On May 26, 2013 I walked into Santiago to complete a journey more than two years in the making.
The cool, clear morning air around us crackled with the anticipation of our final departure. As Scott and I waited for the café to open, I listened to birds singing in the treetops and frogs chanting in nearby ponds. I watched the sun slowly rise over the distant hills, casting long shadows and making the grass glisten.
“Blessed blessed blessed,” I wrote in my journal, scratching down a few words to mark the moment. In my heart, I was excited to arrive at last, but also felt completely at peace.
This was telling. So often I spend my time, my life force, my thoughts on anticipating what will happen – or deconstructing what has already taken place. I know I’m not alone in this. We all try to resolve or anticipate pain in an effort to avoid it, but cultivating the ability to be present with what is – both pain and joy – is an important spiritual discipline.
That crisp morning at the top of Monte de Gozo, as I stood blinking into the morning’s first rays, I felt content to be where I was in that moment. For me, this is a indication of how much I’d grown in six weeks and how much the Camino had changed me. I felt completely and fully alive. I felt strong and excited, but also completely present.
After a quick breakfast of coffee and pan tostada with jam, we began our descent down the hill of joy, over bridges and along the streets approaching Santiago. While we walked, I told Gary and Scott how much their companionship had meant to me these last few days. Because of their support, company, and focus, I was arriving sooner than I would have on my own and I felt truly grateful. So much sweetness.
The morning’s walk went so fast – just 4.7km/3mi – down off the hill and into the city proper, growing more populated. Gradually, glass city buildings turned into older stone ones, the road surface from pavement to concrete to hand-laid cobblestones.
My first glimpse of the cathedral – its three ornate spires in the distance peeking above the city – made me gasp. There it was! I could feel the anticipation of arrival build in me like a tightening string. We walked into the old city then, following the yellow arrows amongst puttering cars and myriad pilgrim shops, beggars and pharmacies.
The cathedral reveals herself in stages as the Camino rounds it before entering the plaza. I glimpsed just one side at first and I couldn’t stop grinning, just beaming, as my eyes filled with joyous tears. Scott put his arm around me and gave me a squeeze. This was it.
As we walked under a long stone archway, the sound of bagpipes filled my ears, heralding our arrival. No doubt this piper played for tips, but in that moment he was playing just for me, celebrating this accomplishment of a lifetime.
From the tunnel, we burst forth into the bright, spacious plaza and the face of the awe-inspiring cathedral came into full view. My footsteps slowed and I stood there, stunned, elated, mute. Overwhelmed. The guys scattered to have their own moments, and I walked to the very center of the plaza to stand by the central marker embedded in the cobbles.
All I could do was marvel at this magnificent building, thinking about the millions upon millions of people who’d come before me, their strength of will and trust in God. How I was now a part of a centuries-old community who’d lived this experience. How many feet had stood in this very place and been inspired to tears for Divine protection and gratitude?
As I took it all in, Don from New Zealand approached me with a huge hug. I was thrilled to see him. When he left, my eyes filled up all over again. I walked over to Gary and we held each other as the emotions took over. He’d been telling me for days that he’s a big mush and would probably cry like a baby. I couldn’t have felt more honored to share that tender moment of arrival with him.
Our tears turned into laughter and camaraderie as we took tons of photos – of the guys, of the three of us, selfies – posed and natural. We were here!
We had plans to meet Mattias and return to attend the noon Mass, but it was still early. After the huge emotions subsided and we finished our photo shoot, we wandered over to the Pilgrim Office to join the line to get our Compostellas, the Church-issued certificates that certify our completion of the pilgrimage. As we stood waiting our turns, the celebrations continued as many people the guys knew approached with grins, guffaws, and back slapping.
And then, Katrin appeared! My Austrian friend – who I’d roomed with 38 days previous in Saint Jean Pied de Port – and I were now reunited! Squeals of laughter and excitement filled the air as we hugged and caught up. What a feeling of coming full circle! Katrin then gave us a great piece of juicy gossip: a special Mass had been scheduled for 10am and the botafumiero was scheduled to make an appearance.
I learned later that the botafumiero is a special feature of the Cathedral services, but is by no means guaranteed every day. It takes eight people to get it swinging and must be sponsored – to the tune of about $500 – in order to make an appearance.
With this new information, we hopped out of line and headed straight for the Cathedral to get a seat. Someone had recommended sitting in the right or left transept – rather than the central seating area – in order to get a good look at “The Bong” swinging overhead. We sat on the right, with Katrin and her friends behind me and the guys beside me.
Despite my insight at the hilltop in O’Cebreiro, it felt natural to be back in the Church, celebrating Mass. Despite knowing that it’s no longer my path, I still reflexively dipped my hand in the holy water – a reminder of my baptism – and made the sign of the cross. Though all in Spanish, I said the parts of the Mass I recognized. I still went up to receive communion, and on my knees, I cried afresh for the gift of this journey. My spiritual path will open. I trust.
The botafumiero did not disappoint. Ending the Mass, the pipe organ pumped out music that was both hearty and celebratory, making all my arm hairs stand up. The massive thurible was released and swung higher and higher above us, being pulled by the force of eight men. Clouds of fragrant incense billowed out with each return and filled the air with a sacred haze. After having seen numerous YouTube videos of this amazing sight, it was truly awesome to see it in person. It felt like a benediction.
After Mass, we met up with Mattias and re-joined the line outside the pilgrim office which was like a long, winding party. Joyous reunions and celebratory hugs of international friends continued as the queue wound its way though the courtyard, into the building, and up the stairs. I waved to the German couple I’d met at the tacky hotel in León whose sweet baby boy looked up from his stroller. I squeezed Sally and Noel from New Zealand who I’d not seen since Portomarin. Gigantic grins all around.
I finally got to the top of the stairs and entered the pilgrim office. Gary and Scott were at the counter beside me, talking to their respective assistants. I handed mine my form and she handed back a Compostella with my name written in Latin, congratulating me. Here it was on paper! I did it!
Walking out of the office, I was overjoyed. I looked down at all the waiting pilgrims on the stairs, put my arm in the air and cheered. In response, dozens of people laughed, grinned, and cheered with me. I felt so happy! At the bottom, we ran into the three young Spanish doctors and mugged for the camera as Gary took our photos together. Elated. Surreal. We were here!
Then, just like every day in every town, we needed to find lodging. Thanks to Mattias’ reconnaissance the previous day, we ended up at a fantastic albergue. It very close to the cathedral plaza, with a spacious kitchen, breakfast served in the morning, great showers, and a modern, comfortable hangout area with a fireplace.
The only downside was the bed situation – which turned out very funny.
Unlike a lot of albergues, MundoAlbergue has bunk beds with a single bed on top and a double on the bottom.
The four of us stood (awkwardly?) at the reception desk as I inquired about cheaper options than the bigger lower bunk. Unfortunately, they were out of the less expensive singles and I was trying hard to stick to my budget.
“I could sleep on a mattress on the floor if you have one. I just can’t spring the 26€ per night at the moment.”
The hospitalero hedged politely and said that he wasn’t able to do this.
Thinking I would be separated from my friends, he then asked, “Could you share?”
With Gary and Scott already sharing a bed, all eyes went to Mattias.
He shrugged. “Sure.”
And because I’d become one of the guys, the fact that I was spending the night in the same bed as Mattias opened up a world of hilarious, friendly teasing. He was a total gentleman and I trusted him completely, but I still blushed madly. I felt happy to be with them and incredibly grateful for Mattias’ generosity.
At dinner, a ton of us gathered at a tapas bar for a celebratory meal, but I found myself struggling to focus and participate in conversations. Although I’m rather introverted in large groups, this felt different. My body felt supremely and remarkably exhausted. I chalked it up to having survived six weeks of walking, but I was too caught up in arriving to worry about it. The days ahead would reveal all.
At bedtime, a guy in the bunk across from us swore he’d been bitten by a bedbug. It gave me the creeps.
For protection from the biters, I donned my bright-green bug-proof mummy sack and pulled the drawstring tight so that only my eyes were exposed. I lay next to Mattias on the big bed, feeling awkward and trying not to move too much. Scott took one look at me – hermetically cocooned in my bag – and broke the tension.
“Mattias, she says it’s for bedbugs, but all wrapped up like that, I’d think it were me.”
We all laughed and I fell asleep grinning. I felt so happy to be here and with friends – and looking forward to my remaining week to walk alone to Finisterre.
Blessed, blessed, blessed.