Racing Invisible Pilgrims

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Thursday:  Belarodo to San Juan de Ortega, 24.5k (Happy Birthday Melissa!)
Friday: San Juan to Burgos, 25+k
Saturday: Rest day in Burgos 0k 

Slow and steady set the pace from Belarodo. Instead of just my left achilles aching, all parts of my body below the shin ached. But the wind stopped, bringing in chilly air. I was grateful for my fleece as I let my mind leisurely wander as I walked several feet behind my traveling companions. The way finally returned to some more picturesque scenery and less waving truckers. We stopped a few times for breaks and didn’t finish our lunch of bread and cheese until 230, with still another 6k so until we met our
destination. It was only then that we consulted our guidebook (now affectionately referred to as “beardy”) and realized there were only 70 beds in San Juan –  130 less than the number of beds in Belarodo, and we had watched many pilgrims pass us on our breaks. We then realized we hadn’t seen anyone pass for at least 20 minutes, a rarity on the crowded Camino. I became immediately convinced we wouldn’t get a bed and would either end up at an expensive hotel, trekking several  more kilometers to the village, or worst, outside sleeping in the cold (perhaps even after trekking to the next village).

However, none of those things happened. We got beds in the albergue- there were even bottom bunks available; it was the first time I hadnt had to sleep 5 ft in the air and worry about awakening my bedmate below to use the bathroom in the middle of the night (the downside of staying ultra-hydrated). What is even more remarkable to me is that the hour of my walking to San Juan convinced there would be no beds was perhaps the first time I  felt truly stressed since arriving safely at the albergue in Roncesvalles. (Though I was plenty stressed about getting there!)

Reflection on this episode brings two thoughts. One, that stress is useless. While rushing to get there, we were racing past invisible pilgrims and pushing our natural pace, much to the displeasure of our weary bodies. Yet, there was no need. If we had had  to find a hotel or walk to the next village or even sleep outside, we would have survived to walk the next day. Stressing about it did nothing to help the imagined problem. Second, it reminded me of how pleasant walking is. Yes, I have felt my fair share of aches and pain, and felt occasional worry about pains developing into injury.But if it has taken until day 11 to become mentally stressed in the familiar way I often approached situations in college, that’s remarkable.

We made it from San Juan to Burgos equally if not more slowly than the day before; we’d given up the race and allowed our bodies to set the pace. Today, we are gleefully hiding from the bleak weather and resting our bones by taking our second rest day in Burgos exploring the sites and delicacies in the many cafes.

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Churros with chocolate!

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The cathedral in Burgos.

Hope all is well!

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Walking Against the Wind

Greetings from Belarodo!

Our journey from Santa Domingo took us along the highway through gently rolling hills vaguely similar to scenes of the Blue Ridge back home. However, there was one primary difference; the day was marked by the most persistent and strong headwind I have ever witnessed. I suppose I rarely strike out in the same direction for hours at a time, but even so, the wind was mostly ridiculous. I felt as though I was on a beach as a hurricane approached, but there were no waves or storm in sight. The persistent wind chilled us to the bone and hampered our progress. On the bright side, at least it was not raining. I think I would have insisted on taking another rest day if it was. Occasionally truckers on the parallel highway, sympathizing with our predicament of walking against the wind, would wave to us or blow an encouraging kiss.

The wind was so loud, it felt impossible to hear yourself think, let alone hold a conversation. When I was able to compose thoughts other than “I want hot soup and blankets and this wind to stop”, I found myself reflecting on yesterday evening´s activity of visiting the church/cathedral of San Domingo, complete with live chickens, and becoming wholly absorbed in the Mother Teresa exhibit next door included in our ticket fare.

The exhibit walked us through poster boards about her life and finished with a movie which intertwined her messageswith news coverage of her death and funeral.

Before entering the exhibit, all I knew about Mother Teresa was that she was a missionary in India who washed lepers and helped the poor, and that she might one day be saint. However, the exhibit impressed upon us her extraordinary faith and bravery in taking up her mission.

One of the points that struck me was her staunch avocation for adoption instead of abortion. She claimed that abortion was the number one destroyer of peace in today’s world. As a person who had witnessed such unfathomable human suffering and agony as found in the slums of Calcutta, I found her optimism about the future and the value of human life, even in poverty, nothing short of amazing. How beautiful was her faith in the good of humanity and the Earth!

The exhibit also had me feeling uneasy about a previous conversation we had had with Irish Jim all the way back in Zubiri on day 2. He mentioned that his son worked in India, but he was hesitant to visit, as the poverty would be too much to bare. I was willing to agree with him. But upon further reflection, this view seems juvenile. Mother Teresa also said that it doesn´t matter what you do, as long as you do it with. I am not prepared to walk into the slums quite yet, but I can try to work towards living with loving intention. Though this bitter cold wind was certainly making it hard today!

Accepting Candy from Strangers

21k was just the right amount of walking after a 30k day. We took a leisurely pace after a somewhat unsatisfying breakfast at a crowded bar. The poor bar staff of 2 was swarmed with about 30 hungry pilgrims longing to be caffeinated before they left on their way. However, our late start allowed us to join up with a very pleasant and very tall French couple for the first hour or two of our way. We had a nice conversation about humor, fear, economics, and politics. They said they were walking to find their sense of humor, which I thought was brilliant. It is imperative to find humor along the Camino.
They asked me about our plan if we encountered aggressive stray dogs. We joked about sending positive psychic light to ward away stray dogs, while still carrying large sticks. This was the first time someone mentioned the possibility odogs along the Camino — I was hoping they were more folklore than fact. Time will tell.

Melissa, Mandy and I took lunch in a town called Ciruena, which seemed to be a prime example of the economic downturn it Spain. It was equipped with the first golf course we have passed, and rows of empty new houses that were probably built before the global recession hit Staips housing market. Still, the local bar served an absolutely delicious veggie sandwich for only 3 euro. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find satisfying food. I´m becoming convinced everything besides bread and cheese comes frozen in a box.

We arrived at a lovely albergue in Santa Domingo run by a confraternity of past pilgrims. As we were making our way through to the center of the city, we crossed the street in front of an elderly gentleman driving his car, who immediately rolled down his window and offered us a handful of candy before driving way. They were individually wrapped, so they seemed okay. It was our first pilgrim gift. It was a small reminder of the beauty of human hospitality and kindness. As a pilgrim, it is only natural to accept candy from strangers. There are many who believe they are earning good favor by helping the weary peregrinos on their way.

At the albergue, the shower was heaven, and there was a chicken coop next to the laundry yard. Cocks are apparently very important to the history of Santa Domingo, as it relates to one of Saint Domingo miracles. I hope to go visit his catherdral later this afternoon.

My favorite moment of today (besides being handed free candy) was after we exited Ciruena from lunch. I was overcome with an intense feeling of familiarity, as I realized that we must we walking on the very stretch of the Camino that has served as the background to my computer for the last several months. It was a perfect reminder that I am actually here, on my way to Santiago and the sea, and I was momentarily filled with joy and gratitude.

Agua y Vino

From Torres de Rio, we walked just over 20k to the city of Logrono. (Crocs won that day). We were lucky and able to get the one of the last 10 spots in the 60+ person municipal albergue. It was full by 2 pm, as we managed to stumble into Logrono on the Saturday of it’s huge annual wine and harvest festival in honor of the cities patron saint San Mateo. After the going through the now routine motions of arrived at the albergue, unpack your sleeping bag, collapse on the bed for 5-50 minutes, realize you smell, and muster the energy to take a cold shower and wash and hang your clothes, we the hit the streets of busy Logrona to try to join in on the fiesta. We saw the family-friendly portion; there were street vendors and an adorable parade featuring many small children in clothes they did not pick for themselves.  We had to be back in the albergue by closing time at 10 pm, so we missed the part of the fiesta with fireworks at 2 am and many drunk college students. We didn’t even have any wine with dinner, a first for our trip, as we all felt like we were coming down with a cold and wanted to be kind to our immune systems. Because of our sniffles, we made the decision to take our first official rest day the following day – though we still had to be out of the albergue by 8 am, no exceptions. The superbly mustached staff member was very helpful in giving us directions to the only open pharmacy and an alternative albergue. He also advised Mandie, who was having knee issues, to drink plenty of “Agua y vino”! (He was very firm that both components were necessary for healing).

Departing from the albergue that morning was one of the more interesting experiences I’ve had; apparently, the Logronians love San Mateo (and vino) so much they were still honoring him at 8 am. As a group of 3 sober American pilgrims, we were very interesting to everyone we encountered. One person stopped us to take a picture with him; another, upon finding out we were American, introduced himself and his friends as “Madonna, Christina Agulera, and Brittney Spears”. Madonna asked us why were we’re going to Santiago, since “Santiago IS DEAD!”. We explained it had something to do with personal challenge and self refection, though were frequently interrupted by his singing snippets of Michael Jackson songs. Madonna did not accept our answer. To further convince us of our folly,  he shouted “Santiago is a BITCH” as we took our leave. He was wonderful.
After a trip to the pharmacy for a knee brace and a leisurely breakfast at a cafe (most delicious croissant yet -Iim starting to think the bars directly along the Camino know that pilgrims are hungry and will pretty much eat anything) we checked into our new albergue at noon and spent the day resting, reading, and finding more delicous food. “Heuvos y patatas” (fried eggs on top of french fries) is perhaps the tastiest bar food i’ve ever had. Move over, Paul’s Cheese Fries.

After our day of rest, we set out on Monday morning for our longest day yet; a full 30k to Najera. I gave my feet and boots a pep talk about having to get along, and they listened for the most part. Logrono is the capital of La Rioja, the heart of Spanish wine country. Our walk today was a mix of disheartening industrial buildings and some of the most beautiful agriculture I have ever seen. Even in wine country, the agriculture is much more diverse than back home. We walked through several vineyards hanging with swollen blue grapes. The majority of the vines were so old and thick at the base that they did not require fencing to hold them straight against the wind; and today was very windy! But it was sunny and cool. We have been incredibly lucky with the weather so far.

We made the first 20k of our trek today in a record 4 hours, including our 10 am “nut break” (trail mix) which this time including some serenading on the ukulele by Mandie. We stopped for  lunch at a bar before pushing through to the last 10k. It felt wonderful to be walking again. There is something so stress free when your sole/soul (ha Im so punny) purpose is to wake up and walk. Besides food breaks, we spent most of our walk in quiet today. I had fleeting anxious thoughts about grad school applications, but decided now is not the time.

Once we arrived in our albergue in Najera, we promptly collapsed. I have a renewed respect for long-distance runners. We were exhausted after walking ~19 miles. I can’t imagine running 26.2. Though I supposed runners don’t have to carry 20 lb packs!

Tomorrow, we head just 21k to Santa Domingo. We are back on track with our guide book, having completed stage 8 of 33. 33! One foot in front of the other. Buen Camino!

Putting Fashion Aside

Someone told me that I would gain a year of wisdom for each day I was on the Camino. So far, that seems almost accurate.

We have traveled around 120 km. From Pamplona we went another full day to Puenta la Reina where I was served a full fish for dinner. Even though it was staring at me, it was delicious. Unfortunately no one joined us for dinner that night, but it was restful all the same. I did have a nice chat with a girl named Hannah from Australia who was traveling alone and knew no Spanish. We continued on the next day to Estella, another full day of walking. In Estella we went into our first medieval church, which was situated on a hill (we grumbled about having to complete the ¨perigrino waddle¨up the stairs) but absolutely stunning. It had wonderful stained glass that illuminate the otherwise heavy interior. We had another quiet dinner by ourselves at a bar a fee blocks from the albergue. Along the way from Estella I began to feel a pain brewing in my right achilles.  I was hoping for blisters, but instead it was a dreaded inflammation in my tendon . I hoped asprin and elevation would help it by morning. Unfortunately, it was about the same when I woke up, so we decided to take it easy and only go 10k onto the next village, instead of pushing on to our normal 20 plus kilometers.

My injury blessed me with my favorite day so far. We started slow, and spent the morning in a cafe in Estella with two other young English speakers. Hannah from Australia reappeared, and “Scott” from Belgium joined us as well. (His name was not Scott, but his actual name was very difficult to pronounce so he suggested we call him Scott instead). Hannah had injured her knee and Scott was waiting for his dad to catch up, who had gone home to return their tired dog and camping gear. We waited around the  until the pharmacist opened at 9; I got more asprin and an ankle  brace, and Hannah got instructions to rest. We decided to take it easy so Scott, who was too bored to wait, joined us on a stunning 10k to villamayor de monjardin. We spent the journey talking with Scott about the differences in Belgium and the US and what we might do next after the Camino. The walk was pretty gentle and we even passed a herd of sheep grazing in a field with no fences, only a sheep dog.  We dined for lunch on the top of a mountain with our staple of bread and cheese (and a horde of about 7 hungry kittens).

We arrived at our destinstion by 1 and stayed at a wonderful small albergue run by dutch pilgrims (so Scott was very happy to be able to use his first language and be the translator for once). It had a gorgeous view overlooking the church and mountains and was the first religious albergue we stayed at – vastly different from the 100+ bed municipal albergue we stayed at in Estella. We had a delicious shared homecooked meal with grace, and included with dessert was the distribution of the book of john and invitation to a meditation in an adjoining room after dinner. Since we are on the Camino and trying to experience new things, we went to the meditation. It was a pretty standard meditation with interjected verses in both Spanish and English. It was nice to have quiet time to think, and particiation in the meditation opened the door for my traveling companions and I to finally begin to discuss our views on spirituality and religion for the first time, which we had been neglecting out of politeness. The Christian Dutch volunteers at the hostel were also very kind and willing to participate in nonjudgmental conversations about religion. We also roomed with a great woman from Canada named Simone who had decided to go on the Camino after reading the Shirley Maclaine book, so we had a great laugh about that before bed. It was altogether a lovely day.

We are now 19k down the road in Torres de Rio.  It was a bit worrisome at first. The next village from VillaMayor was Los Arcos, 10k away. After only 5k down the road I had to stop because my tendon hurt too badly. I then was inspired to remove my boot that was putting pressure on it and wrap my flip flop onto my foot with an ace bandage. My foot immediately felt better. Once we arrived in Los Arcos 5k later, I was able to get a pair of crocs which I plan to wear a few days until my foot heals fully. My boots are really heavy to carry so we’ll see who eventually wins; crocs or boots. Anyone who knows me well knows I can´t stand the look of crocs. But it´s time to put judgement aside – especially if they can get me where I am going! We are staying in a small albergue, sharing a room with a mother and daughter from Florida. Simone, our canadian friend is here as well. Scott met up with his father (who walked a crazy 48 k today to catch up) at an albergue down the street. We are about to make a simple pasta dinner to fuel up for our walk to the university city of Logrono tomorrow. Hope all is well. Despite my fun I still miss y’all.

Mucho amor! (See how much Spanish im learning?!)

-Katie

PS: you might be interested in my friends Melissa’s blog — Melissa-camino.blogspot.com as she is doing s really good job of recording our journey so far.

Taking the First Steps

Note: These first two posts were originally emails I sent home to my family and friends reporting my status as I make my way across Northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago and then to the sea. However, I repeatedly forgot to add people to my email list, and also quickly discovered that I can´t stand handwriting in my journal. The solution is to blog, I suppose. I promise to try not to be too selfindulgent. Also note that I am typing this all from my phone, so please forgive the occasional spelling and or grammar mistakes. I also am usually writing at the end of the day while extremely tired. As Irish Jim said, ¨tiredness breaks down barriers¨, so excuse me if I occasionally lose my filter.

Its only day 2 of walking, and I am already dreading getting out of my chair because I am so sore. But,  its well worth it. After my travels plans hit a road bump and it took me 30 hours to get from Charlottesville, VA to Roncesvalles with only 2 hours of sleep, the pretty scenery and awesome people made it well worth it. The mountain villages we have passed so far are simply unreal; populations range at about 50-200 people, and they contain houses, a church, an albergue for pilgrims, and a bar. They are so quaint and peaceful! Side note: I am also really proud of myself for using the Spanish flashcards I made on the plane successfully in the airports and in the villages.

Melissa, Mandie, and I have shared meals with people from South Africa, Ireland, and Switzerland, and bunked with a nice German couple and a girl from Romania who only decided to go 4 days ago. Her blisters are very, very bad. Jim, our  new Irish friend, imparted his wisdom to us over a menu peregrino (3 course cheap pilgrim meal) including “tiredness breaks down barriers” and “the camino can continue at home”. I am holding up okay besides soreness –  I was worried about tendinitis, as my ankle was sore and inflamed, but overnight elevation and a somewhat sketchy anti-inflammatoty from a kind south african gentleman named Mark seemed to cure it. Also, Pamplona is a really cool city. It would be great to come back to when im not so sore. I am also typing this from my phone at a wifi cafe, otherwise I would be sharing much more detail. But I know that i am safe, sore, and smiling! Ill try to keep you posted every so often when I can.