Monday, March 9, 2015

Our Camino, Chapter 9: O Cebreiro to Ribadiso

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

You´ll look in vain for Pintin on maps of Galicia, the rainy region in northwest Spain of which Santiago de Compostela is the capital. Pintin is a tiny pueblo, no more than a few houses strung together, but it's on the Camino so it has a pension, and we stayed there Monday night, June 11, 2012, our first full day of walking through Galicia, our 29th day on the Way of St. James.

Imagine Vermont in the wettest month on record, in springtime when the mountain run-off has turned ski season into mud-time and every form of vegetation is green and dripping heavily. That is an average day in Galicia (pictured here).

Laboring Monday through a second day of rain, I had begun to feel like my dad, who cut short our 2007 Civil War battlefields tour by about five days and ten battlefields. If I see one more Civil War battlefield, he told me one morning, that will be plenty. After getting soaked to the bone on Sunday morning's climb to O'Cebreiro, I had asked Marian, Why isn´t four weeks on the Camino plenty? Is a fifth necessary?

She wisely shot back a line from our pastor, Father Barnes: Remember, this is a pilgrimage. You will be tired, she said, but repeat after me: This is a pilgrimage. (I repeated it.) You will be cold and wet, she said, but this is a pilgrimage. (...) You will hear old strange European men snoring and see their butts, but this is a pilgrimage. (...)

As we trekked the last thousand meters into Pintin, I told Marian that my head might be in outerspace, my feet in mud, but the rest of me was pretty much OK. After four weeks on the road to Santiago, I was in some kinda shape.

Tuesday we put the hammer down, reaching Portomarín and thereby covering 63 kilometers (nearly 40 miles) in two days. The weather even cooperated. The soaking rain of Galicia held off, and a couple of times in the afternoon the sun rewarded us briefly, illuminating part of the landscape in a heavenly glow. It seemed there were always clouds here, but sometimes the sky peeked through. 

Also, I bought myself a third pair of socks, which I used to reward my feet at rest stops. No way was I putting those soft, dry beauties inside my boots anytime soon. They would have come out smelling like dog.

On Tuesday morning Marian had said she wanted to visit more churches between here and Sunday, our projected arrival day in Santiago de Compostela. This was a beautiful thought. The problem was, most churches on the Camino are closed, at least on weekdays. Every village has one, amazing evidence of the onetime spread of the faith, but fewer priests are around to keep them open.

Then we walked into Barbadelo. We had been reading about this village for two days. It had the most overpromoted hostel on the Camino, with handbills posted on trees and walls 40 kilometers back. We passed the hostel without stopping, but then we neared the Igrexa de Santiago on our left. (Igrexa is Gallego for Church. Gallego is the language of Galicia.) From a parked Volkswagen on our right, a short elderly man walked slowly toward us. He looked like Doc, or maybe Sleepy, one of the dwarves in "Snow White."

He asked in Spanish whether we wanted to see the church, and Marian answered in Spanish that we did. It occurred to me only later that he had been sitting in his Volkswagen waiting for likely church visitors, a sort of self-appointed, one-man Chamber of Commerce and tip-taker for Barbadelo. Doc led us through a gate in a stone wall and into the cemetery adjoining the church. It was a Spanish-style cemetery, though usually you see them enclosed in small, rectangular walled cities of their own. Here the cemetery seemed effectively to enclose the church. In these Spanish cemeteries, all of the bodies are aboveground. The older burials are in stone mausoleums with family names on them. The newer ones look like drawers in a morgue, with a family name at the top of a stack, and the name of an individual on each drawer below. Everywhere there are flowers and photos and other touching mementos of the departed affixed to the mausoleums and drawers.

We followed Doc into the church. It dates from the 12th century but only one side and part of the altarpiece are Romanesque. That's because part of the church collapsed about 300 years ago, and the reconstructions were in the baroque style of that era. So the windows on the left side of the simple nave were rounded Romanesque windows, while the ones on the right were not. The altarpiece included two figures from the Romanesque period, Santa Lucia and an image of the Virgin. But the two Christ figures and the flanking icons of Saint James (Santiago) and his brother, Saint John (San Juan), were baroque.

On the right side of the nave was a grouping of three icons that all appear at the front of my church at home: the Blessed Virgin Mary flanked by St. Anthony of Padua and a tender St. Joseph, holding the Christ child in one arm and his blooming staff in the other hand. Doc explained all of this and more, then invited us to sign his guestbook while he stamped our Camino credentials with the sign of his church. Before we left I dropped a couple of coins into his basket.

We finally arrived in Portomarin in time for showers, a brief rest, and dinner. Wonder of wonders, we even got our laundry washed and dried for 10 euros. We were starting to have a complex about our smelly clothes.

I had hoped that by pushing hard the past couple of days we might begin to catch up with friends with whom we had started the Camino four weeks ago. And this happened. Before dinner, I saw Mike and Bernadette from Perth, Australia, and I stopped them for a chat. Later, Marian and I enjoyed a group hug with Sukhee, a Korean lady we first had met in Navaratte. Then we had a second Navarette reunion when Belgian friends Hubert and André walked into my field of vision. We had already ordered pizzas by this time, so the two sat at our table for a drink before moving on. I confirmed with Mike, Bernadette, Sukhee, Hubert, and André—all five of them—that they planned to attend the noon mass for pilgrims at the Cathedral in Santiago on Sunday. We hoped to be there too.

It is never too late 

On Wednesday the sun poured down and the roads swarmed with pilgrims. Many had begun their Camino at Sarria, the last entry point on the Camino Francès at which one can qualify for a certificate of completion, or compostela, upon arrival at Santiago.

I thought I would resent people jumping in for the last 100 kilometers, after we real pilgrims had done so much more. But Marisa and Alfonso, Spanish friends of Marian, had told her that many of the most religious Spaniards use the last 100 kilometers as a short, true pilgrimage. Others said that Spaniards put the pilgrimage on their résumés, and who could blame anyone seeking an edge in the dismal Spanish economy of 2012? Whatever the reasons for the wave of newcomers, it was great fun—a surge of fresh, happy energy that Marian and I rode for 25 kilometers, all the way into Palas de Rei.

High point of Wednesday was yet another encounter with Hubert and André, who gave us a three-page printout in French, entitled (my translation) "The human and spiritual dimensions of the Camino de Santiago." It is a Christ-centered document put together by the Parish of Saint James the Pilgrim (Santiago Peregrino) in Triacastela. It ends with a series of statements beginning "Il n'est jamais trop tard…"

It is never too late for a personal encounter with Christ. 
It is never too late for happiness. 
It is never too late to love. 
It is never too late to smile.  
It is never too late for an encounter. 
It is never too late to reflect. 
It is never too late, no matter how late it is, to begin. 
It is never too late to meet yourself. 
It is never too late to live the truth truly.
It is never too late to love and to feel oneself loved—by the Love of Christ.

I translated aloud for Marian at the café. At one moment, André looked over at me and said that these words of wisdom were for Marian, not me. Then he cited a song by the French singer Jean Gabin which says, "When I was 18 I knew everything; now that I'm 70 I know nothing!"

Since entering Galicia Sunday morning, our Way had been marked by milestones, granite lozenges set upright in the earth beside the Camino every 500 meters. Each half-kilometer stone is engraved with a scallop shell and the distance to Santiago de Compostela. A countdown began in O'Cebreiro, 152.0 kilometers from our destination.

At first this was exhilarating. We were doing it! We were closer to our goal! We were under 120 kilometers! Under 100! I looked ahead for each new milestone, which seemed to be congratulating us on our progress.

But by Thursday morning, as we trekked toward Ribadiso with just three days left on the Camino, my experience had changed. We were still counting down, but to what? Christmas morning, or the end of precious friendships? The Camino was coming to a close… We had 60 kilometers left… Only 50 now… Thursday evening, as we crossed into Ribadiso, we passed the 40.0 kilometer mark. Marian and I planned 22 kilometers Friday, 14 Saturday, and a leisurely 4 on Sunday morning, leaving us time to enjoy our entrance into Santiago, arriving well ahead of the pilgrim mass at noon.

But it would be over… Or if not over, what would be left…? And what would begin then…? These were my thoughts early Thursday, as rain clouds began forming again after two days of spotty sunlight. Marian and I walked alone—surprisingly after yesterday's flood of new pilgrims. We walked through leafy archways on natural dirt paths and heard a symphony of frogs. Had we left earlier than the crowds? Yes, probably. It was quiet. It was beautiful. And it was sad.

Then things changed. Marian stopped to rebandage a toe. I stopped, then decided to walk on, knowing that her younger legs would catch up soon enough. As I did so, I saw that a young woman was coming up even with me, walking alone. I had noticed her the previous evening: a broad, open face with brown eyes, pale skin, and ruddy cheeks, framed by a cowl of wavy red hair. I thought, If I walk now, maybe I will have an interesting conversation. That's how I met Ana.

I asked if she spoke English, and she did excellently. We asked about each other's homelands. She was from Portugal. We asked about each other's occupations. She was a scientist in love with pure research but working now as a broker between scientists and Portuguese business interests who might make more effective use of innovative technology.

My interest was piqued when we asked about each other's reasons for walking the Camino. She said, in a memorable phrasing, that she wanted to understand the limits she placed on her own life. She said that in her work there were no limits: her job demanded 40, 60, even 80 hours a week. Yet in other areas of her life, she limited time with friends, time for devotion, time spent on other pursuits that she was passionate about. Still only 30 years old, Ana hungered to resume pure research, but her job was too demanding—because she was successful.

I told Ana I was waiting for my daughter, and she said she would wait with me. This was striking. Was there something about our relatively short conversation that she wanted to continue? Or was she—a hypothesis dawned on me—only an angel? I introduced Ana and Marian, and they hit it off immediately. Our new Portuguese friend seemed to take as much interest as Marian in the churches we visited together.

On Thursday evening in Ribadiso we three had dinner in a restaurant with Hubert and André from Belgium, Sukhee from Korea, Caro from Rhode Island, and Fabian from Germany, all Camino friends of ours by now. close by. (The photo shows, left to right, Sukhee, Marian, and Ana.)

Friday morning, as we packed our bags in the darkened dormitory of the albergue, Ana gave me a small wooden cross to wear around my neck. "I have carred this on my way," she said. "Now, I would like you to carry it on yours." I didn't know what I did for this gift, nothing I could think of. But these are the kinds of things that happen on the Way of St. James, brother of John, son of Zebedee, Apostle of our Lord.

(Continue reading chapter 10 of this narrative here.)

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