A lot of pilgrims share that in their last days before arriving in Santiago, they look around themselves and realize that the people they’re with will probably be the ones to share this momentous life accomplishment with them.
When I looked around me that morning as I left Sarria, five-days’ walk from Santiago, I was alone. I felt physically weak and emotionally weary, especially because of the morning’s punishing hills, but what I didn’t know was how many blessings the Universe had planned for me today, packed in, up to the gills.
The first blessings had to do with my fellow pilgrims, a glut of them – especially the recent newcomers. Starting in Sarria, the Camino is suddenly replete with shiny, new pilgrims, some carrying nothing more than a day pack and a water bottle. Many wizened pilgrims who started in France feel interesting reactions to this change. Some get all worked up about what “real” pilgrims are, prideful of having walked much further than others, and defensive about how all “their” albergues are being taken up by all these newbies.
These reactions are a fascinating phenomenon that say a lot about one’s worldview: Do I trust that I am enough and that there enough, or don’t I?
For me, the huge numbers of pilgrims was a drastic change from the solitude of my walk the previous day. Because I had prepared myself for this change, I tried to focus just on noticing the differences I experienced, rather than resisting them. Even without evidence to support this, I trusted that there would be enough beds and water and space for everyone.
Though I began the day alone, it didn’t stay that way for long. Turns out that within the crowd of pilgrims were many friendly and familiar faces. Having taken the bus the week previous meant I was able to catch up to great people I’d met earlier in my walk. Every reunion brought enthusiastic greetings, laughter, and great big grins in meeting these new old friends.
First I saw Miriam, the French woman who’d had her money stolen by a fellow pilgrim in Ruitelàn. I was so happy and relieved she’d stayed on the Camino, despite this painful experience. From our chat, I gathered that she was content again, if wiser.
I met up with Mr. and Mrs. Kim from South Korea who I’d met many weeks before and who were among the friendliest people I met on the whole walk.
The Camino brought me new friends too. At one point in the hilly scenery, I noticed a woman walking the same pace as me. I had an intuitively good feeling about this friendly-looking woman with braces and wavy, brown hair with lovely highlights. After greeting her with a buen Camino, we began to talk in Spanish, Paula was her name, from Milan.
I asked Paula if she spoke English – she didn’t. She asked me if I spoke Italian – I don’t. Yet our mutual goodwill and open-heartedness led us to walk together for four hours, sharing conversation, rest stops, and company. Somehow, with me speaking rusty Spanish and her in patient Italian, the languages were close enough that we happily conversed for hours about our families, our work (we’re both self-employed, she runs a sports clothing store), and about our reasons for walking the Camino. Paula was an absolute sweetheart and I felt honored to share her first day on the Way.
At a café, I reunited with Gary, the kind man I’d bunked with in Atapuerca and with whom I’d had a sweet conversation about his snoring. On our reunion he told me that I was probably the nicest person he’d met on the Camino due, apparently, to my compassion about this sensitive subject. Knowing I’d said something compassionate that touched him meant a lot to me. After catching up, Gary introduced me to his walking partners, Scott from Indiana and Mattias from Germany.
Friendly locals blessed me today too. While we were walking together along a road through a spacious field, Paula and I passed an older Spanish man out for a morning jaunt. I met his eye as he approached and beamed a grin at him.
“Buenas dias, señor,” I said warmly.
“Buenos dias, he replied with equal warmth. “A Santiago?“
“Si,” I replied. We’re walking to Santiago.
“I wish I would walk there myself,” he told us kindly.
And then he handed me a stick, the symbol of a pilgrim, with its bark removed and carved for comfort, to take with me to that distant and holy place.
“Para mi? Verdad?” I asked, astonished. Why had he chosen me out of all the pilgrims who’d passed him?
“Si,” he smiled.
“Gracias, señor. I will say a prayer for you when I arrive in Santiago. Thank you so much.” I was speechless, so touched by his kind gesture and warmth.
Any traces of morning grumpiness was long gone. As Paula and I continued walking, I held the stick, appreciating the texture of the carved wood and the time that had gone into creating it.
I tried it out for a few steps when a thought occurred to me: I already have sticks. I’d purchased a lovely set of telescoping Lekis in Logroño, tucked away for the moment, and I loved them. This was a gift meant to be received fully, I now realized, and then given away fully.
I turned to Paula and said in Spanish, “This is a beautiful gift, but I think it belongs with you. Would you like to have it?”
As she took it, the grateful look on her face made me melt.
“Before I left home to come here,” she explained. “Everything was so crazy with my kids and my husband and my business, I didn’t have time to pack. I wanted to get a walking stick, but I just ran out of time. You have no idea what a gift this is to me. Thank you so much.”
Both of us were teary-eyed by this grace multiplied, a peeled stick received twice over with love, kindness, and generosity. I watched her test it out and make it fit her hand comfortably. She grinned at me, her smile filling her whole face, and we walked on.
In appearance, today’s walk through Galicia reminded me of Ireland. The path was enveloped by green tunnels of stone and moss and oak, over tiptoe rocks across wide puddles. I had to stop at a huge old oak tree, which had to be at least 400 years old judging from its girth. Once a tree-hugger, always a tree-hugger. Pausing, I laid my hand on its crumbly bark and felt its majesty and my smallness.
My afternoon walk into Portomarin was stunning, the waters of its massive lake were choppy from the breeze and reflected the blue sky and puffy white clouds overhead.
As if the day hadn’t already been amazing, it only got better.
Preferring a smaller albergue, I skipped the large municipal and went to a newer one, the first private one, in town. Paula was there – as well as Gary, Scott, and Mattias. Later, to my delight, Sally from New Zealand and her husband joined us as well. All of my favorite people in one room. To think I had been totally alone just 6 hours earlier!
After I checked in, I discovered an amazing feature about this particular albergue – it had a wide, covered, and beautifully tiled balcony overlooking Portomarin’s gorgeous lake. For a mere 10€, I had a view that would have cost over $100 a night in any US vacation spot.
After a shower and laundry, a bunch of us (Gary, Scott, Mattias, Paula, and I) went out for a big late lunch at the restaurant next door with a view overlooking the lake. The menu peregrino with potatoes, sardines, and red peppers was delicious! We lingered over our dessert, enjoying the conversation which I translated as best I could into Spanish for Paula.
Full and happy, Scott, Gary and I sat out on the albergue balcony to chill out in the lazy, sunny afternoon. This felt supremely decadent – sun, view, beautiful weather, sipping leftover wine from lunch in my purple Naglene bottle. Life was good.
We lounged there for hours, finishing the wine as the guys shared the many little tidbits of information they knew about the various pilgrims that passed below us. I found this totally comical.
Then, while Gary updated his blog (using the free wifi – weefee in Spanish), Scott and I talked about faith and shared our journeys. I still marvel at the depth of conversations that arose spontaneously on the Camino. Taking a risk, I told him about the message I’d received in the chapel at O’Cebreiro, the deep knowing I experienced that it was time for me to leave the Church and seek God in the world. He listened and asked compassionate questions.
I told Scott about how I’d left the Church the first time, feeling hurt by the judgment for being gay and frustrated by the refusal of women to serve as priests. Now having healed this pain after two years of attending a warm and progressive parish, I was leaving organized religion for a second time, possibly the last. It felt scary at first to reveal this to him, but letting my heart show and speaking my truth was a courageous choice.
“I’m not certain what’s ahead for me spiritually,” I told Scott, “but I trust where the Divine is leading me.”
“Don’t give up just yet,” he said to me gently. It was clear that he cared about my soul’s development.
“That’s got to be the gentlest, kindest witnessing I’ve ever experienced, Scott.”
Later, Scott told Gary in front of me, patting me on the head, “We’ve made a new friend today.”
I grinned and told him how much that meant to me. So often, I’ve held the mistaken belief that I should only say and be what I think others want me to. Speaking my truth to Scott – especially while still forming and raw – felt so freeing. I reveled in the warmth it created between me and my new friend.
It was in that moment, though I didn’t realize it right away, I found the people I was going to finish the Camino with. Gary told me they were determined to get to Santiago by Sunday to see the botafumiero swing at Mass. I asked them if I could walk with their three-some, knowing that their focus would help me focus too, and give me time to walk to Finisterre (instead of take the bus).
It’s a tender thing, inviting yourself to walk with someone on the Camino. Both parties have to be honest. The three of them had been walking together almost the whole route and I didn’t want to rain on their parade. Hitching my wagon to their train would also mean walking 93km/58mi in three days, which included mileage I hadn’t yet achieved. But I was welcomed warmly, and their enthusiasm helped me believe that it was possible.
Walking with The Guys – in their simple, warm company – was one of my favorite memories of the Camino. And now, thanks to their focus, Santiago was just a few days away. Ultreia!