Jen’s reverse Camino Day 10: Santiago de Compostela

After walking four days from the Atlantic, I finally arrive in Santiago to find the party has already started.

Total distance on foot: 0km
This day in 2013: Day 39 Rest day in Santiago

I should be asleep. Instead, I’m lying awake next to the open window, bathed in sounds of a nearby festival.

The thump of distant dance music, teenage girls’ singing echoes in the narrow streets, and screams of glee from whirling amusement riders reach me in the cool night air. The revelry outside matches my inner joy. How did they know to throw a city-wide party on my arrival to Santiago? Soon a dog starts to bark, and my roommate, a distinguished, elderly Frenchman, fully commits himself to snoring. But it doesn’t matter. Not even a chorus of big-nosed men could dampen my spirits.

I am so happy to be here.

Elated to be in Santiago again, just breathing its air, occupying this place is to be swept up in the memories of three years ago. The joyous arrival with my new friends. Celebrating the completion of a seven-week journey. Discovering how powerful I am and how important it is to share my life with others. This city holds the best parts of myself, reminds me of what I can accomplish and who I really am. I feel whole and complete at last.

After wandering through the old city, I found myself standing before the albergue where I stayed with Gary, Scott, Mattias, and Meg. Deciding to check in, I told the hospitalero how much this place means to me. That warm conversation is how I ended up in the best bed, away from the bunks, enjoying the invigorating night air.

*   *   *

In a short conversation with fellow-pilgrim Alexandra, we discover one of those marvelous Camino coincidences: three Junes ago, she stayed here at this same albergue just two days before me.

“We almost met!” she says.

Later, she holds up a huge, leather bound book and says, “I found it!”

Confused, I ask, “Found what?”

She flips through the pages and says, “I looked for the guest book from three years ago and found this. Is it yours?” She hands me the book, open to a drawing of a stained glass window, and a list of changes I would make in my life.

“It is!”

Tears spring up as my eyes skim over the words. It’s like receiving a love note to myself from the past. This entry declared all I dared hope to create in my life. Seeing my own handwriting and the date inked on the page reminds me how joyous and uncertain I was that I could bring that happiness home with me. As I look over the words again, I realize that I embody so much of it now. I’ve become what I once only dreamed.

“Thank you for finding this!” I say to Alexandra, misty-eyed and grinning. It would never have occurred to me to look for the old guest book. Reading the words again, a feeling of certainty and closure settles in. The old journey is truly complete, and a new one is just beginning.

*   *   *

That evening, I enjoy the luxury of not having to walk anywhere. Feet up on the coffee table, I chill out in the communal living room with my journal and a Spanish-English dictionary.

In all the chats I’ve had with locals the last few days, the recurring problem has been with verbs.

When I studied Spanish long ago, I was in literature and advanced classes, skipping the basic-but-essential repetition of verb conjugations in past, future, conditional, etc. To this day, I can only speak Spanish in the present tense. For the last week, I’ve been telling people, “I do the Camino three years ago.” I really want to solve this and sound less like a two-year-old.

So while pilgrims enter and check in, and the two hospitaleros talk and laugh behind the counter, I’m nerding out with the dictionary. After an hour of looking at all the conjugation charts, I painstakingly write the following:

Yo caminé el camino hace tres años.
Hace tres años que yo caminé el camino francés. Ahora yo he volveró para caminar una segunda vez en la otra dirección.

I know this is still awful. The dictionary can only take you so far.

I enlist the help of one of the hospitaleros, and his face scrunches up in hilarity as I read the sentence. He knows how the words should fit together, but struggles to explain why. We dance around the differences between

  • to do the Camino vs.
  • have done the Camino vs.
  • did the Camino

When I ask about a finer point on the verb to do, he shrugs with a smile and tells me he is originally from Italy, and Spanish is only his second language. This sends me in to a fit of laughter for unintentionally barking up the wrong tree.

In spite of this, he teaches me two helpful phrases. In English, there’s no expression for the act of returning by the same way you’ve already come (see how choppy that is?). In Spanish, there are two ways to say it: voy de vuelta (I’m doing the return.) and voy al revez (I’m going in reverse). Even though they still don’t solve the verb problem, I happily commit these phrases to memory.

After a good half hour, here’s what the American and the Italian end up with:

Hace tres años que hice el camino francés desde Francia a Finisterre. Ahora, voy de vuelta a Francia por comletar el viaje.

It’s been three years since I did the Camino from France to Finisterre. Now I’m doing the return to France to complete the journey.

Imperfect, but closer, and fewer future funny looks.

*   *   *

Sleep comes fitfully, interrupted by the celebrations continuing long into the night. Every time I wake, I remember where I am, smile, then nestle down under my cozy silk blanket, sighing with pure contentment.

I couldn’t be happier to be here. I am joyous to return by the way I’ve already come.

Reverse Camino Day 3: Finisterre, finally and forever

A hard-earned, much-anticipated homecoming

Total distance on foot: 0mi / 0km
Towns traveled through: Dublin (airport), Santiago, Cee
This day in 2013: Day 46: The beginning of the end: Finisterre to Santiago

Now that Dublin’s given me an advanced degree in getting lost then found again, today’s journey will take me by plane, bus, and on foot to Finisterre—a tiny fishing village at the west end of the Iberian Peninsula. It will be hours of travel, lots of waiting, awkward connections, and at the end, a tight timeline to check in at my pensión. After a few days’ rest, Finisterre will be the starting place for my reverse Camino.

Although I’ve been to Finisterre before, it was a deliberate choice to stay somewhere unfamiliar, different from where Meg and I stayed three years ago. For distance. For understanding. To honor a precious memory. If all the connections go well today, I’ll arrive just after sunset and find my pensión in under thirty minutes before they lock up.

From Dublin to Santiago de Compostela

While waiting for my flight at Dublin airport, I strike up a conversation with a friendly-looking woman sitting beside me. Margaret is from Dublin and going to volunteer for two weeks in Santiago’s pilgrim office. She seems confident and no-nonsense. She’ll do a great job awarding compostellas to recognize each completed pilgrimage.

Before boarding, we swap contact information. She tells me, “When you get to Santiago, come look for me in the office—we’ll get coffee!”

From SCQ airport to the Santiago bus station

I’m always grateful when flights are uneventful. We land with no issues, and I can hardly believe I’m here. In Spain. After three years away.

Margaret and I walk out to the ground transportation area. The air is oppressively warm—even in the shade of the airport’s vast architectural cover. A huge crowd forms around the stop where the shuttle takes people to the city center. We wait. Everyone is talking loudly, smoking, standing closely, and managing to look both testy and bewildered.

A coach bus pulls up where we stand, and I reasonably expect to board. The driver takes one look at the crowd and tells us to move to a another spot about forty feet away. A rumor forms in the crowd that another bus, our real bus, is coming shortly. Ten minutes later, the same driver waves the group to his bus to board. For the second time, I lose my place in line as the disorderly horde moves back. Nothing makes sense.

The bus fills completely. As we roll toward Santiago, I’m hot and jetlagged and in a mild state of shock. Is this real? From the bus, even the sunlight is disorienting—brighter due to our proximity to the equator. It blanches everything from car hoods to recycling bins, casting inky shadows where it longs to reach.

On the way, we pass purpose-built buildings of cinder block and stucco with red-tile roofs. Hillsides are lush and verdant, but not even weeds dare to grow in the pavement of the small villages we pass. These two-second villages reflect the sun’s intensity from concrete sidewalks and two-story buildings, until the green countryside appears again.

The realness of it begins to land when we arrive at Santiago’s bus terminal. I remember it from the last time, this uninteresting, three-story concrete terminal smelling of diesel. Oddly, there is no clear place to buy tickets. As passengers disappear, I look around the vacant, echoing station, and my eyes follow a set of stairs to the second story. A janitor is working overhead.

Perdon, señor,” I muster my best Spanish as I ascend. “Donde se puede comprar los billetes?

He looks up from sweeping, his navy blue overalls immaculate despite the surroundings. Pointing his index finger heavenward, he says, “Go up the elevator one more floor. There you can buy your tickets.”

Sure enough, there’s another long, cavernous room plastered with posters and time tables, every wall lined by counters with closed windows. No one is there. It’s siesta time. At the very end, a single window is open. As I approach, a lanky, dark-haired young man looks up at me unamused.


“I want to buy a ticket to Finisterre,” I say.

Para hoy?” Today?

Sí.” He tells me when the bus is leaving. I nod my assent.

Ira, o ira y vuelta?

Bwelta. Bwelta… I should know this vocabulary, but I can’t think. Looking at him, I stammer, “I… uh, I want to win Finisterre.” This is obviously not what I meant to say. I just want a bus to Finisterre.

“Okay. Twenty seven euros.” I pay in cash. Only later do I realize he sold me a round-trip ticket. Ira y vuelta.

With almost three hours to kill before my bus boards for Finisterre, I consider going out to explore Santiago, get something to eat, but decide to wait here. With plenty of snacks on hand, I reason, there’s no need to spend extra money. And besides, I really want my arrival in Santiago to be on foot a few days from now. Right now, I’m just passing through to the ocean.

Foregoing exploration, I buy an orange Fanta from a nearby vending machine and sit on a bench with my snacks. There are no buses and no people around. It’s pleasantly quiet. In my journal, I sketch the side view of a parked bus; its rounded glass front and antennae-like mirrors give it the air of a giant white bug.

The janitor walks by, and I raise my hand in a small wave. “I have my ticket. Gracias por la ayuda,” I thank him.

He nods with understated pleasure. “Your bus will be here at 7pm. At number 11,” he points to the bay numbers and raises his eyebrows to ask, Do you understand?

Muchas gracias!” I say, smiling.

From Santiago’s bus station to Finisterre

I just can’t believe I’m here.

As the bus rolls out of town, I catch a glimpse of the cathedral, see a few pilgrims walking along the road, and even spy a sign marking the Camino path as it intersects the road. Then familiar landmarks fall away, and it’s stop after stop until it seems like we’re never going to leave the city.

But we do. It’s evening, and the light is still bright as we make the insane zig-zagging journey across the west-most part of Spain toward the ocean. Spanish buses are consistently efficient, clean, and almost brand-new, putting American long-distance bus companies to shame.

Unfortunately, the passenger experience on this trip is not for the faint-hearted or those inclined toward motion sickness. The roads are narrow and winding. When cars approach in the opposite lane, our driver slams on the brakes. When the coast is clear, he guns it—even around the tightest of corners. I hold the seat in front of me and make the best of the three-hour ride.

Two college-aged girls are a few seats in front of me, talking animatedly in bright, open-voweled accents. I’m sure they’re American. An overweight, heavy-breathing Spanish man moves to sit in the seat behind me. I turn around to see who it is, and he leers. I scowl and turn my back. He’s giving off that vibe men have when they see women as objects rather than people, certain that foreign women are “easy.”

After my cold-shoulder treatment, the guy moves again and sits behind the American girls. As the miles pass, he starts peering between their seats as they’re looking at photos on their phones. I wonder if this creep thinks he’s going to get lucky, leaning forward, trying to catch their eye.

This won’t do.

I talk over his head, “Hi ladies! I keep trying to guess where your accent is from!”

They laugh, and we start a conversation. I move up beside them, and we talk about how they’re from Michigan, doing a semester abroad to Spanish in Salamanca, and decided to take a mini-vacation to Finisterre for a few days. They ask for suggestions of places to see. After apologizing for the intrusion on their conversation, I tell them I was looking out for them because of the creepy dude.

“He was like breathing over our shoulder,” one said.

“Just wanted you to know I’ve got your back,” I say. They seem grateful. Our conversation fades, but the guy moves to the front of the bus and gets off a half-hour later.

Back in my seat, I stare—stunned—out the window at a sight I remember: The Atlantic. The relentless wind whips the jet-blue waves into a froth all the way to the distant, misty horizon. Even viewed from the climate-controlled bus, this ocean and the moon slowly rising whips up a frenzied longing inside of me that I’m trying hard to allow. This scene is in the very marrow of my bones, part of my spiritual DNA. We’re so close to Finisterre now. This is where I left my best self behind, and where I will reclaim her once again.

From the Finisterre bus stop to my pensión

I’m here. I’m here. At the very edge of town, I stand in the fading twilight. I’m looking across the cove to the pensión where Meg and I stayed, feeling a mix of bittersweet emotion and gratitude. The wild wind whips through the palm trees above, through my hair and clothes, chilling me and making me feel so very alive. I’m really here.

Over the last three years, I can’t admit how often I have thought of this place. Visited so often in my memory, it started to seem like a place out of time, just a vivid imagining of my soul, but now the screaming gulls, the extraordinary air, and the rocks pushing against my soles tell me: I’m home. I’m home.

I’m also lost, and it’s almost dark. Making one last tour of the village, I finally locate the pension where I made my reservation. My host walks me down the street, hands me the key, and I spend the next eight hours swamped by vivid dreams and a heart full from homecoming. I’m really here. I’m really here at last.