Friday, June 12, 2015

"Everyone Has A Story": Life on the Camino de Santiago - Stage II(Burgos to Leon)

[If you would like a soundtrack to this Camino story, please tune in to Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto in D Major: Opus 35" and then you will have a little more of a sensory experience of my walk as I declared this my anthem the Camino: Stage 2.]

It was a clear Friday morning at 7am as I stepped out of the albergue in Burgos, Spain. The sun on our left was just starting to rise onto the cathedral to our right. I found myself in the company of a gentleman in his 70's. We both looked at each other trying to figure out which way to go as there were no apparent yellow arrows to guide the way...yet. I observed that the sun rises in the east and we wanted to go west so we better go to our right. He agreed and with that I set off on Stage 2 of the Camino with Kris from Poland, by way of Maryland. 

Let me back up. 

When the Camino became a part of The Journey itinerary back in 2013, my travel buddy Annette and I debated where we should start on the 800 km journey across northern Spain with Santiago de Compostela as our destination. We had 2 weeks to devote to the month long journey, and it seemed obvious to me that we would start 2 weeks out from Santiago. Annette suggested we start at the traditional beginning of the traditional route, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France on the Camino Frances, get as far as we can and come back and finish it some day. It took a while but I eventually warmed to the idea. And I'm so glad I did. 

(If you want to read more about my first stage of the Camino, check out the blog posts from September of 2013. )

I last left you on the journey in Mallorca with my cousin. I flew into Madrid and then caught a bus to Burgos on Thursday, May 21. As I drove through the Spanish countryside, I began to get giddy with excitement knowing what lie ahead of me: a week or so of walking in one direction with hundreds of other peregrinos (pilgrims) all walking with a purpose, each for a different reason. The bus turned off the highway and in to the city towards the gleaming cathedral that is a World Heritage Site.  I got off the bus and made my way towards the Cathedral, recalling that the last albergue I slept in was just a few meters from the cathedral.  As I passed under the city gates, memories of my Camino Amigos came back from the journey I started 20 months before. I recalled limping into the city in my flip flops as my blistered feet couldn't take anymore of my hiking boots. It would be my last moments with my Pamplona Amigos, Gorka and Iñigo as well as my Israeli Amigos, Katz, Ofir and Tomer. I believe it was Katz who insisted on carrying my boots for me to lighten my load and Ofir and Tomer who serenaded me on their harmonicas with the theme from "Rocky" to lift my spirits. I couldn't have gotten to Burgos without these guys and I was wondering how I would fare on this next stage of the Camino known as the "meseta", for its relatively flat landscape. But I reminded myself that this wouldn't be the same Camino I had left behind. This time would be different and I shouldn't compare the two experiences. And different it was, in beautiful ways. 

For the first 5 days of my Camino, I walked, more or less, solo. This is primarily the result of my "tortuga" (tortoise) pace.  You know... "Slow and steady..." I tend to get a relatively early start to the day as I don't want to have to rush to make sure I have a bed at an albergue. A 7am departure allows for me to get a few kilometers under my feet before the first town and a breakfast of tortilla (Spanish-style, of course, which is similar to an egg and potato omelet) and a cafe con leche.  This schedule also allows me to take a few minutes to rest my feet in most of the towns I pass along the way. Towns are typically 3 to 6 kilometers apart although there are a few 13 and 17 kilometer stretches without a stop. I fell into a rhythm of being alone with my thoughts in the morning in a more contemplative state, much of the time spent in expressing thankfulness to the Lord for this incredible experience. And then I'd tune in to Spotify, enjoying "The 50 Greatest Violin Pieces by Joshua Bell."  I also made the decision (the jury is still out on whether it was a good or bad one) to download the "Serial" podcast that seemed to be all the rage in the States a few months back. I was making an attempt to be slightly "in the know" on pop culture upon reentry. I'll also acknowledge that the murder "mystery" of Hae Lee served to take my mind off of the steadily progressing ache in my feet as the day wore on. But it also distracted me from the unique opportunity to embrace the rare silence that I so often pass up. 

During this silence, many of my thoughts focused on the "$100,000 Question": What will Ashley do when she gets back to the States?  To be honest, your guess has been as good as mine... until now. But that will be revealed in the weeks to come. All I can say is that it's a beautiful thing to look back and see how the Lord has guided my steps and has seemingly prepared me for the journey ahead.  I'm pretty psyched about it. Oh... and for anyone who has followed the Center Lovell Inn Essay Contest, I'm not the grand prize winner. So no need to plan your trip to visit me in Maine. 

But let's go back to Kris. By my calculations, Kris was born in the final years of World War II in Nazi-occupied Poland, but a part of Poland that used to be Germany, he was clear to point out. He told me that he moved to the United States with his wife in 1981. I jokingly told him that 1981 was a good year... the year yours truly came into the world. He chuckled. He told me of his life as an engineer with the Navy, traveling the world but with most of his exploration confined to the port and its nearby surroundings. He shared his observation of the American proclivity to live to work instead of work to live. And for what? "To accumulate stuff" seemed to be his conclusion, something that has become more and more obvious to me during the past two years. Kris walked me through my first 10km of this stretch of the Camino, easily the easiest 10km of the week, for obvious reasons.  As we came to the next town in time for my tortilla and café con leche, he stopped in the middle of the street and asked me if I had ever heard of an author I cannot recall at the moment. I confessed I had not. He continued to explain that one of his books started out with this (and I am paraphrasing): "If you ride through the countryside, you see nothing. If you walk through the countryside, you see everything. If you crawl through the countryside on your hands and knees, you see every single pebble. Or maybe you see nothing at all."  And with those words ringing in my ears, Kris and I parted ways as I continued down the road, not sure how busy the albergues were this time of year.  I would catch up with Kris at an albergue in Bercianos del Camino Real about 5 days later. He had been putting in upwards of 30km days in a rush to make it to Santiago in time and was now suffering from shin splints. I shared with him my not-so-encouraging experience with this painful ailment: rest is the only cure.  And then again, we crossed paths on day 8 as I walked into Leon, my last town on this stage of the Camino. He was still struggling with pain and was happy to follow our group around as we searched for an Albergue with available beds as it seemed he was not up to the task of finding a place on his own. And then it dawned on me that I would begin and end this stage of the Camino with Kris, so I asked to take a picture with him. This sweet but tenacious man complied. Buen Camino, Kris!

Everyone has a story. 

Like Judy from Australia. On Day 2, I caught up with Judy at my breakfast stop. Judy had stayed in the same albergue as me the night before in San Bol. But at our community dinner, she got caught between one group of people speaking to each other in Swedish and Danish and another group communicating in Spanish and Italian, so she mostly kept to herself. In fact, I'm not sure she said any more than her name and where she was from when we went around the table for introductions.  This albergue also didn't have any wifi and I was going on 48 hours without letting my parents know I was alive and well. (I try not to go beyond 72 hours to ease any unnecessary concern.) So at breakfast I was a bit distracted and started to explain that to Judy who took a seat across from me.  But then she mentioned something about enjoying the cathedral in Burgos with her husband. I then assumed that she was walking and her husband was meeting up along the way or some such scenario.  When I asked, she explained that her husband had suffered a heart attack two weeks ago somewhere after Belorado. The record player screeched to a halt in my head. Wait. What?? She went on to explain that he was picked up in a helicopter and flown to the Burgos University hospital, had a stint put in and was recovering well. She also said that if this would have happened at their home in Australia, the outcome would have been very different as they lived in a very remote region. So after Ross (husband) became stable she began to make plans to head home. Instead, Ross insisted that she finish the Camino. And not just pick up in Burgos but to go back to where his heart attack had occurred and then walk to the finish for him. He was meeting up with her nearly every night at albergues that were on the bus route.  None of us knew what Judy was going through the night before in San Bol and I almost missed her story in my efforts to connect to the interwebs. Buen Camino, Judy!

Everyone has a story. 

Like Marcos. Marcos is from Argentina but has lived in Barcelona for the past decade or so. Marcos also stayed in the same albergue in San Bol and then recommended the most memorable albergue for me on night 2 at San Nicolas de Itero, one of the oldest albergues on the Camino run by Italian volunteers. That night the only room for me was on a matress at the altar of the old stone albergue.  The Italians performed a foot washing ceremony and then served us a feast of pasta and red wine before settling in to bed. 

On Day 3 in the afternoon I caught up with Marcos as I was arriving to Fromista and he was leaving. He was kind to wait for me to walk the afternoon stretch together. I did most of the talking as we made our way to the next town, also my favored destination for the evening. I was pretty bummed to find out that there was no room in the inn and we would have to continue to not just the next town but one beyond it as there was no albergue in Revenga. Thumbs down for Revenga.

Because of this disheartening news, I decided it was Marcos' turn to talk. I asked him to tell me his story. He said it was boring. I doubted him. So he started: "I was born in Buenos Aires and I moved to Barcelona 12 years ago. And that's it."  I waited. It didn't take but a few seconds for the rest of the story to come out. A few weeks ago he got into a stupid argument with his wife and she threw his clothes out onto the street. He sat in his car deciding what he should do. He entered Puente de la Reina (a stop on the Camino) into his GPS and began to walk two weeks ago. Once again, the record player screeched in my head. Wait. What?  The first week he was walking, no one knew where he was. He was reported as a missing person. Everyone he encountered on the Camino encouraged him to check in. He finally called his parents a few days before I met him to tell them he was ok, but not where he was.  We stayed that night at the same super unique albergue in Villarmentero de Los Campos hosted by Wilbur from the Netherlands (another story!) and then took off at the same time the next morning. 

I was calling it a "rest day" by only going 10km to Carrion de los Condes. But in that 10km stretched we talked about faith and the spirit realm and things about both that neither of us can fully explain or comprehend.  Estoy orando por ti, Marcos, y su camino y espero que para su retorno a su familia!  Buen Camino, Marcos!

Everyone has a story. 

Like Claudia. Claudia is from Mexico but has lived in San Diego for the past several years. But I have to back up to tell her story. I settled in at Hostal Espirtu Santu in Carrion de los Condes around 10am. I was greeted by a precious little nun who couldn't have been more than 4 feet tall and appeared to be in her 70's.  (I so wish I had a picture!) She cheerfully showed me where I could keep my things until check-in at 11. Later, Sister Aurora showed a group of us to our rooms, thankfully not filled with bunk beds! And then she showed us a little chapel where there would be devotions later at 5:30. I spent the bulk of the day updating my resume and applying for a job (which I didn't get) and posting to the blog. I found a sweet terrace to enjoy some jamon Serrano, queso Manchego and some vino tinto. 

But then made it back in time for the devotional. I found myself translating for Sister Aurora to a woman from the UK and three women from Germany who annoyingly indicated they understood neither Spanish nor English. Lo siento. It was a sweet service but I found myself surprisingly emotional when Aurora told the story of a woman on the Camino who was walking in the memory of her teenaged daughter who was killed in a car crash a couple years ago. This woman crossed paths with a girl in her late teens who was walking in the memory of her father who had recently passed away.  These two had found one another on the Camino. I found this to be a heart-breaking yet beautiful story and did my best to translate this to the women in the chapel while I fought back tears. A few minutes later the service was coming to an end when Claudia walked in with two brothers she had met, also from Mexico. I tried to brief them on the touching service they had just missed, including the story of this woman and this girl. Claudia exclaimed, "That's me! That's me!  I'm that woman!  I lost my daughter!"  Whoa.  I had no idea, clearly. This allowed Claudia an opportunity to share more about her daughter, Valeria, and her story and share some of her grief with me and Sister Aurora. Buen Camino, Claudia!

Everyone has a story. 

I could go on and on. This year there should be something like 250,000 stories to tell on the Camino. 

But I'll close with the story of how I became a part of the Camino Family in my final 3 days. 

On Day 5, I rolled into a one-albergue town called Ledigos. I was enjoying a cold cerveza while icing my feet with a bag of mostly melted ice loaned to me by two hurting pilgrims who reluctantly continued on down the road.  Carl from Australia took a seat followed by Dan and Sarah from the UK. Soon I was surrounded by the rest of their Camino Family which included Maria and Kate from Denmark, Caroline from Georgia (USA) and Carl's uncle and aunt, Vic and Karen.  The next morning I took off solo, as usual, but crossed paths with the Camino Family throughout the day and we landed at the same albergue in Bercianos del Real Camino hosted by brothers Francisco and Juan Antonio who provided entertainment for the pilgrims including a rapped prayer to bless our meal, a parody of La Bamba that only peregrinos could understand and an opportunity for pilgrims from each country to serenade the rest of the albergue with a song of their choice. (3 out of 7 of the Americans cringed at our choice of Folsom Prison Blues, especially as we sang "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." Our applause was easily the least enthusiastic.)   

Then on Day 7, I started out solo but soon Vic and Karen caught up to me.  They slowed their pace a bit to chat when I warned them about my tortuga-tendencies. They didn't seem to mind but after a short time, Vic and his long legs left Karen and I in the dust. Karen seemed relieved to meet a Tortuga and we became fast friends over the next 13km. Karen is a midwife in Melbourne and the mother of 3 grown boys. She and Vic decided to join Carl on his Camino when he shared his travel plans with them a while back. They made the Camino part of a 6-month sabbatical for Vic, 4 of those months to be spent around Europe. I also learned that Karen was a Christian, something that actually is more of an exception than the rule on the Camino, which is rather ironic considering the Camino is a tradition with roots in the Catholic Church.  So it may go without saying that we had plenty to talk about in the kilometers ahead. When we finally stopped at a town called Reliegos and Karen figured out how far we had walked and how quickly the time passed, she gave me a big hug thanking me for making this stretch of the Camino so easy on her.  I knew at that moment I had a new Tortuga convert!  I had actually planned to stop for the day but Henry and Anica from Germany, also members of the Camino Family, convinced me to keep on going to the next town 6km down the road, Mansilla de las Mulas. That's when I believe I officially became part of the Camino Family, sadly just in time to say goodbye. The next day we would arrive in Leon, my destination for this stage. Everyone else had planned a rest day in Leon so we were able to enjoy the time together, which basically meant hopping from cafe to cafe for coffees, then lunch which transitioned to jars of sangria and tapas at the Cathedral Plaza where we greeted other pilgrims as they limped into town. This was the day's entertainment until we found a place for all of us to share dinner together. I know I, for one, had no problems with this schedule.  The company was entertaining... and of course, everyone had a story. 

And so, there is no way to compare Camino Stage 2 with Camino Stage 1. It started with a sweet time of solitude at just the right pace... my own, and ended in the company of strangers who quickly became family as we shared the stories of where we have been and the dreams of where we hope to go.  

I left the Camino, once again, in awe. I am convinced there is no other experience like it on earth and that everyone should experience it for themselves.  And if the thought interests you just a little bit but maybe have hesitancies, let me tell you, there is no one way to do the Camino. And if you want to know more, you know how to find me. And maybe... where you can find me in the not so distant future!

Buen Camino, Mis Amigos!

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