Today, day five of walking, a 28 year old Brazilian guy friend of ours looked at Rachel and I, picking up his pack to go on ahead and said, "See you on the other side of the hill." Then he paused, looked at us with the most pathetic eyes, and added, "... No. We're gonna die. This is why the Camino is spiritual. Because we become spirits." And with that he hobbled off. (He's still alive.)
The only way I can think to compare what my feet feel like is one time when I was in a friends' wedding and she made us bridesmaids wear three-inch heels in one of the California mission churches (think: old cobblestones). Thank you, Sarah, for the unintentional Camino preparation! Except, if you took that pain, multiplied it by 50, and then added a meat chopper, a rabid dog, and possibly a shark to the mix, that would be more accurate. Suffice it to say -- we hurt!
HOWEVER. One of the most amazing things about the Camino is its people. Everyone is so encouraging, so determined, so communal, so pleasant. If you so much as stop to adjust your shoe, at least one passing pilgrim asks if you need a bandage, or some water, a granola bar, or a hug (just kidding about that last one). Everyone passing says, "Buen Camino!" (the traditional greeting on the way), but what's really hilarious is that you can tell exactly how a person is feeling by how they say it. There are the short, polite, curt "Buen Camino's" of those in pain and determined; excited "Buen Camino's" of those newly starting, the early mornings, and the Italians. There are the grunted "Buen Camino's" of those going uphill; the "Buen Camino's" of those greeting friends they haven't seen for a while, and the "Buen Camino's" of those who sound like they are experiencing the exact opposite sentiment toward the Camino.
But somehow, we all love it.
Two days ago, we sort of organically morphed into a group of 8 people -- the strangest, most ecclectic group I have ever called myself a part of. Rachel, Marie (Norway), and I left with a couple of girls from our hostel that morning and soon met a limping man on the road who we asked to take our picture. He is a physician from Washington DC currently studying at the John Paul II Institute there. Soon after we stopped for a break, we met a chain-smoking, hobbling, smiling girl from the Netherlands, and somewhere we collected an outspoken, loud, Brazilian man who lives to party. We walked into Pamplona together, spent the day at the festival (more in a moment), and have been together ever since. We mostly refer to each other by the name of our countries, but in order to illustrate the funny bonding that takes place, this group (beyond Rachel and myself) is as follows:
Marie (25), "Norway" -- studying to be a Protestant minister, works in Oslo as a youth minister and is studying for her masters in theology.
Robert (28), "Brazil" -- quit his job because he was dissatisfied by it and wanted to travel; loves to party; here for kicks and to challenge himself, and because he's currently freelancing, and is writing about the people. We tell him no secrets.
Julia (20), "Germany" -- student studying in Belgium, here for a good hike on summer holiday.
Mike (37), "DC" -- physician and student at JP II center, has a Southern accent and sounds so American it keeps making me laugh, and is our one other practicing Catholic.
Mary (31), "Canada" -- teacher of ESL to children; here to discover more about herself and get direction in her life.
Soone (28), "Dutchie" -- worked at a cafe specifically ministering to prostitutes in Amsterdam; sees life as a great party, and here to challenge herself (and quit smoking).
Two days ago we stumbled into Pamplona around noon feeling as if we were all simultaneously going to collapse into a giant heap. This was our first day walking in the heat, as before we had been so high in elevation it had been cooler. We had heard repeatedly that the pilgrim hostels in Pamplona were closed for the Festival San Fermin, but God blessed us immensely. As we crossed the bridge into the city, one sign pointed to an open albergue -- which Germany delighted in, as it was run by the German pilgrim office and staffed by the most wonderful (Jewish) German volunteers. This is how we later found ourselves drinking Sangria in Spain with Germans, singing Hebrew songs loudly in a courtyard, at 10 PM.
We stopped around noon and, after resting, headed into the city of Pamplona (without our packs!) This was like NYC on St. Patrick's Day -- streets crowded wall to wall, sounds and smells everywhere -- except here literally everyone but us was wearing white pants and red shirts with red bandanas. We walked the streets, danced with the Spaniards in an open cafe, sang street-wide Spanish karaoke, ate the most amazing Tortilla (which in Spain is like a quiche with potatoes, not a flat bread), and went to Mass at a beautiful church where the entire congregation was wearing red and white.
We woke up the next morning to our German hosts coming into our dorm rooms and calling, "Guten Morgan!!!" -- which brought me directly back to my time studying in Austria. And also a weird way to wake up in Spain. We stored our bags in the cellar, and went "up" into the city (Pamplona is on a hill, and to get to downtown we literally got onto an elevator from a small lower street) to see the running of the bulls!
With sore feet, we stood for an hour, squished up against a fence, waiting. Rachel ended up sitting next to two intoxicated Frenchmen who decided to tie the shoelaces of two Spaniards sitting on the fence above them together, and joked that they were going to blame her, which provided her with a credible moral crisis for the morning. Finally a race gun went off and ...
... some people came jogging by. Then some people came walking by. Then some really frantic people came running by, followed by some walking people. Then, some very tame-looking bulls came trotting by, being prodded by Spaniards running behind. Then some frantic people ran into each other, someone skinned a knee, the bull demurely trotted by, and every single video camera in Pamplona zoomed in on the "injured" man, now getting a Band-Aid applied by EMT personnel.
Turns out we totally could have run with the bulls. (We think this was because this was toward the end of the festival -- but still.)
The last two days have been a blur! Leaving late that morning, we walked late into the afternoon (which was ridiculously hot), and eventually ended up at a beautiful, peaceful albergue that we had all to ourselves. Today we walked an additional 25k and ended in Estrella, a gorgeous little city in a beautiful historic district. We crossed a bridge today that we have all just referred to as "the famous bridge," but is actually called La Puerta de la Reina ("the queen's gate").
And we have ... walked. And walked. And walked. We have walked up mountains and down mountain; on paths, on trails, on roads; we have ascended and descended, and plodded through rocky, flat fields. Yesterday we climbed up the Alto del Pardon, the Mountain of Forgiveness, where a famous artistic group of steel statues depicts a group of medieval pilgrims on the Camino. It is funny to imagine that so many before us, so, so long ago, have walked this exact path.
Each day we start feeling vaguely fresh, but incredibly stiff. We lurch out of our hostel (tomorrow at 5 AM to beat the intense Spanish summer heat), and walk for about two hours, before we take our first break, eat second breakfast, apply new blister tape to new areas, and adjust the old areas. Then we talk about our feet for about 20 minutes. Intermittently throughout the day we break at rivers, water fountains, and in shady groves. Though we spread out while we walk, we seem to always meet back at these times. Our paces get faster and slower, and new walking partners or solitary walking organically happens -- both are wonderful, but it's much easier in a group at the end, when you literally feel like you can't go one step further.
When we reached Pamplona, we walked THE LONGEST road to get to our hostel. When we retraced our steps, refreshed, we discovered it was no longer than a quarter of a mile.
The Camino is a suffering, in a very real sense. It's a challenge, and a mental game, yet at the same time a prayer, it seems even to those who don't believe in prayer. It's redemptive and restorative (in the sense that we must sometimes be torn down in order to be rebuilt). May everything that I am that is not genuine be crushed and washed away; may what is true and pure be grown. It seems kind of funny to me that the Spanish for clean is "limpio," because we are all walking to "clean" our lives of something, even simply attachment to our own selves or wills. And we're limping. Limping to limpio. Yeah, that's a huge stretch. Ignore that.