Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My trip to Spain

By Jen Veilleux

In May I boarded a one-car train to Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Ponte, France. As the train made its sleepy way through the foothills of the Pyrenees, I wrapped my toes and thought about the journey before me. My friend and I were making our way to Saint-Jean to register at a popular starting point of the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. The Camino is a pilgrimage route that makes its way from all parts of Europe to converge on the city of Santiago de Compostella, Spain, where a massive cathedral holds the remains of Santiago, Saint James, one of the original apostles. There are several Caminos, which roughly translates to The Way or The Road, and the one we were taking is called the Camino Frances. It begins in France and traces a route west across the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula. Our point of registration is approximately 500 miles from the city of Santiago de Compostella and I planned to walk almost the entire way over the next four weeks. As I took stock of the situation I reflected on the fact that I was not in any extraordinary physical shape, I would carry a backpack stuffed full of trekking gear, and on my feet I wore new walking shoes. But I had no inclination of how walking so many miles was really going to feel.

I had first heard about the Camino de Santiago from a woman in a bookshop in 2004. I was buying something with a scallop shell emblem on it. She asked me if I were a pilgrim. I naturally thought she was slightly crazy and with a laugh asked nervously what she meant. She explained that the shell is the symbol of the Camino, an important pilgrimage road in Spain, and I should read about it. I went home and looked it up. Immediately I knew I had to walk it. But life got in the way. This year was the first time that I decided to take the time and money and actually go for it. I invited my friend Carolyne to join me, so we met in Paris a few days before and had traveled out of the chaos of Paris to quiet Bayonne to pass a peaceful night’s sleep before beginning. Carolyne would be my companion for the first leg of the journey, for about two weeks. She is a Marine and had recently returned from her first tour in Iraq and was used to carrying a pack and walking for long periods. I just prayed I could keep up.

We were both a bit giddy with excitement as we disembarked from the train in Saint-Jean and we hadn’t the foggiest idea where the registration office was. We located the town map just outside the station and wandered our way around the town for about 30 minutes before we finally found the registration office. It was bustling with activity and we sat down in two empty seats across from a man who spoke a mixture of French and English to explain what we were getting ourselves into. We handed over a two-Euro coin each and received a passport, stamped with the Saint-Jean as our starting point. This passport was to be stamped at every place we spent the night, to log our journey, so that in Santiago we may receive our Compostella – a certificate that states completion of the pilgrimage. He also gave us a sheet of paper with the elevations of each day’s suggested walk. This served as the only form of map or guide that we carried. There are commercially available guidebooks that some other pilgrims carried, but opted out of buying one. After this exchange we filled our water, weighed our packs, which according to the people in the office were entirely too heavy at 23 and 25 pounds, and picked out our scallop shells to attach to our packs. The scallop shell is a symbol of the pilgrimage and wearing the shell indicates to people that you are in fact walking the Camino.

We set off against the warning from the people in the office that 10:00 am was too late in the day to start, and headed out of town to begin our ascent of the Pyrenees. This first day was incredibly beautiful and peaceful as well as incredibly trying. The road took us first through a farming community before it headed straight up, and never let up. Fog descended upon us and we could only see what was directly in front of us. We arrived after four hours of hiking at a building that appeared like an apparition out of the fog and had a hot meal. There the proprietors convinced us to stay the night; they made room for us in a tent, in a camp of two man tents, behind the building. We made a decision that first day to take our time walking the Camino, which turned out to be key to enjoying this walk. There is no need to rush anywhere, because it is the walking, talking, and thinking in this amazing landscape that is the pilgrimage. That initial night on the Camino was the first in a series of celebratory evenings with strangers from all over the world. People stood up and in their own languages or in English told us where they were from and where they planned to walk. These people became a sort of family over the period of the next two weeks. We would see many of them over and over again at the designated alburgues or refugios, the words for the dormitory-type hostels pilgrims stayed in while on the Camino.

The following day, we crossed the Pyrenees and from France to Spain. There was more fog for most of the day, but as we mounted the summit, we popped out above the clouds and the views were absolutely outstanding. It appeared as if we were on top of the world, peaks in the distance reaching up out of mist-filled valleys. We descended that afternoon to our first stop in Spain, Roncesvalle. It became quite clear over the first few days that our goal of walking 20+ miles a day was not going to be possible. We shortened our expected routes each day and enjoyed the landscape, the company of fellow pilgrims, the food of the local region, and relaxed at the end of each day in a new town.

Each day offered a new challenge. On our third day we lost the path. It is marked with painted yellow arrows or by yellow scallop shells on houses, on the asphalt, on fences or trees. We were searching for breakfast and coffee with an Aussie who had walked the road a few years before when he first moved to England, and was walking it again before he headed back to Australia for work. He seemed confident we would pick it up again if we headed along the highway. About an hour later, we came into a town and not only picked up the Camino again, but found breakfast and coffee. The following day the way was covered in massive stones, not big enough to hop on, but too big to avoid without picking our way around them. Another day the way was so muddy that the mud caked on our feet and added pounds of weight to our legs, slowing us down. Some days were incredibly hot, with the relentless sun pounding down making water the most crucial element, and other days there was rain and even hail.

Most of the way though, was good weather and beautiful countryside. We walked through ancient towns to the sound of church bells ringing on the hour, through forest and vineyards, and sometimes through cities. The cities were the hardest to navigate and we almost never stopped to stay in them, choosing instead to head further to have a quieter and safer night’s rest.

The Camino itself is an ancient road and some of the communities we pass through were founded just to serve pilgrims. It dates back well over 2000 years. There were parts of the road that had ceramic fragments from a time when the path was paved with tile. Sometimes the Camino is a dirt path through fields or forest, other times it is an asphalt highway or road that goes through the center of a city. Though it went out of fashion for a bit, during its height in the Middle Ages, there were said to be 500,000 to 1 million people passing on it each year. Its popularity died in more contemporary history until a resurrection in the mid-1990s. It is now said that there are about 100,000-150,000 pilgrims on the Camino each year. I have also read that only 15% of people who start the Camino see it through to Santiago de Compostella. The majority of the pilgrims who walk are Spanish, German, and French, and also quite a few people from Northern Europe and South Korea. There are few Americans and Canadians. I also met people from India, South Africa, Australia, and South America. It is an official Catholic pilgrimage and as such the church maintains many of the facilities, but the pilgrims on the road were from every religion or none at all. I met very few Catholics along the way. Though toward the end, I walked some days with a priest. The people I met all had something in common because we were all seeking something, and most of us with an open heart.

As the journey progressed, it brought with it a daily routine. We would rise early and be off as the sun was rising, and stop shortly thereafter for a light breakfast and coffee. We would walk for hours, stopping at the local shops to buy a sandwich or provisions to have a picnic along the trail. When we arrived at our final destination, we would check into the alburgue, get our passports stamped, stake out a bed, and take a hot shower. Sleeping in the dormitories was an interesting experience. In many places for about 5 Euros you received a bed, usually a bunk bed, in a large space with 50 to 80 other pilgrims. The night featured a chorus of snores, a bouquet of smells, sometimes a shaky bed, but usually exhaustion from walking all day brought deep slumber. I used earplugs every night anyway. Washing machines were rare and access was even rarer, so we tended to wash our clothes in the sink every few days and hang them out to dry on a line in the sun, if there was sun, or inside if there was rain. Another daily routine was application of various balms, band-aids, creams to our feet and legs or whatever hurt. Blister lancing was also a routine of curiosity. When someone had a really good blister, people would gather around to examine it before the owner drained it.

The food is the best part. The food in Spain is especially good. I found myself eating whole tomatoes like eating an apple, and I never eat tomatoes. Each evening, in whatever town we ended up in along the way, either the alburgues themselves, or the local cafes and restaurants would offer a special pilgrim’s menu. It consisted of three courses and was usually at a reduced price. Wine was more common than water and the tables were often set up family style so that you could get to know more pilgrims on the way.

After about two weeks, Carolyne and I parted. We traveled down to a town called Valladolid so she could catch a flight and stayed one night in a hostel recommended to us by a fellow pilgrim. It was total luxury to have the privacy of a room with our own bathroom and balcony. Everything was clean when we entered, though we were covered from the dust of almost two weeks on the road. We wandered the city, which was having a fiesta, in a sort of daze. It was a very emotional time. We said a tearful goodbye at the bus station where I was headed back to the Camino to start at a later point, skipping about a week’s worth of walking in order to make it to Santiago before my flight back to the States. I knew returning to the Camino one week ahead of our collective Camino-family would be putting myself in a whole new group of pilgrims and I was not sure what these people would be like, and how they would view the pilgrimage after having walked one more week than I had walked.

I met pilgrims straight away at the bus station. I was worried about finding the Camino because the city we rolled into, Leon, was much larger than I anticipated. No one in the bus station seemed to know where to go for it. But once I stepped outside I saw a ragtag group of pilgrims examining a posted map. I approached them and we all set off for the municipal alburgue, run by nuns. I would see these pilgrims over and over again in the coming two weeks, and saw every one of them at our final destination in Santiago, though we all came to the city separately. My first day back on the Camino was physically easier than the previous two weeks. I think resting up for two days had done the trick and my strength and motivation were back. I met with a woman from South Korea the next morning at breakfast and we walked the next few days together.

The Camino transforms you through the process of actually doing it. The physical challenges of carrying a pack and walking each day changes your body. I heard that it doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are, it takes a physical toll. This physical exertion caused me to stop thinking so much about home, about the daily anxieties that I normally occupy myself with, about anything that would take away from being in that present moment. My mind went numb. It was on the second part of the trip that I realized my body had become used to the new lifestyle of walking everyday, but my mind had not regained its annoying chatter. I tried to hold a thought, to analyze a life decision that awaited me back home, but it was of no use. My mind went back to being blank – it was like the perfect meditation that for years practicing Buddhism I had tried to achieve. One day I walked through a terrific storm in the mountains alone. I arrived at a refugio later that day and had a conversation with a woman who had been walking since Saint-Jean. She asked me about my walk and what I had been thinking about that day. I opened up about the blank mind immediately, telling her how troubling it was. She just smiled and reassured me that every pilgrim experiences this at some point in the journey.

There were many funny and difficult moments along the way. At one point another pilgrim and I thought we were going to be attacked by wild dogs approaching us. Rumor has it that along the way that there are wild dogs who stalk pilgrims. It turned out that these Iberian Mastiffs, although huge and mangy, were just looking for a solid ear scratch. At another point I had a massive blister I could not pop myself and let a complete stranger run a sewing needle through my toe. One of the best nights I experienced was when a man from Mexico City and I played harmonica and sang songs for an alburgue full of over 40 weary pilgrims who sang along and danced in the street.

I met with some fantastic Spaniards and two young women from America who I still correspond with. The Spaniards spoke almost no English and I had to resurrect my Spanish in short order. We connected straight away and for some reason were on the same physical need to push harder as Santiago came closer. The alburgues became more crowded in the last 60 miles, and most of the pilgrims were strangers. Many Spaniards walk only the last 100 kilometers, roughly 64 miles. This distance is all that is required to receive your Compostella in Santiago. So every morning there was what I called a pilgrim traffic jam as people jostled for space on the narrow paths through the forests. There were also an increased amount of cyclists. You can complete the Camino on bicycle if you ride the last 200 kilometers. Unfortunately though, in many areas there is not a separate lane for bikes and they come en masse at breakneck speed sometimes and you have to make way for them along the paths.

It is hard to say what happened toward the end of the pilgrimage. The last day entering Santiago was nothing I would have expected. I thought that the journey was the most important part. But I realized as I stumbled tired, weary, worn, and emotionally spent, into the city limits of Santiago, that something else was there. It was arrival. As we came through the new city into the old city center, we met with so many of the pilgrims we had seen throughout the two weeks of walking. There was so much celebrating. We took one million pictures. We then walked through a narrow way until we came upon a huge open courtyard, and at the front of it, the Cathedral de Santiago. I could not believe the scale; never mind that I had actually done it, arrived in Santiago! There is something to be said about completing something you set your mind to doing, it gives you a renewed sense of self. And a feeling of grounding. I also found that in the mass that day, being Sunday and Corpus Christi, was one of the most powerfully moving religious moments I have had in my life. The mass was given in seven languages, there were thousands in attendance, and at the conclusion of the mass, with the accompaniment of a dramatically loud pipe organ, the priests filled an unusually large incense burner with frankincense and sent this thing soaring above the masses. I was told that this practice was traditional to the Cathedral because it masked the smell of the pilgrims who had walked for over a month to get there.

Saying goodbye to the Camino and all the people that I met along the way was not easy. But the process continued for two days before I departed myself. We went to an office to receive our Compostellas. We visited the remains of St. James in the Cathedral. We also bought souvenirs and exchanged gifts, email, hugs, and tears. Initially it felt very strange not to be walking in the morning, but I also had no desire to continue. Some people continue another three days to the coast, to a town called Finesterre. I went by car and stared out across the ocean to America that I knew was somewhere on the other side. By the end I had walked about 430 miles. Though it was one of the most incredible things I have ever experienced, I was ready to hang up my shoes and come home. Something changed in my being forever, though what that is exactly, I cannot really put into words. I have found a desire to explore Catholicism more and understand the root of what a pilgrimage is, and more about the religion. Each person tends to have his or her own personal Camino experience, and if you are at all curious, I would suggest that you put on a pack and walk it to discover yours.

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