Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Camino de Santiago, Day 3: Zubiri to Pamplona

I was in Pamplona (left), the city Hemingway made famous, nearly 40 years ago. With a pack of friends, I was here during the Festival of San Fermin, when crazy men let bulls chase them through the streets and some serious 24/7 partying goes on. I participated in the latter, not the former, but that was then and this is now.

It is late afternoon after a 22-km walk from Zubiri, and I am seated in what may once have been the choir loft of the Church of Jesus and Mary, now transformed into a pilgrim refuge. The choir loft is now a Wifi hot spot. If you can picture this, I am looking from the upper end of the back of the church straight up the nave toward where the altar was. All that's left to suggest that this was once a Catholic place of worship are the symbols of Jesus (IHS surmounted by a cross) and the Virgin Mary (V and M intersecting topped by a crown) above the former sanctuary, which is now a sort of internet café.

The side aisles of the church to my right and left have been converted to two stories of cubicles for bunk beds, with capacity for 112 pilgrims, 56 to a side, 28 over 28. Marian and I have bunks #75 and #77, both uppers. The sanitary facilities are clean, the showers are hot, and everything is unisex except for the laundry room, where an intimidating line of Spanish and Asian women were monopolizing the washers and dryers the last time I checked.

As Marian and I headed out of Zubiri this morning, I noticed graffiti in yellow spray paint on the pavement. “El egoismo hace que viajes solo-a,” it read. Marian translated this for me as, “Egoism leaves a person traveling alone,” whether that person is male (solo) or female (sola).

Perhaps this is one key to the Camino's power: it is impossible to travel alone here. You can set out alone, but all day long you pass and are passed by other pilgrims wishing you “Buen Camino.” You know you are one of them. Awaiting you at night are these very non-private refuges, where European men and women show little modesty while Asian pilgrims close their eyes and Americans don't quite know what to do. In spite of your egoism, you’re forced to journey with others.

Today we journeyed with Kevin, Dominique, and Ari; then with Simon, Sam, and Nick; and then after a long spell of Marian and me walking alone, we were joined by two lovely young women from Israel, Noah and Adva. It's unlikely that any of these people will become our lifelong companions, but that’s another thing about the Camino: You have to be able to love and let go. You can have the most searching conversation with someone over a 5km walk, as I did with Dominique this morning, and then, when you're ready for lunch and they aren't, you bid them buen camino and never see them again.

Kevin, Dominique, and Ari

Five kilometers from Zubiri there is a small but attractive hotel. As we passed it, we were accosted by a tall handsome American man. “Did you see the movie ‘The Way’?” he asked. “This is the patio where they filmed the scene with the shoes. And you know the scene near the end of the film, where the four of them stay at a luxury hotel? Those scenes were filmed here too, inside.”

Thus we met Kevin, another angel in our path, and his two friends from the Washington DC area, Dominique and Ari. Pretty soon I was walking and talking with Kevin. As he told me what he did — it involves developing net-zero mixed-income housing, or something like that — I thought how much I would like Marian to hear his story because she is looking for a way to apply her considerable business skills to something she believes in passionately. But Marian had dropped back talking with Dominique (a younger American woman) and Ari (a law school classmate of Kevin). Then somehow we switched, and Marian was conversing with Kevin, while Dominique and I led the way.

Dominique told me her story of being raised in Aroostook County, Maine, in foster care until she was adopted as a teen. She is now a writer who has completed a memoir which she believes can speak to the 250,000 people who enter the American foster-care system every year (!). She told me how she searched for and found her birth mother five years ago. An accountant by day and astrologer by night, her mother talked about walking the Camino for several years before succumbing to cancer. Five years after her mother's death, Domininque is walking in her honor. It was a reminder to me of my father's death four years ago, and of my determination to dedicate this day to him.

Dominique seemed to lack confidence in her writing, and I did what I could to encourage her, sharing a personal story that I don't usually share. When finally Marian and I stopped for a snack break and the trio from Washington moved on, Marian did a little dance and said, “Angels! Angels on the way!” She was turned on by her half-hour conversation with Kevin, just as I hoped she would be and just as I hope Dominique was somehow inspired by me. Thus the Camino works its magic.

Simon, Sam, and Nick

Just as Marian and I were getting up from our snack break, along they came Simon and Sam, not-so-young lovers from the north of England, now with Nick in tow. Nick is a Lancashireman, Simon a Yorkshireman, and the bad blood between the two regions of England goes back to the Wars of the Roses, a fact that caused great fun between them. Apparently, they had got things settled at a pub the night before, and Simon regaled us with a description of his return to the refuge in Zubiri and collapsing onto the wrong bed, into the lap of an unknown lady. Simon's language was a bit more anatomically descriptive than that.

So not all of the people we meet on the Camino are angels. Some are fools, but in the best Shakespearean sense.

Nick was the meet of my morning. In contrast with Kevin from Washington, who has found his way to a non-traditional but satisfying career, Nick did “what the culture told me to do” after a rebellious youth that involved living on a kibbutz in Israel, where he met his wife, a native of the Dominican Republic. Neither Nick nor Pilar is Jewish. Soon he returned to England and built a successful career in financial management, which has included building his own firm, hiring a lot of people, buying a sexy Porsche, and becoming disenchanted with the whole package.

Just six weeks ago, Nick heard a client say at a meeting that he was going to do the Camino. “Within 30 seconds,” Nick said, “I decided I had to do that.” He has just a week to spare from his demanding career right now, so after walking the first three stages from St. Jean Pied de Port to Pamplona, he is flying home tomorrow. But he has already called his son to ask the 15-year-old to come back and do some more stages with him this summer.

It was very moving to see the way Nick, with only a few hours left to his mini-Camino, gazed at the countryside, drinking it all in, weighing his fast-paced British life against something else he has already begun finding here. 

Noah and Adva

As we were nearing Pamplona, already sighting the towers of the cathedral ahead of us, we ran into these two young Israelis, who quickly struck up a conversation with my daughter Marian because we were the first Americans they had met on the Camino. It was a lively exchange, which subsequently involved one borrowing a phone charger from another when we arrived at the Jesus and Mary refuge and got settled.

After showers and laundry and on-line this and that, Marian and I headed to the main square in the old city of Pamplona for an early dinner. As we circled the plaza, we saw a man standing in place and drinking it all in. It was Nick, my British friend from the morning.

Nick commented that he and Simon and Sam had been talking about us: that striking American girl and her old man — how cool it was to see us together. He said he had already called his son this evening, and his son had not said no, which he took as a hopeful sign. I asked Nick for his e-mail address, which he gladly gave me. I think we will stay in touch. I want to let him live the rest of my Camino vicariously through this blog, and I hope to follow his progress as he returns to Spain as soon as possible, perhaps several times, to continue searching for what he has already begun to find.

[NOTE: The next post in this series about my Camino is here.]

1 comment:

  1. For a couple of years, I have been intrigued by the Camino from the recounts of bloggers and podcasters who have made the pilgrimage. It is a gift and a pleasure to follow your Camino vicariously through your blog. One of the things that attracted me to YIM Catholic was your powerful narrative voice, your ability to write a story in vivid technicolor. The early themes (and titles) of why I am Catholic answered the question 'Why am I Catholic?' with answers such as, "... because of the saints" or "for the company of friends". Similarly, your pilgrimage blogposts seem to be answers to the question, "Why walk the Camino?" with answers as varied as the people on pilgrimage. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to walk along.

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