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 9: Aguapesada to Santiago

After walking four days from the Atlantic, I finally arrive in Santiago. But I’ve been walking much longer than that.

Total distance on foot: 12.3 km/7.6 mi (plus three years)
Towns traveled through: Alto de Vento, Quintáns
This day in 2013: Day 40 Santiago to Negreira

Now I walk alone, I told him.

The helpful man saw me weeping and looking lost fifteen minutes ago in a park outside Santiago de Compostela. I show you, he said. Grateful, I followed this speed-walking, parka-wearing pilgrim with the thick accent through the busy streets toward the cathedral.

 *   *   *

I’ve been walking eastward from the Atlantic toward this city over the last four days, but in reality, it’s been much, much longer.

In the time since I was last here, I returned home, emotionally naked as a newborn, to discover my life no longer fit. There’s no way to count the miles through an unending dark night of the soul. How do you measure facing your deepest fears and ultimately finding the will to live in spite of them?

Eventually, I committed to traveling that road out the darkness. Of learning to tell the whole truth, not just the diplomatic one. Of understanding the deep attachment I felt to Meg, my joyous pilgrim sister. Of deciding whether to stay in my marriage. Of learning that walking outdoors is my salvation and that opening my heart—even when it feels terrifying—is the only way to survive this condition called being human.

It took me all this time to learn how to live an undivided life. If the true Camino starts in Santiago, as they say, the last three years have borne it out; I have been a pilgrim ever since. One step at a time.

 *   *   *

Although I’m hoping to arrive in time for the noon mass, I take it as it comes. I’m only ever 60% sure I’m going the right way, but up I go through little cobbled villages of quiet, cobbled houses. Past the quiet dude inexplicably carrying an inflatable giraffe head. Past the funny, flirtatious Puerto Rican man from Queens. Past the inquisitive, sixty-something lady from Queensland who says there’s a party in Santiago. Up a hill, stopping for a bar’s strong coffee and blaring news. One foot in front of the other.

In a quiet suburban neighborhood, I chat with a local guy about the direction of Santiago as a cat rubs against his black slacks. He points into the morning sun and says, Down the road then to the right en el bosque. Through moss-covered trees, the bright sunlight streams into my eyes.

Then, at last, in a clearing at the top of a hill, I see it: the cathedral. There it is! My eyes well up, and a grin spreads across my face. The emotion spills over I continue walking, as I have all these years, to that distant place where the real pilgrimage began.

*   *   *

My fast-walking, helper-guy stops to chat with a friend, but I continue, feeling as though pulled toward the square where all pilgrims arrive. When he catches up with me, I’m almost there. Gracias, I say. Thank you for helping me. Now I must continue alone.

He nods knowingly and gives me a friendly pat.

Up the steep street, I see the cathedral from the top down—first the spires, then the facade, the doors, and the double symmetrical stairs—and finally I arrive at the plaza, overwhelmed by emotion. Here is where it all started. Here is where I felt happier than anywhere else on the planet. Where I arrived with dear Scott and Gary. Where I met Meg. Where I realized who I really am.

My hands are shaking. My knees feel wobbly. Here I am. At last. Collapsing onto the cobbles of the cathedral plaza, I’m overcome with gratitude and relief and joy. I lean forward, sobbing, my butt in the air, elbows and knees on the cold ground. I don’t care that my pack is still on or that dozens of sight-seers might witness my body shaking with sobs. I’m here. I’m here at last. I’m so grateful. For everything.

Finally, when I sit up and wipe my eyes, I lift my chin to see the clear blue sky and silhouetted spires, grinning madly. Oh my God, I’m here. It’s so beautiful! I recall the last arrival and the hugs and tears I shared with Gary. My spirit is bursting.

I notice a well-dressed woman approaching me, bowing slightly. Hand on her heart, she says in an Irish accent, I was so moved to see you arrive. The pin on her lapel is a tiny gold angel. Reaching down to touch my shoulder tenderly, she smiles at me. I smile back at her, grateful but speechless.

You must have walked a long way, she says.

Sometimes all we need is to be seen. This Camino angel blesses me with her acknowledgement. The truth in her words make the tears start all over again.

I have walked a long way. I really have, I reply. And it was worth every step.