I left Ferreira with the three Brazilians at a nice easy pace, the day filled with discussions about girls and cervezas, questions about each other’s countries, and stops for coffee occasionally too. The Brazilians had me thoroughly convinced that Brazilian people, the women especially, would love me, that I should visit as soon as reasonably possible. They are incredible, open people, but they had a few beliefs that were a little funny to me, and I’m still not sure whether they were joking or not about them. First, ever since I’d met them several days prior, they always told me I’d be eaten while camping in the forest by the “Lobos,” wolf in Spanish and apparently Portuguese. I don’t even think wolves still exist in anything but tiny numbers in this part of Europe, but it was always a frequently discussed topic whenever I mentioned sleeping outside. Second, they tried convincing me that drinking coffee and beer in the same sitting causes diarrhea. First time I’d heard that one!
Early on in the day, a South Korean who went by the Spanish name “Manuel” joined in and we were five for the day until Melide. Aside from being an open culture, these Brazilians at least also give great nicknames, and soon “Manuel” was Bruce Lee.
With the sun shining brightly once again, here are some pictures of the land, Galician Horreos, and a Roman Bridge.
We also passed this neat little place that looked almost like a Pilgrim Shrine, with a creek and water from a fountain to drink, grass, a table; had I not stopped in Ferreira, I saw myself stopping here the previous night.
In Melide something very different, strange happens, at least for people coming from the northern Caminos. Here, the Camino Primitivo joins up with the Camino Frances, and suddenly you see loads of people with strange faces, talking about towns from miles past with names that had no meaning for me. But also, just before Melide, starting 100 kilometers from Santiago, hundreds more pilgrims begin their walk because 100 km is the official distance somehow determined by the people who organize and maintain the Camino de Santiago that constitutes the minimum amount to “complete” it–and almost all of them walk on the Camino Frances. Anyone who walks the 100 km receives a Compostella in Santiago, which beyond just being a sheet of paper probably has some meaning in Catholicism, perhaps an indulgence excusing them from sins past. I’m not entirely sure.
All that explanation aside, the short of it is that, suddenly, people used to walking with far fewer people are beset by hundreds and hundreds. It’s a shock to experience even though I knew it was coming.
Anyhow, I prepared to move on, back to camping, but not before a celebration with the Brazilians Paolo, Manuel, Carlao, and the Korean Manuel.
Saying goodbye after, I ran into my doppelganger on my way out: Rik from Holland.
After conversations where we discovered a few important similarities beyond the hair and beard, I decided again to sleep in a town to further the brief friendship. Over dinner, we chatted and charmed two Italian girls named Sara and Elisa, while Rik and I later continued our own personal conversations late into the night. In Rik, I couldn’t help but feel that he embodied the poet Charles Bukowski, that great American who wrote about living on the edge, about the downtrodden, the rougher parts of life; in appearance, surely, but also in mannerisms, beliefs and ways of talking, both of them often writing, thinking, talking, with a drink in one hand and cigarette in the other.
I said goodbye to Rik the next morning, and soon I was back at it with my crazed ideas, early-on deciding I’d walk the entire distance to Santiago this day, an insane 55 kilometers, made more crazy due to a late 10 AM start. Not at a fast pace, and not to rush to the end, just to do it. I had no idea where I’d stay in making this decision, thinking I’d probably arrive somewhere between 10 and 11 PM. I suppose I wanted to finish my walk to Santiago strongly, one last bout of brash spontaneity that’s come to characterize this journey before it came to an end.
It surely was a shock to see all the people, many of them in large tour groups, getting their baggage transported during each day, wearing only tiny backpacks while they walked. From other pilgrims, it was easy to detect a lot of disdain towards these people given the not so friendly nickname directed towards them: “Tourigrinos”–a play on peregrino, the Spanish word for pilgrim.
Around noon I ran into the Brazilians, much to their surprise since I had said I was heading off to meet the “Lobos.” We enjoyed each other’s company over the next few hours, me stopping here and there for a quick coffee or a look around a small town, them meeting me at regular intervals. We finally said goodbye around 3, mutually reassuring each other we’d meet in Santiago to celebrate, late the next day.
With so many people walking this last stretch each day, each week, each year, there is the potential for a lot graffiti, put onto everything you can imagine, and some of quite funny. Crosswalk signs, signs that point the Camino’s direction and distance, walls in tunnels–the graffiti is everywhere.
On a couple signs, the person walking was changed to a wizard and skater, respectively, and otherwise covered in stickers with advertisements for Facebook groups, blogs, anything and everything.
On another sign, a group of Turks announced their presence at one point. The Turks must have been many places, as they put the exact same sentence in perhaps a half-dozen other places later on.
In one sign, someone filled in the missing the distance marker part of the sign, near the bottom, with a computer error message.
And finally, my favorites, people wrote messages directed at tourigrinos and bicygrinos (pilgrims riding a bicycle to Santiago), messages so stupid that they were funny. One even evoked a series of replies and arguments, played out on the battlefield of sharpie markers and spread out over a period of time surely many days between.
Soon after leaving the Brazilians for the final time, I ran into the Korean Manuel, GoPro and GPS unit in tow telling him exactly how many meters were left with each step. After learning that he was stopping just outside Santiago, still 50 km in total from Melide, and me going the entire way (or so I thought), we agreed that the two crazy lads ought to walk together.
In a break from my pictures of graffiti signs, here was a dog lazing about in the shade, barely bothering to wake from his slumber to notice our presence.
Crossing near Santiago’s airport, Manuel was kind enough to take this picture of me.
Not long after, the sun set, with Santiago somewhere not too distant past the hills and trees.
About 10 kilometers away from Santiago, after passing near lots of forested areas, I unsurprisingly changed my mind, deciding a night amongst a quiet grove would surely be better than sleeping in some park or bench in Santiago. On this trip, which has seen spontaneity and change every day, it was fitting to change my mind one last time before Santiago. I bid farewell to Manuel and found a restaurant with a pilgrim’s dinner: steamed vegetables with a large bit of roast beef and potatoes. I couldn’t help but think fondly of my father on this late Sunday evening in Spain. In an earlier life of mine back in Boise, he’d often cook the exact same meal for Sunday dinner.
By the time I finished eating it was pitch black, so I wandered about out of town, barely finding the Camino, and soon spied trees on either side of the road. I stumbled into the dark, found a flat spot, and laid down. Not my preferred way of finding a place to rest, but it worked. Lying there, I had an important realization, and quite a portent one I think since it was a revelation that happened on, of all nights, the night right before I reached Santiago. The greatest question troubling me much of the walk has been: what next after Santiago and Finisterra? Always, in my previous travels, I return home to comfort and familiarity well before I had planned to at the outset, and for the last few weeks of this walk I had thought I might do the same after Santiago, again as I have done several times before, as though stuck in some great cyclical pattern of traveling. When I go home, soon after I come back to the other side of the circle, feeling an uncontrollable urge to go to another country again, in each case always thinking I’ll get what I need, want, with each change. This circle has more or less been repeating since I first left my country six years ago. But on a journey of growth, of learning, of stepping beyond comfort barriers once thought impassable for me, I’ve realized that this circle has to break, that I have to keep going even though I am pulled home. I hold a deep love for my niece and nephews, mother, brothers and sisters, and miss them terribly, but my circle must break before I can truly go home. West has always represented home and comfort for me, east has always represented the opposite: discomfort; uncertainty. South too, I suppose. So then, lying in the black of a forest, I decided I’ll force myself to head east after this journey concludes and another begins. East, maybe south, that’s all I know.
Santiago (September 19th-20th, 2016)
Sleeping in after a long day of walking; these days, nothing feels better. By the time sun broke out around 8 and scores of pilgrims passed by along the not-too-distant road below, I knew it was time to get going. Here are a few pictures from the morning and the beginning of Santiago.
Walking the last couple hours, I perhaps tried to think of some kind of poetic clarion call, some way to cement Santiago as the culmination of my journey, not only of walking, but of good changes that I hope I can make last long after. Nothing came to mind, though, and I think it’s because, in my mind, I initially had always thought of Finisterra, the so-called “End of the World” for Medieval man, as the final momentous occasion of my walk; Santiago was just a large town on the way to the “real” end. Over the two months of walking I realized that Finisterra, too, was just an artificial “end,” that my real Camino was the daily effort of pushing myself, the realizations about myself, good and bad, the changes within that resulted, the happiness and smiling on my face that came easier every day, all the while gradually coming to finally walk the Camino my way over the course of the journey. I entered Santiago alone, seeing many others with a companion, sometimes many companions, friends from before or friends made during their journey. Admittedly, upon entering the streets of Santiago, I felt the sting of loneliness in this moment, and alone, Santiago indeed probably would have meant little. But then something special happened, something that affirms, yet again, the “magic” of this walk I’ve talked in length about before.
I met Maciek, the Polish man that I walked with for 3 or 4 days early on during the Camino del Norte but lost somewhere ahead, behind, who knows, once I started sleeping outside more. He’d gotten there the day before, sticking to the Camino del Norte, and though I didn’t know much of where he was he knew roughly where I was, that I’d changed to the Camino Primitivo, because he kept up with my ramblings here when he had the chance. Though I met many great people from all the way back in France like Anna, Francois-Xavier, Charbel, Igor, Didier, George, Adrian and Jordan, many others, most had stopped already and I knew I wouldn’t meet them again. Of those still walking, only Maciek and the Brazilians remained of those with whom I’d built a strong friendship. With Maciek, each of us walking alone, we had quickly become friends those 20 some-odd days before, conversations ranging from history to Russian geopolitics to PTSD in the US military and everything in between. It was made even more significant because I thought it extremely unlikely that we would even be in Santiago on a coinciding day, let alone cross paths in such a large city.
Seeing Maciek was a great, happy surprise, and we walked again once more just as we had before, picking up right where we left off. Thinking about this in hindsight, I see there is a powerful metaphor within this event and hopefully my writing can do it justice: although I walked alone almost the entire Camino during the day, I was never alone, meeting people in the albergues at night when I slept there or in passing on the trail during the day, and these people and the friendly faces of Spanish locals, they helped carry me forward; I thought, entering Santiago, that I was alone, but I truly wasn’t alone and with Maciek I finished the pilgrimage to the cathedral.
I visited the inside of the cathedral, packed with pilgrims for the noontime mass, later paying a brief visit to the tomb of St. James even, before getting a bed in the same albergue as my friend. Surprisingly, Emmanuel, a Frenchman I’d seen off-and-on for 15 days, ended up with a bed in the same room. At 66 years old, he would always say “I am an old man” when talking of how far I had walked that day or thought I might walk the next day, claiming he couldn’t walk the same amount. And yet, somehow, he always appeared even after some of the long days I did. Old, perhaps, but in incredible shape.
Later, we sat right in the middle of the city’s main plaza, where pilgrims go to meet lost friends and contemplate the journey, taking in the best view possible of the cathedral.
Maciek and I caroused about Santiago for the remainder of the day and a good part of the next, talking at length about what it all meant, this Camino, for each of us in particular and in general, the experiences we had in our long gap between meetings, the direction each other was heading after, even the numerous things we each learned about different cultures through the people from those cultures who walked. For once, I even had the first pleasant, insightful and meaningful conversation in this whole trip about Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. We talked about the many people we met, how difficult it was at times for each of us to find friendship, openness, to build a connection with many other pilgrims. Regarding this, Maciek gave me one of the greatest compliments of my life: “You were like a star, like the sun, when almost everyone was but a shadow.”
I didn’t see inside too much of the city’s sights, but I walked around a good part of the old quarter with Maciek, now packless pilgrims who know how to do nothing but keep walking and walking. In the park looking off to the Cathedral during one of our many talks, a group of young Spanish youth were behaving strangely. A beautiful college girl came and sat near us, looking at us strangely, then went back to her friends. Soon she came over again, asking whether I was Irish, and then, if the reddish-orange mop on my head was my natural hair color. Nearly everyone in France, Italy, Spain, thinks I’m Irish. I’m happy to be American, but of all nationalities I could be confused for, Ireland’s not too shabby.
Although we had planned to meet in the evening to celebrate together, I lost track of and couldn’t meet up with the Brazilians due to the challenge of communicating through the internet. I was sad at this, as in my mind I thought it not possible to see them after Santiago since they were heading to Portugal and then home soon after.
At one point, Maciek told me of this 5-star hotel in the main plaza of Santiago, next to the cathedral. In times past, they provided accommodation and care to pilgrims; now, they cater primarily to wealthy well-dressed people and dignitaries. But for the first 10 pilgrims, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they provide a meal. At dinner we tried to go but there were already well more than 10 people waiting. We happened to be in the area around the time for breakfast the next day, and again went to the appointed place. Only 5 people including us showed up, and soon we were ushered back behind gates, down hallways, through courtyards, deep into the bowels below the hotel’s kitchen, as though in a tiny corner to be sheltered from sight of the hotel’s paying guests. The breakfast was simple, coffee and small pastries, but free is free, and the experience was a memorable one, bonding over the brief hour with the few other pilgrims who happened about at the same time. Afterwards, we were free to wander about the rich and vast interior at liberty, forgotten that we even existed by the hotel’s busy workers.
Before long, on day 26, I knew it was time for me to continue on, whereas Maciek was headed back home to his wife and children a few hours later. We met one final time in the main plaza, where all pilgrims go to see old and new faces alike and bid farewell, and I even saw and embraced Fabio the Italian man from the several days before. But I didn’t leave before I raised my pack in triumphant victory amidst my own ridiculous squeals and excessive grunting, the same way people riding bicycles do when they reach Santiago. As always, I headed off, alone, but happy to have made and met one final time, a friend for life.