This post has taken me some time to write. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I wanted it to be absolutely perfect or because I was afraid I wouldn’t capture all the magic that I experienced during The Camino. But the time has come…and I can’t delay it any longer. I hope my storytelling keeps you entertained; at the very least, I hope you smile at least once while reading about the mischief caused by two city girls surviving in the Spanish countryside.
When I set out on the Road to Santiago, my initial purpose was to do it because it was something challenging and different.
Our everyday lives are easy. I don’t mean easy in that life itself is easy – that we are all living on fat salaries and are out enjoying yacht days. I just mean easy in that we don’t do things outside of the norm or push ourselves very much physically. Maybe you do, but I felt that I hadn’t done something to push my physical boundaries in a long time. And I’m not just talking about a few intense Crossfit or workout days; I’m talking about something that pushes you physically and mentally to a point where you feel something; something more than just a little post workout soreness the next day. It was the next big adventure, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
I was very lucky that my friend Patty from Miami wanted to do The Camino with me. I won’t lie: I was scared to do it alone. Which is unusual for me – I’m not one who is usually scared to do things alone. But all the unknown variables, potentially walking through long stretches of barren land alone, the dangers of not making it to the next albergue and getting caught in the night…it was enough for me to want to count on a friend. And she was just the friend to do it.
Our adventure began in a Paris train station as we were taking an overnight train to Bayonne. Immediately, this story became a comedy: I had booked us in a female cabin (obviously to avoid man-snoring). Upon arriving at our cabin, our eyes locked with four individuals, all above the age of 70, women AND men, all tucked in and ready for bed. Lights out before the train even left the station! That might have been acceptable had the logistical layout of the cabin been different. Picture this: a cabin with three bunk beds on each side, and the hallway space in between was big enough for one teeny, tiny human being. The thought of climbing over two elderly bodies, in the dark, while trying not to make any noise - well that just seemed like a HUGE deterrent to us. We found an employee and explained to them that we had booked a female-only room and needed to change cabins. Obviously we couldn’t tell them that we didn’t want to sleep with the individuals who were already snoring and in deep REM sleep. They told us to get on the train and wait for them. Note: they told us to get on the train, not our cabin. So we went to the seating lounge and waited, resigned to sleep in the chairs if we needed to. About an hour into the journey, the same employee found us and proceeded to scold us for not waiting for them in our cabin. Apparently we broke protocol by going to the seated section. A big mistake…yet one with a silver lining. After being scolded for five minutes, they found us our very OWN cabin. Six beds, two people. This was a win-win situation. Ironically, the two of us STILL had trouble maneuvering around the tiny room and were questioning how on earth we were supposed to do this with four other people in the room.
We made it to Bayonne at around nine a.m. and booked the next available bus to St. Jean Pied du Port. Since we had two hours before our bus took off, we decided to tour this beautiful little French town. It was charming, like the storybook backdrop of Beauty and the Beast. We walked through the old town, smelling of fresh baked bread and went into their cathedral. There we met with a lovely woman who worked for Friends of St. James. She gave us loads of advice on The Camino and sent us on our way.
During our wait for the bus, we noticed a number of other pilgrims on their way to start The Camino. They were Super Pilgrims, and were prepared beyond belief: hiking books, legitimate backpacks, walking sticks. Pan over to Patty and I, wearing yoga pants, sneakers and Jansport backpacks. We were the runts of the litter. We figured we were fine because we were cycling so we wouldn’t need all the fancy gear; just our bicycle saddlebags and our legs. Incidentally, our saddlebags weighed about five pounds and were a nightmare to carry, which will play a pivotal role in our story very soon.
When we got into St. Jean, we headed straight for the Pilgrims office. An adorable older man gave us maps, our Pilgrim passport and all the information we would need. We stopped to explore the town and bought amazing baguette bags for our non-existent baguettes (but which I happen to know will be very useful for Cuban bread when I get back to Miami, and the source of much envy). When we were going to start walking, we realized that the saddlebags were too heavy and far too much of an awkward shape to carry all the way to Roncesvalles – one of the steepest parts of The Camino. After much deliberation, we made the difficult decision to take the later bus to Roncesvalles. We expected our bicycles to be there by the morning, so it would be good to get a good night’s rest. Out hotel, Casa Sabina, was actually really nice. We had our own room and bathroom, and I warned Patty that this would be one of the nicest places we would be staying in…and oh boy, was I right.
And now, the adventure began. But not quite in the way we expected…in the morning, we were expecting a knock on the door letting us know that our bikes had arrived. That knock never came. By about ten a.m., we were worried. We had a long ride ahead of us to Pamplona and wanted to get on the road as soon as possible. When we called Mundicamino, the bike rental company, they told us that the driver had been in an accident. He was fine, but our bikes would be arriving a bit later than expected. We were hopeful that they would arrive by noon, but that never happened. We needed to make a decision: take ANOTHER bus to Pamplona, or wait three or four hours for our bikes to be delivered. As much as I didn’t want to take another bus (because it felt like cheating), we realized we had no other choice; otherwise, we would lose the entire day, and time was already scarce as it was.
We arrived in Pamplona and met the driver 30 minutes later, bikes in hand. Only, there were loads of problems with our bikes: they were man-bikes with the middle bar up way too high, making it difficult to get on and off; the brakes barely worked on Patty’s bike; my seat was too high and I had no tools to lower it; helmets didn’t make it with the bikes. Nonetheless, we got on, not wanting to waste any more time and at one p.m. in the afternoon, we began riding our little hearts out. Since it was day one, we were ignorant to the fact that this is the ‘forbidden time.’ What this means is that any normal human being would never be outside in the scorching hot Spanish sun between the hours of one p.m. and five p.m. because it is unbearably hot. But since we were first-timers, ignorance was bliss and we set off on our merry way. We stopped at Cizur Menor to get our stamp and some water, and then continued on our way towards Puente La Reina. It was all going great, until we got lost in Galar after a wrong turn. At this point, I was in full-fledged pass out mode – you know, the usual stuff: the shakes, nausea and dizziness. It was far too hot and with no end in sight, I told Patty I needed to stop. We sat in the shade for about fifteen minutes, and then by some miracle of God, we found a fountain. I’d like to think it was the fountain of life, because the cold water revived me! I drank one or two bottles, dipped my head and neck in, and felt like my life could continue.
We found ourselves in Astrain, asking for directions to Puente la Reina. Instead, we were re-directed to a local bar because now Patty was in pass out mode. We ordered a Coke and, despite not drinking much soda back home, I am now a believer in the resuscitative properties of a simple Cola Cola. We felt like adrenaline was shot into our veins. I must remember to thank the CEO of Coca Cola for giving us a second chance at life! After our revival, we got to talking to the bartender and she was kind enough to call the albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) in the nearby town of Zariquegui for us to make sure we had a place to stay that night. It was only one kilometer away from Astrain but it was up this super steep, yet absolutely beautiful, hill. Yellow fields of golden wheat surrounded us, and despite us heaving all the way up, we managed to appreciate the beauty surrounding us. We didn’t make it to Puente la Reina that day, but we had had enough adventure for one day.
When we checked into our albergue and got into our room, we had to turn RIGHT AROUND. The smell…oh, the smell of stinky Camino shoes and socks was too overwhelming. Most places make you take your shoes off when you arrive to avoid just this situation. We were distraught, tired and really didn’t think we could stomach the smell. So sly Patty snooped around and somehow found an empty room for us, and we set up shop in there. It was heavenly to have our own non-smelly room. We slept like babies that night.
The next day was the beginning of the San Fermin (a.k.a, running of the bulls) festival in Pamplona, which meant only one thing: Patty and I had another big decision to make. Skip the opening ceremony and continue on The Camino (especially because of our disastrous delays), or attend a once-in-a-lifetime event as we just happened to be there on the actual day and in the actual place of a worldwide event. The coincidence was just too great, and we decided we didn’t have much of a choice: we were going to the running of the bulls.
Early in the morning, we rode into a city transformed…covered in red and white. Patty and I went to buy our white San Fermin shirts and the required red scarf. We were told about El Chupinaso where people go to El Ayuntamento and wait there until noon to kick off the festivities. Tradition dictates that you throw sangria, beer or anything else you can get your hands on. Let’s just say that when we arrived, our shirts were white. When we left, they were purple. The middle bit is where it got interesting. We arrived fairly early at ten a.m. and more and more people began to show up, until there was literally no more room in the plaza. NO ROOM. Ignorance really is bliss because you have no idea what you are getting yourself into. We later learned that locals wouldn’t even go in because of how crazy it gets, and now I know why! We nearly died of asphyxiation! I’ve never been in such a tight crowd that I couldn’t even lift up my arms. It was complete insanity, but what a memory – definitely something I will never forget. Patty and I were saved by a group of thoughtful Spanish guys who made a human barrier around us so we were protected from the swaying crowd and could at least breathe for a bit. Somehow Patty and I always found help whenever we needed it.
We got back to our albergue early after our adventurous day, and with the exception of a grumpy taxi driver who was mean to us, we finished the day on a high note. The pilgrim’s dinner at the albergue was incredible: 11 euros got us three courses, wine and dessert. It felt like college with everyone eating together, laughing and telling Camino stories. It felt like we were part of a little community that only we understood.
Six a.m. wakeup the next day, and now we were on a serious mission. We rode our hearts out down that hill, past Astrain and on our way to Puente La Reina, a beautiful little town. We were in desperate need of a map (remember us getting lost in Galar?) but the albergue was closed and it seemed as if we were out of luck. And just like that, I looked to my left and there was a Camino map of the Navarra region…in English! Almost as if it were left there just for us. Again, finding help when we needed it.
Armed with our trusty map, we made our way towards Lorca and passed threw a narrow stretch of wheat fields. This scenic place is where Patty and I would meet an incredible, lifelong friend: Armando. Another cyclist and a tremendous human being with a heart of gold. We rode with him all day and he showed us incredible kindness; both Patty and I fell off our bikes that day and he helped us, looked out for us and encouraged us. The trio stopped off to get some bread and (surprise, surprise) a coke at a small town, and that’s where we met Pepina. Pepina was an elderly grandma-type local who we sat and talked with for a while. She was sharp as a whip and was a pleasure to speak with. Unfortunately, we needed to continue our journey so we regrettably said our goodbyes and headed to Estella. That night, we cooked a huge pasta carbonara dinner together (credit mainly to Armando) at the albergue and washed some clothes since the place had a real, mechanical washing machine, a first for us. The simple things we take for granted back home are like gold when you are on The Camino.
Somewhere in between days four and five, I realized Patty had become, in such a short time span, one of my closest friends. We clicked. Sure, we’d known each other at work and had the surface talk conversations, but after this journey, there’d be no denying that we were forever connected. We were sharing something so special, so indescribable that only we would understand. She seemed more like a sister than a friend and I just remember feeling so grateful that she had come with me on this journey. This was only the beginning of the Patty and Mayra saga, and I couldn’t wait to see what else was in store for us. A friendship had been forged on The Way and it would change the direction of our lives forever.
Five a.m. wakeup call on day six. Patty and I began realizing we were always the last ones to leave the albergues in the mornings, so we needed to start waking up earlier. Anyone who knows me will know how much this absolutely sucks, but I chose to do this challenge, and I needed to suck it up. Armando needed to get his bike fixed that morning, so we agreed to meet again later on in the day. We rode to Villamayor de Monjardin and then up some pretty terrible hills. On this path we met Ben, a German who had been walking all the way FROM GERMANY! He was one of the most interesting people I had ever met: Ben studied theology for seven years and just decided that he wanted to become a carpenter instead. He was a young guy, but wise beyond his years and actually looked like Jesus. Imagine that. Meeting a Jesus lookalike on The Camino de Santiago.
This part of the Camino was strikingly beautiful: trees forging a natural arc encompassing a small lake, green foliage everywhere and rolling hills.
The hills…everywhere. On a bike. There were so many and some full of rocks, making it really difficult to ride on. We had to keep getting off our bikes to walk them up the hills because they were so steep. This was the point where we decided to ditch our bikes. I mean, we were walking half of the time anyway, at least we could do it without having to carry a bike. We spoke to the rental company, and luckily they promised us a refund (especially given the issues we had earlier on with the bikes and the delivery).
Los Arcos was the next town, so we stopped and had a little snack of cheese and bread in front of the church. Just then, Armando rode up, which left us speechless! It took him half the time to get there! It reminded us how NON proficient we were at cycling and reinforced our walking idea. When we arrived at Torres del Rio, we received a call from Jaime, the Mundicamino owner, who was there to pick up our bikes and take us to the next town. He said he wanted to take us out for tapas and to try to fix the issues we had, which was code word for attempting to salvage his profit. Jaime was a polite older man with cold eyes; his words were warm, but his expression was cold. He took us to Logrono and bought us tapas and ice cream in an effort to butter us up, but we could read his intentions right away: he wanted us to keep the bikes so he wouldn’t lose any money. We said we would think about it and then got dropped off at Santo Domingo de la Calzada.
Santo Domingo de la Calzada has to be one of my favorite memories. That evening, Patty and I went up to the bell tower as the sun was setting, the wind was blowing and music was playing. It was simply enchanting. Hilariously, ‘We are the Champions’ by Queen began blasting on full volume after a few minutes up there and Patty and I couldn’t control our laughter. It was like someone was sending us a message to keep us going!
Another five a.m. wakeup and on day seven we made it to Belorado after a long walk. Belorado seemed like an oasis in the middle of the desert: a pool, restaurant and shop. We ate like kings, famished after our first full day of walking, went for a dip in the pool and took a nap. It was heavenly. It’s so funny what we appreciate when all else is stripped away from you – especially since we can have pool days everyday in Miami. After our nap, we walked into the town and somehow ended up on the street with Martin Sheen’s hand and footprint, like a Hollywood star. I was SO excited because I loved “The Way.” “The Way” is an amazing movie about The Camino with Martin Sheen and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. It was part of the reason I was inspired to do The Camino (the other part was because of my good friend Heide). Unbeknownst to us, all of the stars from the different actors in the movie were spread all over the town, yet somehow we stumbled upon the most important one.
When we got home, we made a nice, light dinner in the kitchen. After stuffing heavy food down our gullet nonstop, it was nice to have some white asparagus, mushrooms, Spanish cured meat and cheese. While in the kitchen, we met an Italian pilgrim. We began chatting to him, the way we did with anyone new we met. About a minute into the conversation, I got the heebidijeebidies. My gut went haywire and I felt relieved to later learn that Patty felt the same way. That poor guy was battling some serious demons; after spending some time on The Camino, it was much easier to recognize these feelings. It was a bizarre encounter and I’d rather not get into details, but suffice it to say we avoided him again on the Road like the plague.
By now, we were on The Camino schedule and only walked until 1 p.m., rested, and got to bed super early for the morning wakeups. The next morning, however, I felt awful – sore throat, runny nose and sheer exhaustion. On our walk, we met Diego, a sweet Italian kid of 22 years. I decided to plug in my headphones for the first time and I walked at my own pace through Espinosa and Villafranca. It was a strange sensation how everything looked so different to me when music was involved and when I was walking alone. I looked at things so much more deeply and the time seemed to pass much more seamlessly. So once we reached San Juan de Ortega, I was ready to call it a day, but Diego was insistent on getting to Ages. Well, I am all for pushing my limits and boundaries, but there comes a point when it goes too far and becomes dangerous. I was significantly past this point during the Montes de Oca beforehand. The pain in my right leg was beyond excruciating. So much so, that I started crying from the pain. I found a fountain at San Juan de Ortega and cried a bit by myself, washed my face and feet, and then faced Patty and Diego. I announced to them that I wanted to stay there, walk alone and at my own pace. Of course this news was not accepted…shocker. Two advils and a meal later, they convinced me to walk the final four kilometers to Ages. Somehow I survived – it might have been the singing, or the hand holding…something we did together made those last four kilometers more bearable. They were strong for me when I couldn’t be. And my reward? Meeting up with Armando! It was like a present from the Gods that our best Camino friend would be there, especially since he had the speed advantage of a bicycle.
By the next morning, day nine, Patty and I had a system down pat for our blister situations. It was gross, but it was a necessary evil we needed to deal with in order to walk! We had blisters on nearly every single one of our toes. Try walking 20 plus kilometers a day in that condition. Life really does change quickly and humans adapt so quickly. What seems so disgusting and unacceptable in ‘the real world’ quickly becomes a norm.
That day we found El Cruz de Hierro, the cross of stones – one of the famous markers of The Camino. We each left a stone and said a prayer before continuing on.
Later on that day, something incredibly rare happened. Diego, Patty and I walked into a little Hermita and somehow we were all completely wowed by it; I’m not quite sure why. It was small and simple, but there was something special about it. An older woman was praying inside the church, and afterwards, she began talking to us like a grandmother. This sparked a very deep spiritual discussion and Diego, Patty and I shared each other’s stories; Diego let us in on something deeply personal. At that moment, an invisible bond was formed. It was a strange feeling of extreme closeness to strangers. It was so heavy and powerful, and unlike anything I had ever experienced before.
After that, the walk to Burgos went by much more quickly. However, towards the end, my legs were giving out – the pain shooting up my leg was too much to bear. I beat myself up about it a lot. Why was I always the slow one? Why did it seem like my pain was more unbearable than everyone else? Was it my three-time broken ankle that slowed me down? It made me realize how different each and every person was built and how some simply had more endurance than others.
When I could no longer go any further, I took a bus the last 30 minutes to get to the albergue since we had to meet Jaime from Mundicamino to get our bike money back. When we met, again we sensed the kind words and contradicting eyes. He was certainly unhappy with our decision to not keep the bikes and basically threw the reimbursement at us. While we were not thrilled with the treatment, we were just glad to get our money back and be done with it. All in all, it was just a rough day and it seemed like nobody was on our side that day. To make matters worse, as we arrived at the albergue in a taxi from the bike shop, the front desk people rudely assumed we had taken a taxi to the albergue from The Camino…completely forgetting that they met us a few hours before. They were so rude to us until we reminded them that we had already checked in, but it still left such a bad taste in my mouth. Weren’t we all pilgrims? Weren’t there sometimes circumstances that happen which require a pilgrim to take a taxi? There is just no need to rudely assume things when you are hosting pilgrims who are suffering enough on a daily basis.
I was feeling very melancholy that day with the bad treatment we had received from others. Patty and I decided to take a nap and forget about it. When we woke up, we found Armando and went for tapas together. Armando is a really special person – he always worries about others and has a pure heart of gold. He told us his story about how he had gone into a church earlier that day and felt a strong positive energy, which made him think of us. He had no idea what had happened at that very same church earlier that day with us. Goosebumps enveloped my skin and I realized that we were meant to meet and connect. We sat out there on that patio and we talked about life for ours like we were old friends. And I guess we were, because one day on The Camino is like living 100 days. You live each day so passionately, meet so many people, and every single encounter is brand new. It’s like really, truly living.
On day ten, Patty and I decided to take a break and rest our feet. We “slept in” until seven a.m. We went to a local restaurant and had the most amazing breakfast: eggs, Murcia sausage (Burgos style) and the most delicious coffee. We treated ourselves to a dessert of churros and chocolate. It was the first time we really treated ourselves in a while. It felt like we had been walking for so much longer than we had, and that little treat was so appreciated. Later, we went to the Correos post office to mail a few excess things to Santiago de Compostela so it wouldn’t weigh down our backpacks. Only then did I realize that we were a sight to behold: me, in my formerly black (now grey) spandex pants with a hole in them and chankletas (aka flip flops) – looking like a cleaning lady, and Patty with her broken purse, handles clipped to the strap and a bag of dirty, smelly clothes hanging from it (we forgot to do laundry and were meant to find a Laundromat in the city). I can only imagine what the posh citizens of Burgos thought of us.
We couldn’t leave Burgos without visiting the Burgos cathedral. It was stunning and impressive; the size, opulence and detail are staggering. Yet, Patty and I both agreed that it lacked the charm and enchantment of the many smaller, simpler churches we stumbled upon along the way.
Given that we only had two plus weeks to complete 700 kilometers, we knew we were going to have to take a bus at some point in order to finish. We decided to take the bus from Burgos to Leon as we were told it was the most mind-numbing part of the journey – flat and nothing to see – so we didn’t feel too bad about it. When we arrived in Leon, we went to the albergue, a convent. From the minute we walked in, we felt uncomfortable. Not only was it excessively dumpy, but people kept telling us to watch our things because cell phones were disappearing. We saw our room and cringed: we had gotten used to staying at less than appealing albergues, but this one was truly disgusting…and the doors closed at 9:30 p.m., which meant lights out before 10 p.m. We felt defeated – we had less than an hour to eat, shower and try to check our email. At dinner, we were stuffing food so quickly down our gullets that we nearly choked. At this point, reason hit us. Who cared about losing the five euros? We were leaving and going to a hostel; a place without curfews, our own room and our own (clean) shower.
As we were walking and laughing down the street about our sneaky escape, a well-dressed lady approached us and offered us a room in her apartment. She seemed like a nice older woman and I believed her at first, but then she got way too pushy. Patty was immediately uncomfortable and I was getting there quickly. It got to a point where we made it clear we had found another room, yet she continued to push us to at least come upstairs and ‘see’ the apartment. It was getting awkward. We managed to finally get out of it somehow, but Patty and I talked about it afterwards and what a strange situation it was. We felt like we could have ended up on some 20/20 special about stolen pilgrims abroad. Yes, we were probably paranoid, but she seemed like someone who was getting paid to bring girls to an apartment. I mean, we’ve all seen “Taken.” That’s when we firmly decided she was like a fairy tale witch: charming and luring with her nice clothes and smile, but behind it all were bad intentions. Maybe she was just desperate for money and really wanted to rent out the room during the economic crisis, but there was something in our gut that made us both very uncomfortable, and we had learned to trust that above all else.
Waking up on day 11 was the first time my feet didn’t ache. We took a walk through the old town of Leon and found the most incredible market full of old trinkets and books. It was so mesmerizing to see all of the old artifacts, cameras and just stuff from ages ago. I couldn’t believe these treasures were being sold on the side of the road for so little. It hit me then that I was in a completely different world than Miami – a place full of rich history dating back centuries.
We headed to VillaFranca de Bierzo that morning. Not even two minutes into our walk, it began to rain. Actually, let me rephrase that. It began to HAIL. As in HUGE HAIL PELLETS. We searched, unsuccessfully for an available albergue. But luck was on our side that day, because we met Maruchi whilst walking in the rain: an adorable grandma-type who offered us her umbrella and guided us on our way to another albergue. Unfortunately, that albergue was also full, but on our way there we passed a very, very cute hotel, which also happened to be way out of our price range. At this point, my raincoat did nothing to protect me from the water and I was soaking wet, tired and it appeared there was nowhere else to go. So what was the only logical choice? Splurge on the beautiful, fancy hotel! What a splurge it was: plush, feathery down comforters, crisp, clean sheets, robes…the whole shebang. We were in true luxury, folks. And after removing all my wet clothing and enjoying a hot shower (in a clean bathroom – whhhhaaatt), I could not have asked for more. The best 34 euros I ever spent. In the grand scheme of things, a place like that should cost FAR more than 34 euros and I wouldn’t even flinch at that price, but given our pilgrims budget, it seemed like a major splurge. Sometimes you just need to let go, be flexible, and enjoy what you have…and believe me, we soaked up every single minute of it.
We woke up at around eight am on day 12 and I took another shower, simply because I could. We began walking again and must have passed five or six small towns, stopping at the churches in each of them. Somewhere along the way, God gave us each a walking stick! Literally, we found two perfect, wooden walking sticks laid neatly on the side of the road. Not like the ones you buy at the stores that have the fancy shell hanging from it. No, these were like serious Jesus sticks – wooden, imperfect and sturdy – perfect for us! We couldn’t believe our luck, and we went merrily on our way with our sticks, unknowing that we would actually need them in the coming days for the approaching elevations. Fate? Coincidence? Call it what you want, but someone was looking out for us that day.
Patty and I had a really great discussion during the walk about religion and how this pilgrimage has changed our opinions about the church. I think we were both kind of jaded by a lot of the things that certain Catholic people preach about, showing their closed-mindedness. But the churches we stumbled upon seemed so open, so non judgmental – the way churches should be.
At one church, the signing book had the signature of Paolo Coelho, my hero, and I nearly had an aneurism. The date signed was only TWO DAYS earlier and I sincerely hoped I could catch up and meet him! It would be a dream come true. Then, I of course googled his signature and was smacked right back into reality, realizing it probably wasn’t him. What a disappointment.
We walked through Herradera del Bierzo and had an incredible lunch overlooking the mountains. Then it was onwards and upwards, literally. This next stretch was one of the highest climbs in The Camino. We walked up the rocky mountain, which is another point in the story when it becomes a comedy. So, I kept feeling an annoying little sting near my butt. Once or twice I saw a bee-like creature nearby and swatted it away, not giving it much thought. That was that, and I didn’t think about it again…until later, when I showered and found exactly FOUR wasp stings; you guessed it, on my butt! FOUR! How is that even possible? The most embarrassing part? I had to ask Patty to confirm that they were indeed there, in the places I couldn’t quite see…the poor girl never signed up for this!
We eventually arrived at a small town and found an albergue that looked like an enchanted forest. It had an underground-like bunker for rooms, which seemed cool at first, until we found all the little dead bugs on our beds that needed to be dusted away on an hourly schedule. We accidentally used the washing machine without permission (in our defense, nobody was around to ask for help), and got a pretty bad scolding for that. I was already having a bad day with the swelling butt issue, and getting yelled at really set me off. I was tired of these supposedly kind people at the albergues being rude all the time. This was meant to be a holy pilgrimage and it just seemed like all the people were ruder than the ones before.
The next morning, I was ready to hit the road and get as far away from that place as we could. On the road, we met Michael, a seemingly harmless Canadian who walked up the mountain with us to Cebreiro. He didn’t hesitate to share with us, in the first 20 minutes, his views on women: he was an official woman hater. Someone must have really hurt him for being as angry as he was. I trailed behind, but Patty had the pleasure of listening to his rants about women being the root of all evil. Somehow, despite his rants, I felt sorry for him. He wasn’t a bad person. Socially inept? Yes. Misplaced anger? Yes. But not a bad guy. After a beautiful and incredibly difficult hike up to Cebreiro, we said goodbye to Michael and continued on our way.
Before leaving, we met Tim, the most interesting man alive. He was an older retired man who had cycled through most of Asia and was now doing the Camino, cycling from England. He was smart and interesting, but unfortunately we couldn’t stay and talk more to him because we were racing against the clock now. With only a few days left to cover A LOT of kilometers, we weren’t sure we were going to make it. So we took off and hoped for the best.
When we got to Sarria, we walked around the old town for a bit and had lunch. The pilgrims here weren’t as friendly as the pilgrims at the beginning of our quest. They walked fast and with their heads down, instead of looking to make conversation. Patty and I determined that it was because most of these people had already found their niche of friends from the beginning and just wanted to reach the end as quickly as possible. This was completely understandable and we didn’t take any personal offense to this.
When we got to Palas de Rei, it was late, but we knew we had to keep walking. Here, something amazing happened: we found Santi, our Camino dog! He was the sweetest dog, a german shepherd mix. Santi followed us for 14 kilometers, all the way to Melide! It was apparent he had been mistreated because he was very cautious approaching us when we were walking with our walking sticks. But when we stopped to soak our feet in a little river and put down the sticks, Santi walked over and began giving kisses and letting us pet him. Poor little guy; I’ll never understand people who hit dogs.
The plan was to get to the next albergue, shower, and take Santi to the vet. We found out from locals that the police first needed to be informed to see if he belonged to anyone before he was taken to a vet. This made us sad, but we had no choice and agreed. The host at our albergue was insanely helpful, letting Santi stay in the yard and checking for missing dogs while we showered and got ready for dinner. Only, when we walked outside, Santi was gone. We were absolutely crushed. We wanted to take care of him and bring him to Santiago with us, find him a good home, but I guess Santi had other plans. This beautiful little dog brought sunshine to our day when we were tired and weary, and we’ll always be grateful for that.
That night, dinner was at a traditional pulperia called Casa Ezikiel. We had the local specialty, octopus with an orange-red spice sprinkled on top. We also got a jug of unmarked red wine for an offensively inexpensive price. I love the way that all the wine we drank during The Camino came in unmarked reusable jugs – it just felt authentic. At dinner, we met a wonderful Spanish family who were walking The Way with their children of 14 and 11 years. They were such a lovely, friendly family and spent the next hour chatting to them.
Day 14 was a rough one for me. The night before, I had slept at most one hour because I had a massive allergy attack, involving my throat closing up and non-stop sneezing fits. Two allergy pills later, I still couldn’t breathe properly. I thought it might have something to do with the growing four stings on my butt. Awful wasn’t even the word for what I felt that morning – I was dizzy, weak, beyond exhausted and the bags under my eyes were the key features of my face. My voice was hoarse and I could barely speak because my throat was still closed up. If there was ever a day I wished I could have taken a rest day, this would have been it. I lost my breakfast along the morning walk and despite only having to walk 16 kilometers this day, it just seemed so incredibly difficult for us. Patty’s bad knee and my bad ankle were flaring up. We were so close to the end and experiencing the fatigue that hits when you’ve worked so hard and are so close to the finish line.
However, during the difficult patch we met the lovely family from the night before, and they told us that their 11 year old son was leaving stones for us at each town, saying ‘para las ninas de Miami.’ Meaning, ‘for the Miami girls.’ We were blown away by the sweet gesture of an 11 year old and it reminded us of the incredible kindness of strangers.
That night, we (literally) limped our way to our albergue in Arca. Our room was on the top floor and the windows opened up above us, so we slept peacefully under the stars that night. The albergue was great: really clean and our roommates were all so funny and jovial. The mood was light, likely because we were so close to the end.
The next day: Santiago!
I woke up feeling completely refreshed after having an absolutely incredible night of sleep. Under the open window with a breeze, staring up at the stars. The 5:30 a.m. wakeup wasn’t getting any easier, but the day was full of promise. Patty and I both felt a sense of purpose and began the last leg of our trip.
Unfortunately, that balloon popped rather quickly. The signs weren’t as clear as earlier on, and we got lost a few times in the morning, delaying us quite a bit. As the morning passed, I started reflecting on My Camino. And my epiphany was that there was no epiphany. I’m slightly embarrassed to say this, but I was feeling like this arduous journey had no affect on me. I didn’t experience any revelations or awakenings like Patty had, no uber connections that changed my life. It really made me sad.
And, it was hard. My feet cried in pain after each step, and I began questioning why I was putting myself through all this suffering. I beat myself up about walking so much slower than everyone else. Why was it so much easier for everyone else? Why was it that people twice my age were breezing past me? Patty decided to finish the last bit at her own pace and I at mine towards the last eight kilometers. It was a chance for us to reflect on our own, so I put in my headphones and cruised along. I don’t know why I didn’t listen to music on the entire walk because I’m one of those people very much affected by music – it makes life just better overall. So it was the end of the road and off I went, finishing it in the way that I needed to finish it.
I was half dead when I reached the town before Santiago. Quite strangely, a nun saw me and immediately called me over, asking if I was the Colombian girl. I was confused and told her my father was Colombian. She told me that my friend was inside the chapel having confession, but I kind of thought she was confusing me with someone else. That is, until she told me that my Cuban friend had told her about me. So I decided to wait for Patty. The nun kept pushing confession on me, but I wanted to go on my own accord, not because she was forcing me to go. It had been years since I had gone to confession, and I wasn’t about to go because of a pushy nun.
I lied down in the shade while I waited for Patty, but somehow our paths must have crossed without us seeing each other. After about thirty minutes, I decided to keep on walking.
Now THIS was the hardest part of the entire Camino. Once you see the signs that you are in Santiago, you think you are close, yet the cathedral seems like millions of miles away. It was like a big joke of false hope on the pilgrims. “You’re almost there…except you’re really not! Ha!” I genuinely didn’t think I could make it. My poor feet throbbed and ached, making walking so difficult. At one point, I had to stop, take off my sneakers and massage my feet. I talked myself into going the last four kilometers. I was limping my way across the street, suffering excruciating, shooting pain up my bad ankle when these two girls began talking to me. I had seen them before on The Camino. At first, I found myself annoyed at having to talk because I was enjoying my music and just wanted to arrive. But then I found them to be incredibly sweet and kind, and somehow the pain seemed to pass while I talked to them. They provided a distraction from my pain. These lovely girls were from Valencia and were Opus Dei. In the past, I had this pre-conception of Opus Dei. I thought they were a kind of bible-thumping cult, but these girls proved me ever so wrong. They were unbelievably kind and I’m positive that if it hadn’t been for them, I might not have made it all the way to the cathedral.
When we walked into the old town of Santiago, I was rendered speechless. It was stunning. Absolutely, mind-numbingly stunning. One of the most beautiful old towns I had ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot). They seemed concerned that I wouldn’t find Patty, but I wasn’t worried at all because I knew she would be there. Sure enough, after walking around to the front of the cathedral and then to the side, I saw a familiar neon orange shirt. When I saw her, I was flooded with so much emotion: relief, accomplishment, and sheer joy. We were so happy to find each other, as she had been worried about where I was. I introduced her to my new friends, and then the girls who helped me reach a goal that seemed to far away, disappeared from my life.
Patty and I recounted our last five kilometers of The Camino and I told her about how the girls gave me the strength to go on. She thought I had taken a cab, and I was feeling pretty proud that I actually made it. We were sweaty, gross and starving, but I needed to go into the Cathedral.
And then something magical happened. The moment I walked in, I was hit with so much emotion, it was like getting smacked in the face with a brick wall. I began to cry uncontrollably, and I had no idea why. My emotions went haywire and I couldn’t stop crying. Maybe it was the gratitude of having finished something so difficult, so challenging and reaching the goal, but I’d like to think it was more than that. Throughout the journey, Patty was getting all sorts of signs and feelings that this was the right path, and I felt nothing. I figured it just wasn’t my time, but it didn’t make me feel any less disheartened about it. Now I think it was God’s way of telling me that I wasn’t alone and that I wasn’t doing all of this suffering for nothing. I felt immediately better about everything I had gone though and in that instant, I was actually glad I did it. Patty recognized that this was my spiritual connection and said the most appropriate words: ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Maybe I needed to wait until the end for some reason.
We went to the statue of St. James at the altar and I touched the side of his face, thanking him for letting me make it till the end. Then we went down to the crypt where there was an engraved plaque with Pope John Paul II’s words: “En el Camino, te encuentras. Se tu mismo.” Translated, it means, “On the Camino, you find yourself. Be who you are.” Truer words have never been spoken, and it really affected us both.
That night, Patty and I went for a walk around the old town of Santiago de Compostela. The only word fair enough to describe it is magical. Something about the city, the air, the cathedral, the music in the streets…we felt like we were in a movie. The air was full of hope and promise.
After the pilgrim’s mass the next day, Patty and I made our way to the shuttle stop for the airport. Just as we were talking about him, Patty spotted Armando. He was walking his bike along the plaza to look for us. We screamed for him at the top of our lungs but he didn’t hear us. So Patty ran to grab him. He must have raced to Santiago on his bike, just to say goodbye to us. A perfect ending to a perfect story. Our key friend from the journey, racing to send us off. It was the sweetest thing, and we just felt so glad that we got to say goodbye to this man with a heart of gold.
Looking back on the experience, as often happens with memories, I forgot about the pain, the suffering I felt and how much I wanted to quit. Instead, all I really remember was that moment in the cathedral. Walking in for the first time and being slapped in the face with so much emotion that nothing could stop the tears from falling down my face. I had no idea what happened or why I was crying. Maybe it was because I accomplished something that was so trying for me. Or maybe it was a spiritual enlightenment. Whatever it was that happened to me in that church that day, it changed something within me. I felt cleansed. Yes, I know. It’s too cliché; that’s what a pilgrimage is…a cleansing of the soul. But it was something so shocking to me because that wasn’t what I was doing the Camino for. Yet it’s how I came out of it. It’s almost like the spiritual connection is inevitable, no matter what you believe in. The Camino leaves a mark on your life, like a tattoo that can never be removed.
As Patty says, when we started out on The Camino, we set forces into motion that we can’t stop now. And I fully feel like I’m continuing on this path with every step I take. I’m meeting people that I’m ‘supposed’ to meet. The people who are guiding me to the life I’m supposed to be living. I’m doing the things I’m supposed to be doing. I’m becoming the person I was always meant to be.