Friday, September 25, 2015

Day 10-13 from Burgos to Rabanal on the Camino de Santiago when the Worst Day becomes the Best Day

Photos on the way to Rabanal.  We were just getting started.
Caroline Shepard

Sometimes a day on the Camino can feel like a week.  Each blog only represents a day or two because so much happened, sometimes just between breakfast and lunch time, so many thoughts, feelings, emotions, reflections, and most of all footsteps.  I do not really feel like we even started the Camino until the second week as we walked from Leon to Rabanal.  Even though we had walked for two weeks at that point, we were just getting started. 

Day 10 

We left Burgos in good spirits,  caught a bus through the Meseta to Leon, skipping 180 k of the dessert.  One can’t make every climb on such a trip.  

Images of the dessert we were not walking through. I have wondered through the desert in Texas and California and its enough for me.  

We were glad to just step into Leon.  

After dropping off our stuff, we wandered for a nearby restaurant, La Cucina del Cathedral, for a lovely dinner /late lunch.  Number two asked for lobster paella and I ordered sangria as we reveled in the nuances of this city once occupied by the Romans, Visigoths, and Muslim invaders.  The elder waiter friendly, sharing the ingredients when I told him this was the best sangria I’d had in Europe.

“The secret is a little triple sec and fanta” noted the genial waiter, listing what made up the concoction. “Zucca, vino tinto, limone, anarancha fanta, quantro, un pica gin. Without gin, its ok for kids.”

The kids laughed. 

After lunch we wandered through the Cathedral.  It   was every bit worth our efforts.  A Gothic Cathedral, it is a marvel.   Construction began in 1205 and completed by the end of the century,   in less than a century.  Its style consistent throughout, its stained glass illuminating and reflecting light from the setting sun.  

There we ran into our friends from Chicago, who’d just finished walking the Meseta.  They had 15 minutes to see the whole cathedral so they were in a rush.  We were taking a more leisurely pace.  The whole cathedral had just about collapsed at one point, but engineers saved it. And we were glad it was still there.

My favorite cathedral on the whole trip in Leon. 

Out we wandered to see the Antonio Gaudi’s Modernist Casa de Botines, just down the street, taking in the streets and people of this gem of a city. We got our passports stamped over ice cream at Holy Cow and made our way back to the room for an early bedtime.

Day 11 Leon to Villar de Mozarife

Caroline was in the mood for walking as we were leaving Leon.  Just as we made our way out, we stumbled into the Chicago family again, joining them for a cheerful stroll out, following the faithful arrows.  The father and I talked about his days in Poland in the 1980’s when the Solidarity movement was just beginning. v The surveillance and repression stifled everyone.   He had a friend who was picked up walking home just before curfew and suffered in unspeakable evening.  And gradually Lech Welena started organizing meetings, gaining the support of some 90% of the population. The whole country joined the movement.  Theres a lot of history to contemplate as we walk.

After the revolution, the father left Poland and started life in the US. Over this trip, he has enjoyed showing his kids his Europe, full of adventures and history.  Today, his daughter is as comfortable in Madrid as Chicago.  She tells us about her favorite topas restaurant, El Tigre.

“You have to go to Topas Topas,” noted number one and two, telling her about their favorite spot in Madrid, where they enjoyed churros con chocolate in the morning and ice cream at night.
She says the landscape along the walk reminds her of Utah, full of lush dessert.

Graffiti lined the streets along the outskirts of Leon.  The guidebook suggested we skip this, but I found the decaying peripheries magical.  After some ten k, we stopped at a street side café and parted ways.

We would cross a footbridge at a former pilgrim hospital and make our way into the country for our days stroll.  It would be another twenty k before we arrived that night. 
More and more people chatted with us as we walked.  It seems, the youth have little interest in nationalism or borders.  Everyone seems more interested in walking together.  At least they do on the way.  Could the mutual aid of such connections open up something for the world?  Could this be the future, us all wandering together?  On the outskirts, we took the longer rural path, the Chicago family kept walking straight ahead. 

This dog on a surfboard was a source of unending laughs for all of us. 

The road was full of colorful details along the natural path. Everyone in their own thoughts, thinking of the light pouring through the stained glass in the Cathedral, the purity of the sound, and smell of incense.  The walk starts to feel like a dream.

 Time passes and we dream Shakespeare wrote in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Hippolyta answers Theseus suggesting:

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
Now bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.

Time would take on a strange dimension on the Camino, passing quickly and horribly slowly on some of the afternoon strolls.
Crossing hundreds of K by foot is anything but a quick process.  Time and space overlap in intimate ways here.  We pass more
time, crossing more k per day.  Walking less, means time passes slower in the afternoons.  But it all passes through our minds and dreams.

We dream hard on the Camino, working through all the aesthetic landscapes we are taking in on the long days, between desserts, mountains, highways, towns, sunrise and set every day.
Caroline and I talked about the idea of sustainable urbanism as we walked. Looking at cyclists who cover the road with their human powered machines and humans doing what we have always done, walk through distances. 

“We are made to do this,” notes one pilgrim.
Throughout the hike, we carry what we really need and not much more.  Many comment on my bag with banjo and books. Others carry little but a change of clothing.
We consume less as we walk through time, away from the hyper consumption of capitalism. We walk alternate route through the dessert where we dream, walking through the days, looking out at the dessert bushes, vistas, at what life is, wondering what our life will be.  Maybe there is another route instead of killing each other off, I wonder.

Here, we live with what we have and are happy to have it.
I dream of Cervantez and Marquez and the lush savannah.
“Look at the clouds,” I note to number two who declares, “I’m in my own thoughts Dad.”
The thirty k walk is a long one. 

By one pm, we sat for a long lunch of sardine sandwiches and rested our feet.  Not quite time for beer. But we could have easily stopped in the nowhere town.
But making our way forward was hard.  I walked ahead and grabbed a few more sodas and peaches and started walking ahead.  The mood of the family was not always easy.  So walking was sometimes the best strategy for me.  Sometimes walking is all we could do. There would be less room for discussions.  We just had to walk, hopefully in the right direction.

“Camino?”  I asked another hiker behind us.  There was not an arrow in sight.
“You got it,” the lone hiker replied, with a pause.  “Where are you from?” he asked.   
“Brooklyn, USA.”
“I love New York,” he replied and came to join us.  He explained, “I studied the architecture of the city.  But I am nervous about the city.  I’m scared I’m going to get to Times Square and not know what kind or coffee to order.”
His name was Paul.  And we’d walk with him for the next ten k to the Casa De Jesus, where we’d all stay that night. 
Number two walked with us as Paul recalled his journey through the Northern route of the way up from Irun through Bilbao.
“It was hard walking along this route,” he confessed. “Lots of up hill hikes, mountains and then beaches.”
“That’s where I want to go,” I confessed.
“Walking you think about where you want to go and where you’ve been. You hatch plans and you just walk,” Paul advises number two, who is walking with us.
Number two recalls the difficulties of  Shackelton’s voyage and struggles with survival in Antarctica.
“What happened in the war?  Who won?” he asked when he finally found help after two years lost in 1916.
“The world has gone crazy,” he was told.  The war was still raging, without an end in site.
Caroline walked behind listening to her podcaste of hardcore history.  We strolled forward comparing what our walk with Shackelton’s journey.  Never simple at all, but ours wasn’t that bad in comparison.  Still, by the last two or three k, we didn’t say much at all, just walking, hoping Casa de Jesus would come soon. And it finally did.
They were super sweet to everyone, greeting us, showing us our room, and selling us cheap beer.

                 Everyone took part in the pilgrim meal.  An Irishman joined us, sitting with us as we talked about our adventures.
He was making a book of his pilgrim adventures for his kids, who he missed dearly, for their own journeys.  He recalled the night before in Leon, when he went off the water wagon, drinking Guiness and whisky all night.
Paul told us more about his adventures on the North route of the Camino.  “Definitely go to Astoria along the North Coast of Spain,” he advised. “There is an inn called the Poo Albergue 300 meters from the beach.”  
Everyone has a peak moment of the Camino.  With people swimming on the coast in states of undress, this was his. 
We talked and talked, did laundry, hung out, and watched the sun go down.  Paul was sitting looking with his sore leg propped up, drinking a beer. We’d had a long day. 

Day 12 – July 20th Villar de Mozarife to Astorga, Gaudi, and more Giants

“Don’t get lost in the flower patches,” number two said on our way out to Astorga. It was a beautiful sunny day.

The journey through the country to Astorga was our longest walk yet, some 31 k.  Yet, we all walked together, making it in great time after leaving first thing in the morning from Villava de Mozarife.
Everyone had said don’t go to Astorga.  Bad things happen in Astorga.  People get robbed in Astorga. There are gypsies there. But we came anyways.  And I didn’t see anything dangerous. 
Caroline and I talked about the long walk along the way in comparison to other long walks and marches.  The Chinese Revolution’s long walk, the walks through deprivation in WWII in A town called Alice, walking and walking the women in World War II, the Armenian Genocide, the Turks walking the Armenians to death. We think of them as we walk.  Every night, we are exhausted, but there is shelter.  There are big meals and places to bathe.  They had none of this.  We all had tired bodies, but none of the rest.

We walk past the old Gothic Bridge at Hospital de Orbigo, site of a fabled medieval jousting competition, started walking with two American women from Colorado, one a nurse and another a social worker.  It extends out into the countryside.
“It’s the longest I’ve gone outside the country,” explained one.  We walked and talked about social work and public health.

A German cyclist joined us. He was riding the whole route and then riding back and then walking it every day.  Walking with a group of nuns, he has been meditating with them, while practicing as a hospice nurse. “The Camino is a journey in between life and death the journey in between,” he muses, sounding poetic as we all walk.  I love the poets of the road and there are many of them, channeling Homer and the Beats. Over the coming weeks, I find myself thinking of St James, for whom Camino is named.  I am increasingly resentful of the anti-choice, anti-hiv prevention positions which are the church’s positions in cannon law, but I am also moved by the stories of James, who was said to be with Jesus at the scene of the transfiguration and his weeping at the Garden of Gethsemane.  We all suffer.  And sometimes we see something larger. This is part of the story of this walk.

And sometimes strangers welcome us.
Walking through the dessert, we stumble into a man offering free orange juice, fruits, coffee, water, etc. He is standing in front of a large relic, no ceiling, but walls, with plants growing through them.  He has organized a whole scene.  Some people play guitars.  A group of Korean actors are giving free massages to everyone. One is known as a famous actor at home, but he got sick with throat cancer. So now he walks. We stay for like two hours, playing music and chatting, taking pictures, listening, taking  in the vibe as pilgrims hang out, get massages, and move forward, taking in the abundance.

An old man welcomed us just outside of the town, asking to take pictures, praying with us, and applauding the whole family for making it this far together.  He greets each child, says hello to other pilgrims, and lets us know he thinks what we are doing is pretty special.
Astorga was full of surprises, but none of the usual opponents, bed bugs would grip us, just the ups and downs of the Camino, mood swings and giants.

Arriving number two and I washed all of our clothes and hung them out to dry.  We had avoided blisters all trip and the dry sock and liner combination had worked so far. But we still needed to wash our clothes.

Everyone stayed home  for a nap and I wandered through the town.  Signs for the American who had disappeared on the Camino earlier in the summer were everywhere.  

The Irishman we’d had dinner with the night before was there, hanging out. I greeted him and kept walking, not in the mood for pilgrims today.  The Cathedral and the Gaudi loomed over the town. 

Hoping to match our Burgos culinary experience, I searched for restaurants on trip advisor.
But they were all closed.  So I walked into the Restaurant El Salvador, where they offered a menu del dia off a side road.
Just closed restaurants, the Cathedral, and the outside of the majestic Palacio de   Gaudi. Delirious with angles stretching into the sky, it was everything one could imagine from the old master. Just seeing it in the sunset the outside was enough. So we wandered, looked at jewelry, talked and made our way to bed.

We ended up staying up later than we wanted and then could not sleep.  Sometimes desire and loneliness are part of the road, part of that feeling of being part everything and nothing, with everyone and completely alone.

Day 13
Waking was even harder.  Number one and Caroline were up and ready to go.  Number two and I were asleep and grumpy.
“You didn’t dry my socks,” screamed Number Two at 6:30 am.  “I do not want to get a blisters.”
“Don’t yell at me.”
“Don’t yell at her.”
“Why are you yelling at me?”
So we grumbled our way to breakfast.
The man ahead of us complained that there was gluten in the toast at desayano.
No eggs for Caroline. No Churros for the girls. Number one was quiet.  But the dark cloud was everywhere. We would walk most of the day
to push through the dark cloud, battling giants and demons as we stepped forward.  There is a lot of anger on the Camino.
It seeps up and grabs you, taking a hold for hours and hours.
And so the grumbling continued.  Wherever one travels, there one is. We cannot leave ourselves behind.
We just cannot. So we walked and walk and walked along our way to Rabanal, some 22k forward. At home, we do jujitsu and yoga.  Here we walk.
But the conflicts inside sometimes scream at the sky, making their way to the outside world.
As we walk, the countryside takes on a more Celtic character, as we start to enter the hills of Galicia.

            15 k into the walk, we find ourselves in a small cowboy town of El Ganso, where a man stands selling beautiful necklaces and playing a banjo, outside the Meson Cowboy, a Tex Mex bar where we enjoy tamales and fantas.  I show him my banjo.  And he took a photo of it.  The place felt like a mysterious sight from one of the old cowboy wild westerns, like a ghost town. But it lifted the mood.  Something about the banjo music loosened the grip of the mid day demon.  Battling giants is always easier with a banjo Pete Seeger explained in Abayoyo.  The town of El Ganso was the site of a 13th century monastery. But little remains of it. By the time we left, we were feeling a slight lift in our step again.  It started to rain, cleansing us all.

            By the time, we get to Rabanal that afternoon, everyone was exhausted. And we take the first albergue we can find.  La Senda has promised us a room.  But apparently, they lost it, giving it away.  So we are offered a space in sweaty living room full of college kids, the bunks pushed up against each other.  Everyone is sleeping in the dark space.  There is little room for anything.  Everyone settles in for a nap and a large man dressed in little but a jock strap releases a large smelly dose of gas into the room.  Number two gives mom a nod, “Happy family vacation,” she laughs.
            Number two has left her walking stick behind so I walk back to grab it, wondering what we are going to do to lift the mood. The demons were grabbing us again. So I walked and texted friends in the US. And I walked and found the cane sitting against a log in a field where she’d left it.  I started back into town to look for something.  The town was actually quite beautiful.  The donativo albergue Will had recommended was full.  So I asked another hotel for a cheap room.  Sure, he noted.  So I ran back to grab the family. “You wanna grab a better room?”  I noted to Caroline, after making my way into the room.


We wanted to be quiet.  And not to look judgmental of the accommodations.
The lady running the albergue apologized and wished us the best.
And we ran up the hill of the aging village. By the time we got to the hotel, the man there had given away the room.

I was incredulous.  The family stood exhausted outside. 
“Then I am not leaving,” I explained. “You promised us a room so I left our accommodations. You have to find us something.”
So I stood there and the man called some other hotels.
“I think I have something. They have a room for all of you. Its down the street ok?”
“Ok, perfect.”
“So, we wondered through the town looking for the hotel called Nuestra Senora de Pilar on Plaza de Jeronimo.

Walking into the courtyard of the old albergue, a man walked up to welcome us.
“You are the Shepards?”
“Yes, welcome. Let me take your bags.”
Flowers and art adorned the old hotel.  Tables and laundry lines filled the open space adjacent to the bar where pilgrims we’d seen for days, sat around, just arriving, drinking beer, wine, talking, getting ready for dinner in the convivial courtyard. 
Caroline and I sit and drink a beer.
“You OK?”
“Yes,” I nod.
“The worst day can become the best day on the Camino,” she notes, toasting me with a cold frosty beer.

“There are Gregorian chants tonight at 7.  My parents went and decided to buy a place here.  They would never leave after hearing the chants here,” noted one young man from the US, now living in Spain.
Across from him sit the Spanish language professor Antonio and his 16-year-old son, Tristen, have been walking the whole way together.  They live in Philadelphia, so the trip back to his native Spain means a great deal to both of them.
They are sitting with an elder man from Portugal, a judge, who is walking the Camino as the next step in his life now that his kids have grown up.
He writes down a list of towns to visit, including Porto, Lisbon, and Cascais, where we will be going after the Camino.

“If you get in any trouble in Portugal, call me and I will make it go away,” he tells us.
An elder man is there, giving massages to hikers. Eighty years old, he walked some 15,000 miles of the Camino since his 60th birthday. 
“No need to walk them very far,” he explained, looking at the kids. “It has to be fun. Otherwise, they won’t return. You want them to want to come back to the trail.”
I greet four hikers, women who’ve been walking together for days.  A young woman from California is there chatting.

After dinner, we all go walk to hear the Gregorian chants at the church at the Iglasia de Santa Maria.  We walk around the town over and over looking for the church, only finding it near where we began. 
I lose myself in the words and then the mass is over as soon as it starts.

I see a walking stick in a local bodega.  It’s top winds around on the top, an eye looking up, and then winding down and through the shaft, forming a loop. It will walk with me through the highest incline of the whole day beginning the next morning. It would be my talisman from this magical city, helping me make it through the rest of the Camino, reminding me of the feeling of making it through the worst day as it turns into the best day, full of Gregorian chants, music, friends, travel stories, and frosty beers.

In Rabanal, we learned that sometimes the worst day can be the worst day.

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