“Well I’m never doing a Camino after reading your blog!”
“I don’t want to go any more. You were far too real on your blog.”
These two comments have been haunting me since they were uttered soon after we got back! Did I really make it seem *that* bad? I didn’t mean to. Truly! And actually we mostly had a great time. And even the hard bits we’d do again.
Would I change anything? Yes, I’d take a fleece vest to wear when walking. If we’d been a little bit warmer in those long days in the rain we would have been much more comfortable. Wet is one thing. Wet and cold possibly coloured my writing (I’ll have to go back and have a look at what I said!)
I still wouldn’t take a bus – but you could! If that would be the difference between you trying a Camino and staying home, then you could take a bus – or a lot of busses for that matter.
I still wouldn’t opt out of the snoring dormitories. Even though I am quite the introvert, I do enjoy the evening shenanigans with fellow pilgrims. If I were to walk without kids in my care I might invest in ear plugs, but with kids I rest better if I know I’m aware of what’s going on with them (especially after a guy came into the big open room that was called the ladies’ shower – no cubicles, no curtains – not once, which would be accidental although the way he had to struggle with the locked door might have suggested something to him, but twice in about three minutes……but hang on, I’m meant to be allaying your fears, not adding to them!)
“You’re brave,” people have told me. I’m not. Especially when standing starkers in a shower! I do, however, know how to employ a loud voice. And the Camino is not a scary place. In fact, people look after each other. I got a text about eight one evening asking if a particular Korean girl was staying with us. She had said she was going on to the next town and typically would have arrived long before. When she didn’t turn up people started talking and tracking her known movements. Before our conversations were complete she staggered in, having taken a long break in some shade mid-afternoon because it was too hot to walk….so you see, people look out for each other.
You’re brave to travel with all those kids. Firstly, remember four is not the daunting number to me that it might be to someone who is not used to caring for eight! Secondly, those kids are not babies. They look after all their own gear (or lose it, as the case may be, but it’s not my responsibility – except for money and passports). They do all their own washing. They cook dinner most nights while I do the work of blogging! No bravery required.
That said, I have spoken with someone who doesn’t like to travel and who finds it very stressful. Perhaps it is important to acknowledge we are all wired differently. I thrive on the challenges that come with travel, I enjoy the new sights and smells and sounds, I love new food and am stimulated by trying to communicate in a foreign tongue. These things are positives for me – they may not be for someone else, and for some people, to walk a Camino would require bravery. But if you *wanted* to (and not everyone will, of course), could I give you the confidence that you CAN do it?
If it’s the snakes that are bothering you, remember the only live ones we saw slithered *away* from us. All the photographed ones were dead.
The cows are quite docile if you don’t take an octogenarian grandfather who insists on chasing them!
The bedbugs. Fair enough, they’re a pain. But you could spray your silk sleeping bag liner with permethrin (we didn’t) or be That Annoying Pilgrim with a can of bug spray (sometimes we were).
It is just as cold as many of the days we started out in Spain. Which is to say it is freezing. There will not, however, be heatwaves in the high thirties!But there are blue skies and water underfoot.
And we are grateful.
When we booked in to the albergue and said we wanted to stay four nights there was a problem with the last night. A school group from Seviila – 80 kids and 21 teachers/leaders – had booked the whole place. The Hospitalero decided we might be good for the group and contacted their leader to see if an exception could be made. Not only did they allow us to stay, but they invited us to join them for dinner and to take part in their activities. The boys played football and the girls made friends.
When it was time for dinner – not a moment before 9pm! – we all paraded up to a local mall with an Italian buffet. The buffet was at least twenty meters long and that didn’t include the dessert bar or drinks station (which the kids were surprised to see included beer and wine on tap!) We could have lingered here and enjoyed the food immensely, but none of us got to eat much because we were all being plied with so many questions.
I did my own questioning too of a couple of the leaders and was highly impressed at this trip they had organised. I have watched other school groups bounce along the Camino in their own little bubble almost oblivious to the experience apart from taking selfies to post on social media. These groups have also tended to be loud and inconsiderate of other pilgrims. (Harsh, but true). This group was so different. The leaders were very organised – kids were allocated to dormitories and even the showers were numbered and a roster for who could use which shower was taped to the wall. It might sound excessive, but it meant they functioned like a well-oiled machine.
A lot of thought had gone in to making this experience more than “just a tourist trip”. There were three primary goals, and not goals you would necessarily usually associate with a group of mainly 15-16 year olds. Reflection, silence and sharing. Every day the students were required to keep a diary. Some prompts were given for those who needed ideas. Each evening the group would gather together and some of the students would share their observations from the day. We arrived back at the albergue at 11pm and there was no talk of it being too late to do the discussion ( which we were invited to and attended, but understood hardly anything!!)
After the kids’ reflections there was a half hour lecture about the Camino delivered by a local priest who talked about the Camino being a metaphor for life. They also had creative activities to participate in – taking photographs on a particular theme and a group art workshop.As far as the silence goal went, no-one was allowed to use music devices while walking. The teachers really wanted the kids to hear birdsong, streams trickling, wind whistling. Then they went one step further. One morning they set out in silence. Absolute complete silence. Both of these initiatives were initially unpopular with most of the kids, but became favourite experiences for some of them. So much so that they were telling us all about it!
Sharing manifested itself in a number of ways. Obviously sharing dorms and bathrooms. But also this was a group not from one school, but three schools collaborating together. Sharing reflections in the evenings. Additionally there were sharing-focused activities. Each student had to interview a Spanish pilgrim and non-Spanish-speaking pilgrim. They were provided with questions – what is your name? Where are you from? Where did you walk from? Why are you walking? What advice can you give about the Camino? About life? The teachers were particularly interested in encouraging cross-generational sharing and were delighted at how well this worked. I imagine the kids may have been less delighted at having to write up the results of their interviews! But such is school I suppose when proof of engagement in a task is required.
It was interesting to me to reflect that our own pilgrimage achieved all the same aims, just in a more informal organic way. And it was great to see that even a large group could have a similar experience, packed into just five days of walking (plus a few days gof visiting historical monuments to bring alive some of their history).
The Spanish kids were awed that we (and especially Ella-Rose ) had walked from Sevilla – they thought it was a long way on the bus! They were amazed that we had walked for seven weeks and were not suffering – I explained the first week is the hardest, then it gets easier and they only got hard walking!! Interestingly, a lot of them are now keen to walk another Camino and some were going home to ask their parents if they could walk as a family! Some of them have fathers who walk frequently, but never take the kids – that might be about to change!!
Italian Guiliano is the first. He is crazy! He took a liking to our wee family and was disappointed when we walked one shorter day and he went on. But that’s not the crazy bit. He’s crazy, because he walked 55km in one day in order to see us again. He was supposed to arrive back in Santiago tomorrow after walking to Finisterre, but he combined two stages so he could get back today as we leave tomorrow. Guiliano does not speak a word of English and our Italian is limited to musical phrases, so we have to speak Spanish together which means we can give each other directions to follow and order food! We have actually been able to converse much more than this, because Alessia, another Italian, who speaks fabulous English was often with us and translated tirelessly. Alessia has also acted as our go-between via email and once we heard of his mammoth effort to see us we had arranged to meet Giuliano tomorrow at the Churreria (where else?) for breakfast.
Today we were sitting quietly with half a dozen other pilgrims in the servants’ entrance to the five star Parador (more on that later), when one certain Italian man passed the open double green doors.
He stopped. He grinned. “Oooooiiii,” he cried and he ran to gather us all in one big hug. With the help of a lot of hand signals (he *is* Italian, remember!!), we chattered about his crazy walk, his feet, Alessia, walking, congratulations, breakfast tomorrow, beauty and happiness). We would bump into him a couple more times over the course of the day, and each time he beamed joy.
Now what were we doing at the Parador? You may recall Micaiah went in to one to enquire about room rates a couple of weeks ago at one of the others. Nothing came of that excursion. Today we were waiting for lunch. Yes, really.
In 1499 the Catholic queen and king gave orders for a hospital to be built in Santiago to attend to the needs of pilgrims. Any pilgrim arriving in Santiago could get food and board at this place for three days (before heading for home again – no return flights in under 40 hours). Even though the building has been turned into one of the most expensive places to stay in the country, the original purpose is still honoured by a token of hospitality offered to the first ten Compostela-carrying pilgrims who turn up for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. They get to eat for free. They don’t get to eat with paying guests, but there is a dining room dedicated especially to them:
It is not a big room, but it does have tablecloths and medieval-styled Camino art work on the walls. It does not have waiters, but at least twenty staff must have passed the room in the hour we were allowed in there and they all wished us “Buen provechor!” To get your food, you walk down a white-tiled corridor that is somewhat reminiscent of public toilets rather than the swish hotel that it is.
You then collect a tray, glass and cutlery and are handed two plates. For us, one had salad and the other rice and the most amazingly tender juicy flavour-filled ribs that fell off the bone (oh, and had a little bit of crunch to the outside-just perfect). We were also given water, wine and enormous apples. But that is not all.
You can see about a quarter of it in that photo. There were fried eggs and omelette, bacon, three types of hot sausages, a dozen shaved meats, salmon, half a dozen types of bread, cheeses, membrillo, Padron peppers, croissants, cakes….all for ten people. We helped ourselves and retired to the dining room.
Thinking it sociable to make conversation while we ate, I asked our table mate where he was from (in Spanish). Turns out he didn’t speak Spanish, but he made his meaning to me very clear. No talk. Only eat.
And he did eat.His tray was piled so high I felt embarrassed for him and he scoffed it all before I had even finished my rice. When Micki had to lean back and admit defeat, leaving a succulent rib on his plate, this guy asked for it. He then took whatever else was offered from other people’s plates too.
When the meal was over I tried again. He hadn’t joined in on the Italian conversation during the meal, so I guessed he probably wasn’t Italian (although he wasn’t going to speak to anyone so that was perhaps faulty logic!).
…he pointed out the pilgrim statue…
…and we all went out to sit in the square together to continue our discussion. He left Germany three years and two months ago, and has been walking ever since. He is on a mission to help people he meets to calm their lives (they’d do well not to eat with him, because it would kinda undermine his message). He is taking a rest in Santiago and will then walk out to Finisterre, where he will begin his next journey. He’ll be walking to Jerusalem. I admire his tenacity, but at the same time I resented the way he was ripping off the system. Pilgrims are entitled to meals for three days, and if someone who has not had one yet arrives, they are supposed to get precedence over those who have already eaten. Herr Billing was on day twenty. If he had not been there, Giuliano could have eaten with us and I’m sure he would have chatted as we ate! Herr Billing informed us you can get away with turning up multiple times at lunchtime because they don’t check your compostelas (and indeed they hadn’t), but at dinner they do. All the same, he disguises himself with a different hat or jacket each day. You meet all sorts!
And the lady. She works in a shop that sells Santiago tart. We went in the other day to check opening times and told her we would be back today. When we walked in she giggled….and after serving us divulged her secret. She saw us uptown the other morning. In the churreria. She was there too. We told her we leave Santiago tomorrow to go to Madrid and we’ll have churros one more time. She said she won’t, she’ll be working!
All packed up in a box and double-bagged ready to go home. (Last year when Rob and I went to the same shop we had a bit of a job miming that we wanted two bags coz we really had no language skills. Today it was so nice to be able to say, “Is it possible to have a box? Can we have two bags please?”)
There is something delicious about holidays – complete relaxation mixed with the possibility a little adventure might happen.
Wandering in to town we noticed a church we have often passed was open. Inside were some very descriptive 3-D sculpture-paintings of the crucifixion story:
We wandered on, and stopped to chat with Keef from South London who has been walking Europe since October 2011. He claims to have covered at least 47,000km so far and if the black lines on his map are anything to go by, he is surely telling the truth.
We met another man. Don’t know his name, but he was sharpening knives so I had my Opinel renewed for the princely sum of a euro.
He came bounding up the street with his trademark grin as we were sitting by a fountain listening to some beautiful busking. We had walked a few days with him and shared a few meals and a lot of laughs. He just arrived in Santiago this morning and was overjoyed to see us – two kisses on each cheek and a hug sort of overjoyed!
And a spot of shopping. There will be another Camino blanket, this time based on the colours of the wildflowers of the Via de la Plata, made with recycled cotton, a bargain at one euro a ball.
Dinner would be a much more modest affair:
The exhibits covered everything from social organisation to architecture, from music to book binding, from basket-making to nude paintings.
Distance walked today: 15.7km
Official business today. Like getting our compostelas and returning to the cathedral to see if we could find someone to take a non-blurry picture of all of us that included the cathedral.
Official business like farewelling Vincent (who we started walking with the day The Men joined us – so it is no small miracle that we are still together at the end – but he zipped up to Astorga before coming back to join the Camino Sanabres where he caught up with us again) and Sofia, who joined us the day after we met Vincent (she spent a number of days in bed recovering from various ailments so even on days we didn’t cover many miles, it was still more than she managed). What better way to say farewell than over churros and chocolate?
(By the way, in the bar a television was broadcasting David Cameron speaking from Number 10 and while there was no soundtrack running we pieced together the story from his facial expressions alone – this would be a very interesting activity for a language class…or even relationship skills, but I digress).
Official business like attending mass at the cathedral, where we heard those special words spoken: Desde Sevilla peregrinos de nueva zelanda (from Seville pilgrims from New Zealand) – “that’s us” the kids grinned at each other. The first time we sat through a mass we were delighted to have picked out a handful of words that we almost recognized, but it was really next to nothing and we didn’t have a clue what was going on. I noticed such a difference today. We are still beginners at Spanish, but we are able to follow the gist of bits and even completely understand some strings of words. For not having tried particularly hard <blush>, we have made encouraging progress. It’s gratifying that the kids are returning home with a stronger desire to study Spanish (last time their attitude was more along the lines of: well, now that we’ve finished our Camino, there’s no need to learn any more).
We went in to the service hoping the botufumeiro would be swung. For some people it’s a spectacle of Disney proportions, for others it’s a deeply spiritual experience, for some it raises goosebumps, others it reduces to tears….for us, it has become part of our tradition of being in Santiago, and we hoped those ropes would be released.
Today I joined the throngs filming the swinging. There was still awe. I was still aware of the gasps as it rose higher and higher through the air. I still heard the angelic soprano filling the vast space. I followed every movement. But somehow it was different watching through a screen instead of just watching The Real Thing. If I’m ever back here again, I’ll just watch, and maybe snap one picture. And even though I do not do much camera-work in the rest of my life, I will take with me a heightened awareness of how a camera can sometimes be intrusive rather than enhancing.
And sometimes it can be the opposite. This simple photo of a shell on the end of the pew is a reminder to me that there is always something new to learn. I have sat in this cathedral a number of times now and never until today noticed these carvings.
More official business.
I made the kids endure to the very end of the organ piece being played after the service. It was cacophonous, it was immense, it was even awful, but it is not every day we get (or want!) the opportunity to hear an organ booming like this one did! And so we listened. Just like we listened to the Galician bagpiper later.
It was pretty busy. We hoped some of our friends might wander by, maybe Digger who finished before us, or Kyoko and Mikio, the Japanese couple, who we thought might arrive today. We did see some, but not these ones. And we made a new friend. He wears a sign around his neck asking for money for food. He limps around, hand outstretched. We were having lunch as he approached us. I smiled.
“Would you like an orange,?” I enquired. He took it eagerly.
“Do you have any bread?”
“Only this,” I explained, showing him the end of the baguette I was finishing. With some difficulty, he hoisted himself onto the stone seat beside us, arranged his leg comfortably and rested his crutch between us while he proceeded to peel the orange. When we had all finished eating, we tidied up and I offered to take his peelings. As we started to walk away he called out, “Senora, over there. Look, there’s a rubbish bin over there.” We thanked him, changed direction and deposited our bag of rubbish in the bin hidden behind a wall.
We settled ourselves down to draw (that’s Levi’s picture above) and after some time our new acquaintance hobbled by and stopped to chat and look at our work. He was no longer “a beggar”, but just as much one of the positive encounters as the guys who asked us to take their photo, or the ones who talked for a few minutes with us about where we were from and where we had walked, or the ones who asked directions to the Pilgrim Office, or the one who wanted to know where he could stay for three nights.
Having whiled away a good portion of the day by now we started to head slowly for home. We dredged up memories as we walked and I let the kids in on secrets from my time here alone with Rob after our Portuguese walk last year (just quietly, wandering around a city and sitting at bars with a spouse beats doing it with kids any day!!) Now the kids want to go to the bakery I went to with Rob, they know not to bother asking about the expensive ice creams we ate, they are not so interested in Padron peppers. I suggested we walk home a different way. I showed them a street I had walked up and down twice with Rob looking for a particular bar.
“But it’s our tradition to go this way Mum.” I realised that just like they pack their backpacks the same way every day or get their sleeping bags out as soon as we arrive in an albergue, they wanted a little familiarity. Walking the same road and not having to be inquisitive about what was round the corner was important to them today. So a couple of streets into our traditional walk I started to take photos of “our route”: