You might have been led to believe that my Camino was a blissful walk with rose petals scattered on the trail and miracles at every turn. Maybe I’ve been telling it that way, but it wasn’t. Not every day anyway.
One day stands out that included walking in the rain on a long stretch of noisy road through a non-descript town by myself. I was damp and chilled. I was lonesome. I was craving a hot, salty bowl of soup, but at 10:30 in the morning, the Spanish are just sipping their morning coffee. I plodded on.
I stopped into a bar just on the side of the path. With my dripping poncho and wet boots, I felt bad for mucking up the place. I asked the bartender if they happened to have any soup available. He looked as if he were about to say no, but he must have taken pity on me. “Si,” he said, and ducked into the kitchen.
About 10 minutes later, he set a steaming cauldron of chicken noodle in front of me and added an enormous basket of sliced rustic bread. Big, wet tears pooled in my eyes. I choked out a muchas gracias, but the words didn’t convey what this abundant portion of comfort/home meant to me on this particular day.
The other good thing that happened was that as I left this bar later full of yummy goodness, I noticed a pilgrim wearing a blue poncho walking toward me. Even thought it looked like Katrin’s, I’d been separated from her days before and it was unlikely to be her. As I turned away, I heard a “Hey!” behind me in a sing song-voice. It WAS her!
A happy coincidence! A bright spot on a hard day.
We walked. We were headed toward the mountains of Galicia, the final mountain range. Up and up along more road. And it just poured. We got soaked. I discovered why my lightweight, on-sale, poncho had been discontinued: there was a massive leak in the kangaroo pouch. Despite being covered by the poncho, my clothes were wet from the waist down.
As we slogged along the pavement, each car passed with a noisy whoosh of air and road spray that misted up my glasses. When the rain started in earnest, it leaked into my hat, soaking my hair. Then the wind picked up. It became hard to determine whether my clothes were wet from the rain or from the sweat condensing inside the poncho. I tried to keep my spirits up, but it was hard. We had some good chats as a distraction, but at the next town, I decided to bail.
Unfortunately, it didn’t get better. As we walked up a side street to the albergue entrance, we heard a cow moo from someone’s basement. It was eerie. In the albergue and were met by a 40ish man who checked us in. Of all the albergues I’d been in, the reception was anywhere from warm and friendly to cool and businesslike, but this man was a different case altogether.
My walking partner was Catherine from Montreal and, as per the usual drill, we gave him our official passports along with our compostella for him to stamp. The whole walk I’d felt nervous about giving anyone my passport, but apparently this is how the Spanish government keeps track of pilgrims. I was always relieved to have it handed back to me.
After writing down the details, the man held a passport and said, “This one is for the American.” And proceeded to hand it to Catherine.
“No, I’m the American,” I said, making sure to get the correct document.
He was setting me up.
“You Americans,” he said to me in accented English. “You think you have the right to call yourself by the name of whole continents.”
Oh, no, I thought. Here it comes. I’d heard this argument before: There’s a North America and a South America and even a Central America. So why do US citizens get to call themselves Americans?
He pointed to my friend. “She’s an American too. She lives on the North American continent.”
“I usually call myself a US citizen,” I said to him, trying to be diplomatic. “I just wanted to get the right passport.”
“People from the United States should call themselves estadounidenses, like we do in Spanish,” he said. “That would be more correct.”
“I know, we just don’t have a word like that in English.”
We hadn’t even set down our bags yet. I was dripping and cold, just dying to change clothes and get warm. Instead, he treated me to a lecture on the finer points of American diplomacy while my Canadian friend sat mute. Where was the Spanish hospitality I’d experienced everywhere? Why was he so upset? Why did he have to take it out on me?
We eventually got beds, but I felt hurt and mad, wounded and misunderstood.
Did I mention that it was a bad day? Our room was in an uninsulated attic with about 14 other people. The month of May should have been warm, but it wasn’t. While the heat may have been on, it didn’t add any warmth that night and I slept with all my dry clothing on. I hung up my soaking clothes to dry overnight on the line on the outdoor covered patio. When I retrieved them in the morning, they were actually wetter than when I had wrung them out.
The redeeming event of that day was the warm welcome from the man’s father and the wonderful meal he served to us. To wake us up in the morning, they played a lilting Buddhist chant (Om mani pedme hum) and Ave Maria.
Maybe because of the music, I found myself wishing that younger man peace.
I imagined that he was working there to help his father out of obligation, rather than a true vocation. Perhaps he had other dreams besides greeting hoards of foreigners. Maybe he wanted to travel like us. Maybe he is among the millions of Spanish who can’t find work. There must be some reason for his bitterness. I recalled times in my life where I blamed others for my situation and resulting unhappiness. On some level, I could relate.
But like Jesus recommends in the Gospels, when no one welcomes you, leave their town and shake the dust from your sandals. Though in my case it was mud, I shook it off and left that town behind me.
And walked on to a better day.