Bar Angelo, Larrosoaña

13 March 2016

I intended it to be a quick stop. I needed bread and fruit for the next day’s breakfast and there was one supermercado that our hospitalero thought might still be open. Thankfully, it was. As I gathered the items and placed them on the tiny counter, Angelo offered me a glass of wine. “Porque no?” I responded with a laugh. He offered me a healthy pour in a teeny, tiny, flimsy plastic cup. We chatted for a few minutes and then he disappeared. Shortly after, Janis Joplin blared from the speakers. It was then I noticed the vinyl LPs lining every inch of the ceiling. And the poster from Woodstock on the wall. He proudly explained that during the summer, his supermercado is the most happening place in town. He opens the sliding glass doors, blasts the music, and the party extends well into the night.

Others staying at the lone albergue open in town entered the small supermercado and he offered them flimsy cups of wine as well.  He greeted each of us in our native language – English, French, Swedish – as well as in Spanish. He shared that he’ll be visiting Sweden in November, at which Julia, from Sweden, expressed surprise. It’s not exactly a popular month for tourists. He explained he likes the cold weather, and this would be his third trip to Sweden during the winter months. We raised our glasses and cheered, made our purchases, and left Angelo grooving to his music.

“Buen Camino!”

13 March 2016

Given my previous day’s experience with taking the path I was warned not to, I wondered how successful this network of yellow arrows would be. Would I see them? Would I wander? Would I find my way?

Martin and I left the monastery at that magical moment in the morning when the sun’s first rays are peeking over the horizon and the shadow of the moon is dropping opposite. With our first steps out the door, we each slipped unexpectedly. I righted myself just before making full body contact with the invisible ice on the sidewalk. Not worried anymore about the arrows, I was worried about whether my bones would survive intact the remaining 790 km of the Camino. “One step at a time,” I reassured myself. “Just one step.” Slowly I navigated my way to the road, where plows had pushed the snow aside and the way was relatively easy walking.

We had been warned that we would need to take the road for a while (snow and ice made initial parts of the Camino impassible), but that it would be clear when to join the trail again. We followed the road until we saw the first yellow arrow pointing us to right, towards a snowy field. We attempted to go down the paved slope and repeated the morning’s routine, slipping and sliding and falling, thankful for backpacks that broke backwards falls. We decided to continue along the road, wary of the condition of the path we couldn’t quite reach.

Further along, we happened upon another arrow beside a closed up house, again, pointing towards a field. We could see the arrow, but beyond that the path was covered with snow. We looked around for other pilgrims, hoping for a clue we were on the right path. The small village was sleepy, not yet awake on this Sunday morning. The shutters were drawn on the houses, no evidence of life yet stirring. We stood looking at the arrow, wondering if this really was the correct path. In my mind, I wondered what prevented mischievous kids from painting alternate arrows, arrows leading to nowhere. It seemed like a plausible prank. We shrugged and started down the path, when we heard a voice behind us say, “No, this way.” We looked around, and there was an elderly woman, still in her housedress, with the upper half of her front door opened. She leaned on the sill of the bottom half of the door, and motioned along the road, explaining that it was too dangerous to take the Camino in this weather, it was better to take the road.

Where had she come from? How did she know that we needed help? How had she seen us, with all the windows on her house shuttered?

We thanked her profusely and as we left, she smiled and warmly said, “Buen Camino!”

Lost in Translation

12 March 2016

We sat in the common area at long tables and benches, some people drinking wine from a gallon-sized plastic jug, some people reading their guidebooks preparing for the next day’s stage, some people chatting, some people eating. I looked around the room, wondering how many of these people I would come to know along my Camino journey. I sensed a new presence in the room and looked up to see a priest standing beside me with a bottle of something precious cradled in one arm and a stack of small plastic cups cradled in the other. He filled the small cups with the herbal liquor and passed them out freely. In Spanish, he invited us on a special tour of the monastery. A small group of perhaps 10 or 15 pilgrims gathered. Don Valentine surveyed the group, asking how many people needed an English translation. Several people raised their hands. He said he didn’t speak English. Lino, the Italian man I had chatted with (in Spanish) at dinner, pointed to me and said I could be the translator for the group, if Don Valentine would speak slowly. I protested – “Hablo un poquito español” – to deaf ears. I wondered how well my 37% fluency (according to DuoLingo) would fare in this situation.

You know those dubbed foreign movies where the characters speak for minutes and minutes and there is one short line of English overlaid? And the actors’ mouths keep moving but there is no English translation? And you suspect you’re missing part of the dialogue? That was basically how I performed as a translator.

Don Valentine would speak (not so slowly) and speak and speak. I would have been hard pressed to summarize what he had been saying, even if it had been in English. My memory simply isn’t that great. I focused on translating his words from Spanish to English, remembering key facts in my head, and waiting for a break in his speaking to share with the English speakers in the group. After several minutes of him talking and me staring intently at him, trying so hard to make sense of his soliloquies, I’d look at the group and say, “The monastery was built a long time ago.” Another several minutes of talking. “There was a big snow storm.” And more talking. “The arches exploded.” An Italian in the group who claimed he didn’t know much English corrected me. “They imploded.” I encouraged others to continue contributing to the translation efforts.

New arches were built, and covered with a roof with wood from Finland. We saw the original workings of an ancient clock. We stood behind the stained glass windows. We snuck around balconies in the dark, guided by a couple of headlamps. We oohed and aahed at the high Gothic beams. We heard explanations for the symbolism in the sanctuary.

I walked quietly back to the dorm room, content that even if nothing else of note happened on the Camino, I would be content. This night exceeded my expectations. And I had at least 30 more ahead of me…


In the Roncesvalles Monastery


12 March 2016

The night before, the volunteer at the pilgrim’s office in St Jean Pied de Port had been very clear. Do not take the “Napoleon Route” over the mountains. They had recently had snow and the path was dangerous. Just the prior week two Brazilians hadn’t heeded that advice and a rescue team had to be sent in to rescue them. He emphasized over and over to take the road route through Valcarlos. I politely listened as he repeated this information over and over. In my head, however, I was thinking, “I’ve seen the movie “The Way.” I don’t want to die on my first day. You say it’s dangerous? I believe you – it’s dangerous. I don’t believe I have super human hiking powers and can prove you wrong.” I smiled and said, “Merci.” He gave me a sheet of paper with color pictures on it, emphasizing where to walk on that first day. Even on the “road” route there were options to walk on the trail. He emphasized there was one spot where we would see a sign to turn left to follow the trail and we shouldn’t take it. He placed a large blue “X” over that. We should follow the road. The rest of the trail would be fine.

As I followed the other pilgrims on that first day of walking, we began chatting. Some pilgrims walked faster, some walked slower. We took pictures and wished everyone walking by “Buen Camino.” Martin from the Czech Republic and I had a similar pace. We chatted as we made our way upward over the Pyrenees. We were careful to follow the road, as the volunteer at the pilgrim’s office warned us. About 12 miles in, we saw the path split from the road on the left. Beside the trail was a sign, which was covered by a heavy black garbage bag. Aha! The trail we weren’t supposed to take! We kept to the road and kept walking, adding layers as we walked higher and higher along the switchback road. After a mile or so, we saw another trail to the left. It was well marked with arrows and a wooden sign with a pilgrim walking. We followed it. There was a stream to the left of the path, the water bubbling and flowing freely. The trees were not yet blooming, so we could see through the naked branches across the countryside. I learned that the Czech word for “raccoon” translated to “washing bear.” This amused me.

We started climbing again. We encountered some snow on the path. And then more snow. That didn’t appear to have been walked on. As I trudged upwards, slipping and sliding, I thought to myself, “I wonder if this was the left we weren’t supposed to take? I wonder if I will, indeed, die on the first day of my Camino?” My imagination ran wild as I pictured what would happen if I slipped and fell off the path or broke a hip or knocked myself unconscious. After a few minutes of that, I decided to focus on foot placement in the snow, carefully choosing what looked to be the least slippery, least deep, snowbank. After a few more miles my suspicion was confirmed as we exited onto the road and had to climb over chains that blocked people from taking the trail. The best laid plans…


It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. I showed up in a small town in France with the directive to look for yellow arrows or seashells which would lead me 500 + miles across Spain. And… it worked.

I arrived to St Jean Pied de Port, a small town in the southwest corner of France, by train. There were other pilgrims on the train (I could tell by the backpacks and the walking sticks), so I followed them into town. I started chatting with Harry, an older gentleman from LA who said he had previously walked the Camino and vowed never to do it again. And yet here he was. I wondered what drew him back. I wondered if I would feel the same at the end of my trek.

As others pealed off into hotels and hostels, I made my way to what I thought was the pilgrim’s office. While listening to the volunteer tell me about what trails to take and which to avoid, I wondered if I really was in the right place. Had I seen a sign on the door? I don’t remember seeing a sign. Was I actually at an albergue (a hostel only for pilgrims)? I looked around. It could have been the reception area for an albergue, I guessed (having never been in an albergue before). Would he soon ask me for money? I looked at him and asked him, rather confusedly, “Where am I?” He laughed and said I was in the pilgrim’s office in St Jean Pied de Port. I thanked him. He drew me a map, directing me to the local municipal albergue.

I arrived and placed my things on a lower bunk bed, saying hello to other pilgrims I had seen on the train. After a few attempts, I found a restaurant that was open and ate a mediocre meal. I fell asleep, wondering what it would feel like to be on the Camino (it didn’t feel like I was on the Camino yet, though I guess technically I was).

In the morning I woke early, mainly due to others stirring in the room. I began what would become a familiar routine of packing everything back into multiple dry bags and stuffing them into my backpack, then double, triple, quadruple checking to make sure I hadn’t left anything behind. In the kitchen, I quietly ate a slice of white bread with butter on it and drank a mug (perhaps the largest mug I’ve ever held) of strong black tea. I listened to the others talking. I filled my water bottles. I walked outside. I looked around. What now? I didn’t see any of the magical yellow arrows I was supposed to follow. I wasn’t even sure whether I should head left or right on the small street I was on. I heard others coming so I busied myself with tying my shoes and adjusting my backpack. Groups of people took pictures together, documenting the start of their journey. What I didn’t know then was that these people had just met. They seemed so friendly, I assumed they had traveled together to start the journey. I engaged in some banter, and when they started walking, I followed. And as we walked, I saw the first shell. I was on the right path…


The shell leading us out of St Jean Pied de Port

An Open Letter to the People of Spain

12 April 2016

Today I arrived to Santiago de Compostela, after walking for 32 days on the Camino de Santiago through the northern regions of your country – through Navarre, La Rioja, Castilla y León, and Galicia. I’m overcome with gratitude for the kindness and hospitality you have shown me. I doubt that words can express the gratitude and joy I’m feeling, but I’ll try.

Thank you to each person who leaned out of your window or looked up from your yard work to point me in the correct direction. Thank you to the hospitaleros who welcomed me after a long day’s walk with a smile or a cup of tea. Thank you to the priests who said a special benediction for pilgrims walking west, a benediction that brought tears to my eyes each time I heard it. Thank you to each person who stopped to speak to me, asking me where I was from, where I started the Camino, and how many kilometers on average I walked each day. And thank you especially to each person who smiled, honked, waved, or offered that special blessing, “Buen Camino.” To me, those words were a constant prayer, a wish for safety as I completed my pilgrimage, a wish for a good journey. Each time I heard those two words, I felt as though all of Spain were giving me un abrazo grande. Each time I heard those two words, it was a reminder that I was, indeed, having a buen camino, a wonderful walk across your beautiful country. And for that, I am eternally grateful. Muchas gracias.