September Reflections

As I approach the four year anniversary of my first step in Spain, I decided to re-read my own book.  It brought back many fond memories from a wonderful trip.  For this week’s blog, I decided to share a sample chapter.  If you have not read the story, please consider adding it to your collection.  A Million Steps

Day 6

Reflections

I always tried to slip out of the group sleeping chambers without waking the other inhabitants. Fortunately, on this early morning, I had a bottom bunk. Given the three tiers at Albergue Andrés Muñoz, a gymnast could not have made a silent exit from a top bunk. I gathered my belongings and took them to a dining area on the first floor. This allowed for lots of light and no need to be silent as I arranged items in my backpack.

While preparing to leave, I noticed a silent woman sitting at the end of the table. Sang Ha Lim was waiting for anyone with a headlamp. I was the lucky illuminator and began my day with a wonderful lady from Korea. The top of her head barely passed my hip, but her pace caught me off guard. Up to this point, I usually had to slow down when walking with new people. With Sang Ha, I had to speed up. Her ability to speak English was minimal, and my Korean was nonexistent. It did not matter as there is always a way to communicate. We learned a little about each other over the first hour. During a break, she offered me half of her homemade tomato and cheese sandwich. This nourishment was perfect for the moment. When the sun shone on the path, we said goodbye.

The whole idea of saying adiós and letting go of my pilgrim companions was becoming much easier with experience. I knew it was impossible for me to “hang onto” all of the people I met along the way. A mental image of me arriving in Santiago with 10 pilgrims under each arm put a smile on my face. But during the first part of the trip, it was hard for me to say goodbye to anyone. I did not like the idea that it might be the end of our relationship. I was finding it easier to meet new people with open arms and realize that there is a beginning, middle, and end to most relationships. I was learning that it is much better to focus on the person when they are in your life. Letting go creates space for the next learning experience, but equally important, allows that person to share their lessons with others.

Again, I thought of Roberta and wondered what would happen when I returned to Idaho. Specifically, I wondered if our path was headed for permanent divergence or a merge back to better days on the road together.

During a much-needed break, I pulled A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago by John Brierley from the zippered pouch of my pack. This guidebook is the gold standard for pilgrims walking to Santiago. Maps, with information on the elevation, villages, and albergues, make up the bulk of the book. Recommendations touch not only on the obvious things like backpacks and rain gear, but also on history and the inner purpose for the trip. While resting, a daily reflection moved me:

“The deepening lines on her aging face cannot hide her welcoming smile. Her name means happiness and she has welcomed pilgrims for decades giving her blessings and stamping credentials. Some see her unofficial presence as an intrusion, preferring to hurry by to avoid interaction. I sit beside her and observe myself judging them as they are judging her.”

This description of an aging hospitalera made me think of all the miscellaneous people in my life who have provided some type of service to me. How many times have I forgotten to even recognize these people as individuals instead of some type of personal servant? So many people cross our daily paths, yet busy schedules or a preoccupation with another time and place shutter the door to friendship. Every person has a story that needs to be heard. This reminded me to open my gate and let them into my life.

On this day, I passed through Logroño, the second of four large cities on the Camino. Right at the entrance to the city, the sun shone on the arches of a Roman bridge reflected in the still water below. I reached for my pink Canon PowerShot camera housed in a pink Case Logic pouch, attached to the left chest strap of my backpack. The easy access made it simple to take a snap. I took multiple exposures of this masterpiece as it unfolded before my eyes. It changed each minute as the sun rose in the sky. The vibrant colors of the buildings and the gray stone of the bridge were brilliantly reflected in the smooth water.

My Camino guidebook suggested that pilgrims leave their cameras at home to avoid any opportunity to distract them from living in the Now. I thought long and hard before overruling the author and taking my camera. On the first few days, I took a reasonable number of pictures. As the trip progressed, I could not stop taking pictures. Just as the music sounded better on the Way, I could not pass these amazing sights without recording them. With a clear mind and a focus on the moment, sights and sounds were amplified. Walking through the villages was like spending time in an art gallery. A subconscious glacial shift was occurring in my head and heart.

After crossing the well-photographed bridge, I found myself in the University district. As I passed a large church, the door opened and I was face-to-face again with Sang Ha. We shared a laugh, asked a stranger to take our picture, and walked until it was time to once again say goodbye.

As I got deeper into the heart of the city, a strange sensation came over me. I had passed through Pamplona, the first large city on the Camino, early on a calm and pleasant Sunday morning. Logroño on a weekday was busy with crowded sidewalks, traffic snarls, horns honking, and general chaos. I could not see a smile on any of the faces of the local people in this city. I understood that they were not on a pilgrimage vacation, but not a single smile? Toward the end of the city, one stranger made my day with two words: “Buen Camino.” I was not depressed but truly saddened to realize that most people just go through the motions of life with little time for joy.

One small joy for me in this city was stopping at a nice hotel to use their restroom.

As a pilgrim, I understood that local businesses might view me as Americans see vagrants in large cities. I had no economic value and smelled like a guy walking six to eight hours per day. Instead of barging into the hotel like I owned the place, I asked for permission from the man at the front desk. The kind gentleman granted my wish. Walking into a clean bathroom was a simple pleasure of life that had been nonexistent since St. Jean. I found myself surrounded by marble walls with at least five urinals. Large oak doors provided privacy for the spotless white porcelain toilets. The mirrors sparkled and the three sinks offered abundant hot water. At home and during most of my previous vacations, this was the life I took for granted. Until something is gone, its value seems to diminish with familiarity. Like many things on the Camino, happiness is found in some very simple places.

Toward the edge of the city, the Camino took me through a large park where people were relaxing and enjoying the day. A stream and series of small waterfalls meandered through the entire area. I sat on a bench, aired my feet, ate a banana, and stretched. This place felt like a soothing shower that washed away the hustle and bustle of Logroño. Refreshed, I marched onward along a very scenic area that took me through rolling hills, small lakes, and lush vineyards. I was fortunate to run into Sang Ha Lim one last time.

A small village with a population of 150 people was my final stop for the day. The San Saturnino albergue in Ventosa was one of my favorites. There were 42 beds but no more than 8 per room. The red-tiled floors were clean and the beds well kept. Bathrooms were spotless with granite counters. For a fee, I was able to machine-wash my clothes, which was quite a luxury. Can you imagine finding genuine happiness and joy in the simple act of having your clothes run through a washing machine? Trust me, it was divine.

While waiting for my laundry machine to finish the cycle, I took advantage of the time to write in my journal. The courtyard at this facility was out of this world, and the sun could not have been more perfect. It was the type of common area one would expect to find in a high-end bed and breakfast rather than a pilgrim hostel requiring a nominal payment.

While writing in my journal, a man tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to see Massimo and his trooper of a mother. Later in the day, as I walked through the lobby to get some ice cream at a bar down the street, I saw Peter resting in one of the chairs. I later found out that the hostel was full when he arrived, and that he made a decision to walk to the next village.

Around dinnertime, I began a slow ascent to the recommended restaurant with plans to enjoy another pilgrim menu. While walking, I ran into Angelo (age 75) and his wife Sandra (70) and invited them to join me for the meal. Our restaurant was one of my favorites. The intimate dining room overlooked a lush courtyard with benches, a hammock, and chairs. Birds and squirrels provided entertainment as we enjoyed our food.

Angelo and Sandra told me that they grew up in Cuba and became engaged in their late teens. In the early 1960s, both of their wealthy families made it known that they intended to migrate to the United States. At that time, this decision made them enemies of the revolution. It took three years to process the paperwork for Angelo to leave and five years for Sandra. During that time, the government catalogued every material item they owned and tracked every financial asset. Angelo and Sandra had to account for every penny and each item for years while the government reviewed their applications. Angelo told me that if a single spoon or plate were missing, it would delay their departure by years. Needless to say, they made no attempt to hide or conceal anything.

In 1966, Angelo arrived in New York City with $20 in his pocket. Three years later, Sandra arrived in Atlanta with two changes of clothing. They finally married and have lived a great life in Georgia. Both worked very hard to achieve their version of the American dream. In retirement, their zest for life is contagious. When I told Angelo that I live in Idaho, he grinned and told me of many trips to the area for game bird hunting. He and Sandra were on their fourth Camino in five years. It took my breath away.

As I did most nights, I read my guidebook and savored the day’s pictures before going to bed. Reviewing photos always brought a smile to my face and helped me relive the glorious moments that happened each day.

The guidebook bonus quote for this day gave me a sharp twist to the navel. It read: “Worrying is praying for what you don’t want.”