedral. On the outskirts of the village the Camino forked, and without a word each of us, one after the other, took the path that was a few miles shorter. The trail led upward through a forest along a paved road. Our line broke up, and each of us got lost in the forest at his own pace. I had made it quite a few miles before the path began to descend. I came to a forest trail that ended abruptly at the entrance to a large estate. At least that’s what it seemed like, because when you looked more closely, you saw that it continued to the right into the woods. By the entrance to the estate was a sign: “Welcome pilgrims.” It was placed on a table laden with food. Homemade cookies, bread and honey, butter and jam, some sort of almond pie, bananas and apples – all this was there waiting for us in return for a voluntary donation, a donativo.
A very pleasant young man, Simon the host, was sitting at the table smiling. He was conversing with Victor and Terry, who were standing in front of the table and eating with the others, including everyone who had been in our little marching line earlier that morning. Simon chatted with us and was genuinely happy to meet Marjana and me when he heard we were from Slovenia. He came over to us and gave us each a hug. He was full of praise.
“Slovenes are the friendliest people on earth,” he said, pumping our egos beyond recognition. “You have the most beautiful country I’ve ever been to, and the most gorgeous girls in the universe.”
“Did you hear what he said?” I said self-importantly, looking aound at everyone.
“You’re entitles to be proud of your country,” Giovanni said. “You needed some pride just to survive for so many years.”
“We also needed you Italians to pack up and get out in 1943,” I quipped (in the name of my nation, and not of myself, of course).
Refreshed, we resumed the hike through the forest and came to a country road. A few miles later, we found ourselves at a quaint and cozy private lodge.
There was a time when all the hostels were state-owned and largely neglected. According to what I read, the beds usually came with bed bugs, and the bathroom facilities were unsanitary and without hot water. Realizing that pilgrims represented a significant source of revenue for northern Spain, the Spanish government issued stricter regulations and controls for the lodges. Private entrepreneurs, estimating that the potential for profits from hostels was greater than that from hotels, also began opening new ones, and in the last few years they have been springing up like mushrooms after rain. And after a full day of hiking, it was at one of these that we decided to stay. Each sleeping room was divided into four sections and had its own heater and four-shower, two-commode bathroom. The communal area was equipped with a large fireplace and comfortable couches and stuffed chairs. The bookshelf was full of books and social games, and the sound of classical music filled the air. The hostess had covered the long table for dinner, and an intoxicating aroma was wafting out from the kitchen. We were showered and freshly dressed, our wet shoes were drying on the heater, and our wet, dirty clothes were in the wash. Victor, Adrianno, Marjana, Thomas and I sat around the fireplace, poured ourselves some hot tea from the pitcher on the table, and nibbled on the cookies that had been set out on the table in a covered glass cookie jar.
All of a sudden, Terry came in and announced that he had some good news.
“My editor says she spoke with Steven and told him about Klaus. The news shook him to his core, and since then he’s been crying for joy and is making arrangements to come to Santiago.”
“Really?” said Victor, tears starting to run down his face. He was already imagining the emotional reunion.
“Steven said his parents had talked him into going back with them to Australia, and that he shouldn’t impulsively destroy his own life for the sake of a silly love affair on the Camino. It took them a lot of convincing, but he finally gave in. Later he tried to find Eva, but all he knew was her name and that she was from Germany. It was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. And on a different continent at that.”
Eva, the German pilgrim. What we are on the Camino. Pilgrims with a name and a country of origin. How many times along the way had I seen little slips of paper stuck to trees or next to the yellow arrows, expressing the intense wish of pilgrims brought together by the Camino only to go their separate ways again, to reunite one day. “Dear Michael from Canada,” one might say, “My last name is Martesson. Find me on Facebook. Marina.” or “Samantha, we spent a wonderful afternoon in Leon. I’d like to repeat it. I’m waiting for you at the only hostel in Villambistia.” or “Doris from France: I will never forget our conversation. If you feel the same, call me at…”
Shirley MacLaine wrote about this in her book. She said the Camino offers everyone an experience of love, but its up to each one whether to accept it or not. A Brazilian friend of hers who had made the pilgrimage before she did had told her about this. The friend said she herself had accepted the offer without reservation and never regretted it. MacLaine was offered such an experience only once, right after she had set out on trail, in the form of a young, dark, well-built Spaniard, but she declined, although she didn’t know exactly why, or at least never found a good reason for the decision. I think quite a few people who have these experiences on the Camino end up together. I say this because I myself met five such couples over the course of a month. The first was a young German couple that had met on the Camino and gotten married, and were back again for their honeymoon. I met them in the kitchen of one of the lodges as the newly-minted groom was preparing dinner for his bride. He was making spaghetti with meat sauce while she was sitting at the table watching him and chatting with the other pilgrims about how they had met. The second wasn’t a couple; Alexandra, a German woman who had been married for five years, had come to the Camino alone. She and her husband had met on the pilgrimage and had spent their honeymoon on the Potugese Camino after receiving the trip as a wedding gift. After five years of marriage, she had come to the Camino Frances alone. She was still childless, and had prayed for a child in Milagro de la Luz. The third was a French couple who had come back to the Camino to celebrate their third anniversary. The fourth were a Swiss woman and German man who had met on the Camino, married and settled down in Germany, and had returned to the Camino with their five-year-old son and six-month-old daughter, who the mother pushed along in a stroller. I passed them one rainy day when the father was walking ahead, holding the little boy’s hand, while the mother had stopped at the side of the road to breastfeed the girl under an umbrella. The fifth couple were Eva and Steven, who had come together and separated on the Camino. Perhaps now it would bring them and their son Klaus, a child of the Camino, back together.
The hostess called us to the table, and tureens full of hot vegetable soup. We spent the rest of the evening talking about Eva, Klaus and Steven.
On Friday the 13th I met Gentleman
Friday, May 13, 2016
From San Memede do Camino to Gonzar, with overnight stay at the Albergue Casa Garcia. Distance hiked: 23.3 miles
On Friday the 13th I was thinking about Philip the Fair as I walked. Had he really so maliciously ordered the killing of all Templars, his creditors, on that Friday the 13th in October? They were his competitors, and they had become too formidable. They were an army, and they had money, power and influence. Everything a king is supposed to have. Their position had grown too near to his own.
I hadn’t been walking long when I arrived in Sarria, on the other side of which was a collection point for the “staged pilgrims” who travel by bus. The buses stopped here and pilgrims poured out of them. I walked in line with them, hurrying through numerous little settlements with nice views. I wanted peace and quiet, away from these loud people. I walked and walked along wide cart track through one little forest after another, mostly full of eucalyptus, past large rocks spaced only a step apart from each other and a number of creeks and streams, and forgot about everything.
At almost the same moment that I started to feel hungry, my energy level began to plummet. On such long hikes there is always a point where you need all your currently available energy. You’re burning food, but your body can’t convert it into usable form quickly enough for you to keep going. That’s when you need to take a short rest and eat something. After fifteen minutes you’re fine and can continue. I opened my Endomondo application, which I used to keep track of my progress, and discovered that I’d covered more than seven miles on an empty stomach. I felt a little anxious when I realized that I would have to go another three before getting to a village with a bar. For the most part I didn’t worry too much about food along the way. I didn’t carry any in my backpack (nor was there any room for it even if I had wanted to), because the Camino is dotted with plenty of little towns with bars and grocery stores. So I only carried the odd banana or apple along in my rucksack, as I knew the nearest meal wasn’t far away. As recently as a year previously, pilgrims had had to be much more careful about when and where they were going to eat, partly because of the Spanish afternoon siesta. Not infrequently, they would be standing with growling stomachs in front of a closed store. Now the locals had begun to adapt to the needs of pilgrims, with the result that shops are open all day. On this particular day I had intended to have breakfast after three miles, as I knew that after that I’d have to walk another seven to the next feeding opportunity. I hurried in front of the tour bus crowd, immersed in my own world, and right at mile three walked right past the only breakfast bar. Now I had passed everyone, but I had slowed to almost a crawl. It too everything I had to pull myself along, and the scene around me was starting to look blurry.
Just then I heard a man’s voice. “My lady, I have something for you.” In his hand was a little piece of chocolate. My hand reached for it seemingly of its own volition.
“Thanks,” I said, ripping off the wrapper as I spoke, “you came at just the right time.”
“That’s the Camino. Everything happens at just the right time. There’s no food available on this stretch for quite a while.”
Two more pilgrims emerged from behind the bushes. I wished them buen Camino with my mouth full of chocolate and got back on the trail. That chocolate saw me through to the next bar, where Marjana and Thomas were already having breakfast. I ordered three fried eggs and also took in a whole third of a baguette. Marjana gave me two energy pills, which I gratefully accepted and put in the medicine pocket of my backpack, just in case.
We set off from the bar together, hiking across a plateau covered with vegetation and to a river, where more buses were waiting. We crossed a reservoir and bridge and began climbing the steep stairs into town. In the previous century there had been a village at the bottom of the reservoir, which they later immersed under water. All that was left of it were two churches, which they had relocated stone by stone.
Once in town confusion set in, as the trail was not well marked, so we ended up wandering around, first in one direction and then another, until we found a bar and stopped in for a beer. The path out of town led to another bridge and then to the right, uphill along the river and into a forest. Most likely the path had led through the submerged village before the reservoir was built, but now they had rather misleadingly redirected it through the town. From there to Gonzar, our destination for the day, the trail was laid along a cart track separated by trees from the road, which you could only intuitively sense was there.
When I came to the lodge, I saw the sign in big letters at the reception desk: completo. The receptionist asked me if I was from Slovenia. I told her I was, and she asked for my passport, as Marjana had reserved a bed for me. She checked me in and showed me to my bed. We went through an internal courtyard and a pleasant common area, and when we got to the sleeping room I discovered that I had been given the top bunk. I immediately panicked and broke out in a cold sweat. In English I begged the receptionist to find me a lower bunk as, due to childhood trauma, I could not sleep on the top level. She tried to reassure me, but the bottom line was that there were no lower bunks available.
“In that case I’ll go on to the next hostel,” I said. “Please refund my money.”
Just then a tall, friendly-looking pilgrim came in. I was pretty sure he was the one who had given me chocolate that day. At that time he had been wearing a cap on his head, and I had been so surprised by his sudden gift to me that I wasn’t absolutely sure it was him.
“My lady,” he said, pointing to an empty lower bunk, “my bed is over there. I haven’t used it yet, and I’ll be happy to trade places with you. Please.”
Now there was no doubt it was him. I thanked him, moved my belongings over to the other bed with a great sense of relief, and went looking for the bathrooms. The three unisex bathrooms were occupied. I went and found Marjana and told her what had happened. Once again, up spoke the same gentleman who had given me his bed.
“My lady, there is now a free bathroom for you.” Apparently he had seen me trying to find a bathroom and had come to find me once one was free. I smiled and thanked him for his thoughtfulness.
Not ten minutes later I was nestled comfortably in front of the fireplace, freshly showered and dressed, my laundered underwear drying out in the courtyard. The warm water in the shower still hadn’t warmed me up completely, so the fireplace was a welcome sight. It was mid-May, but when you’ve spent the whole day hiking in the rain, by evening you are anything but warm.
“My lady, some hot tea with run to warm you up,” the man said, handing me a steaming cup.
“Thank you,” I said to him for the fourth time. This time he got a big smile. He sat down next to me and held out his hand.
“My name is Robin. I’m from Germany,” he said as I shook his hand. “I hear you’re from Slovenia. I asked some of the others where you’ve come from with such a fast walk and small backpack. I couldn’t believe it when they said you’d started out in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Did you manage to pack everything you needed?”
“I haven’t had to do without anything major,” I said. “When I left home, my pack weighed nine pounds, but it must be a little less now since my husband, who only walked with me as far as Burgos, took the windbreaker home and I lost my terry socks.”
He whistled. “Less than nine pounds – wow. The three books I brought with me alone weigh two pounds.”
Interesting. Someone brought books to the Camino.
“Which books are those,” I asked, unable to curb my curiosity.
“A guide to the Camino, the Bible, and a book called How to Become a Man.”
“How to become a man? What do you need that here for?”
He sipped from his cup and stared at the fire.
“It’s helping me understand how the past influences the present. I think I’m too sensitive and self-critical. I’d like to turn that vulnerability into a source of strength and get free of my self-criticism.” As pilgrims would say, he had come to cleanse his soul and forgive himself.
“What kind of man does the book tell you to become?”
His answer came without the slightest hesitation. “What can I say? A wonderful one. Strong, but gentle. Not a tyrant and not a victim. One who has transcended his own ego, his own fears, and his own selfishness and sacrifices himself to protect others. One who is able to resist temptation and who never takes the easy way out, no matter the price.”
“Reminds me of Superman,” I said, beginning to feel quite warm from the fire, rum, and conversation.
“Maybe Superman is a real possibility.”
I doubted it. I thought he had his head in the clouds.
“And what does the book say about Superman’s relationship to women?” I figured I already had a pretty good idea.
“He shows women that he loves them for who they are. That he appreciates their inner as well as outer beauty. The book also painstakingly describes exactly what women need from men, and this helps an emerging man understand women more easily. And of course, a man is also always a gentleman.” He finished his tea, his cheeks red from the heat of the fire.
Marjana came to tell me it was time for dinner. Robin and I got up.
“My lady,” he said, “thank you for a lovely chat.” Then, turning to Marjana, he added: “Bon appétit.”
Marjana and I headed for the dining room. “What a slime ball!” she said, despite all her Christian principles.
“He’s a gentleman,” I corrected her, “but not a slimy one.”
Life is Beautiful
Saturday, May 14, 2016
From Gonzar to Melida, with overnight stay at the Albergue San Antonio. Distance hiked: 20.74 miles
Galacia reminded me of Slovenia: green, hilly, and with similar vegetation. The only thing we don’t have is the eucalyptus. Guessing by appearances, I’d say Galacia gets significantly more rain, and for that reason has more lush growth. Maybe the reason I was thinking so much about Slovenia that day was that I was really missing Iztok. I thought about our thirty-year relationship, of every peak and valley we’d been through. Until about a year after we were married, I still believed in simple answers that would present themselves automatically, because I still believed in romantic love – larger than life, self-evident, salvific. I was convinced that for every girl there was a prince somewhere in this wide world, and all you had to do was find him, marry him, and live happily every after. As a child I spent a lot of time mulling over how I was going to find this one and only great love. What if he lived on the other side of the world? After watching a number of American films, I’d decided that fate would put me on the right track. I “knew” I’d recgognize my true love the instant he appeared. I wouldn’t end up like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, who didn’t recognize hers until the end of the book, nor would I be like the short-sighted Daisy, who chose to reject the Great Gatsby. I looked down on the parents of Romeo and Juliet for not understanding that a person has only one other half, and I cried with Prešeren as he spun out his wreath of sonnets. But married life sooner or later brings you back down to earth. The first arguments already start to undermine the myth. In my imagination, there was no place in romantic love for fighting, but only an endless stream of milk and honey. Iztok and I had soon tarnished that image. We fought often and did not constructively solve our disagreements, which were usually followed by periods of sulking. Stubborn as mules, neither of us would budge. Instead each waited for the other to recognize his own error. Of course, when a person begins to mature a little, the need for pouting goes away by itself, and arguments become the basis for finding mutually agreeable resolutions together.
A distorted picture of love led me to search for an answer to the question: what is romantic love in the first place? Of course, this is nothing unusual; people all over the world wonder the same thing. In fact, last year the single most commly Googled question in Slovenia was “What is love?”. I’m an avid “Googler” myself, but when it comes to questions of such complexity, I turn to books, and one of the books I looked to for help was Formule ljubezni [Formulas of Love] by renown Serbian psychotherapist Zorana Milivojević. One of the things in that book that struck me most was the author’s hypothesis that a masochist and a sadist would be the ideal couple. He argues that love is a subjective phenomenon and that everyone has his or her own image of it. The sadist believes that love means inflicting pain, while the masochist believes to love is to accept pain. In this way the sadist becomes the embodiment of love for the masochist, and vice-versa. Of course, things in life are not so simple. Each person’s picture of love is a complex mosaic made up of hundreds of ideas, and the more of these ideas two people converge on, the better their partnership will be.
In further considering the question of romantic love, the character of Alex in the movie Up in the Air also gave me a lot to think about. She decided that before seeking her next partner, she would first meet his family. Until I saw that film, I had never considered it very important what kind of family a person had grown up in or the quality of relationship their parents and siblings had. You were marrying the man, after all, not his relatives. Wrong! Family patterns leave their mark on all of us, and the way they shaped us is the way we will live in our marriages and our new families. Some do, of course, find a way to work through the experiences the had in their primary families, but many do not. Who would have guessed? But if you build on a solid foundation, you’ll have a sturdier building. Nothing, however, is to be taken for granted; you have to invest energy and effort in all your relationships, nowhere moreso than in your relationship with your partner. In my own case, the stains my marital conflicts left on my idealized image of love began to form a clearer, sharper and more colorful picture of their own. Romantic love disappeared and was replaced by an image of marital love, a natural and human form of love, mutual harmony between two people who shared a common life and offered each other support and creative assistance in good times and bad. Nature has seen to it that the human species reproduces itself within the context of such relationships between men and women. Both grow in love, each one giving and receiving. Both Iztok and I put a lot of energy into our relationship to make it as it is: stable and rich. We have strengthened it over the years, supported and shaped one another, and above all, grown together in the same direction. My image of love was again illuminated in all its clarity, brilliance and accessibility. Partnership had replaced romance. It was an image that could accommodate both the sunshine and the clouds – even the storm clouds – and the fact that among the flowers there were also thorns, including some that would endure.
My reverie was interrupted by the sound of Robin’s voice. “My lady, I will walk a part of the path through life with you,” he said. I imagined what Marjana would say to that statement. It reminded me of my father. He swore by the old Viennese school. He always opened the door for women and helped them put their coats on.
“Buen Camino,” I greeted him. “Did you sleep well?”
“I did. So well that I was able to catch up with you. How far are you going today?”
“To…I don’t quite remember, hang on a second. Recently it’s been happening to me more and more often that I have a word right on the tip of my tongue but can’t quite come up with it. Then later on it just appears out of nowhere.”
“That happens to me too. I read somewhere that our memory stores things in ‘drawers’. When you can’t remember a word, it’s rummaging through the wrong drawers.”
“Mel…Melide. That’s where I’m sleeping tonight.”
“You see? Your memory opened the right drawer and found the word ‘Melide’.” We both laughed out loud.
“Did you hear the good news?” he asked.
“I don’t know. What good news?”
“Klaus’s father is coming to the Camino.”
“You mean you know that story?”
“Of course. You know how stories circulate around here.”
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll patch up their relationship. And I’m going to pray for them.”
“I think they’ve got a good chance to work things out. I think any couple that meets on the Camino has excellent prospects for success.”
“What’s makes you say that?”
In the past I had often asked myself where I would go to look for a partner if I needed one. My first answers was always the book store. First and foremost I wanted a partner who loved to read and devoted a lot of time to books, went to bookstores and leafed through them, checked out the new releases and chose one. He would have to be willing to spend money on books, which most men aren’t. On drinking, yes, but books for most men are a waste of their hard-earned cash. The invention of the internet made this seem like the ideal way to choose a partner since, in addition to the criterion that he must love reading and buy books, you could also set a number of others. Moreover, a large number of potential candidates have disappeared from bookstores now that they can be so easily ordered on line. But I never considered the possibility of finding a partner on the Camino.
“I think all of us on the Camino know the love that’s in all of us,” Robin said. “We simply sense it and know, or believe, that it’s here. And of course it will stay in us after we return home. And in the hardest moments that daily life brings, two people will know what each needs to look for in the other.”
“I imagine they’ll find it in the drawer marked ‘heart’.” I quipped.
We came to the church in Furelos.
“Let’s go into the church,” Robin said. “I want to show you something.”
We went in and walked over to the statue of Christ, who was nailed to the cross, but only by his left hand. The right hand was hanging at his side. In all his suffering he looked divine. Looking at his right hand, which was almost touching the floor, one was moved by the recognition that Christ was the one who had bridged the gap between the human and the divine, between the earth and God. I gazed at the scene for quite some time, while Robin went and sat down in a pew, folded his hands, and stared at the altar. In my peripheral vision I could see his lips moving ever so slightly as he prayed. Quietly so as not to disturb him, I slipped out of the church and continued on my way.
Thanks to the news about Steven’s approaching arrival, we all hiked from Furlos to Melide together as a group. We put our heads together and tried to guess how the reunion was going to go, careful not to let Eva and Klaus get wind of what was about to happen. Such a task seemed impossible, what with hundreds of people talking about it. But the Camino, it seemed, took care of that as well. I found Marjana hiking with a small group of others, and together we came to the San Antonio lodge, which is one of the most highly-rated hostels anywhere on St. James’s Way. We saw Terry at the reception counter. He was talking – or more accurately, shouting – on the phone.
“What did you say? Cameras on Monte do Gozo? Are you out of your mind? This is not a fucking soap opera! The Camino is real life! This is a child, and these are real, flesh-and-blood people. Don’t you dare do anything like this. If you do, I’m never coming back to Australia and your dumb TV show!” he screamed, throwing the phone to the floor. Marjana picked it up and, in a move I never thought she would be capable of, screamed into the phone: “This is not a fucking soap opera! The Camino is real life!” Then she hung up and gave it back to Terry.
“Stupid woman,” he fumed. “She wanted to send a whole TV crew to Monte do Gozo to film Steven’s reuinion with Eva and Klaus. To film the pure joy of a child! To film Eva’s surprise and Steven’s repentance. Stupid woman.”
“Calm down. It will be however you and Steven arrange it. When is he arriving?”
“Tomorrow morning. I’m going to tell him to take a taxi to Pedrouzo straight from the airport. He’ll wait for them at the entrance to the town. That way he won’t miss them. At the moment she’s the only woman on the Camino with a stroller.”
“That’s not true. There’s also the one with the six-month-old.”
“Yeah, but she’s got her husband and son with her, and they probably won’t get as far as Perdouzo tomorrow anyway. We’re way ahead of them.”
“Let’s go have a drink, girls. We have to toast Marjana for helping me cuss that woman out on the phone,” Terry said. Then he turned to Marjana. “But how is that in line with your God and your praying?”
We went to the spacious bar near the hostel where Victor, Fabian and Nikos were. We joined them, ordered dinner and began talking about Eva and Klaus. Fabian said he had run into them and walked part of the way with them that day. Klaus had told him about the legend of how Santiago was founded, of the star-lit field, Compostela, where it started. Eva had told him they were going to stay over in Melide at the Peregrino lodge.
“That’s where I’m staying,” Niko said. They’re already there. I saw the stroller in the reception area.”
“So everything’s under control. This calls for a celebration!” Terry enthused, raising his glass of the tinto wine we’d all been served with dinner. Our glasses were soon empty, and they brought us another round. The wine brought a smile to Nikos’s face, and his eyes had a sparkle.
“Today is a good day for sirtaki,” he said, grabbing Victor and pulling him over to the counter. He said something to Victor in English, Victor related it in Spanish to the waiter, the waiter answered Victor in Spanish, and Victor repeated it to Nikos in English. Pretty soon it was clear what they had said. The first beats of sitaki began thundering from the speakers, and the still-smiling Nikos motioned everyone to join him on the dance floor. Or rather, the music itself did, as one can hardly sit still when one hears it. Our hearts skipped a beat, and we jumped up, stood side by side, put our arms around our neighbors’ shoulders and began jumping to the beat, following Nikos – slowly at first, then faster and faster. This went on and on. Experience. A leap. The joy of life. Bouzoukis. Enthusiasm. High spirits. Music. Insanity. Dance. Happiness. Mandolins. Joy. Music. Victory celebration. Enjoyment. Love for life. Excitement. Camino. Love. Life is beautiful. Death. Pain. Life is suffering. Music. Dance. Kefi.
Kefi is a Greek word that cannot be translated. It’s a feeling that is hard to describe unless you’ve had a personal experience of it. Kefi is something of a mixture of the following words: feeling, emotion, experience, the joy of life, enthusiasm, vivaciousness, madness, happiness, spirit, victory celebration, feeling good, fun, love for life, excitement. But even this entire thread of words doesn’t quite capture its true meaning. Sometimes words simply aren’t enough. The important thing is to find Kefi when life isn’t going your way, when it’s raw and primal. And the Camino is primal. Love. Life is beautiful. Death. Pain. Life is suffering. And instead of desperation, kefi appears at the right moment, the moment when things are hardest, when it becomes crystal-clear to you, when you’ve come to the essense. A word that only the Greeks have, but a feeling we can all eperience. A positive feeling, a driving force – the life force. All of us at the bar danced the sirtaki together and experienced kefi in unison, that unbelievable feeling you share with a group of people who come together at a certain moment in time to be and feel as one.
Monday, May 16, 2016
From Pedrouzo to Santiago, with overnight stay at the Albergue The Last Stamp. Distance hiked: 16.1 miles
After leaving Pedrouzo there were no bars for quite a few miles, so Marjana and I decided to have breakfast a few doors down from the lodge at a place that opened very early, at six in the morning. I had a tostado and coffee and set off down the empty road back toward the Camino. The streetlights were still on, and the valley was shrouded in a fog that came all the way to the ground. All you could see were the tops of the trees. The yellow arrows led me to a path through a thick forest, much of which was relatively level, but then it went steeply up, the woods thinned out, and I came upon a small village spread out over the countryside. It was shaping up to be a nice day, and people were already out and about. Women were working in their gardens and flower beds, and men were cutting the grass.
From a distance I saw Adrianno. Poor Adrianno. I hoped that with age he would overcome his desire, that this pilgrimage might change his view of women, whom he had thusfar seen only from one particular perspective. He hit on the waitresses in the bars, smiled seductively at female pilgrims of all ages, and flirted with local woman on the city streets. Even I wasn’t spared, and Adrianno had already suggested we meet for dinner in Koper after we were back home. I told him repeatedly that he and I was just friends, that I had been married for many years, and that I intended to remain faithful to my husband.
I picked up the pace a bit and caught up with him. “You know, last night I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I was thinking about you.”
I figured he was about to start in on the usual song and dance, and I tried to nip it in the bud. “Adrianno…”
“No, wait. Let me finish. I was thinking about how I want to be your friend.”
At that moment I realized that he had never before considered having a friendship with a woman. He had always looked at everything through the prism of sexuality. He didn’t differentiate between desire, which is of a purely somatic nature, and love, which has a spiritual basis. Perhaps on the Camino he had begun to free himself from his desire and to recognize that love is first and foremost a spiritual phenomenon, and only secondarily physical. He had begun to entertain the possibility of being friends with a woman. And this was a good sign.
The landscape began to fill up with industrial facilities and infrastructure, indicating that I was nearing Santiago. Passing the airport that actually lies on this historic trail, I came to Lavacolla, where pilgrims in the Middle Ages introduced a custom brought about by a mistranslation in the Codex Callixtinus. The writer inadvertently translated the name Lavacolla, which means “full of stone”, as Lava Colea – to wash one’s genitals. Thanks to that little slip, the creek in Lavacolla became a bathing site for pilgrims, and everyone arrived at the apostle’s tomb squeaky clean. These days this ritual bathing in the creek is no longer observed, nor is there any need for it.
The road went steeply uphill, and it took all the energy I had to make it past the TV station and up to the bright plateau. I was happy to have finally arrived, as I could hardly wait to see Monte do Gozo, the mountain of joy, from which for the first time the bell towers of the cathedral are visible. It is said that almost every pilgrim bursts into tears of joy upon seeing them, tears that come from the cleansing of the spirit. Thusfar my only tears of joy had been upon seeing the reunion of Eva, Klaus and Steven – Terry’s fucking soap opera that wasn’t one at all. I hoped at least I would cry again here, and I wondered why I hadn’t up until now. Was I still not relaxed enough? Was my heart too hard? Was I as yet still not ready for my soul to be cleansed?
I came to San Marco and saw Marjana and Thomas sitting at a roadside bar. They were having croissants and coffee and talking to an American couple. I stopped and had coffee and orange juice, but then continued on my way, too impatient to wait. But when I finally arrived at Monte do Gozo, I looked in vain for the bell towers. The city in recent years had grown dramatically, as had the trees, and the much-anticipated view wasn’t to be had. In the Middle Ages it had been the custom that the first pilgrim to glimpse the towers would be crowned “king of the pilgrims.” These days, it seemed no one would be claiming that title. The decendants of those old pilgrim kings in Slovenia today still carry the last name Kralj, meaning king. In Germany they are called König, in Spain Rey, in England Roy, and in France Leroi.
Marjana and I began the downhill stretch together. After a while we saw what we couldn’t see from the mountain of joy: the cathedral bell towers rising up from the center of town. If some thousand years earlier they hadn’t found those relics here on the field stretching out before us now, we would have been confronted by an entirely different view. The city would not have been there, and most probably neither would we. First there were relics, then a shrine, and now a city. The holy site of Santiago de Compostela became an important European cultural hub precisely because of the pilgrim’s path that led to it. When the Arabs destroyed it in the year 997, the entire Christian world took up the cause of its renewal. Those who fell in the battles against the Arabs were granted the same status by the Church as fallen crusaders. As both had fought against the heathens, both were given the same privileges, including total absolution for their sins. What utter nonsense to grant absolution as a reward for fighting and killing those who believe in a different god!
We passed through the outskirts of town and came into the old city center, where we found the cathedral with its Western façade. It had a scaffolding around it, and we tried unsuccessfully to open the door enough to see the statue of St. James that millions of pilgrims before us had laid their hands on, or the image of Daniel smiling at the bare-breatsed beauty with him on the pillar. The church authorities felt his smile was perhaps a bit too enthusiastic, so they had the woman’s chest tiled over so people wouldn’t think Daniel’s smile was a lustful one. Daniel just kept smiling without complaint, but the farmers protested in their own inimitable way (and cashed in on it as well): they began producing blocks of cheese in the shape of Daniel’s object of interest and called this new cheese tetilla – the tit. Today you can still buy these cheese tits in the shops of Santiago.
On the square in front of the cathedral is the Hospital de los Reyes Catolicos, which today is a luxurious state hotel but was once a pilgrims’ lodge founded by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They still remember their roots, and so every day they treat the first ten pilgrims to breakfast, lunch and dinner. You have to show up at the right time, so that you’re one of the first ten standing by the garage door under the main entrance at nine in the morning, noon, or seven in the evening, and you have to show them your compostela, which cannot be more than three days old. Do this, and you can stuff yourself for free on very good fare.
We found the door to the cathedral and went in. Immediately our attention was drawn to the altar with the statue of St. James elaborately glistening with gold, silver and gems. Together with other pilgrims we climbed the stairs to the altar and, like so many millions before us, embraced the apostle. We then went down into the basement, where his purported remains are interred. Who knows where his actual remains really are and whose are taking their place here in the crypt? Historians doubt whether St. James ever even visited Spain, and they also doubt that his remains were ever brought there. I thought of Alexandra, the German girl, who had wondered aloud while visiting the Roland monument how many falsehoods the world revolves around. You’re quite right, Alexandra. Many falsehoods play an important symbolic role in the history of mankind.
After the cathedral our next stop was the pilgrims’ office, where one receives the Compostela – the confirmation that you hiked the Camino. We ran into Giovanni, who was having a look around Santiago. Asked whether he had gotten the official stamp yet, his response was that he did not need a piece of paper to confirm that he had done it. He had come here for different reasons, not to get something he could brag about later. Also, the stamp was not free, and the line to get it was not short. I must admit, I’m inclined to agree with him on this. But that didn’t stop Marjana and me from going to get our stamps anyway. The office was swarming with pilgrims, only a few of whose faces were familiar. Robin walked over to us and hugged and congratulated us with tears in his eyes. I wondered why the tears here at our final destination. To me, there was nothing special about all those miles we hiked. On the pilgrimage I had exerienced first hand the truth of the hackneyed phrase that it’s the journey that matters, not the arrival.
I got in line and waited for a nice, long time before finally being called to the window by a somewhat older volunteer. She was impressed that I had come all the way from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. She typed my name into the computer and then spent quite a long time browsing.
“Niveam,” she said. “That’s your name in Latin.”
I nodded. Yes, Snežana, Nives, Niveam – all of these are just different names for Snow White. It comes originally from the Spanish word for snow. But what does this name say about me? That I’m white as snow? Tabula rasa? Cold, innocent, sensitive?
We checked into the lodge and Marjana left for Mass. I decided I would go to the evening Mass at seven-thirty, the service especially for pilgrims. I wanted to buy some hiking sandals, as Marjana were planning to go to the ocean. The window displays of the Santiago shopping district were very enticing, and I found myself staring at beautiful dresses, shoes, and handbags, and I had an urge to at least try on something nice. I’d been wearing the same clothes for a month, after all. On the trail, the beauty and wonder of nature made me happy; at home, I got a similar feeling from a nice dress with matching shoes and purse. It satisfied my sense of aesthetics. I had missed that sense of satisfaction, the feeling you get from putting on a lovely ensemble consisting of a dress, shoes and jewelry, and capped off with the right purse. A feeling of wholeness and harmony.
Just then, I heard a familiar voice behind me.
“My lady, you are perfect just as you are.” It was Robin, who knew too well what women want to hear.
“You caught me right in the middle of my sin. Even the pilgrimage didn’t help. I walked more than five-hundred miles and finally got to Santiago, and the first thing I do is go clothes shopping.” “Don’t be so hard on yourself. As far as I can see you have a refined sense of elegance, by which I mean good taste, lovingness, balance and harmony. And that elegance is also reflected on the outside.”
I was flattered, as always. He was obviously implementing the techniques from his book to perfection.
“Would you like to come have a drink with me in honor of our completion of the pilgrimage?”
I didn’t want to turn him down, and besides, this would force me to tear myself away from dresses and shoes, my desire for which was, I thought, truly sinful, given the purpose I had for coming here in the first place. So we went to a nearby bar and ordered tinto wine.
“Even in Slovenia, wine is wine,” I said.
“Interesting.” He fell silent for a moment before continuing. “I’m very satisfied with this pilgrimage. I succeeded in looking at all that I was carrying around through life in my backpack, and now I intend to make a selection among all that I’ve accumulated over the years. I found a lot of things I managed to acquire without even knowing where they came from.”
“I haven’t finished yet. I’ve still got three days to the end of the world.”
“Are you going all the way? My plane leaves tomorrow.”
I was curious what conclusions he had drawn. “Has the Camino met your expectations?”
He took a sip of his wine, nodding in satisfaction. “It certainly has changed my image of what a pilgrimage is. Before I came here I associated it more with physical suffering, and maybe even massochism. I think we all have this idea about pilgrims from the past, that they’re hungry, wet, covered in mud and blisters, trudging exhausted under the weight of a heavy backpack. But here you discover that this image is far from accurate. The contemporary pilgrim is armed with the most advanced equipment that protects against rain, wind and cold – waterproof shoes that nonetheless allow the feet to breathe, and raincoats that the hardest rain can’t penetrate.”
I thought of Adrianno, who had put the things in his backpack into airtight, vacuum-sealed bags. “I think you went a little overboard with the waterproof shoes,” I said. “We all had wet feet on the rainy days, the shoes only delayed it a little. Of course, it wasn’t important in the end anyway. I expected our main topic of conversation here to be blisters and snoring, but I was profoundly mistaken.”
“That’s true. I was also surprised at how little we talked about those things. And we ate really well to boot. There was a fantastic selection, and we all had enough money for it. And we all knew what sorts of nutritional additions or modifications we needed to make under these physically demanding conditions. Add to that the strict standards of hygiene maintained in the hostels, and you see that the modern pilgrim has everything he or she needs.”
“Yes, even communication with the rest of the world,” I said, recalling Hans’s statement about wi-fi. I had only seen him in the first few days. It often happens that you meet a pigrim one day, maybe two or three days, and never again. “Today I spoke on the phone with a psychologist friend of mine. I complained that I hadn’t shed a single cleansing tear the entire time I’ve been here. She didn’t think that was anything unusual. She said that, given how much I’m enjoying myself and how I have everything here I could possibly need, even including male companionship, at most I should be crying tears of sadness for having to go home so soon. She said it seemed to her that modern pilgrims have it too easy and so don’t experience significant change for the better. She said only the difficult experiences change a person, those times when you’re on the edge and can’t go on. I also think we are shaped primarily by our darker stories. Do you think pilgrims should suffer more in order to get more out of their pilgrimage?”
“That’s actually quite possible,” Robin said after a lengthy pause. “We haven’t suffered all that much. Actually, we’ve been pretty spoiled with all the luxury we’ve had. We took time for ourselves, gave our bodies the gift of movement, allowed our senses to feel and our minds to run free.”
“Yes, Camino is true therapy. And a real teacher. It starts working even before you leave home. While you’re packing your backpack it teaches you that in life you must select things carefully. You have to put quality before quantity. Just as there is a limit to what you can bring with you, so in life you can carry only a limited number of things. What is bad or broken you must be constantly sloghing off just to make room for other things.
We both fell silent. Robin’s phone rang. He told his friend where he was and invited him to join us. Then he hung up and picked up where he had left off.
“I would guess that the relationship between physical and psychological suffering has probably changed since the Middle Ages. In the past people suffered physically a lot more than today, since they didn’t have so many material conveniences. But I also imaging they also had a higher threshold for pain.”
“Maybe. Their everyday lives certainly weren’t as complex, and they were able to find inner balance more quickly.”
“If the different forms of suffering have changed but the result of making the pilgrimage has remained the same, the pilgrim has strengthened himself spiritually and physically, regardless of whether he went on the pilgrimage for a wedding, out of gratitude, out of the human longing for the infinite or his own longing for something higher. On the way he encounters himself and finds the love which he had been carrying within himself the whole time but didn’t realize it. And this love multiplies his faith and hope. Without the need for excessive suffering.” Robin’s thinking was very much in line with my own. I couldn’t have agreed more. His friend joined us, and then I left to find Marjana. It was time for lunch.
For the evening pilgrim’s Mass the cathedral was packed full. Marjana and I sat in the area for pilgrims with the Compostela. I was glad we had a reserved space so we could all finish the pilgrimage together, and I was looking at some familiar faces. I nodded to David, who would be returning to his young family physically and spiritually stronger. On the path he had accepted his age and forgiven himself for trying to hold onto his youth.
I looked further out and caught Adrianno’s eye. We smiled at each other. Good old Adrianno, I thought to myself. I hope and believe you’ll succeed in getting closer to your wife. Earlier that day he had written her an SMS that said “I made it to Santiago. I love you.” He was very pleased when her answer came: “Congratulations, Adrianno. I’m glad you’re coming home.” I hoped that he would be able to terminate his relationships with both his mistresses.
Giovanni was sitting next to him – dry, serious, pensive. I knew he would continue living his ascetic life, strengthening his body and soul, and seeking higher meaning. A year before he had already stopped clinging to material things, and he no doubt was the most aware of all of us that in the end it is not the material goods you had that counts, but the kind of person you were. He wasn’t happy with the past and had not forgiven himself, and so he suffered and sought growth through suffering. I hoped, believed and prayed that his adult children would accept and forgive him. But above all, I hoped he would find a way to forgive himself.
Victor would begin a new life – a life of freedom that was truly his, without his mother. Sadly, fate had decided that the price of his freedom was his mother’s death. It would have been much easier if she had simply recognized that every person must live their own life, that unconditional love does not bind, but liberates. Sacrifice oneself for others? Yes, but only to the extent that the sacrifice enriches the direction of your own life.
Terry would also be returning to his world in a more peaceful state. On the very first morning he had begun his day without stimulants, and I believed that he would remain without them for the rest of his life. He would still measure time in steps, not in TV programs, and he would divide those steps among his family, friends, and television, reserving more than a few for himself. When he noticed that I was watching him, he turned and winked at me.
Robin was a true believer, and you could see it on his face when he prayed. What confused me most about him was the selection of books he had brought with him to the Camino. A guidebook, the Bible, and How to Become a Man? He never confided his personal story to me, so I could only guess why he had brought along that third book, and why the Camino had brought him to me.
Thomas would be returning to New Orleans, and would be spending time with his children and mother, whose mean-spiritedness he had come to accept. It would not be a burden to him any longer, and he would be drawing strength for everyday life from his faith.
Steven, Eva and Klaus would live together, or not. Their life together would either work, or it woudn’t. Either way, the Camino had given Klaus his father back. I turned soft looking at Klaus and how he had his little arms around his dad’s neck.
The priest addressed us in English. “Today, pilgrims from the US, Australia, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Slovenia arrived in Santiago all the way from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port,” he said. Then he began to pray:
“You brought them happily to the end of their pilgrimage.
Let them return to their homes
Help them to one day arrive safely at the end
of their earthy pilgrimage
and attain happiness eternal.
In the name of Christ, our Lord.”
His “Amen” echoed throughout the sanctuary, after which came the big tourist attraction, the burning of the incense, which was the reason that the daily 7:30 pm pilgrim’s Mass was always packed so tightly with tourists.
Pilgrims today arrive in Santiago showered and dressed in clean clothes. All the lodges have hot water in the bathrooms, and most have washing machines and driers. Of course, there was a time when this was not the case, when standards of hygiene were perhaps not quite what they are now, and so it is said that there used to be an intolerable stench in the sanctuary during Mass. This is what led to the use of the 130-pound incense burner that hangs from very long, thick ropes and is set in motion by eight monks. One swing goes almost from ceiling to ceiling and moves with such force that ropes have snapped twice, sending the burner flying into the ceiling. The smoke from the burner fills the sanctuary and, though it is no longer needed to cover up the body odor of pilgrims, creates a solemn atmosphere. We followed each swing of the giant burner with our eyes until it finally came to rest and the monks lifted into its resting position.
With heavy hearts, Marjana and I said goodbye to all our new friends. Everyone cried, except the two of us. What was wrong with us, I wondered?
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
From Santiago to Negreira, with overnight stay at the Albergue Alecrin. Distance hiked: 13.57 miles
The next morning Marjana and I continued on our way. We had hiked 495 miles in 26 days; all that remained between us and our final destination – Finisterra, the end of the world – was three days and 54 miles. Each day we averaged just over 19 miles.
We left Santiago by way of the park, crossing the little bridge and continuing along the path through steep, hilly, wooded terrain. Although we kept up the pace, we were overcome by a certain nostalgia at the realization that the end was drawing near, the end of a new way of living both physically and, especially, spiritually. The difference was clear even just waking up in the morning. Every day on the Camino – and I mean literally every single morning without exception – the first thing I experienced upon opening my eyes was the joyful anticipation of a new day. It was amazing. All my life I had awakened each day to thoughts about what I was going to do, what the weather was going to be like, who I was going to see. And on the cold, grey days I would have been just as happy to stay in bed. On the Camino I didn’t think about anything; I just woke up happy to see another day. I was concerned about the weather only to the extent that I needed to know how to dress. Much of the time the weather was what might be described as bad, that is to say, cool, cloudy and rainy. In Meteza it had been hot for a few days, Galacia was foggy, in O’Cebreiro it snowed. But this had no effect on my mood. To the contrary, I was fascinated at how mysterious it felt to hike in the fog, how beautiful the rain-soaked landscape was when lit up by the sunlight and how stunning the forest when it rained. And how intoxicating the smell of the eucalyptus when they’re wet! The snowstorm on O’Cebreiro was the best experience I ever had in the hills in all my life. How often are we disturbed by the weather in our everyday lives? How often do we complain about the rain or the temperature? On the Camino, none of it bothers you despite the fact that you’re constantly exposed to the weather conditions. If it’s raining, you put on your raincoat. If it’s cold, you put on several layers of clothing. And that’s that.
I got to the wide Rio Tambre river and the elegant Ponte Maceira bridge that crosses over it. I stopped in the middle of the bridge and gazed at the water. In my mind’s eye I saw pictures of all the pilgrims I had met the day before in Santiago. They were all blissed out with gratitude for having made it all the way there. Enriched by the experience of a month of following yellow arrow signs in the dust that pilgrims have been kicking up with their sandals for centuries, between the earth and sky, in a borderland between the human and the divine, in the space between two rooms, on the edge where you simply and only are. Enriched in the knowledge that what we are looking for at the edge of the abyss that lies between us all, as well as the expectations and demands of our surroundings, is already within us. We all understood that the end of the pilgrimage meant a return to the cycle of everyday life, back to the earth, to the material, to the human, that it was a ritual of transition between the apparent spiritual self-cleansing and the return to the ordinary. We were all grieving that we had finished. Time was passing, and the next steps had to be taken.
When I arrived at the entrace to Negreiro, Marjana was already there waiting for me. Together we located a hostel, checked in, and went to check out the town. We found a bar, had a bite to eat, and talked for a long time about the journey we’d just made. We realized how long it had been since we’d conversed in Slovene, and how good it felt. Until then we’d been speaking English every day from dawn till dusk, except when a little Spanish was needed to talk to staff at the restaurants and hostels. We picked those little words and phrases up quickly, and when we didn’t know how to say something, we talked with out hands and bodies. As Bojana Vranjek said, “If you try to use Slovene, you don’t get anywhere, but when I speak in the gesture-rich dialect of the Koroško (Carinthia) region, everyone understands. It’s the language of the body that renders the spoken word intelligible. It wasn’t until I came to the Camino that I realized just how communicative the body really is and how much is told to us by the eyes.” Indeed, the eyes say quite a lot. Nikos’s, for example, were always smiling.
Everyone on the pilgrimage conversed in English, and after a few days I noticed that I had begun to think in English. I’d be walking along talking to myself, and all of a sudden I realized that I was using English. I remembered how one of my husband’s relatives who’s lived in Tunisia for years and speaks Slovene with her daughters, French or Arabic with the locals, and English when lecturing at the university, told me she went back and forth among all four languages almost every day, and thought in whatever language she had last used.
Marjana and I enjoyed our conversation in Slovene on into the evening hours and did not join the new, unfamiliar pilgrims, who stayed up talking in the inner courtyard until late into the night. Somehow we needed closure, to relive our stories and those of our fellow pilgrims who had remained in Santiago. There was no room in this for newcomers.
One More Day
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
From Negreira to Olveiroa, with overnight stay at the Albergue Horreo. Distance hiked: 22.5 miles
Leaving sleepy Negreira while it was still bathed in street light, I came to a forest trail that shone white in the darkness and was surrounded on either side by the sillhouettes of tall, lanky eucalyptus trees. I suddenly became intolerably hot and stopped to remove my jacket. I could feel sweat trickling down my neck. Perimenopausal hot flash. It was the penultimate day of the pilgrimage, and it looked as if I had already mentally gone home. I had my last perimenopausal hot flash at the airport in Madrid. Were they really biologically determined? And that night I had been cold, just as I always am at home if Iztok isn’t sleeping next to me. Was the stress of everyday life slowly creeping back in already? Would the Camino’s effect on me fade away once I was home? All the books I had read by Slovenes who had hiked the Camino concluded with the final day of hiking. Nowhere was there anything about what happened to any of these pilgrims once they were no longer pilgrims. Shirley MacLaine said that each person experiences the Spanish Camino in his or her own way, but one’s own personal Camino doesn’t start until the Spanish one ends. The first step of Paulo Coelho’s personal Camino was the writing of The Pilgrimage. The effect on him was permanent; today, according to some estimates, he is the third most-read author in the world.
Virtually without exception, everyone who has had a near death experience (NDE) – a very different kind of pilgrimage to the edge of death and back – has undergone permanent transformation. As if from there they had been given an insight into the depths of life itself, into the vastness of the awareness of living. With the advances in medicine and resuscitation and defibrillation, the number of such cases has grown. Clinically dead yet somehow actually in a borderland between life and death, they hover there in light and in God, knowing that they are standing at the dividing line between life and death. They do not cross the line, however. Some force compels them to return enlightened to earthly life. It isn’t their time yet. But the experience leaves a permanent mark on them. Their relationship to life and death is radically altered, and life becomes more precious while the fear of death vanishes. They have begun to experience some sort of cosmic and universal change, a feeling of oneness with everyone and everything. They begin to love themselves, and to love others in the same way. They find that now it is easy for them to express their feelings, and they begin to accept others with compassion and sympathy, to show them understanding, to judge less and help more. The material things of life no longer interest them beyond what is required to meet basic needs, while interest in nature grows. They feel connected with it and start working for its preservation. Their attitude toward spiritulity changes, and they become deeply religious. Now they believe in the existence of a higher power, and they display full tolerance toward the adherents of other religions. One could say they begin living a sinless life. Perhaps they have come to realize that through sin one hurts oneself above all.
I came to a country road where there was a bar with a terrace and saw Marjana having a cup of coffee by herself.
“Marjana,” I asked her, “what do you think? Will the Camino have a lasting effect on us?
She answered without hesitation. “Yes, I think it will.”
“People who have been close to death say they have been permanently transformed because they experienced the deeper meaning of life.”
“You feel that same deeper meaning here on the Camino.”
“I’m not so sure. I have this feeling that I’m too caught up in the everyday, rational world, too preoccupied with stresses, worries and problems that destroy my inner balance and limit my view of life.”
“This is why you have to live a virtuous life. It’s the only way you can effectively adjust to the many changes life brings. Virtue gives you the flexibility and inner strength that protects you from external influences. In this way, you become inwardly stable, calm and balanced. Virtue is given us in the crib. We all have it, but we have to bring it to the surface.”
Oh, Marjana, how simple it all is for you! You have an answer to every question, and it’s always one I can never raise an objection to. Your faith is like a rock.
We finished our coffee and continued along St. James’s Way. Until we arrived at the lodge, we walked together yet silently, each alone with her own thoughts, through the woods and fields and upward along the country road. I don’t know whether Marjana was thinking about our relationship to each other, but I know I was. I was glad we’d spent a month together without the slightest trace of misunderstanding or tension, even though on the Camino this state of affairs could not be taken for granted. Spending an entire month in the constant company of the same person is no picnic. We both understood this from the very beginning, so we had made an agreement that if things between us became difficult, we wouldn’t stay at the same hotels and would go our separate ways. But there hadn’t been the slightest need for such measures. And just as between Marjana and me, so also among the other pilgrims a friendly attitude had predominated throughout. We were able to express our emotions, our values, and our genuine personalities without reservation. We all knew that whatever had happened to one of us could always happen to any of us. This allowed us to see each other as members of the same human family and to embody the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself. It simply happened. Affection and empathy predominated in our interactions; I might even say that we resonated together as one. And that resonance has unbelievable power, enough to demolish buildings and bridges.
We reached the top of the tallest hill in the region, Monte Aro. The trail would around through sunny woodlands and through the hills and plains of Xallas, with its scattered assortment of little villages and settlements that give it its rural appearance. One of them was Olveiroa, our next-to-last daily destination. The next day we would reach the end of the entire pilgrimage.
A New Person
Thursday, May 19, 2016
From Olveiroa to Finisterre, with overnight stay at the Albergue Finistella. Distance hiked: 17.73 miles
On the last day of hiking I lingered over ever step. I stopped to take a close look at a blooming bush swarming with insects, to pick a shimmering rock up off the ground, to touch a charred tree branch that gave silent testimony of past fires, to give myself over to the intoxicating scent of wet eucalyptus, to listen to the chirping of invisible birds. Off in the distance, but closer with every step, one could sense the sea. You could feel it in the air and see it in the vegetation. I knew I’d be seeing it before long.
I enjoyed the merging of myself and my environment into a single, balanced whole. I felt as if today I were on some sort of mental plateau looking down into the valley of life from up on the peak. From there I could see the natural order, understand the reasons, feel the decisions. I don’t doubt; I see and believe in the yellow arrows. Today I believe, hope, and love. Today I am rational, fair, kind, moderate. Tomorrow I will descend back down into the valley and go looking for the yellow arrowns, get lost, and find my way again. And what I know and am today – that secure balance will be upset in the valley, and I will spend day after day searching for it and getting closer to it. I will try to believe, to hope, to love. I will try to be rational, fair, kind and moderate. Sometimes I’ll succeed in this, and sometimes I won’t. Sometimes I will see pride, recurring anger, and every now and then, envy. I won’t have much of a problem with greed, gluttony, desire or sloth. Tomorrow I’ll still be made of the same flesh and blood, filled with the life force as everyone else. It is my point of view that I will change. Tomorrow I’ll return to the world of stress, problems and worries, to the rational, modern world that will cloud my heart. I will begin looking with my head.
Just as I was noticing how the vegetation around me was becoming smaller and tougher, the sea came into view. I was overjoyed like a little child. I walked down to the coast where the bars were lined up along the road. Marjana was waving to me from the terrace of one of them. I joined her, looking forward to getting some lunch, as I had been running on the last drops of the orange juice I’d had with my late-morning coffee. From Cea on, the trail followed the sea channel that reached deep into the shore and climbed along a mountain ridge offering a dazzling view of the little gulfs with their blue-green water, dotted with white sandy beaches. And at one of these I had to stop for coffee. Coffee has been my constant companion in recent years – through the good times, the bad times, and everything in between. Back when I was a smoker, I would light up a cigaratte anytime anything good, bad or neutral happened, and even when nothing happened. Later, coffee replaced cigarettes and helped me break that difficult habit.
I stopped at the patio of this bar on the breathtaking sandy gulf and continued the process of saying goodbye. Following the beautiful sea trail, I thought about how I would surely hike this part from Santiago to the sea again one day, this time with my husband. Then I came to the expansive Playa de Langosteira beach, from the end of which Fisterra stretches off into the distance. I quickly took off my shoes and socks and walked barefoot through the sand and the waves of the Atlantic as they lapped up onto the shore. The water on my feet felt good, but wasn’t warm enough to actually swim in. Still, a pilgrimage is a pilgrimage, and one must finish according to the rules, so I stripped down and got into the icy water. I didn’t stay in long, of course, but the quick dip was very refreshing, and it washed away my past, allowing me to embrace life anew.
Elsewhere later on, while searching for some St. James’s shells, I found Marjana. She, too, had already gone for her swim in the ocean, so we headed off toward Fisterra to find accommodation and get ready for the final part of the trail along the Costa da Morte, the Coast of Death, surrounded by unnavigable waters until the cape of Finisterre. Today there is a lighthouse there, but thousands of years ago it was the site of a temple dedicated to the sun, Ara Solis.
The Camino has changed and will continue to change, and many different peoples have walked it. In ancient times, the Celtic Druids had walked the same path, following the Milky Way to Finisterre and imagining they were looking at a depiction of the soul’s journey from life to death. It’s no wonder the path termined here; this was the end of the world.
With the discovery of the tomb of the apostle, the Christian gospel began to to mix together with the pagan. Here it is the custom of pilgrims to burn their clothes and watch the sunset. Marjana and I took a picture of ourselves by the stone marked “0 km to destination” and walked down past the lighthouse and toward the shore. At the foot of the hill there were pilgrims scattered about, waiting for the sunset. Some were standing by a fire and burning their clothes, but I had a hard time deciding what to throw into the fire. I had become quite attached to the clothes I’d been wearing for the past month. They had served me extremely well; why should I burn them? I decided I would sacrifice my socks. I had also brought a T-shirt with me from Slovenia, into which I had put all the evil done to me by three people in the last year. I had brought here to the end of the world so I could finally let it go. I symbolically tossed into the fire, and was done with it forever.
Marjana and I sat down on a nearby rock and, like all the others, quietly admired the sunset. The atmosphere was one of reflection and solemnity. I watched the sun as it sank down into death on the horizon. I knew it would rise again the next day, however, and that thought gave me a sense of renewal.
The pilgrimage to Santiago and Finisterre, whether for a Christian, as Marjana certainly is, or a pagan, which is what I probably am, to my mind always represented a kind of return to one’s origin, perhaps even to the dwelling of the gods, be they singular or plural. I believe that the pilgrimage on St. James’s Way opened me to a personal and spiritual experience that changes one’s life. I believe I was driven by the energy of the Milky Way above the trail and the energy of the millions who had trodden that same path down through the ages.
The sun disappeared beneath the horizon, and darkness fell upon the end of the world. Having gone for the customary swim, burned my clothing, and watched the sunset, it was time to go to sleep. I awoke the next morning feeling like a new person.