I’ve always enjoyed learning about (and preparing for) far away places by reading about other peoples’ experiences in those places. When preparing for the Camino however, I was surprised at the general lack of good travelogues on the topic, especially ones readily available in English and in the US market where the Camino was (and is) still largely unknown. Those I did find were either poorly written or focused way too much on personal interpretation or deep introspection to suit my tastes – I sought a fun, light-hearted easy to read narrative that provided a glimpse of a "day in the life" of a young, modern
My own Camino experience was truly an adventure. Sure, I did my fair share of heavy thinking and contemplating, but I also had a very extroverted time – I met several new friends, I survived a fair amount of wind and rain (and a huge storm!), I got lost, I got sick, I lugged a twenty pound back pack up mountains, across rivers, through big cities and tiny hamlets, I slept in monasteries, laughed, socialized, ate, drank, and walked my heart out – loosing almost 20 lbs n the process!I did all these things – having never really hiked before and having never been to Spain - and I had the time of my life!
The following excerpts are from my journal and cover roughly the first half of my 500 Camino journey. I hope they are illuminating!
Day 1 – Desperation in the Pyrenees
My first day on the Camino really caught me off-guard and unprepared. I knew the trek through the Pyrenees mountain pass would be difficult, but I significantly under estimated the effort and time required. The below excerpt provides some insight into why I entitled this chapter “Desperation in the Pyrenees.”
“…as I continue, my pace soon slows to almost nothing as I find myself unable to walk more than fifty paces between rests.To add to my misery, I now have no more water and my heavy respiration has dried my throat to a point at which I can barely swallow. I’ve also not seen any signs of civilization since the pilgrims from Canada, hours ago, and I wonder where all the other pilgrims have gone. Am I still on the Camino? Did I miss a turnoff somewhere? What happened to ole Two Sticks, the Dutch pilgrim from this morning? I look up to the sky and notice three large black vultures circling high above me – an ominous sign indeed. I wonder if they can sense what I am feeling and thinking - if they are watching me struggle up this mountain. Are they waiting for my inevitable demise or worst yet, do they know something I don’t know!? With dusk setting in, I stop for a moment to carefully consider my situation...”
Day 7 – An authentic tapas crawl
Part of the fun and excitement of the Camino is getting to know fellow pilgrims and experiencing the great food and wine traditions as you pass through the various regions of Spain. On day 7, we stayed in the town of Logrono – one of my favorites on the Camino. Spain was celebrating a holiday similar to Labor Day.
“…we pop into our first tapas bar, a cozy place with exposed wood beams and stone walls and teeming with people.We sample the specialty of the house - fried potatoes in a pepper sauce -and we wash this down with a glass of house vino tinto (red wine).Afterwards, we migrate to another tapas bar next door and sample its specialty - grilled mushrooms, delicious!Again, the vinto tinto flows. We visit another tapas bar where we are offered calamari, and onto another place where sausage skewers were the specialty. As I begin to shout another order of vino tinto, Kari interjects - “Boys, boys, shall we order instead a vino blanco?”“Yes, let’s break the monotony”, I exclaim jokingly! “Tres vinos blancos!” I yell to the barmaid.
After we can eat no more tiny portions, Kari decides to return to his hotel room, convinced he is tired enough to sleep this evening without the aid of a pill.Bill and I stay out, wanting to sample a curious drink we’ve seen on the shelves of many a bar in Spain, Gran Peche, which looks to be a pear flavored liquor. We order two Gran Peches from the woman behind the bar and are somewhat concerned when she slaps two pint-sized glasses onto the counter. “Whoa!” I tell her, “Mas, mas!”She smiles and explains in broken English that the liquor is not very strong.After a sip Bill and I agree - we will not fall off of our stools from these.
Enjoying our new discovery, Bill and I chat for a while. I discover he is a recently retired realtor, actually known as an Estate Agent in England. He also mentions a friend of his from England will join us on the Camino tomorrow. He’ll drop in for a few days hiking on the Camino and then return to England. It will be interesting to meet him…”
Day 11 – Our own private refugio!
Refugios are communal type dormitories along the Camino. They offer basic accommodations and cheap prices. Usually, they are very crowded, often packing 30 pilgrims into a single large room. On day 11 however, we were excited to find a newly renovated refugio evidently overlooked by the masses.
“…we locate the refugio across from the small stone church. The guidebook says we have to get the key from the town bar, but the refugio door is already open so we head inside. The refugio is housed in an old stone building that appears to have been restored recently. The ground floor has a small kitchen with a fireplace while the upper levels have bunk beds for perhaps twenty pilgrims. Jack and Dave are here - pressed and clean as usual and just getting up from their daily nap. Its funny, we seem to keep the same pace as these two, they just have a different routine than we do. They get an earlier start in the morning, arrive earlier to the next refugio, shower and take a nap. By the time we arrive, tired and soaked in sweat, they are clean and rested. “Looks like we’ll have this place to ourselves tonight boys,” Jack says. “I’m not complaining,” I reply. “Hotel quietness at refugio prices!” Jack tells us we have to pay our three euros (approx $3 USD) to the woman at the bar down the street.
Outside the window over the kitchen sink, I notice a small garden courtyard, overgrown with weeds but with a clothesline strung diagonally. A clothesline is somewhat of a rarity on the Camino and one discovered this early on a sunny day means laundry will be sure to dry. We set out in search of buckets or anything else in which we might wash our clothes.
Washing laundry on the Camino is always a challenge – there are almost never washing machines about and the few times I’ve seen them, I’ve not used them. They tend to take hours to finish a load and usually cost a few euros to use. Moreover, I find that with a bucket of water and some fragrant shower gel, I can usually get my clothes fairly clean. For this reason, I am happy I chose clothing materials other than cotton. In addition to being difficult to wash, cotton material is heavy to carry and requires a long while to dry.
The door to the garden is locked and down at the bar, the warden can’t find the key. Kari, in a practical sort of way, opens the tiny kitchen window and crawls through. We all pass our clothes out to him for hanging. He looks funny squeezing through the small opening, but does so with relative ease…”
Day 13 – Encounter with a chainsaw
Daily life on the Camino is, as Forrest Gump would say, “like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get.” On day 13, we were treated to a rather unexpected experience at a café in a small random
“…we find a small cafe off of the main street and head inside and into one of the weirdest most bizarre experiences we’ll have on the Camino. Inside the café we can barely see as it is dimly lit; I notice a tall man wearing a red tennis championship jacket. He is obviously drunk and is blaring in broken English to a somewhat frightened looking couple – obvious pilgrims. In one corner I see a dirty looking man with scraggly hair and a bushy unkempt beard eating what looks to be stew of some kind. He’s eating right out of a large cooking pot and his eyes are copiously fixed on our persons.
We order three café con letches from a short balding man behind the counter, but when Kari notices the man washing coffee cups in filthy brown water he quickly changes his order to canned coke. I take a sip of my coffee, it tastes does pretty awful. I look up to see the fellow behind the bar coughing into his hands as he hands Bill his cup. Bill and I look at each other and decide to take Kari’s lead and forego a bacteria overload for a couple of cokes instead.
We sit down at a table next to a small fireplace and next to the frazzled pilgrim couple. “Who was that drunk fellow?” I ask them. “I have no idea!” the man replies. Surprisingly, the man is from NYC and is here with his British wife. They just began hiking the Camino at Burgos two days ago and are taking the trail slowly.
As we are conversing, a loud grunting noise interrupts us from behind Bill’s chair. It is followed by a distinctive mechanical fluttering of sorts - curiously
reminiscent of the sound a lawn mower or weed whacker makes when its cord is yanked. We turn around to find the balding bartender – just a few feet away from our table – holding a chainsaw! He looks at us, grunts again and pulls the starter cord- this time the engine starts! As we look on in astonishment and with a certain degree of concern and fear, the man raises the chainsaw above his head. As he squeezes the trigger the engine roars and black smoke pours from its exhaust! Still shocked and somewhat unable to move, we watch the man turn around and sink his saw into a large piece of wood. He is so close to us we are sprinkled by bits of sawdust and other particulate, which is enough to break our trance. We jump to our feet and get the hell out of the place.
Outside we stand frozen, staring at each other in disbelief. I pull out my guidebook to see if there is by chance any mention of this place. Sure enough the guide does describe the café. Apparently the owner (the bald man with chainsaw) is famous for performing a trick during which he pours wine on his head and lets it trickle down his face, off of his nose and into a wine glass. This somehow doesn’t surprise me after what I’ve just witnessed. Equally unsurprising is a post script in the guide that indicates: women traveling alone should avoid the place…”
Day 14 – The "Everest of Hills”
The Camino offered no shortage of physical difficulties across the 500
milejourney. On Day 14, I endured a particularly strenuous climb over a wet, mud caked hill. As much as one dislikes these aspects, one always hopes they come early into the day’s hike – when one is well rested and full of energy. Nevertheless, this hill would mark the beginning of the end for one of my fellow pilgrim friends.
“…outside, the weather is a misty cool that smells of mud and recent rain. Again, we are greeted first thing with a big hill to climb. But unlike the one a few days prior, this hill is barren, not forested. And its nakedness reveals a truly difficult climb. It’s the kind of hill that, standing at its base and looking
up, one wonders how it is possible for any pilgrim to navigate its steepness. Of course, from this angle I suppose there is a bit of an illusory effect because the hill is in fact crawling with pilgrims, like tiny ants zigzagging single file all the way to the top.
On the hill, I find my earlier observations not far from the truth. Rain begins to fall lightly and the ground, already saturated, is covered in thick mud. The mud is truly bad. Its not a watery mud that I can slosh through, it’s a clay-like, heavy, tough, sticky mud. Within a few steps, the soles of my shoes are covered over and as the mud continues to accumulate, my feet get heavier and heavier until I can no longer lift the two giant suction cups at the end of my legs. I use my walking stick to knock the mud off. This process continues for the next two tortuous hours with the decent down the other side of the hill offering no less abuse.
On the hill, the others are ahead of me, but Kari is much more so. I have been able to keep track of his bright yellow Chinese poncho, which is now just a small speck in the distance - perhaps a third of a mile ahead. He is like a machine today; I don’t think he stopped at all to rest. I don’t know how he is able to talk so fast in this mud but surely it isn’t good for his body to go so far without a break…”
Day 15 – Only 475km left until Santiago!
Although Santiago is the ultimate destination for pilgrims on the Camino, one rarely thinks of it until the end of the journey – Santiago seems so far away that it makes better sense to focus on each day as it happens. On day 15 however, we were reminded not of how far we had come, but of how far we still had to go! We were also reminded that our own physical abilities would be the biggest determinant of whether we would ever actually reach
“…I get up at 6:30 this morning and catch Jack and Dave heading out. Jack hands me a note. “I was going to leave this on your bunk”, he says. The note says the two will push ahead of us for real this time but they will look for us at the Cathedral steps in two weeks time. “Take care boys,” I tell them. “We’ll see you soon.”
The path for most of today’s walk runs parallel to a paved road. But the path is wide and easy to tread upon, and there is not much traffic on the road to
disrupt the peacefulness of the early morning. A light rain continues throughout the morning, but it is tolerable. The sun has not shown itself in a couple of days and I eagerly await its return. Trudging along through the mist, I see a road sign that reads “Santiago 475km” (Santiago 295 miles!) – uhhh, we’re not even half way there. But we are only walking eleven miles today, so I choose instead to concentrate on that smaller more achievable number.
Kari starts out the day with a limp and tells us his right shin is in extreme pain, the kind which is not numbed by constant walking. Bill and I decide to slow our pace, for Kari’s sake. Anyway, we don’t have far to travel today so we are in no hurry. I think Kari may have a stress fracture brought on by his unrelenting pace up and down the muddy “Everest of hills” yesterday…”
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