Before Katie and I flew to Italy to meet Marian on her return from southeast Asia, Marian e-mailed me a list of things to pick up for our Camino. On the list was playing cards, because we were going to have a lot of down time, she said. Well, no, not exactly. I'd estimate that we ended our first eleven days at an average of 5:00 pm, with just enough time for a shower and a bit of laundry before a 10-euro pilgrim dinner as early as possible. After dinner? The sooner to bed the better. We have not been party animals on the Camino de Santiago.
Today, for the first time, we had both down time and party animals. But not before a bit of memento mori.
From the Pyrenees the Camino Francés heads steadily west toward Santiago de Compostela. So when I head out each morning the sun is behind me. If the sun is shining, I spend the morning following my shadow. As the sun moves across the southern sky to my left, my shadow moves around me to watch me from the right and then from behind late in the afternoon. Although the scenery is always changing, always beautiful, I spend many hours looking at the ground ahead of me and, in the morning at least, contemplating my shadow walking ahead of me toward my destination.
Today my shadow led me and my companions across three hills, then down into the town of San Juan de Ortega. Pilgrims of the 11th and 12th centuries were welcomed by this saint and his friend, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, namesake of the town where we spent Tuesday night. San Juan is interred in the church named for him at the head of the square in this little town. Over his rude stone sepulchre is a striking retablo of the Last Judgment. It shows four levels of souls from bottom to top: those in hell, covering their heads and faces with their hands; those in Purgatory, raising their arms in supplication; the Virgin and Child, flanked on each side by six Apostles; and over all, Jesus Christ.
The monastery in San Juan de Ortega now serves as a pilgrim refuge, and the town itself is one of the top-of-the-page destinations in John Brierly's ubiquitous guide to the Camino. As I wrote yesterday, we have been following our friend Simon's plan of not stopping at top-of-the-page towns. Today we set out to walk an extra six kilometers past San Juan de Ortega to Atapuerca, the last place with an albergue before the next recommended destination, the city of Burgos (pop. 170,000). Instead, we stopped short in the tiny town of Agés (pop. 60) and checked into our albergue by 1:00 p.m.
This gave us the down time we had lacked previously. By 2:30 p.m., after showers, laundry, and lunch, Marian and I were sitting at a plastic dinner table under a canopy opposite the albergue, playing Triominoes with our traveling companions Simon, Sam, and Alann. Down time at last! This game with three-sided dominoes is good competitive fun but not so taxing that you can't daydream or text a friend at the same time. Our little family had a congenial time together. "This is right proper relaxing," Sam said with her strong north-of-England accent. A mother and grandmother, she got up at one point to gather and fold our laundry that was hanging on the line beside us. When she finished, she said, "Well, that's me motherly duties done for the day!"
I got out my iPad and we began listening to some of my collected tunes, shuffling from Mark Knopfler to Patty Griffin to U2 to northern England's own Kate Rusby. Pretty soon, a competing party started up in the café 50 meters away. Until now, the Camino has not shown much of a party scene, or even youth scene, but by 4pm this afternoon, a serious international frat party was going on, complete with a howling guitarist singing both French and English songs badly and much drink being consumed. The music got so loud that Marian asked me to turn off the iPad, and by 5:30 we had to retreat inside the albergue, chased off the street by the noise.
I am writing at 9:30 pm now, and the party continues behind me, with kids sitting on the pavement, sharing bottles and laughing loudly. Hopefully someone will blow a curfew soon. All of us have to sleep. Still, I have to keep reminding myself that this too is the Camino de Santiago. It is tempting to think of the Camino as a nature walk—and to resent it when we have to walk through a city, as we will Burgos tomorrow. Likewise, it is easy to feel entitled to peace and quiet—and to find partying like what's going on tonight offensive. Well, it is offensive, of course. But that doesn't make it any less a part of the Camino de Santiago.
It's good for me to remember that for 1,000 years pilgrims have been walking to Santiago de Compostela through the towns and buildings and people of their particular cultural moment. These cities, these frat boys are part of my Camino. I have to understand this or be caught up in my own useless reaction and sense of entitlement.
[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]