This blog is a record of my observations, experiences and crazy thoughts about my 800 kilometer pilgrimage across northern Spain: the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (April-May 2009).
Friday, June 05, 2009
Day 1 - Roncevalles, Getting There - Monday, 20 April 2009
USA -> Roncesvalles = Lots of Kilometers!
I start this day in Santa Fe, NM (USA), long before sunrise. At 0330 I climb into the car of a dear friend who volunteered to chauffeur me to the Albuquerque airport. I am already overstimulated; the result of a Sunday afternoon "Buen Camino" open house hosted by my sweet spouse who piled the table high with delicious Spanish tapas and fueled us all with powerful sangria. So I am loggy from lack of sleep and overstimulated from the delightful party.
This morning I am overdosing on caffeine as the car rockets down the mountain to the airport. I am as excited as a 6-year-old going to my very own birthday party!
My walking adventure in sunny Spain is about to begin. But first I must make it through the long travel day. My amazingly inexpensive flight to Madrid involves a trade off; I must change planes in Philadelphia and then catch an overnight flight to Madrid. Once there I will catch a bus to Pamplona and then catch another bus to Roncesvalles. I have many hours ahead - hours of practicing patience. I am eager to strap on my pack and let the walking begin.
My travels today bring pleasant conversations with interesting and generous people. A young woman gave me a couple magazines to read on the plane and in the course of conversation shared her story with me, a story that involves big decisions and courage. I listen happily, grateful for the diversions. I am so excited.
I board the plane and the cheerful flight attendant laughs when I introduce her to my tiny travel companion (Ed, a small, yellow, duckie flashlight who quacks and almost always wins me a smile - he rides on the strap of my backpack and is one of the only really frivolous/impractical things I carry with me on this adventure.) The flight attendant reaches into her pocket and pulls out a small set of wings. She plants them on my lapel.
The flight is uneventful, but my seatmate is intriguing. We talk and laugh. We discuss books and life. She vows to mail me the book she is currently reading - a small gift in my mailbox when I return home in 40 days.
I arrive in Madrid early in the day. The airport is so familiar to me (we lived in Spain, years ago, for almost a decade). I hear the familiar sounds of Castillian and sigh a happy sigh. There is a sense of coming home. I quickly find a taxi-cab and we wend our way through the morning commuters to the bus station on Avenieda de Americas. The taxi driver points out all the new buildings that have sprung up over the past 15 years.
At the bus station, I meet another kindred spirit. This lovely Spanish woman engages me in a long conversation about art, children, life, death...despite neither of us being fluent in the other's language.
Finally, at midday on Tuesday, I am on the bus enroute to Pamplona. I peer out the windows and view so many old familiar landmarks as the bus heads north. There are restaurants we once dined at, a glimpse of the now defunct Air Force Base at Torrejon de Ardoz, the familiar university town of Alcala de Henares, and the road to Zaragoza. So many memories of day trips with my family so many years ago. I am absorbed in this connection with the past. There is really a sense of coming home.
The bus ride is a delight, but frankly, I am hungry. Somehow all my travel connections have been tight and the opportunities to eat escaped me. So my first mission when I arrived in the handsome city of Pamplona was to seek out a bar for an order of tortilla espanol and a glass of Rioja wine.
When I return to the bus station, I see many people with backpacks and walking sticks. They may be pilgrims. I follow a pair of them to the ticket window and listen as they make their transaction. Sure enough, they are traveling to Roncesvalles.
Ticket in hand, I settle down in the bus station cafe and indulge in a wonderful cafe con leche and laugh a bit when I observe that the TV is airing an episode of National Geographic. Why do I laugh? Because the topic is bulls - and here I am in Pamplona, made famous by Hemingway for their San Fermin festivities: the running of the bulls!
It is time to board the bus for Roncevalles. This is the last leg of my preliminary journey. Tomorrow, I will begin the walk, the long walk down the mountain and across northern Spain.
As the bus winds up the mountain road, I listen to the varied languages my fellow travels are speaking - there are about 15 pilgrims on the bus and I count about 8 different languages among them.
We begin to get acquainted. Fellow pilgrims seem to think I am French - this has happened several times during my travels today. When I announce that I am from the USA, people seem surprised. Almost without fail the conversation turns to our new President. Mr. Obama seems pretty popular among Europeans!
It is almost dark when we finally disembark in beautiful Roncesvalles and enter the registration office at the stately mountain albergue. The hospitaleros (attendants, frequently volunteers, who manage the pilgrim facilities along the Camino) are practiced and quickly issue pilgrim passports and assign beds. They are efficient and kind as they spell out the schedule and the rules of the establishment. We have the opportunity to attend a pilgrim mass and then we share a meal together.
Among the new pilgrims are also pilgrims who have already walked the first leg of their Camino. They began at St Jean Pied de Port at 200 meters and climbed to 1,400 meters. The last 7 of the 27 kilometer walks was actually an almost vertical descent from 1,400 meters down to 950 meters! They also dealt with inclement weather - cold rain, mixed with snow, fog, slippery mud.(Earlier I learned that pilgrims had become lost in a snowstorm just this week - someone died. This influenced me to revise my plans and start at Roncesvalles rather than St Jean de Port. Since I am traveling alone and am not an experienced trekker, I felt it wiser to be safe.)
The new pilgrims are in awe of these more experienced pilgrims. The experienced pilgrims seem a bit shell-shocked actually. They are also very tired.
We climb into our bunk beds, much like tired children and despite a lot of snoring, most of us fall asleep quickly. It is Tuesday night, and between travel and time changes, I have been up and in constant motion since 0330 on Monday - way too many hours. Though I am fatigued, I am overstimulated. I find it hard to sleep. I am like a child on Christmas Eve. I snuggle into my sleeping bag and try to dream my way into sleep.
Tomorrow is the start of the real adventure. It all seems a bit surreal.
In April 2009, I began my 500-mile trek across the rocky paths and mountains of northen Spain. I finished my walk on the the ancient Way of St James (the Camino de Santiago de Compostela) in early June 2009.
I consider this a pilgrimage of gratitude. Each step was an opportunity to express gratitude for the abundance life offers; each footstep, one of finding joy. It was a humbling experience. It was a character-building experience. It was a spiritual adventure and a physical one too - who knew I was such a mountain goat? I hope you will enjoy my rambling, stream of consciousness obeservations of my experiences as a pilgrim on this historic pilgrimage route that really is only the begining.
Of course veteran pilgrims know: the Camino never ends - once a pilgrim, always a pilgrim. So, wherever YOUR path takes you, I wish you "Buen Camino".