Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Our Camino, Chapter 2: St. Jean Pied de Port to Uterga

(This is the second installment in my newly edited story of walking the Camino de Santiago with my daughter in 2012. The first chapter is here.)

As we climbed above St. Jean Pied de Port and looked back over the valley running down the middle of the Pyrenees, the morning fog had neither risen nor dissipated.

Below us was what looked like a vaporous lake with high, foaming billows, and islands sticking up where summits rose out of the fog. It was a dream landscape, in which the constant tinkling of sheep bells was like wind chimes on a friendly neighbor's porch.

Like Paris, the Camino de Santiago is a moveable feast. Walking in May, as we did, you are surrounded by fellow travelers, passing you and being passed. Many speak English, and on day one, Marian and I spoke with a number of these.

Most memorable for me were Dominik, a 27-year-old Austrian, and Erika, a 35-year-old single mother from Lithuania, who seemed to be traveling as a couple. Early in the day's trek, I gathered that Dominik had ambitions of walking the Camino in double-time; he and Erika soon shot past us. The first time we caught up with them snacking by the trailside, I told Dominik the Aesop fable of the tortoise and the hare. The fable’s basic plot line played out for the rest of the day, as he and Erika went ahead again, then stopped for a break or nap, and Marian and I plodded past.

At one point, I told Dominik that his name was a good omen to me, since St. Dominic was an itinerant preacher who, with St. Francis, helped restore the Catholic Church at a time when it was quite corrupt. “Still is corrupt,” Dominink snorted.

Erika’s expressed attitude toward religion was different. I asked her, as I asked others, why she was walking to Santiago de Compostela. “Many reasons,” she said, “but not for fun. I want to give a gift to my God, who has been so generous with me.”

Marian and I started the brutal final downhill leg into Roncesvalles ahead of Dominik and Erika. (Try walking downslope over rocks after ascending a mountain for seven hours. You will know that you have knees. You will know that you have hips.) I heard the sound of a rabbit approaching behind us. It was Dominik again with Erika by his side. He went past, eager to prove Aesop wrong, while Erika settled in by my side.

“As I came down and saw you from behind,” she said, “I thought you finally looked like a father.” She was referring to my limp, my pace, my look of utter physical bankruptcy. “How old are you?” she asked. I replied that I was 60. “My respect to you,” she said. Then she touched her heart and said good-bye, though not for the last time.

We arrived about 5 p.m. at the new state-of-the-art pilgrim refuge in Roncesvalles, having walked more than 20 miles, climbed 4,000 net feet, and descended 2,000 net feet—all while carrying 10-kilo backpacks. I wandered through the courtyard outside the refuge and settled into a chair in front of my 9-euro pilgrim supper like a zombie with blisters.

The good news was, we had made it. The bad news was, we had to do it again the next day.

Sleepless in Zubiri

Tuesday morning, Marian and I made ourselves instant Nescafé in the kitchen of the refuge in Roncesvalles; then we set off past a road sign that read Santiago de Compostela 790 km.

During the early morning, we trekked through farmlands and two lovely villages, striking for their cleanliness and order. As we passed through a field before noon, I looked for a place to pee. As I headed for the bushes, I glanced back over my shoulder and saw a solo man gaining on us, so I veered back on track to let him go by before doing my business. As he passed, I noticed a small heart-shaped pillow hanging from the bottom of his pack, embroidered with a smiley face. Something prompted me to call out to him, “I like your heart!”

He turned back to greet us. We exchanged names. Then over the next hour, as we walked the Camino together, I learned that Ricardo was from southern Brazil, an oncologist whose English was excellent thanks to a professional year in Houston. The heart he carried was for a lady friend, who had been planning to walk the Camino with Ricardo and several others until her husband had a heart attack two weeks before departure. The first to pack her gear, she was devastated by the cancellation; so Ricardo agreed to carry the heart to Santiago for her.

This reminded me of my friend Donald, who had died a couple of weeks before my departure. Donald had given me a stone to carry for him to the Cruz de Ferro, a cross at the highest point on the Camino. The stone was inscribed with the word Peace.

Eventually we parted company with Ricardo. Marian and I arrived in the village of Zubiri at four o’clock and checked in at the Pension Benta-Berri, where the owner’s name was Maria Josefa—Mary Joseph. I had insisted on a pension because I had been sleeping poorly. Before beginning my Camino, I had worried about my fitness and Marian’s diet. I was 60, an exercise walker but no hiker. Marian was a vegetarian traveling in a country that craves meat. The one thing I never thought to worry about was sleep.

At Kaserna Marian and I had slept in a small dormitory with eight other people, two to a double bunk. I had lain awake until 2 am, dozed a fitful hour, then slumbered again for about 90 minutes before dawn. The thing I quickly learned about Camino refuges is, once the first person starts skirmishing about to prepare for the day’s hike in a dormitory set-up like that one, it’s impossible to drop off again.

So before the most grueling, physically demanding day of my adult life, in which I crossed the Pyrenees, I had slept two and a half hours. Then came Monday night in Roncesvalles, where I had slept in a cubicle with three other people, including Dominik and Erika, plus Q, a Lufthansa pilot from Bavaria who claimed he had flown the Pope in a private jet on Benedict’s return from his visit to Germany.

The company in Roncesvalles was pleasant enough and the accommodations would have been ideal except that my bunk faced the door to the men’s bathroom. So I was perfectly positioned to receive the heavenly rays that flooded my way every time a man padded down the corridor in flip-flops and opened the door to do the thing men do so often in the middle of the night. Since there were about sixty men on our floor, and many of them were of middle age or older, there were many middle-of-the-night flip-floppings and door-openings. I donned my eye mask (useful) and ear plugs (useless) and worked hard at getting to sleep. Because I was brain dead following the day’s activity, I slept better than I had Sunday night at Kaserna, but the hour count still amounted to only five—for the two nights combined.

Thus, when we arrived in Zubiri the following evening, I insisted to Marian that we stay in a pension, in a room with two beds and a door that closes, bedbugs optional. I lay down for a pre-dinner nap. That’s when I learned that the name of our pension, Benta-Berri, must mean Slamming Doors in Spanish or Basque or something. Open windows apparently caused drafts, drafts caused doors to slam, and several guests checked in while I was trying to sleep. The net effect was the sound of many doors slamming, and that is not a zen koan.


The following afternoon, after a 22-km walk from Zubiri to Pamplona, I found myself seated in what may once have been the choir loft of the Church of Jesus and Mary, now transformed into a pilgrim refuge in the heart of the old city. The former choir loft was posted as a Wifi hot spot. As I looked from the upper reaches of the back of what once had been a church, I saw the side aisles transformed into two stories of cubicles for bunk beds, 56 to a side, 28 over 28. Marian and I had been given bunks number 75 and 77, both uppers.

The sanitary facilities in the Pamplona refuge were clean, the showers were hot, and everything was unisex except for a laundry room where an intimidating line of Spanish and Asian women monopolized the washers and dryers.

I did not sleep a wink in Pamplona. Not a single minute. As I said my morning prayer, between 5 and 6 am, I decided to offer up the day for my pastor, Fr. David Barnes, who had told me that sleep deprivation would be his biggest worry if he ever walked the Camino. Had I listened to my pastor? Um, no.

Shortly before leaving the refuge, I had a verbal confrontation with a woman with a German accent. When she barged ahead of me at the bathroom, for which I had been waiting five minutes, I resurrected just enough high school Deutsch to say, “Ich warte! Fünf minuten!” while pointing madly at the single toilet stall. I thought I said, “I wait! Five minutes!” and not “Ick, warts,” but I wasn’t sure. Although I succeeded in getting into the toilet ahead of her, the encounter did not end well.

Marian and I trekked together through Pamplona and out of the city. As we left a coffee shop, I thought I heard someone shout “Bullshit!” This is not a term you usually hear yelled on the streets of a Spanish city, but I ignored it. Again the shout came: “Bullshit!” I turned and saw that the shouter was Simon, the male half of a north-of-England duo we had met in Roncesvalles, Simon and Sam, for Samantha, I guess. On the Camino, people appear, then disappear, then appear again unexpectedly. Simon and Sam and Marian and I had been turning in a revolving door of encounters since day one.

Simon thought his play on our family name was hilarious, and so did Sam, who laughed irrepressibly about everything. As we headed uphill toward Cizur Menor, Simon regaled us with tales of his latest pub crawl the night before, which reportedly included a fight with “a bloke who was absolutely lashed.” Marian told me later that just as the Eskimos have fifty words for snow, the Brits seemed to have as many words for drunk. Sam giggled incessantly over Simon’s stories, then offered her own choice bit of English slang about an all but nude continental European woman in her cubical at the refuge who was “fluffing about with her lady garden.” I didn’t ask.

Marian and I stopped for a break, and Simon and Sam sprinted on ahead. When we resumed walking, we met a slower-moving couple, Pierre and Marie, from Pau, France. While Marian, who speaks Spanish not French, walked ahead, I engaged them. Pierre explained that they were walking to Santiago de Compostela from Le Puy, France, the starting point of the first recorded pilgrimage in 951 AD. Given their advanced ages (late seventies?), they were doing this in manageable chunks, one week each spring and one each fall. They hoped to live long enough to finish together, perhaps within two years.

I asked them why the Camino. Marie just shrugged and said, “We’ve been walking together for fifty years.”

You mean hiking, I asked?

“Et dans la vie!” she answered. And in life.

We stopped in a village for a break. There ensued a series of those odd reunions that occurred frequently on our Camino. As we sat in a park, characters from the first three days slowly filtered into the square in front of us. There were Song-Mi and Philip from the refuge in St. Jean Pied de Port! There was Brook from our night in Roncesvalles! There were Noah and Adva, the Israeli girls we met walking into Pamplona yesterday! These were not the last reunions of the day.

Forgiveness in Uterga

We headed uphill to the Alto del Perdon, the Heights of Forgiveness. If you have seen the movie “The Way,” you may recall a scene on a hilltop where there are about a dozen life-size, iron silhouettes of pilgrims all headed in the same direction (above photo). In the film, a pair of bicyclists go by, and the overweight Dutch character, Yost, says, “You mean you can do this on a bicycle?!” That’s Alto del Perdon.

Marian and I sat and chewed sunflower seeds and had a short conversation with a young man from the Dominican Republic. He was astonished that we were a father and daughter traveling together. “Why?” he asked incredulously. “Why not?” Marian answered.

We had agreed to stop early on this, our fourth day, because of my lack of sleep the night before. So we headed downhill to the village of Uterga and found our way to an inn named Camino de Perdon, the Way of Forgiveness. This met our primary requirement, a private room with two beds. I did not want to hazard another sleepless night in dormitory-style living. After Marian made me lunch, I crashed for a two-hour nap and came downstairs to find her chatting on the patio with Alex.

Alex was becoming one of my favorite characters on the Camino. I had noticed him on day one, a young Asian man in a Yankees ball cap. I had said something silly and typical of a Red Sox fan trying to jest with a rival. From then on, every time I saw Alex (I did not know his name yet) I called him New York, and he called me Boston. Finally, on Wednesday outside the refuge in Pamplona, I had approached him and asked for his name. Now here he was again, talking with my daughter, partly about the miserable blister that was causing him, a marathoner, to limp along like a doddering elder.

As we talked, I suddenly heard another voice calling my name. It was Ricardo, the oncologist from southern Brazil, still carrying his small heart-shaped pillow. As he approached us on the patio, joyfully calling my name, Ricardo held the heart out to me. “I am so happy to see you, Webster!” he said. Then he told me that because he unexpectedly had to break off his Camino halfway to Santiago, he wanted me to carry the heart all the way for his friend. I was very moved by this.

We never really know the impressions we make on others, but I understood now that there had been something about our conversation on Day 2 that moved Ricardo. Perhaps again it was that I was traveling with my daughter. Ricardo too, had a daughter, he told me: Isadora, 15, of whom he was proud and who he hoped would one day walk the Camino with him.

I accepted the honor of carrying the heart pillow to Santiago de Compostela. Marian then told Ricardo about Alex’s blister. As a doctor, Ricardo carried emergency medical supplies, and within a couple of minutes he had Alex’s wound bandaged.

It was about this moment that Marianne walked up—the German woman with whom I had argued over a toilet eight hours before! We quickly hugged and made up. After all, this place was called the Way of Forgiveness.

When all these encounters were over, I finally logged onto Facebook for the first time in the day. I discovered that it was the anniversary of Father Barnes’s ordination. I had not had this fact in mind when I dedicated my day on the Camino to him in Pamplona before dawn.

(Continue reading Chapter 3 here.)

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