(El Camino part 1)
A lot has happened since I last wrote. We toured Barcelona, hung out in a couple of beach towns, spent two weeks walking on the Camino de Santiago, went to Morocco and now we are back in Norway. Phew! No wonder I’m exhausted. Thankfully, when we were at our worst (sick on top of everything else) our friends in Norway, Mette & Petter, welcomed us back to heal and rest up.
I may come back to the other places later, but for now, I’m just going to focus on the Camino. I planned this as one of the key features of our travels. I knew it would be a challenge and hoped that everyone would be inspired by it. I certainly learned a lot about myself and am so impressed with how motivated and positive the kids were throughout the journey. Casey’s friend Carlo joined us (thank you Sarah and Michael!) and was a welcome addition to our family for these few weeks.
I’ll start by saying we didn’t just experience the Camino, we EXPERIENCED the Camino. I think it’s significant for everyone who walks it – it’s rich in many ways, culturally, spiritually, emotionally and physically. We had many, many fantastic moments and overall everyone had a great time, but there were some significant challenges that we had to work through. (I’ll give you a hint….what’s tiny and lives in beds that you never, ever want to see?).
I’m very proud of our traveling band and how we stepped up to each new challenge, came together as a group, and persevered. If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons or read Tolkien, then you get the idea. It often felt like we’d dropped into a story, especially with the landscape and historic cities we were walking through. For this re-telling, I’m not going to describe the whole journey bit by bit, but will instead hit the highlights that have stood out in my mind. We finished almost 4 weeks ago so I’ve had some time to reflect and, in a few installments, that’s what I want to share with you.
To give some background, the route dates back over 2000 years. Celtic tribes used it as a trade route and as a pilgrimage to the area of Finisterre (the end of the earth) on the Atlantic Coast. Seeing the sun set into the seemingly endless ocean was a spiritual experience for them. Legend has it they would burn their clothes, bathe naked in the ocean and be symbolically reborn when the sun rose again. Then the Romans came along, also using it as a trade route. Additionally, they built roads to help facilitate their quest for the gold and silver from the area. Some of their roads and bridges still exist and remain part of the trail today.
And finally, the Christians have followed it for approximately 1300 years. St James (Santiago in Spanish) was one of the twelve disciples, and is the patron saint of Spain. He was martyred and beheaded by Herod and it is said that his remains are interred in the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
There are many different ways to get to Santiago, but the most common route starts in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, 800 km away. We walked a portion of this main trail, walking the last 278 km (167 miles) over 13 days. We averaged 14 miles per day and took only one rest day towards the end.
We started at a small hostel called Albergue Verde in the town of Hospital de Órbigo. It was an extremely clean and homey place with a quirky patron, Mincho, who had much wisdom to impart to the pilgrims he meets. He especially talked about being grateful for the things we normally take for granted. He teaches yoga and throughout the class, as we focused on each part of the body he would say things like, “You have hips. Congratulations!”. He was born in this town but said it took him forty years to realize why–to serve the pilgrims who pass through. Our time there was brief but we all enjoyed the warmth and hospitality. We were even served a delicious vegetarian meal prepared by his staff. That was my first time trying gazpacho and I’m hooked. We left the next morning and started this grand adventure, not knowing quite what to expect.
Much of the Camino passes through small villages every 5 km or so. This makes it really easy to stop for food, drinks or use the restroom. But this first day had few villages and one particularly long, hot, uphill stretch. I was getting to the point where I was getting miserable – hungry, thirsty, overheated and tired – and wondering when the heck will I see Astorga when we came upon a small way station on the top of the biggest hill.
It was like an oasis in the desert. My cynical “city mind” figured it was just someone trying to make a buck off of weary pilgrims selling overpriced bottles of water and snack food. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This was Casa de los Dioses, run by a man named David, who I later learned is an icon on the Camino. He was cutting up fresh, juicy melon when we arrived. There were also other kinds of fresh fruit, coffee, tea, water, fresh lemonade, chocolate, eggs, toast, peanut butter, and so on. And as for the cost? It was all free and/or donation based. If you had little or no money, that was ok, and if you did, you could donate as much as you felt was right.
We talked with him a little bit and asked him to tell us about it. His answer was basically that he moves through his life from experience to experience and eventually he was led to start this place. He said, giving is the way of the Camino and people come and enjoy his place and that’s enough for him. If you give everything away, he said, in the nothingness, you have everything.
His place struck me for obvious reasons. The location and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect and actually felt a little surreal. We joked that it was like something out of a myth and, after eating there, wondered if we would suddenly be overcome with sleepiness or had some other spell cast upon us. But it was all as purely wonderful as it seemed. There was no “catch” and the spirit of it grounded us even further into the Way of the Camino. There’s a saying, “The Camino Provides”, and we found this to be true when we were in need. People we met along the way tended to be kinder and more helpful than is usually experienced in everyday life. We were all on the same journey, with different exact itineraries and for different reasons, but there was still a togetherness that was beautiful to experience. Even locals we passed on the street often had a genuine smile and a “Buen Camino” for us.
That night we slept in a large hostel in Astorga and the next day journeyed on to the tiny village of Foncebadon. At this point, on only our third day, our story takes a turn. I’ll explain more in my next installment, but as I hinted earlier, we encounter something that will literally plague and influence the rest of our Camino. In many ways, it was a tremendous drag, but it also had the profound effect of pulling our party together as we battled against a common foe. I guess in some ways you could say the Camino provided this experience as well. You have bedbugs! Congratulations!