Monday, June 4, 2018

Winging It

I mentioned last post that, following my wonderful two weeks in the Pilgrim Office in Santiago, I was feeling a little restless and itching to stretch my legs again. But what to do with 8 free days, and all of Spain to explore? Too many options! 

Last year’s post-Camino transition was rough. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that I was actually homesick for the Camino after I left last year, but I was, and it seemed to get worse, not better, as the months went by. It went deeper than just being sad about having a really nice, long vacation come to a close. The Camino can be kind of a silent earthquake in your soul, shaking things up, rather like a house with hidden cracks in the foundation — it may look fine on the outside, but things haven’t settled back into place quite the same way. 

So I wanted to do things differently this year and ease the transition somehow. Volunteering for two weeks was an awesome way to give back, and I loved every minute. Now it was time for the last phase before heading back to San Francisco. 

All during my Camino and the volunteer gig, I knew I had this free week in Spain at the end of my journey, but I hadn’t given much thought to what I might do, other than visit the Gaudí landmarks in Barcelona just before my flight home. I needed to do some research. But there was no wifi at the Pilgrim Office or at the convent which housed our volunteer apartment. (The nuns who lived at the convent were of the Order of Poor Clares; modern conveniences like internet — kinda not their thing. In fact, though our very plain and modest apartment was clean and had a fully functioning bathroom and kitchen, I noticed that the nightstand next to my bed contained... a chamber pot. I can only speculate why, since my room was right next to the bathroom.)

Anyway, the lack of wifi both at “work” and at “home” meant my internet research was limited to short stretches at cafés during dinner or breakfast — IF that café had wifi.

I kept meaning to do my trip research homework, but homework is boring, and besides, I kept running into old Camino pals, and making new ones from my work in the Pilgrim Office. I’d be walking down the street after work, and I’d see a pilgrim whose compostela I had completed. So of course I had to high-five and congratulate them again, and this would result in a conversation that would turn into tapas or dinner. There went my research time. (This is one of those double-edged sword things about Camino life — it can be very social.) 

And so I managed to make it all the way to the end of my two-week volunteer gig with absolutely no coherent plan for where to go next for my final week in Spain. I wasn’t worried — I always figure something out. But for starters, I needed to a place to sleep that night. And with the clock running out on my time in Spain, it was definitely time for my plans to get specific.   

So that Monday morning, Bernd and I reluctantly made our way to the Pilgrim Office, dropped off our apartment keys and said a quick, tearful goodbye. I hoisted on my backpack, suddenly anxious to put Santiago into my rear-view mirror (BIG change from last year, when I’d cried like a baby for hours on the train leaving Santiago).

I made my way up the steep, cobbled streets to the center of town one last time, enjoying the familiar, comfortable weight of my backpack, quickly re-acclimating to the change in my center of gravity. It felt so normal to wear my fully loaded pack after a two-week break, I couldn’t help but smile. It was like sliding into a favorite pair of well-worn jeans. I am so intimately familiar with every zipper, buckle, strap, loop, and compartment of this backpack, it's practically an extension of my body, and I had missed it. 

Also, a backpack on my back means a new horizon awaits, and few things make my restless spirit happier than a change of scenery. It’s not even so much where I go... I just like to keep moving. 

So I headed to Café Paradiso, a place that had both good wifi and good food, and ordered a favorite Spanish snack — chocolate con churros, which, not to put too fine a point on it, is a slice of heaven. The fresh, delicious hot chocolate is so thick it’s practically a fondue, which is the whole idea, because it’s served alongside a plate of piping hot, sugar-encrusted, crisp-on-the-outside but melty-tender-on-the-inside mini-churros made fresh to order. Taking care not to burn yourself, you hold off as long as possible to let the churros cool at least a tiny bit, then you dip a fresh churro into the thick and creamy (but somehow still liquid-y) hot chocolate, and, assuming sweets are your thing, time stops ever so briefly and you experience a moment of nirvana. The older I get, the less sweets are my thing, but I make an exception for Spanish chocolate con churros... 

Where was I? Oh yes, making a travel plan for my last week in SpainNow fully pumped on sugar, I proceeded, at last, to consider my options. 

I had 8 days before my flight out of Barcelona on 5 June. First priority was to walk more of the Camino, second priority was to get myself closer to Barcelona, all the way on the opposite (east) side of Spain from Santiago, although the thought of spending several days in busy Barcelona sounded both exhausting and expensive. 

So after consulting several Camino maps on my little iPhone screen, and doing some quick calculations, I decided to walk a few stages of the Camino del Norte, along the northern coast of Spain, starting in San Sebastián and heading west to Bilbao. I’d heard that the ocean views on the Camino del Norte were spectacular. The fact that the del Norte goes right through Bilbao (with its spectacular Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum) made this decision easy. And because Bilbao is one of Spain’s bigger cities, it would be easy to get a direct train from there to Barcelona

So — a mini-Camino, plus a little culture/sightseeing. Perfect. 

San Sebastián to Bilbao is 125km — definitely a challenge to do in four days — but hey, I had just done 100km from Santiago to Finisterre in three days... I'm in the best shape of my life, and I'd recently proven I can walk 45km in one day if necessary. So I figured if I doubled up a couple of stages on the del Norte, no problemo! 

My proposed 125km mini-Camino along the Camino del Norte (green line) from San Sebastián to Bilbao is in the red bracket:

Turns out this was wildly optimistic, given the altitude gains on the Camino del Norte. Also, the Camino gods, who apparently know my lifelong preference for clouds and rain, decided to, um, continue blessing me with a few more rainy days, so the trails were super muddy, and I was forced to go much more slowly than I would have liked. To stay on schedule, I ended up having to take a bus part of the way to Bilbao, but I still had a fantastic, final three days of Camino walking. 

Here are some highlights:

San Sebastián
Monday, 28 May: At 6pm, after unexpectedly seeing Bernd one last time and joining him for a mid-afternoon lunch (and a second tearful farewell), I boarded a bus in Santiago which carried me across northern Spain to arrive in San Sebastián about 13 hours later. The long bus ride was comfortable, if a little noisy at times due to a few passengers yapping or playing music on their cell phones all night (NOT using their headphones!!), but I managed to doze a bit en route.

San Sebastián is my new favorite city in all of Spain. It is located on the Bay of Biscay, just 10 miles from the French border, not far from where the north-facing coast of Spain intersects with the west-facing coast of France. It is an absolutely beautiful, vibrant seaside city (pop. 187,000), with a gorgeous beach and bay. A popular vacation destination for Spaniards, it is famous for hosting an annual international film festival, and also for its award-winning cuisine. 

The sun was not yet up when I got off the bus. The plan was to spend this day enjoying San Sebastián, get a good night’s sleep (which I had not had on the bus), and start my mini-Camino the next morning. I decided to head to the beach and watch the sun rise over the bay. 
I walked through the beautiful old town in the predawn light, and made my way down to the sea, walking along the promenade above beautiful La Concha Beach for a couple of miles, all the way out to the point on the far side of the bay. I stopped at a little café for breakfast (café con leche and a croissant) while watching the sky lighten and the tide slowly roll out. 

I was fascinated by this perpendicular geography just above the beach:

I was very curious to know more about the tectonic events that caused this vertical formation. Like the rings of a tree, each layer of the earth’s crust made so visible here represented X number of years in the earth’s history. But what was X? I was dying to know, and wished, not for the first time, that I had studied some geology in college.

I found out later that these abruptly vertical folds in the earth’s crust are very common all along the northern coast of Spain — here are more examples that I saw later along the Camino del Norte. They are evidence of the Iberian Plate’s collision with Europe 40 million years ago (give or take). 

As the sun rose higher over the beach, I decided to take a nice long walk in the gentle wavewash. Because San Sebastián is a protected bay, the waves are tiny — the bay looks more like a lake. I took off my shoes and socks, reveling in the feel of the warm salt water and fine, hard-packed sand on my Camino-callused feet.
Very, very slowly, as if walking in a dream (thanks to sleep deprivation from the overnight bus ride), I made my way along the luxuriously long beach, all the way to the opposite end of the bay, pausing to collect, admire, then toss unusual rocks and shells. I took a brief nap on the sand, and lazily watched people, dogs, and seabirds drifting by. It felt fantastic to give myself a day of complete and total relaxation and leisure — no work, no Camino destination, other than the pillow waiting for me at that night's hostel. 

Later, at the other end of the beach, as I dried off my feet, I was surprised to see that the past few hours of immersion in sand and salt water had given me a natural pedicure, softening and scrubbing away most of my Camino calluses. A lovely gift from Mother Nature for my hard-working feet.
I strolled through the picturesque old town, then made my way to the hostel, where I took another nap. Later, I strolled back to the old town in the gentle rain to treat myself to a nice dinner of chuletillas de cordero — small lamb chops — delicious! (yes indeed: Mary had a little lamb...) (groannn) On the way back, it was still raining, but the horizon was clear enough to show the setting sun over the bay. Beautiful!

To Zumaia
Wednesday, 30 May: After an excellent night’s sleep, I got up early, found the Camino trail and bid a reluctant adiós to beautiful San Sebastián. 

It felt great to be walking the Camino again at last, after a break of 2.5 weeks. But it was also a little odd, knowing that any pilgrims I met here would be on the very first day or two of their Camino. I would not be meeting any familiar faces this time.

Despite clouds and some light rain all morning, the coastal trail was just as gorgeous as I’d heard it would be. 

And there were the familiar unattended Camino angel rest stops — this one had a sign specifically asking us NOT to leave any money. 

Approaching the town of Zarautz from the east...

An hour or so later...looking back at Zarautz from the west end of the beach.

The Camino then followed a wide, fenced promenade along the water’s edge for several miles between the beach towns of Zarautz and Getaria.

After Getaria, the trail wound up and down through forests and hillside pastures. I encountered cows, sheep, horses, goats, and lots of by-now-familiar Camino mud. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as well prepared to deal with mud as I had been earlier on my Camino. I had ditched my trusty but worn-out Keens back in Santiago, and I had only my lightweight, super-spongy Hoka trainers, whose fine mesh uppers are exactly the wrong type of footgear for trekking in mud. I tried to navigate carefully to keep my feet and socks dry, but it wasn’t easy. 


Naturally, the best approach to navigating Camino mud is to look for the most stable footing possible. That means either rock-hopping or trying to stay on whatever narrow strips of vegetation you can find along the sides of the trail, or going off the trail entirely if that's an option. Failing that, I tried to step in pre-existing footprints, rather than virgin mud squish. In all cases, my walking poles absolutely saved my butt and kept me from falling many, many times. 

A word about walking poles: If anyone tells you that walking poles are unnecessary or too much of a hassle to pack/carry on the Camino, I implore you: do not listen to them. Walking poles not only provide stability and leverage on uneven, slippery, and/or steep terrain, they also: (1) help reduce strain on your knees and back from the added weight of your pack — up to 25% by some estimates; (2) provide a gentle upper-body workout and keep your hands from swelling (a common problem with all-day backpacking); and (3) can serve as defensive weapons in case of unwanted attention from unfriendly dogs or wildlife. I was skeptical about bringing them last year, didn’t want the extra weight and hassle —  but my adventurous nephew Rob, a very experienced outdoorsman who is currently hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, talked me into it. 

So anyway, on this particular stretch, which seemed to go on for a quarter of a mile but was probably much less, the squishy, slippery trail was bordered by barbed wire on one side and a dense thicket of thorn bushes on the other. No vegetation to walk on, and no rocks. I had no choice but to slog directly through endless ankle-deep mud in my very porous trainers. Yuck! It was very slow going.

Mud-whomping aside, it was lovely to stroll through the wet farmland and forests,where the only sound was the rain on the leaves, the occasional ringing of a cowbell on an animal’s neck, and the flapping of my rain poncho in the wind. 

As I passed through hilly pastures and wooded forests, I had to open and close a number of livestock gates. It seems a lot of the Camino del Norte passes through private property. I had already seen several docile cows, horses, goats, and sheep grazing peacefully alongside the Camino -- thrilling stuff for a city girl. 

I’d noted that most animals seemed to seek shelter under trees when it was raining, but not this guy. He seemed unfazed by the rain, so I rewarded him with one of my apples. 

Later, I saw more delightful cows. I don’t know what it is about cows, but they just fascinate me. Something about their large calm eyes, big snouts, goofy perpendicular Shrek-like ears, adorable forehead mops, cowlicks, square boxy bone structure, and general slow-mo, peaceful demeanor as they make that lazy circular chewing motion with their jaw... I can’t help but grin every time I see one. It never gets old.

Cows from all over Spain....

I had no unpleasant encounters with animals on this Camino. It helped that almost all of them were on the other side of some kind of fence. The few times I encountered farm animals directly on the trail, they were calm and non-threatening, fairly oblivious to the many pilgrims on the trail, and usually accompanied by a farmer who was herding them to or fro.

But on this wet muddy day outside of Zumaia, shortly after passing through a livestock gate, I spotted a donkey about 20 feet away. Directly on the trail in front of me. When we made eye contact, we both just ... stopped. 

I scanned my memory for any information about donkeys. Hm... they're stubborn, right? I pictured a cartoon donkey kicking up its hind legs and hee-hawing. Uh-oh. But what about real donkeys? I drew a total blank. And of course, there was no wifi out here in the woods. I thought for the hundredth time how ignorant, citified, and Wikipedia-reliant I've become. I was on my own. 

This guy had a harness on his snout, so clearly he must be tame — and surely his owner had set him loose here knowing full well that many pilgrims pass by every day. Or was it just wishful thinking on my part to assume it had to be safe? Nervously, I noticed a second donkey just off the trail, also not moving, but seemingly less interested in me than the first one. They were kind of cute, actually. But shit... I was on their turf, and none of us was budging. 

So I just stood there looking at them for several minutes, waiting for them to make a move, and vice versa. 

No one moved. (It occurred to me that I was playing chicken with a couple of donkeys.)

Knowing that animals are probably way more attuned to vibrations than I am, I figured they were picking up on my fear. So I tried to focus on staying calm and sending them love. (Mixed results there.) 

They didn’t seem to mind when I slowly pulled out my phone and snapped a couple of pictures. But still, none of us moved.

The wind picked up, and I heard a cowbell in the distance. Otherwise, all was silent except for my (fairly calm) breathing. I felt a little frustrated -- I was supposed to be making good time, and it looked like I wasn’t going to make 40km that day anyway because the mud had slowed me down considerably. And now these damn donkeys!

Finally I decided someone needed to be the proverbial adult in the room, and it might as well be me. (It’s really not hubris to recall I'm at the top of the food chain, it’s just fact.) Reluctantly, I took one step forward. 

The lead donkey blinked, as if considering, but stayed still. 

I took a few more slow steps forward, then stopped. 

The donkey took a few slow steps forward, then stopped. 

OK, so now we’re playing Simon Says. What the hell, maybe it’ll work. I began walking very slowly and very carefully towards them. And they did the same! 

We slowly closed the gap, and then passed each other uneventfully — though we were definitely giving each other hard side-eye (which I guess is the only way it works for them, given the position of their eye sockets on the sides of their long skulls...)

Afterwards I kind of felt like an idiot. Of course it was safe. I think they were just shy, and I was maybe blocking the way to their favorite blackberry bush or something. Still... no denying I was relieved to see their rear-ends moving away from me in my rear-view mirror. (I'm sure they felt the same.) 

That night I slept in a rare private room in a modest convent hostel (5€) in Zumaia. The elderly Spanish hospitalero, Juanjo, told me he had walked 12 caminos all over Spain, pointing out each of the routes on a large map of Spain tacked above his desk. I asked if he had a favorite route. He shrugged and said that would be like choosing your favorite child — all were different, and special in their own way. 

In this exchange with Juanjo, I realized that after almost 10 weeks in northern Spain, I was finally getting better at both understanding and pronouncing the fluid, slippery tones of the local dialects (Castilian and Galician Spanish), which sound very different from the Latin American Spanish I learned in the US. 

Ermita Calvario and Deba
Thursday, 31 May: I left the Zumaia hostel around 7am and made my way up, up, uphill in a light rain on gravel side roads and hard-packed trails (no mud!), enjoying the beautiful views of farmland, animals, and ocean. Breakfast on the go consisted of two absolutely amazing, nectar-of-the-gods-perfect apricots. 

I saw almost no sun on the Camino del Norte, but even with the clouds and rain, the views along these coastal mountains were gorgeous.

My plan was to push all the way to Markina this day, a distance of 36km — with a lot of up & down, including a very challenging section with a 1000-foot ascent in 1.5 miles, slated for late afternoon. It would be pretty tough going, especially in the mud and rain. Also, the guidebook warned that there would be no cafés, markets, or hostels during the last 20km, so it was do or die (so to speak).

If I made it to Markina today, then I'd have two days to complete the 54km push to Bilbao before catching a 5-hour train to Barcelona on Sunday morning. A tight itinerary for sure, but doable.

Or so I thought. A classic rookie hiker mistake is to assume that all kilometers are more or less created equal — which they most definitely are not. Although most of the Camino trail is in good shape, rain and mud can change the picture quite dramatically. The Camino taught me to pay much closer attention both to weather forecasts and to guidebooks, particularly altitude maps. I'd gotten pretty good at mentally converting kilometers to miles, but less so converting meters to feet — math, sadly, has just never been my thing — so the altitude maps were a bit fuzzier in my brain. Sometimes, in reviewing maps, it didn't really register how much altitude I'd be gaining (probably a good thing, in retrospect).

So on this Thursday, I made it 12km to the sweet coastal town of Deba by lunchtime, after descending a very steep old Roman road into the town center, where I enjoyed a glorious tortilla (Spanish omelette) at an outdoor table on the main square. Tortillas are so much tastier in this northeast/central part of Spain than they were in Galicia. 

My guidebook said Deba was the last town with a hostel between here and Markina (20km away), but some Spanish pilgrims told me that the next town had a hostel — 5km away, the little hilltop village of Ermita Calvario — and that’s where they were planning to spend the night.

The trail out of Deba was steep, very muddy, and very slow going. The rain had stopped, but the trail was a mucky mess. 

I saw a baby donkey right by the side of the Camino. He looked like an oversized stuffed animal. 

I sloppily made it up the steep hill to Ermita Calvario by around 3pm, feeling pretty tired. At a snail’s pace, picking my way delicately through the mud, and with the most challenging part of the day still ahead of me, I probably wouldn't make it to Markina before 8 or even 9pm, and meanwhile there would be nowhere to stop en route. Not a good plan, given that I was already feeling pretty much done for the day. 

I knew tomorrow's forecast also called for rain, and the thought of making a very steep ascent in the mud & rain suddenly just didn't sound like that much fun.

I decided then & there to scrap my plan to walk all the way to Bilbao. I'd spend the night in Ermita Calvario, then backtrack downhill to Deba in the morning and get a bus to Bilbao. Although I recognized the wisdom of this plan, I still I felt the familiar twinge of pilgrim guilt about taking the bus (it totally feels like cheating).

Ermita Calvario consists of 3 or 4 farmhouses, the hostel, an Italian restaurant, and the abandoned monastery that had given the area its name (ermita = hermitage) — all situated on a beautiful hilltop with commanding views of the coastline and rolling green hills as far as the eye can see — reminding me of the area around Hearst Castle in central California.

The communal hostel dinner that evening wonderful — the food was grown and sourced locally, and cooked by the hostel owners, a young husband and wife. Succulent roast chicken, served with a fresh and uncharacteristically (for Spain) veggie-laden green salad, and garlicky roasted potatoes, followed by a delicious custard made with sheep’s milk and honey.

My Last Day On The Camino
In the morning I made my way down the muddy hill to Deba in a fraction of the time it had taken me to walk uphill the previous afternoon. I greeted several puzzled pilgrims along the way (the Camino goes west, and I was going the "wrong" direction  east). 

Arriving back in Deba, it was only 11am. I went to the beach and watched the seagulls for awhile to pass the time before my train to Bilbao. Finally I telescoped my walking sticks for the last time, and put them in my pack — there would be no further need for them. 

This time, my Camino was truly, officially over.

But I still had a few more days to explore urban Spain (Bilbao and Barcelona) before reluctantly bidding adios to this beautiful country...

[To be continued]

Sunday, June 3, 2018


So my adventure in Spain is almost over. Since I last updated you, I completed my two-week volunteer assignment in Santiago, then spontaneously decided to walk a small part of a different Camino route for a few more days. It turns out that as long as I have my feet planted on the Iberian peninsula, they seem to be magically drawn to the nearest Camino path. 

It’s logical to wonder: After 6 weeks of non-stop walking, living out of a backpack, sleeping & showering in shared public hostels, and wearing the same 2 rumpled outfits that seem to remain faintly stinky no matter how many times she hand washes them, hasn’t this peregrina had enough of the damn Camino, and isn’t she eager to get back to the familiar comforts of regular life? No and no! I love Camino life. And while I absolutely loved volunteering — more on that in a sec — after sitting on my butt for two weeks in the Pilgrim Office, I was restless as hell and more than ready to get outside and walk again. I had 8 free days till my flight home, and all of Spain at my feet to explore ... I was a bit overwhelmed by all the possibilities. Too many options. 

I didn’t much feel like doing standard sightseeing. All I really wanted was to get back out on the Camino. To keep moving, to feel the crunch of the trail under my feet again, and to enjoy the beautiful Spanish countryside. To see more cows, sheep, birds, mountains. To watch the sky slowly change color over the course of a day. To enjoy the quiet peace of the trail after spending two weeks in the bustle of touristy Santiago and the nonstop flood of pilgrims. To settle my busy mind back into the beauty and simplicity of the familiar and beloved Camino routine, and reflect once more what a blessing and a gift these 10 weeks have been.

So I decided to do a mini-Camino from San Sebastián to Bilbao on the Camino del Norte before heading back to Barcelona for my flight home.

After turning over the free apartment keys to the lovely folks at the Pilgrim Office, I had a tearful farewell lunch with my friendly fellow volunteer pal, Bernd from Germany, then got on a train to San Sebastián. It’s on the northern coast of Spain, along the Bay of Biscay just 10 miles from the French border — almost but not quite all the way back to St. Jean Pied-de-Port, where I had started my Camino on 31 March, nine weeks earlier. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself again. (Argh, so much to tell you.) First, let me tell you about the volunteer gig. 

I feel compelled here to issue another warning that this is a very long post.

OK, you’ve been warned. 

There’s still time to bail out.  

Still with me? OK, here we go. 

Why Volunteer?
After my wonderful 2017 Camino, I was haunted by a desire to return. I’m not the only pilgrim who’s come down with a severe case of Camino-itis — far from it. It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t done the Camino — it is so much more than a long hike/walking retreat in the countryside. As I’ve tried to convey in this blog, the Camino Francés seems to have a unique magic. Several repeat pilgrims told me that the Francés is their favorite of all the Caminos (there are several Camino routes all over Spain and Europe) — not so much because of the scenery, but because “there’s just something special about the Francés.” It seems to serve as an ad hoc spiritual community. (Or, as one cynical pilgrim put it, “group therapy for the over-50 set going through life transitions.” That’s a fair assessment.) So once I made the decision to go back, I knew I wanted also to give back to this very special place, to somehow facilitate the experience for other pilgrims. 

There are lots of ways to volunteer on the Camino. You have to complete a weekend volunteer training (I did mine in February in Marin County with APOC — American Pilgrims on the Camino), commit to a 2-week block of time, and get yourself to Spain on your own nickel. In return, each volunteer gets a free private room in a shared apartment. And a priceless experience.

Most volunteers become hospitaleros — running an albergue with another volunteer (or team of volunteers, depending on the size of the hostel). This can be grueling — 18-hour days every day for two weeks with no break, and full responsibility for cleaning, stocking, and operating an albergue that you may never have even visited before. The hospitaleros provide welcome, support, and clean, warm, quiet, smooth-running accommodations for anywhere from 16-100 tired, dirty, hungry, and sometimes cranky & demanding pilgrims. In albergues that provide meals, the hospitaleros also plan, shop for, prepare, and clean up after dinner and/or breakfast. It’s challenging work, but by all accounts, incredibly satisfying. 

Me — I know my strengths. Although I’m not much of a cook, I’m a team player who loves to be of service, and I can pitch in in the kitchen. But where I really shine is in office work, which for better or worse I’ve been doing nonstop since I was 17. So I was immediately drawn to the idea of working in the Pilgrim Office. Not everyone knows their way around Microsoft Office like I do, types 100wpm, and is a seasoned calligrapher. So filling out compostelas and doing data entry? That felt like a natural fit for me, and frankly, more fun than the seemingly endless work of the hardworking albergue hospitalero. (I salute them!)

What Is A Compostela? 
The traditional, religious goal of making a pilgrimage to the Cathedral in Santiago is to receive the blessing of the Apostle St. James, whose remains are allegedly buried beneath the Cathedral altar in a silver reliquary. On the Camino de Santiago this blessing takes the form of a compostela, a certificate in Latin conferring the blessing and showing the pilgrim’s name and date of arrival.

For centuries, pilgrims arriving in Santiago would go directly to the Cathedral to view and pray before St. James’ remains, and to receive their compostelas. (I read somewhere that some pilgrims used to do the last few miles of the journey on their knees. And I thought walking 27 miles in one day was a challenge!) Due to the recent dramatic increase in the Camino’s popularity among both the faithful and the atheists — in large part because of the globally popular 2010 Martin Sheen movie “The Way” — Santiago now welcomes about 300,000 pilgrims annually, and the number keeps growing. So a few years ago the Cathedral opened a shiny new Oficina del Peregrino (Pilgrim Office) a kilometer or so away to more efficiently process the compostelas, rather than having the long pilgrim queues block access to the Cathedral. 

And so, the Pilgrim Office is where I had the great honor and privilege of volunteeering for two weeks after completing my 2018 trek. 

The Pilgrim Office is open 7 days a week from 8am-8pm and welcomes 1,500-1,700 pilgrims a day this time of year (3,000-4,000 a day in the peak summer months). Waiting in the notoriously long queue is part of the Camino adventure. The long, long line of sweaty, dusty pilgrims winds down the main hallway and out into the central courtyard of the Pilgrim Office. The Santiago pilgrim line makes the line at the DMV look like a Sunday stroll in the park. 

Unlike the DMV, however, the line at the Pilgrim Office is frequently a scene of joyful reunion — the finish line, as it were — and most pilgrims don’t seem to mind the standard one to three hour wait, as they rediscover acquaintances, compare notes, and/or reflect on the journey they’ve just completed. For some, though, it’s just annoying and frustrating. That day they’ve just walked 25 km or so, then waited in this long line, and they just want to go take a shower, get a cerveza and some pulpo (octopus, a specialty of the region). But for the most part, the pilgrims in the long line are pretty patient. The Camino teaches patience. 

Here’s a small section of a much, much longer line of pilgrims waiting to receive their compostelas:

The Pilgrim Office has a regular staff of about 10. I was one of four volunteers this time. Heinz and Bernd are retirees from Germany who spoke some English, and Pepe is a Spaniard and spoke no English whatsoever. 

I think perhaps Pepe (L) lives on the Camino. I asked him how many Caminos he had done, and he said he had no idea, but that he has probably walked over 50,000 kilometers on all the Caminos in Spain. When he is not walking the Camino, he is volunteering as a hospitalero somewhere. 

Heinz (far right) was very aloof and seemed to dislike everyone and everything. I tried to connect with him, but never could figure out why he had signed up for the gig. When he spoke (rarely) it was only to complain. He refused the free housing that was provided, opting instead to pay for a hotel for two weeks, would not wear a volunteer t-shirt, and got angry with pilgrims who did not understand either German or his limited English. I tried to have compassion — clearly Heinz has had a difficult go of it this life — but I had limited patience when he was rude with pilgrims for no good reason.  

Thank god for Bernd from Cologne, who was my buddy for two weeks. Bernd has done 12 Caminos. He spoke fairly good English and taught me a little German. We dubbed ourselves the “Dream Team” because we worked so well together. He’d jump in and help translate when I had trouble communicating with German pilgrims, and I’d help him out when he got stuck with English- or Spanish-speaking pilgrims. We shared jokes, groceries, some nice meals, and enjoyed wandering around Santiago after our volunteer shift. We were only required to volunteer for five hours a day, but we enjoyed it so much that we tended to stick around much longer. Sometimes I ended up working 10 or 11 hours a day with only a short break or two. It was such joyful work, the time just flew by. 

In order to receive a compostela, all pilgrims must provide proof that they have walked, biked, or ridden a horse a minimum of 100km into the city of Santiago. Proof takes the form of a credential, a sort of passport booklet issued at the beginning of your Camino. At every hostel, church, bar, and/or fruit stand along the Camino, you can get your credential stamped and dated. You’re supposed to get at least one stamp per day to show where and when you made your pilgrimage. There’s no time limit. Many pilgrims complete their Caminos one or two weeks at a time over the course of several years. 

Once you reach Santiago, you show your stamped credential to the worker at the Pilgrim Office, who verifies that you covered at least the last 100km, and they will complete your compostela with your name in Latin. Meanwhile, for statistical purposes, you fill out a form with your age, nationality, occupation, the point of origin of your Camino, and the reason for your pilgrimage (religious, spiritual, and/or tourist).

So that was my job for two weeks: Welcome and congratulate the happy & weary pilgrim who’s finally come to the end of their long journey, check for the minimum 100km, verify their credential, put in the final stamp, look up their name in Latin, hand-write it on whichever compostela they request (religious or non-religious), and enter their data into Cathedral database. Next!

Here’s a visual (part of my pilgrim credential showing the stamps I received along the way):

All along the Camino, hostel workers also check your credential to confirm that you are actually making the Camino pilgrimage, as opposed to merely making a random stop on your holiday in Spain to get a cheap place to sleep. Historically, the whole idea behind the albergue or pilgrim hostel was to provide a safe (and in those days, free) haven for long-suffering, weary pilgrims who’d been on the road for many months or years on their way to & from Santiago. All the hostels of old were run by the local churches, and many still are. Everywhere along the Camino there are ruins of ancient pilgrim hostels, and pilgrim cemeteries as well — a reminder of how incredibly arduous this journey used to be, before the advent of better hiking gear as well as the plentiful modern hostels, bars, cafes, markets, and pharmacies that you can now find all along the Camino. 

I’ll pause here to share a story about...

Why Credentials Matter 
On the morning of the freak snowstorm near O Cebreiro, April 30, I’d awakened to an unexpectedly snowy and beautiful Christmas card setting. I wasn’t worried about trekking —  the snow was falling lightly and prettily, rather than aggressively trying to obfuscate the path. But it was very cold, and I was way behind on keeping this blog updated. So I decided then and there to take a rest day. Albergues only let you stay one night, unless you are injured, so I decided I’d stop in the next town, which happened to be the very charming hilltop town of O Cebreiro, just a short, though steep, 4km up the hill. 

I envisioned parking myself next to a window at a café or hostel, preferably one with a toasty fire, where I’d spend the day writing and watching the snow fall while sipping hot tea and dining on caldo gallego (Galician vegetable soup), tortillas (Spanish omelet) or napolitanas (chocolate croissants) — or what the heck, maybe all three. The more I thought of this plan, the more I liked it. (It reminded me of Ben’s after-school daycare program which, whenever it rained, would have what they called Cozy Yum-Yum Day, where the kids got hot chocolate and marshmallows and would sit around on a big pile of pillows & blankets reading stories.)

Here’s a picture of me that morning. I’m smiling because (a) the snow is pretty and unthreatening, and (b) I’m already envisioning my plan to walk a short day and watch the pretty snow from a warm, toasty window seat! 

So I made it 4km up the hill to O Cebreiro in about an hour. This is where I saw the Spanish TV news crew filming and interviewing pilgrims because this unusual snowstorm was so late in the season. 

It was just after 10am — perfect, I’m super early so finding a room should be a snap! But my smile soon fades as I learn, one by one, that all the pensiones and private hostels are already full with advance reservations. (I usually don’t make advance reservations because I like to be spontaneous.) Hm. Not to worry, there’s always the cheap municipal hostel (6€), which according to my guidebook has 150 beds, and doesn’t take reservations — it’s first-come, first-served. It opens at 1pm so no big deal, I’ll wait it out in a café and put my Cozy Yum-Yum Day plan into action. 

I find a cute little basement café. No window and no fire, and it’s colder in the stone basement than I’d like, because the proprietor insists on keeping the door open to attract customers. I’m pretty damp so I get kind of chilled, but I order my hot tea and make the best of it. And happily begin writing. 

Around 12:30 I pay the bill, bundle up, and make my way up to the municipal hostel at the top of the hill. There’s a handful of French pilgrims there already who have arrived from towns farther back on the Camino. (They’ve been walking through the snow while i’ve been holed up in the cafe.)  It’s still snowing lightly, and very cold. I’m well dressed but it’s too cold to stand still (plus I’ve been sitting on my butt all morning) so to keep my blood moving, I decide to trot up & down the steep steps near the hostel several times. Recalling that 95% of the French pilgrims I’ve met do not speak any English, I ask them in my embarrassingly weak French to save my place in line (basically, Voulez-vous, uh... mon.... [energetically pointing to my feet and pantomime stepping away]... dans la queue...?). They get it, I think/hope, and only seem to judge me a tiny bit). I motor up & down the steps for about 15 minutes. It feels great 
to move.

Finally the hostel door swings open at 1pm sharp. I pull out my passport, credential, 6€, and wait my turn. The hospitalera takes one look at my credential, then looks at me coldly, shaking her head, and says You only walked 4km today. Her clipped tone immediately puts me on the defensive. Yes, I say, but... She cuts me off. You cannot stay here. We reserve the beds for pilgrims who walk a full day. You only walked from the last town, so we cannot give you a bed. Next! 

I’m kind of shocked. I’ve never heard this rule, and it’s not even listed as one of the rules posted on the wall, which I’d had plenty of time to read while waiting outside in the cold. I fumble around... It’s amazing how I go so easily to guilt. (She’s right! I don’t deserve a rest day!) I try again, feeling lame. But it’s snowing, I say, and... She’s having none of it. (I realize after I speak that the fact that it’s still snowing only makes her point stronger. Those who have been out in the snow longer should get first priority.) Waving me away, she says, You can come back at 6pm and see if there are any beds left. Next! 

Well, now I’m in a pickle. I can’t run the risk of waiting all day and not getting a bed — if none are available, then I’ll have to hike to the next town late on a snowy evening and hope that it, too, isn’t already full. No thank you. What is this arbitrary minimum kilometer rule? Aren’t pilgrims allowed rest days? So, defeated, and kind of angry, I leave. 

I ended up walking another 20km down a long hill in the beautiful (and thankfully still only gently) falling snow, arriving around 7pm in Triacastela, well below the snow line. Halfway there I stopped for a late lunch in a very cozy café where I partially dried out near a huge roaring fire, and got my delicious caldo gallego, teaand hot breadAnd later, even though 7pm is a very late hostel arrival time, in Triacastela I found a very nice hostel that also had a toasty fire, and ended up having dinner with my fun pilgrim pals Ed, Kelly, and Siggi. So it all worked out just fine (other than effectively delaying my blog update again, but you are a patient lot, and I appreciate it.)

The point of the story is: Pilgrim credentials are not pretty souvenir booklets you fill with stamps just for fun. On the Camino, your kilometer count matters! 

OK, now let’s go...

Back To The Pilgrim Office
As a volunteer, I had to play bad cop with pilgrims a few times, and I did not enjoy it. I’m sort of hardwired to be a people pleaser. 

One morning a friendly, elderly Irishman comes to my station. I greet him in the usual manner (“Welcome & congratulations! How was your Camino?”) and we chat briefly. He tells me it was his first Camino, and how much he enjoyed the walk from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, which I know is 800km, so I congratulate him again, then ask for his credential. I see that it has the by-now-familiar first stamp from St. Jean, given when you first pick up your credential at the start of the Camino, but otherwise his credential is completely empty. I unfold it all the way and check both sides, but it is as pristine, white, and unmarked as the snow on the O Cebreiro hilltop that one morning. (see pic of my credential above for what an end-of-Camino credential is supposed to look like.)

As kindly as possible, I say, “Hm... didn’t you get any stamps?” He firmly and proudly says No, as if collecting the stamps is a silly child’s game and he’s clearly above all that, and wants me to know it. His smile disappears as I politely explain that unfortunately, we can’t issue him a compostela without proof that he walked the final 100km to Santiago. Cathedral rules. He doesn’t want to hear this, of course, especially after having waited in that long line for 90 minutes. He protests loudly, and thrusts the backs of his hands in front of my face. Look at my hands! This, THIS, is proof that I walked all the way! Indeed, his hands are peeling badly from multiple sunburns and possibly blisters, so it’s clear that he thinks using sunscreen is yet another rule that doesn’t apply to him.

Fortunately two Pilgrim Office regulars seated near me both jump right in. (They’ve seen & heard it all and have no problem playing hardball with pilgrims.) They explain the rules more forcefully, as his anger visibly rises. 

(It’s very surprising — there’s no way this man walked the Camino for over 30 days without seeing how the credential routine goes. Each and every time you register at a hostel you are asked for both your credential and your ID. So he must have been actively withholding his credential, for some reason. Maybe he thought having the point-of-origin stamp was sufficient.)

By now lots of people are watching us. The angry Irishman finally realizes he’s not getting a compostela. He haughtily shoves his empty credential across the counter at me, turns, and stalks out. 

I turn to the Pilgrim Office workers and we all shrug. “I’ve never seen that happen before,” says the one who’s been working here for four years. 

Pilgrim Snapshots 
From the very first moment, I loved working in the Pilgrim Office. It was so much fun to be the agent of welcome and to represent the Cathedral at this very special moment in a pilgrim’s Camino. For many, obviously, it is a hugely symbolic religious and/or spiritual milestone. For others, it’s the celebration of completing a physical challenge. Either way, it takes courage, strength, and stamina to make this long journey, and completing it can bring up a lot of emotion for people. 

As volunteers, we were told that, despite the ever-present long line, we should focus on creating a warm and welcoming experience for the pilgrims, rather than feeling pressured to process their compostelas quickly. We were told to respect the fact that this can be an emotional moment for some pilgrims, and to take whatever time was needed to hold the space for them, and that it was OK to dispense hugs freely, if appropriate. 

I have spent my entire working life trying to work as quickly and efficiently as possible, keeping all emotion out of the workplace, so this was music to my ears. 

It was so incredibly inspiring to witness first-hand, not just as statistics on a page, the number of people well into their 60s, 70s, and 80s who had completed a Camino. In fact, easily the majority of pilgrims I met were retirees. This makes sense considering the time commitment involved in doing a Camino; retirees naturally have more free time. But it was still amazing to see how many seniors were willing to take on and complete this challenge. 

It was an incredible honor to complete a compostela for Robert from California, age 84, who had just finished his first Camino along with his son, and had gotten his first tattoo to commemorate it (a classic Camino scallop shell with the red sword of St. James). He was only too happy to show me his tattoo when I asked:

I completed compostelas for several pilgrims who had walked in memory of a loved one who had passed away. In those cases, we inscribed a special notation in Latin on the bottom of their compostela: Vicarie pro: (In memory of:) with the loved one’s name. It was a tremendous honor to do this simple but powerful small ritual for people, and it never failed to get the waterworks going for both of us.  

I’ll never forget James King, Sr., a delightful Scot who walked his entire Camino in a bright red kilt and a t-shirt bearing a photograph of his son James King, Jr., who had gone to bed perfectly healthy one night but never woke up.The autopsy provided no clue as to cause of death; James Sr. was told his son had simply stopped breathing — the adult equivalent of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).

I completed compostelas for people who were celebrating surviving cancer. For people of all ages who were celebrating milestone birthdays. For couples like these two happy lovebirds, who had gotten engaged on the Camino (I made sure we included her new ring in the picture):

And this wonderful couple, Yves and Genevieve from France, who pretended not to mind when I butchered their language, because they spoke no English at all and we had to get by with my extremely limited French. Unlike most Spaniards and French, who tended to ignore my requests to please speak more slowly so I could understand them better, Yves and Genevieve graciously slowed down and were very patient with me as I got the necessary information to complete their compostelas. They were celebrating 40 years of marriage, but totally acted like newlyweds, kissing and hugging and cracking each other up with inside jokes. (I have never, ever seen a couple more obviously enjoying the hell out of each other.) With my limited vocabulary and a ton of hand gestures, I tried to tell them how much they restored my faith in true love. 

Camino magic: One day a woman walked up to my station who looked vaguely familiar. Margarett is from Portland, Oregon, so when I told her my only kid had graduated from Reed last year, she informed me she was walking because she had just retired from Reed! I didn’t recall ever meeting her, but I must have seen her on campus or something. Turned out she remembered Ben (and Ben remembered her after I sent this picture). We were all blown away by this chance encounter. About 1,600 pilgrims come through the office every day this time of year, and there are about 8 or 10 of us working behind the counter at any given time. What are the odds she’d end up at my station? 

Then there was Petra from The Netherlands who had ridden her bike all the way from Amsterdam — about 2,500km in three stages over three years (there are Camino routes all over Europe). She had diligently taped together several credential booklets and proudly showed them all to me. I was so honored to be the one to place the final stamp on each credential. She was so excited to receive her compostela that she was bouncing up and down, laughing and crying at the same time. I loved sharing this moment with her.

This young man from Colombia came to my station and told me he had a problem. He said his Camino had been profound and he felt like a different person. He asked if it was OK to use a different name on his compostela. I told him that whatever he told me his name was, that’s what we’d put on the compostela. He said Well, that’s the problem. I want to change my name, but I haven’t chosen one yet. I just know I can’t use my current name. It’s the same as my father’s and... he was horrible to my mother, and he left us when I was little. I said, Well, do you have any ideas at all? Any names you’ve been floating around? He paused. This is silly... but... I really love my sister’s cat. His name is Lorenzo. But I can’t name myself after my sister’s cat! Why the hell not? I said. Pets are awesome and represent unconditional love. And besides, you kind of look like a Lorenzo to me. (I meant it. He did.) 

Then I said Hey, what the heck — how about Santiago for your last name, since this is where you’re changing it? He loved the idea and started to cry. 

And so I completed a compostela/birth certificate for Lorenzo Santiago. 

Best job I’ve ever had. 

I’ll tell you more about my final week in Spain, my mini-Camino, in another post.