After walking the Way of Saint James for two weeks, I´m back in Madrid now, leaving shortly for New York. I have finished the Camino for the moment and will be spending the next month or so, I think, just processing all I saw, all I learned, all I have come to understand. Pilgrimage is not like vacation. Vacation in itself means vacating, emptying out, taking a back seat for a change. Pilgrimage is driven, impulsive, thoughtful, and thought filling. I need both from time to time. You can get used to everyone wishing you a Buen Camino, or ´safe travels and a good pilgrimage.´
It´s remarkable how so many days of focussing on small details could become such a blur of experience now. In our twelve short days, we walked over 170 miles, averaging over 14 miles each day, and I noticed a single flower, a shiny black beetle, a woman hanging out her clothes on her balcony. The sum total of these small incidents made each day so rich and unique but as I recall them now, they blur into a long road, a seamless journey.
Some of the wonderful kindnesses that we met along the way stand out though. Everyone is kind to pilgrims in Spain. On our first day, an older man came out of his house, shouting ¨Caramelos!¨ We had passed his door before he had everything set up for pilgrims to take with them. He had small candies, some fruit, and a stamp for the pilgrim´s passport, or credencial. As you walk, you are required to collect two stamps per day on your credencial to show where you have been and that you did walk between towns.
As we came into the first stop, Hospital de Orbigo, we were met along the road by a man on a bike who was riding toward us with his dog chasing along behind him. He told us we could stay with him in his albergue, and that the food there was really good. We followed his advice and met the loveliest people there. He played guitar for us after dinner and was up the next morning fixing us breakfast. When he stamped our credenciales, he wrote ¨Ultreia!¨ It´s the expression of encouragement to pilgrims to get up and keep going to Santiago de Compostela. His wife took me aside because she noticed I hadn´t finished my dinner. She was worried I might not be feeling well, but I assured her everything was fine.
In five more stops, we were let into closed pensiones, or small hotels, even though the place was closed. We stayed in a house with our own kitchen and living room, we slept in a dormitory style room with five twin beds that reminded me of Madeline in Paris, and we spent the night in another where the owner washed our clothes for us. In each case, we were made to feel welcome, even though it was clear the only reason the pension was open was to accommodate us.
But my single favorite moment was when we were walking through a small town and I had walked ahead of my daughters just to see where the road was taking us. I stopped in front of a set of vending machines, just waiting, and a man came up to me, fishing some coins out of his pocket. He leaned toward me and asked if I might need anything that he could buy for me in the vending machines. I assured him I didn´t need anything and he smiled and wished me a Buen Camino.