As we were walking today, all I could think was that it's very fitting that the English word for Spain is essentially "pain" with an S in front of it. BECAUSE THIS HURTS. Wowza.
Also, Audrey Hepburn's famous line in "My Fair Lady" should be changed from, "The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain" to "the PAIN in Spain is mainly on the plains!" We're in these plains, and there is pain. And it's boring. Today I got engrossed in conversation and walked ahead of my group, and when I paused to wait for them nearly every couple or group who passed by me was talking about how bored they were. It's amazing to realize how much rolling hills provided us with entertainment ... but flat and straight is mentally taxing. Imagine walking through Kansas, in a straight line, for 20 miles. Boom.
Often we can see an upcoming town upwards of 7k away, and the visual of it never seems to change! It's like walking on a treadmill. Mary likened this to a clip from Monty Python (Watch the first minute or so of this clip: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=GJoM7V54T-c
) where castle guards see a man emerge, running, from the woods. He runs and runs. He stays exactly in place. It flashes from the yawning, slightly confused guards, to the distant running man with no ground being gained. Bored guards. Running knight. Bored guards. Suddenly with an, "AHA!!!!" the knight shows up just in front of the guards and they scream.
This is the Camino.
The evening of my last blog (whatever day that was), we attended an evening Mass in a local field next to an outdoor shrine to St. Bridget of Sweden, on her feast day. This was followed by a giant feast provided by the albergues to all the pilgrims -- free of charge! All of us in the town gathered in front of the albergue we were staying at, and plate after plate of tapas was brought out, and several huge, steaming pans of paella. Wine was poured, followed by dessert and sweet wine. What a gift! We pilgrims devoured this feast with gusto - especially because, in Spain, dinner time is around 9 PM, and we wake up at 4, walk 20 miles, and eat lunch no later than 1. We snack a lot, and sometimes I feel like the only things I do on the Camino (aside from walk) are eat, wash my clothes in the sink, and sleep. Food is something not to be taken for granted on this way -- along with clean, dry socks, sunscreen, and water!
The next day we woke and walked up a really, really big hill. Then we walked down it. And then we hit the plains. The amazing thing right now is that sunflowers are a crop here, and are fully in bloom. Sunflower fields are to this region of Spain what corn is to rural Indiana. It is remarkably beautiful.
We arrived that evening to a small town with an albergue that can only be described as an oasis. The town had next to nothing in it, but the albergue was like a city unto itself. With a giant courtyard, shady groves, a pool, a bar, and a very homey feel (this albergue is run by a family), it provided a very needed respite from the long and dusty road. It was also full of pilgrims, many who we knew, either by acquaintance or by sight, from walking around the same pace.
Our professional Israeli walkers were two of the pilgrims staying, and a plan was launched by Gregory, our crazy Belgian friend from day one, to make and celebrate a sort of seder meal together for Shabbat (it was Friday afternoon.) The only problem: there was no grocery store in this town; we needed groceries to do this; and the nearest market was 5k away in the next town.
Not to be outdone, Gregory rounded up the borrowed bicycles of several bike pilgrims, several men who get major gentleman points (ask a teen who went on the Cle Elum Mission trip), and a bunch of empty backpacks. Each pilgrim gave 3 Euros, and off they went! Until they got to the store and tried to load all the necessary groceries into the bags.
I was napping when they came back and heard the story only vaguely through the open window, but it appears that someone at the market took pity on the ridiculous mishmash of bicycle-grocery toting foreigners and offered them a ride ... yet only the groceries fit in the car! So the men had to ride back, independent of the food, and somehow in this story Gregory rode his bike back with a large bag of ice wrapped in his UV Protection t-shirt. (Because that will keep it from melting?) I'm not sure.
What I am sure of is how amazing this was! Shortly after their return, a handful of volunteer pilgrims had assembled a feast! Huge bowls of salad stood ready with bowls of sliced and assorted meats, cheeses, breads, chips, crackers, and olives. There was an enormous bucket filled to the brim with sangria and loads of cut up fruit in it. We sat in a giant circle (around 35 people), and Haggai, the slightly less professional professional walker, sang the Shabbat blessing in Hebrew. We ate and talked and sang until we realized how ridiculously late it was.
Most people slept in the next day ... except us. As usual, we were up at 4, though (unusual for us) behind another group of pilgrims. Usually no one else is quite this crazy, though more and more people seem to be waking early to conquer the flat plains before the heat (it's over 100 degrees F every day by 3 PM, though the last few days have been quite windy, which is saving us, though making our faces quite raw feeling).
Generally at 5 AM there are a couple places where we have to search around with our headlamps to find the yellow Camino arrow (sometimes painted on the ground, on a wall, a sign, a post, a tree, a bench ... whatever is handy.) This morning was no exception ... but perhaps because we were surrounded by others, we all naturally trusted the couple in the front ...
and we went the wrong direction. For 8k. We walked along a gorgeous riverbank, with the water flowing on our left. And 90 minutes later realized that we were on the right path -- but the water should have been flowing on our RIGHT. Fortunately we realized this at an intersection with a road that gave us the option for a "short cut" back. Not so fortunately, this short cut was 7k long.
Less than 10 minutes after we began, the girl who got us lost in the first place hitched a ride into town, and left us (a group too large to hitch) stumbling blearily up the road. Buen Camino. This is where the "treadmill effect" as we call it first materialized, as for the entire 90 minutes of walking we could see the town -- and it didn't get any closer! Finally we realized that what we had taken to be a small country church was actually a giant grain silo, which explains part of the problem.
An hour and a half later we stumbled into the town, less than 5k from where we had begun, and where we had planned to have breakfast. We were greeted by the stares of our fellow pilgrims who knew we had left early -- and who had themselves woken up at 8. We had walked 16k that morning (more than half of what we intended), before eating, and before coffee. And we had 24k left to go! We inhaled caffeine like it was our job, and then joined Robert (who had blissfully NOT left with us for the first time on the Camino, and thus spared himself) on our long trek.
This was also the Feast of St. James! This is huge, as the Camino is "the Way of St. James," a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, where this apostle is buried. God is good, and we ended up in the perfect city to celebrate this. Carrion de los Campos is a small city, much, much larger than most of the tiny towns we've passed through, and had an evening Mass at a beautiful, old church, that St. Francis also passed through on his journey through this region. A young, vibrant women's religious community is dedicated to the care of pilgrims here, and though we didn't stay at their albergue (we didn't know in time), we experienced their hospitality at Mass.
The Mass itself was beautiful -- and very simple, in a very heartfelt and peaceful way. The church was packed, music was done by the sisters and with guitar, and although we couldn't understand the priest, he emanated peace and love.
After each Mass, pilgrims are called up to the front for a special blessing -- a lovely idea in practice, but I cannot explain to you fully the pain involved in this. Going to Mass, and standing and sitting, and standing and sitting, makes fire come out of my feet, I'm pretty sure. Getting called to the front AFTER this experience, and standing for no less than 10 minutes while the priest speaks rapidly in a language I cannot follow, is immensely painful. I hate to admit this, but I have actually begin to resent these blessings, as awful as this is. This one was no different in my reaction to it -- everything in me said, "NO!" Rachel said, "Yes!" and ran to the front. I ended up directly in front of the priest, who listed, no joke, every country in the world and asked us to raise our hand if we were from it. "South Korea ... Japan ... Morocco ... South Africa ... Iceland ... Ireland ... Lithuania ... Israel ... Andorra ..." The list went on forever and I wanted to cry. Did he not understand how badly we hurt?! But then he smiled and winked, said "Italy and Spain," and 9/10 of the pilgrims raised their hands, and he turned it over to the sisters who spoke both Spanish and English.
With love that can only be described as divine in origin, they encouraged us, and spoke to us of courage, strength, and the power of prayer. They talked about the meaning of the Camino in our own hearts. They reminded us that we can only see the stars in the darkest nights, and while Camino can seem a dark night, this can indeed be illuminating. They, along with the priest, called us up one by one and blessed us, presented us with a little paper star, and afterwards gathered us together to sing Salve Regina before a statue of Our Lady that has stood in the church for centuries. Perhaps our of fatigue, pain, and from having our own, deeper purposes for Camino affirmed and recognized, most of us were crying -- not tears of sadness, or of joy, but just from being deeply moved. Love was tangible in this place.
Rachel and I left and walked back to our albergue in a daze -- where we found our friends gathered, with giant homemade hamburgers (a la Robert) waiting for us.
After this day, our 4 AM wake up call was better today! We began a long, flat road, devoid of civilization for a full 10k. Soon after we started, I was joined by a talkative German girl who fell into pace beside me and started talking. I liked her immediately ... until she started talking about going the wrong way the day before and hitting a ride into Fromista.
"That was you?!" I kind of yelled. Up until this point I had been thinking of her as "the girl who got us lost" -- not that it was her fault, but pain loves blame.
The Camino also loves forgiveness, and moments later I was thanking God for this encounter. Eva is a handball coach and teacher from Cologne, who needs to walk 35k a day in order to make her schedule, so we may not see her again -- but she, in the two hours we walked together, impacted me greatly. These are the encounters that the Camino is made up of. Some encounters, like our "Camigos" group, stay. Some come in and out, like Jose, and like Mike from DC who got lost in the woods and taken down by blisters weeks ago and who has caught up with us again. Some you meet once or twice, but are impacted by something -- sincerity, faith, joy, or love. These encounters make the Camino a more full experience.
Eva the handball player walks extremely fast. In my journey with her two things happened: one, I got a blister on the bottom of my right big toe, right where I have to put pressure to walk, and didn't notice because I was so engrossed in conversation. Number two, I left my friends way behind in the dust. I finally stopped outside a makeshift outdoor cafe, bid farewell to Eva, and sat down to wait.
One hour later I could finally make out Sanne in the distance, visible by her distinct walk. I had begun to feel kind of like an orphan by that point, but was also very much enjoying watching the pilgrims walk by.
A South Korean who we frequently cross paths with, who we have nicknamed "Captain Jack Sparrow," because his hair and clothes are identical to Johnny Depp's in the movie.
An African woman jamming out to headphones.
An American woman named Laura, from California, who is the spitting image of one of my Edge volunteers.
Groups of Italians yelling and gesturing wildly.
Two German military men who we just call "the German army" hustling by in perfect time.
An elderly man pulling a cart with his backpack on it.
Bicyclists zooming by yelling, "Buen ..." because the "Camino" part always gets cut off by the time they pass.
We stopped one town early tonight because this village is having, what else, but a fiesta! They said that hot chocolate will be available at 4 AM -- which I assume means for everyone who is still awake at 4, but for us means a perfect start to a chilly morning. We said yes, had a siesta, and watched the festival kick off with a town-wide water balloon fight (mostly for kids, but another group of pilgrims created a homemade slip and slide for them, and it was a hit!)