A Day in Santiago de Compostela

As I mentioned, arriving in Santiago never gets old, and is always an incredibly humbling experience as well as a giddily exciting sense of accomplishment and awe. Sunday was no different. I really try, without appearing to sound too pious or sanctimonious, to take a moment to think about everyone who has asked for prayers during the pilgrimage and think about all the petitions and requests. It always includes those of the people who I have met on the Camino. I thought a lot about Arnold on Sunday, and how after my first Camino he was so interested in seeing photos and reading more about what he or Chiefie coined my “Holy Schlepp.” I still think about walking the Camino under that moniker as I can never take whatever I do in life too seriously.

Lingering and loitering in the plaza in front of the Cathedral is a joy. It’s wonderful to watch the pilgrims straggle, stagger, limp, run, and jump from every corner as they arrive from any one of the various Caminos that they had begun days, weeks or months ago. It’s a party atmosphere as strangers and new friends hug and kiss one another, amazed at their achievement and awed by the journey, their bodies, their stamina and resilience. Many are overwhelmed and can only lie on the ground staring at the spires of the Cathedral, lost in their thoughts, their bodies limp, legs legs finally giving way, unable to take one more step. Others take endless photos of themselves,and their Camino “families.” Arriving in Santiago is indescribable and never duplicated for any pilgrim and for every Camino each pilgrim walks. People bring petitions, their sense of adventure, curiosity, gratitude, wonder and awe. Every pilgrim I have spoken with never completes the Camino unaffected in any way. Walking the Camino, and I dare say, making pilgrimage, is something that becomes woven into the fabric of one’s DNA. Life, as a result of pilgrimage viewed differently and one’s perspective on the earth, humans, the non-human animal is forever altered with deeper attention to the wonder and miracle of the details of the environment and life in general.

When we were taking our photos and making our plans, Hendricks, our Danish friend appeared. It was great to see him and there were more hugs all around.  After getting our Compostelas, we walked around inside the Cathedral before the pilgrim’s Mass at noon. It was a packed house, with people sitting on the steps, the pillars and the floor. Again, reminiscent of perhaps what it would have been like in medieval times. We also had the great fortune to see the botafumeiro swung which despite the guards announcing no photos (I guess they just have to say it for the record), everyone was pulling out cameras and iPhones to photograph and video tape it. How can you not?  It’s an incredible spectacle and a really cool way to end the Mass, and it doesn’t happen every day, so when you see it, it’s an extra special treat.

The afternoon and evening were great. After enjoying gin and tonics on the terrace of the Parador, basking again in front of the Cathedral we went on to enjoy a lovely tapas meals in one of my favorite restaurants in Santiago, sampling whatever the waiter decided to bring. And then it was time to say goodbye to my dear Irish friends, but I know we will see one another again.

Off to my monastery for the night in anticipation of my 6:17 a.m. train to Vigo then Porto and hopefully a connection to Lisbon.

Peace,

Alex

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Santiago de Compostela

This morning’s walk began at 5 a.m. under a brilliantly lit canopy of stars. It seemed a fitting way to begin the final walk, being guided by the stars as medieval pilgrims might have done. Of course we also had a couple of headlamps to aid in finding the arrows to keep us on the correct path, so it was only nostalgically reminiscent of  the medieval canon, yet an authentic journey nonetheless.

Dark paths can be daunting and frightening, especially with no street lights or sounds of traffic. At the same time, approaching cars move very rapidly in Spain, and despite being on a Camino, “road” drivers are not necessarily cautious, nor are they on the lookout for pilgrims, least of all before dawn. The walk turned into an advert for “kids don’t try this at home” but with an eventually good ending. Let me just begin by saying, it’s really wise to walk with others, and be very mindful when you walk in the dark. As I have learned from past experience, it’s difficult to navigate and see the arrows and/or kilometer markers, as well as being very desolate. Spain is not a country of early risers, and certainly not after Saturday night.

The Irish ladies and I were doing well enough as we negotiated the steep hills through the villages that wove up and down and around the forest we were walking through. It was a cool enough morning, and while we were tired from the early start, we were getting excited about arriving in Santiago and talked about how we were going to spend our day.  Every now and then we would hear a dog barking behind a gate or a fence or off in the distance, but nothing out of the ordinary.  From time to time we would pause to catch our breath after a hill and just stood admiring the incredible starry sky. As we began to walk up the next hill we heard someone shouting across the road. Not really certain what was going on, we continued to walk, a bit faster, and listen. The shouting continued, got louder and then a light flashed. This time we turned off our headlamps and tried to quicken our pace. No easy feat with backpacks attached to our bodies. I couldn’t figure out the language, but it was clear that whoever it was was angry and was yelling about stupid pilgrims. That was all that I could gather as we all broke into a quick little trot up the road. The next thing we knew, the light started to follow us across the road and the shouting continued.  We couldn’t tell how many people they were, if they were in a car or a tent or just sitting alongside the road. I think they may have been drinking and we had disturbed a party or sleep. The last thing we heard was “Viva Portugal” and he or they seemed to retreat. We briskly walked to be what we determined to be a safe distance and then stopped to calm down.  For the very first time I realized how vulnerable one is on pilgrimage. There is very little difference between a medieval pilgrim walking than one from the 21st century. Yes, we have phones and are able to connect to the world in a faster and “better” way than pilgrims of the Middle Ages were, but in truth, when something a bit frightening occurs, we don’t always react with our heads. A pilgrim really does walk into the unknown, trusting that all will go well. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, and I have heard and read stories, although few and far between of how some pilgrims in this era have never made it to Santiago. I have been struggling with the understanding of the potential for danger on the Camino. This was really one of the very first times that I recognized and understood the reality. Thankfully it ended well, and I am grateful that I was not alone. No doubt it was just a bunch of guys partying and messing with our heads. They really had no way of knowing we were five women and the key part of that is that we were FIVE. I’ve been pondering how to balance the desire to walk alone at times, with the issues of safety along the Camino. For the most part, it is extraordinarily safe and well traveled. Of course there is always the small segment of the population that is not necessarily focused on safety. Something to keep in mind for future travels.

After that excitement, it seemed that we were walking on adrenaline as the kilometers clicked down from double digits to single, to none whatsoever as we arrived in the nearly deserted plaza in front of the Cathedral at about 8:30 a.m. It still (I’m happy to say) is a very emotional time for me. When I first get a glimpse of the Cathedral from afar and when I arrive and stand there, soaking it all in and realizing how far I’ve walked to get here, and wondering if it makes any difference in my life.  It hasn’t gotten “old” yet and for that I am very grateful. I suppose if it ever becomes unexciting (that is if there is another Camino on the horizon), I need to hang up my hiking shoes and backpack and all it a day.

Thanks to all of you for your thoughts and prayers. I did arrive very safely, happily and in one piece. I was thrilled that I didn’t get a single blister, I was able to carry my pack and I didn’t sustain any injuries at all!

More on my Sunday in Santiago to come.

Peace,

Alex

 

Vilanova de Arousa to Pontecesures, Padrón and Faramello

We were up and out the door by 6:15 a.m. to catch the 7:00 a.m. boat to Pontecesures. The boat schedule depends entirely on the tide and often if you can’t get on the morning boat, you either have to wait until the evening or the next day or walk. Clearly walking was not an issue, but I thought it would be really interesting to take the boat ride crossing the Arousa estuary and up the Ulla River, following the path that tradition says was the route that the stone boat transporting St. James’ body traveled. It is along the only maritime Via Crucis in the world where 17 curceros have been erected.

We arrived at the dock before dawn to discover that the “boat” was actually a rubber dingy with only eight seats. I’m so glad that I was part of the early bird group and was able to get an actual “seat” on this nautical vessel that makes the boat in Life of Pi look like an absolute cruise ship. After the first eight fortunate people were onboard (I thought we were stopping there), the stragglers were boarded and had to sit on the sides, holding onto the ropes that were threaded all around. Another reason why I was glad to have a seat, I had visions of capsizing…more on that to come.

After everyone was ready to go our “captain” – Santiago (whether that was his real name or not, it was certainly befitting for our journey) told us that we were going to be on the boat for a little over an hour and that we should be sure to have our jackets on as we were going to go “fast” and it was going to be very windy and choppy and we’d probably get sprayed. When I say that the people sitting on the sides were hanging on for dear life, it is the truth. One big wave and it would have been all over. I could feel the life vest under the seat, but I knew that there weren’t enough to go around for everyone. It was another concerning Camino moment that I had, adding to the daily growing list.

The water and sky were black, but at least the sun was starting to inch it’s way up. We passed by numerous mussel farms along the way. Vilanova is known for the mussels and have an annual festival every August. While we probably weren’t traveling very fast, because it was a small boat, and we were going into the wind and against the current, it seemed extraordinarily rapid. We were basically bouncing up and down all the way to Pontecesures. I tried to stop thinking about the imminently dangerous circumstances I was in and just enjoy the ride. If I survived I’d have another tale to tell that’s for sure. The other thought I kept having was about refugees again. How many travel in these kind of dingies far less safe and poorly equipped than this was? And when I say, if something went wrong, it would have been every pilgrim for themselves. Santiago offered us nothing by way of safety instructions. How many of migrants travel in boats that are filled beyond capacity which adds another danger to the plight they experience. Countless have died in sea crossings because of tragedies, most unable to swim or save themselves or loved ones. While I was freezing cold during the hour plus ride, I at least had on a jacket and a windbreaker and I knew it would end soon. So many others do not have anywhere near those small luxuries I am afforded. Not to mention when I did get off the boat I was able to walk into a café, order a coffee and sit until I warmed up. It was a sobering meditation as we raced up the estuary and river.

At daybreak Santiago slowed the dingy as we approached three crosses at the beginning of the river. Apparently this is the site where the ship came to rest with the bodies of St. James and his two companions. It was kinda neat to see them in the early morning light.  All along the rest of the journey, we could see the 17 curceros as well as some gorgeous wildlife and landscape, to to mention the early morning fishermen.

After docking and a quick coffee, we started walking to Padrón, the place where one of my favorite Spanish dishes, Pimientos de Padrón hails. Lovely green peppers that are roasted and sautéed in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt. In general they are sweet, but every now and then you bite into one that is hot (spicy). The seeds for the peppers were imported by the Franciscan monks of the nearby village of Herbón where they had a monastery in the Middle Ages. The monks brought the seeds back from Central and South America after missionary work there. Apparently the soil conditions in Galicia were/are quite conducive to growing these particular peppers.

More importantly than lovely, delicious green peppers, the town of Padrón is famous as the traditional starting point of St. James’ missionary work in Spain.  Many people are unaware that he spent time here evangelizing and preaching about Christianity before returning to Jerusalem and being beheaded by Herod Agrippa. It was this area that his body returned and then brought inland where eventually the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela was built to house his relics, which are there today.

One of the major attractions of the town of Padrón is the Igrexa de Santiago, a Romanesque church that houses a great Jacobean treasure. Below the altar is the original stone O Pedrón from which the town takes its name. Tradition says that this is the mooring post to which the boat carrying St. James’ body was tied along side the riverbank. Also in Padrón, again according to tradition, is where St. James first preached the gospel message.

We enjoyed a nice al fresco lunch on a shaded terrace and watched the rerun of the Olympic opening ceremonies. It was surprising to discover that we only had about 20 more kilometers left to Santiago. There was much conversation as to whether or not we just push on and try and arrive this afternoon. Despite the searing heat, I was in favor of it, as were one or two others. Eventually though, we decided to walk the four kilometers to our intended destination/albergue and stay the night, with the plan of an early start.

The albergue in Faramello was an old stone house with a nice backyard garden. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in the shade chatting with other pilgrims. It’s hard to believe that there’s only one more walk before arriving in Santiago tomorrow.

Peace,

Alex

Route of Water and Stone

Day two of the Variante Espiritual was glorious. Most of the day was spent walking alongside the river, wandering and climbing over moss covered rocks and trees, passing by medieval stone mills. It felt very much as if I was walking through a film set of “The Hobbit” but with absolutely no commercialism or a Universal Studios quality. It really felt like a true pilgrimage experience, with a very rough path that meandered up and do wing the rolling riverbanks. It was so peaceful and cool,, but the weather was so much more pleasant than the misty damp that we walked through the day before. There were schools of fish all along this absolutely crystal clear river, as well as mills that dated back to the Middle Ages. Despite my concerns, the way was very well marked and signed, so there was no real getting lost unless you really were in a daze and not paying attention at all. As we are all aware, past posts indicate that I am perfectly capable of missing even the obvious signs.

We stopped for a lovely lunch at a somewhat interesting looking casa. There were men at the bar drinking red wine out of bowls and that is no exaggeration. A reproduction of the Mona Lisa surrounded by pilgrim’s scallop shells set an interesting tone for the decor.I’m pretty sure I also saw the very famous dogs playing poker portrait, again with the Camino scallop shell border. It was crazy pilgrim/beach decor meets early modern bar/restaurant. The woman running the place appeared to be the owner, chef, dishwasher, waitress and bartender.

Our proprietress, whose name, sadly we never got (but we did get photos),was delighted to serve us our drinks on the “terrace” which was basically plastic chairs and stumps of wood as tables. It was a great rustic Camino atmosphere. When we asked for a lunch menu, she kept refusing to give us the menu and just asked us what it was we wanted to eat. When we said a little salad and maybe some croquetas and prawns, a feast arrived that could have fed the crowds gathered on shores of Galilee.  I’m pretty sure all the vegetables came from the garden behind the restaurant. The rest of the meal was lovingly homemade, and we could tell by the length of time it took as well as the state of her apron every time she appeared. It was absolutely spectacular. Well fed, and having made a new friend for life – we took photos with her, of her, and she of us. Soon we were well on our way, rolling down the Camino to our next destination – Vilanova de Arousa.

As always, the kilometer information on hand is never what the actual walk is. However, a winding walk along the estuary beach and over the bridge finally led us to our albergue – in a local sports stadium. You just never know where you’re going to land and what the accommodations and hospitality will be. It’s reassuring to know thought that after walking twenty-five miles there may be an opportunity for a game of pick up basketball. And really, after a nice shower and a nice glass of vino blanco, this time accompanied by a bowl of nuts mixed with gummy bears (I kid you not!), life was back on track again.
The Irish ladies and I, along with the two Portuguese girls we met – one is studying to be a choral conductor, the other a cellist, as well as Hendricks, our new Danish friend who is an enigmatic artist and photographer, spent a lovely evening along the river planning our strategy for the boat ride up the river to Padrón. It is so interesting to talk to people with such varied interests and professions. Everyone is walking the Camino for very personal reasons, and here we all find ourselves, together in a beautiful beach town in Spain, talking well into the evening about life and the Camino over beer, wine and nuts mixed with gummy bears. Right now I’m not sure life gets much better than this, because what more do you need besides gummy bears, mixed nuts, Albariño…and evidently the Camino.

Peace,

Alex

Pontevedra and the Variante Espiritual

Another long hot day of traveling from Vigo through lovely Spanish countryside, landed us in the city of Pontevedra, the capital of the region. Along the way we saw the oyster beds that make this area world famous, as well as experienced a lovely “Fresca” walk along a river path for about three kilometers. While the city of Pontevedra has a modern sprawling expanse, the medieval center is impressive and delightful. The route follows the original Camino Rua Real that goes right through the center of the ancient part of the city. I had the opportunity to visit the 16th century basilica of Santa María A Grande and the Santuario da Peregrina, built in the 18th century which has a floor plan in the shape of a scallop shell. I really wanted to visit the Santiario da Aparicións, where the Blessed Mother appeared to Sister Lúcia (one of the children of Fátima) when she was living at the convent in Pontevedra. Unfortunately I arrived a few minutes after the 8p.m. closing.

Our accommodations were at a little pension in the medieval part of the city that I swear used to be a bordello. Every bedroom door was red leather and there was a little light above the door indicating whether or not it was occupied. The decor was “interesting” to say the least. Hoping that it was no longer this type of establishment, and frankly too tired to care as long as nobody came aknocking on our doors, the Irish ladies and I were received hospitably by yet another Lúcia of Pontevedra and her lovely family. The pension was immaculate and comfortable and the clientele seemed rather respectable.

After a quick shower, Saoirse and I went out to get information about the Variante Espiritual of the Camino Portuguese. After stopping at the three of the cultural information offices in the town, the last one proved to be most informative. Apparently the first two only dealt with information about Pontevedra and the region. We were told to go to the Galicia information office if we needed information that was related to the Camino. Very precise and compartmentalized with cultural guidance here. The woman in this office proved to be a rich source of knowledge, offering us a more up-to-date brochure and helping us determine the route. She gave us the number of the albergue for the first stage as well as the number for the company who could transport our packs. We were told that while it was only a 22 kilometer walk, there was a 500 meter high mountain that we would have to climb. That prospect brought my heart joy beyond imagination. Saoirse and I took all this information to discuss and digest in a lovely café situated in front of the ruins of the 13th century Igrexa de Santo Domingo which is now a national monument of Spain. With the help of a couple of gin and tonics we plotted our strategy and how we were going to share this spiritual variant walk with the rest of the group who really were not as keen on the idea as we were. But having made the reservations for the albergue as well as with the backpack transport company, we believed it would be received a little better.

We had a beautiful and bountiful seafood dinner in one of the plazas, serenaded by an Ecuadorian group as we ate. Two bottles of lovely local wine later and our plan was hatched and we were ready for this very little known but intriguing route.

The Variante Espiritual is a diversion path that is relatively new as far as Camino paths go. It joins the Camino Portuguese and the Ocean Camino – which is considered to be the source of all the other Caminos. Tradition says that in 44 CE a ship carrying the body of Iago or St. James, crossed the estuary of Arousa. His remains were transported down the Ulla River until they arrived at Iria Flavia which is now the village of Padrón, the last stopping point on the Camino Portuguese before Santiago de Compostela. This is where the Spiritual Varient reconnects with the main branch of the Camino Portuguese. The Varient takes three days to travel, and on the last day, part of the journey is by boat (the travel time all depends upon the tides that day), crossing the Arousa estuary and up the Ulla River remembering the journey of Iago.

This morning we woke ready for our adventure and were greeted with the very first day of rain on this particular Camino journey. It did not deter us and we began walking into the mist and up the mountain. Our first stop was at the Monastery de Poio, a 15th century Benedictine monastery that featured, among other spectacular pieces, stone mosaics of the stations of the cross as well as a depiction of pilgrims visiting major towns along the Camino Frances. There were also quite surprisingly, a few Franciscan pieces.  Statues of St. Francis as well as a medieval copy of “The Little Flowers of St. Francis” hand done in beautiful calligraphy. It also features an impressive hórreo (granary) which served to shelter us as we ate our lunch underneath.

A long and foggy walk under barely visible conditions, eventually ended at our albergue which is managed by a mother and daughter who volunteer here out of a love for the Camino and pilgrims. The mother is responsible for all the signage on this branch of the Camino. She has walked and driven along the route putting up the signs and maintaining the landscape around the chapels along the way. This Variante Espiritual is really the work of this woman for the past four years. Our arrival today marked the 1000th pilgrim to come this way. The mother and daughter are here every day to welcome pilgrims and offer them beverages and breakfast, even on Christmas Day!

After a nap and a shower I strolled over to the Monasterio de Armenteira, a Cistercian monastery founded in the 12th century, to participate in vespers. There are now only eight nuns at the monastery that is annexed to a gorgeous, yet very simple Gothic cathedral. The vespers interestingly enough were less formal than other vespers in that a few of the nuns offered personal reflections on the day’s events and the readings. One or two of them became rather emotional as they shared their thoughts. I was in awe of their devotion and faith. They are a lovely group who support themselves by making soaps. Probably a grand enterprise for the dirty pilgrims that come this way. I only wish I could have purchased some to support them but it would mean schlepping them to Santiago.

I thought a great deal about the nuns as we sat and ate our little pilgrim’s dinner under a grape arbor. They all seemed so happy and at peace.  As they were offering their reflections, I only wish I’d had a better command of Spanish. But what little I understood was so honest and sincere. A couple of them talked about their struggles, or the insights that they had gained throughout the course of the day. They ended their prayers with a beautiful petition for the pilgrims in attendance, asking for safety, peace and spiritual enlightenment while traveling to Santiago. It was a meaningful and very spiritual hour. A beautiful way to end the first day’s journey into the deep unknown but so far very fulfilling first day on our Variante Espiritual.

As I finish this, I’m sitting at the albergue talking with the hospitaleros, two young Portuguese girls, a man from Denmark and a gentleman from Great Britain, discussing today’s trek and how we are looking forward to tomorrow’s downhill walk towards the river.  Everyone has had such different experiences and has singular and collective impressions of this Camino, all unique but clearly everyone on this path is here for reasons that are unfolding.  It’s interesting how low key, yet so warm and friendly this little band of pilgrims is and how warm and welcoming this mother and daughter are. It is an incredible pilgrim experience.  We are actually all “stuck” with one another for the next two days as we walk this very special path.  I am looking forward to what comes next.

Peace,

Alex

A Guarda, Mougás and Vigo

The night we spent at the Carmelite Monastery in Viana do Castelo couldn’t have ended on a better or more festive note. After wandering the town with my new Irish pals and Irena, we happened upon a restaurant on a side street that definitely was not a tourist establishment. We hit the jackpot. Marco our waiter and Fatima the chef and proprietress took excellent care of us, making and serving a superb seafood dinner. Everyone had the Gambas (grilled shrimp) which Marco recommended with great enthusiasm and I opted for the grilled sardines – another house speciality. My sardines were wonderful (not as good as the ones I had in Vila do Conde – but that doesn’t mean they were bad). What made them exceptional was the simple tomato and onion salad that accompanied them. Dressed with a drizzle of Portuguese olive oil and a bit of salt, made a memorable feast. We also enjoyed some spectacular Portugese red wine breaking the bank at 6 euro a bottle!  This was really one of those amazing finds that every now and then you stumble upon when you travel.  Everyone else in this tiny restaurant (about 7 tables) was Portuguese, ignoring the menu and just ordering the daily specials. The perfect ending to a good day’s walk.

Sunday morning I left the Carmelite albergue at 6 a.m. to set out on what I anticipated as being an easy day’s walk to Marinhas which would be my last stop in Portugal with the possibility of crossing into Spain if all went well. The guidebook said that the walk was about 18 miles (we all know by now it’s always a bit more), so I thought it was going to be a nice easy walk on flat terrain, hugging the coast. A “day at the beach” it was not entirely.  The walk out of the center of town to the shoreline took me through some sketchy parts by the docks and the bus depot. There were also the occasional pairs or trios of young men who were still making their way home from a Saturday night out on the town, singing what I could only imagine were sailor drinking songs. The darkness before dawn and the thick fog created an atmosphere of John Carpenter’s film “The Fog.” I began to have one of those moments where I questioned my judgement for leaving early and alone. Nevertheless my intense dislike and laziness of turning back, kept me moving forward along the desolate, misty and very rocky shoreline. A very different beach scene than what I had experienced for the past few days. I walked for a couple of hours alone, and soon met one or two lone joggers or walkers along the lonely concrete boardwalk. Seeing an abandoned public swimming pool next to the rocky shore only added to the horror movie quality of my walk. The only thing missing was a creepy music soundtrack to accompany me.

I finally ran into some dunes and an area that might have been the beginning of civilization. The boardwalks would end and begin and end again. Again, it was not the bucolic walk that I had enjoyed for the past few days, but at least the fog was beginning to lift whilst I was encountering people that could have been extras for the “Zombie Apocalypse.” All the while, there was not a single yellow arrow to be found anywhere. I was going entirely on my sense that I needed to hug the coast while at the same time trying to follow the stupid map in my Camino guidebook. At one point there was a fork in the path and I went right rather than left onto what seemed to be a high climb over rocks on the beach. I probably should have gone to the rocks onto the beach, because apparently on the other side of the rocks was the boardwalk again. Nevertheless  what I took was a lovely path that was also a jogging and cycling path that wound around through some forest like areas. I could see the beach in the distance so I knew I wasn’t too far away. I finally pushed through some cornfields to get onto the boardwalk again, quite thrilled with myself. I had only gone about two or three kilometers out of my way. Funny how its all relative on the Camino. All the the sudden the boardwalk ended onto a dirt path which led to another fork in the road after about another two kilometers.  This time I chose to go left and in hindsight, I should have gone right. After a bit of walking on the path, it ended on a lovely, desolate deep sand beach. Now you know I wasn’t going back. So I valiantly trudged along the beach with my pack while sinking into the sand and collecting most of it in my shoes, which I eventually took off.  It was a slight to almost no improvement, and now the sun had decided to appear, killing the fog and beating relentlessly down on me.  Picture a hobbit sized Robinson Caruso and you get a sense of the staging of it all.  There was also not a single human in sight as far as I could see. I kept plodding along, getting hotter, crankier and considerably more exhausted with every step. Once again I began to seriously question my judgment with regard to taking this particular Camino, or making a pilgrimage of any kind at the moment.  All I wanted to do was sit down. But then that would mean getting back up which would have added to my sea turtle like struggle.

After about another forty five minutes of my sand sinking slow salsa I saw what appeared to be a grass hut with the ever familiar Olá ice cream flag in the distance. Never have I been happier this week. My struggle continued and I made it up the steps to Shangri-La, ordered an  “Água mineral” and “Uma Clara.”  The man behind the counter didn’t blink that it was 10 a.m., I was ordering a beer and guzzled it down.  He calmly drew me another without me asking and told me it was on the house or “hut” in this case. I sat watching the surfers, sipping my next one and becoming almost normal again.  At that moment I heard my name being called and I turned around and it was Saoirse and Áine, two of the lovely Irish ladies coming up the boardwalk.  I was so happy to see them.  Eventually we made our way to the rest of the group and carried on together for the remainder of the day until we hit the border town of A Guarda in Spain.  There was a good deal more sand walking interspersed with board walking.  The group began to feel the heat and different aches and pains and blisters, it became almost the Bataan Death March of sorts to the Portuguese/Spanish border.  It was a quite the comical (I can say it now) single file march in slow motion, with a few members limping and drooping as we made our way to the ferry boat off in the distance.  Too many details to report at this point. We opted to leave Portugal, walking through Marinhas and headed into Spain, carrying our cups of Super Bock beer onto the ferry.

After a ferry ride that cost 1 euro each, and the immediate one hour time change, we made our way to the lovely IKEA decorated albergue in A Guarda run by the ebullient hospitalaro Antonio who greeted us all with a big hug and a scallop shell.  A warm welcome indeed.  Showers and laundry and dinner were had and we began to feel like pilgrims rather than savages again.

My day at the beach led me to contemplate once again the terrible plight and suffering of refugees. While I was feeling quite sorry for myself as I struggled on the beach, once I saw the snack stand I knew I was going to be able to purchase something to quench my thirst and eventually get a shower and dinner.  How many people, Syrian refugees and others are walking and walking in oppressive heat, with little to no money, being chased by others, and abused by those they encounter along the way, made to feel unwelcome both coming and going. No doubt very few, if any. of them have the privilege I do to have another beer poured for them without having to ask and without having to pay. None of them have the option to sit and rest and “regroup” and even take a taxi if need be, without giving it a second thought. I chose to go off into the “unknown,” taking the chance that all will be well. My silly nervousness and uncomfortable walk on Sunday morning is something that happens to migrants every single day. Walking out into the dark, literally and metaphorically, and often with consequences that do not end as happily as my day did. It’s an international crisis that we are all responsible for rectifying.

Yesterday (Monday, August 1st), I left bright and early heading towards the coast walking into one of the most delicious morning breezes and sunrises I have ever felt and seen. It was basically a 12 kilometer walk along the sea where I encountered only one or two elderly. people on morning constitutionals. When I arrived in Oia, I sat enjoying my café con leche when the Irish ladies, Saoirse, Áine, Siobhan, Aoife and Sile arrived full of their great Irish brogues, wit, banter and humor.They invited me to join their merry band to the night’s lodging uncovered by Sile, which promised spectacular views of the ocean, a salt water pool and an albergue that was donation based. The donation that was asked was to purchase a few items in their grocery store and give it to the local food bank. Everything about “Camping Mougás Albergue” was all magnificently true and even better! Xavi our host bent over backwards for us, providing us with fresh linens, giving each of us a personalized scallop shell, translating the menu into English and telling us exactly when the sun was going to set and where we should sit on the terrace to watch it. After a wonderful dip in the saltwater pool overlooking the sea we enjoyed our beverages and dinner on the terrace with an view and sunset the likes of which I have never seen.

While we were eating dinner Xavi brought over Hernando from Portugal who is cycling to Santiago.  Although Hernando kept apologizing for his very poor English (It was nothing short of amazing!), we had a wonderful conversation about family and life. This was his third cycling pilgrimage to Santiago, something he has been doing for the past few years.  He works in a ceramics factory in Fátima, where he is from, and is the father of four children, one of whom is autistic. His wife encourages him to make this pilgrimage every year. There was just something so serenely quiet about him, just a very happy man who enjoyed life and was grateful to be able to make the journey. I began to think this was just another marvelous aspect of pilgrimage. Meeting, sitting and enjoying dinner and the company of total strangers. Imagine being in a restaurant and having the manager bring over another patron and saying “This person is alone, he will join you for dinner.” Yet, what a great opportunity that gets passed by. How many of us sit in hotel restaurants while on business trips and we eat alone and go back to our rooms, shut the door to watch tv and continue to be alone, not interacting with anyone other than the wait staff, hotel reception and the people we are meeting for business. Such missed opportunities to meet and learn about the lives of others and discover how much we have materially, but also the rich opportunities for conversation and the exchange of ideas. Why does it only seem to happen on pilgrimage? Why is it so difficult to do something as simple as saying “Good morning” to the person next to you on the subway or invite another person to share dinner with you? It’s acceptable behavior on the Camino, we should think about doing it more often in our daily lives.

After the wonderful stay in Mougás, it was time to continue up the coast this morning to Vigo.It was a brutally hot day but again with marvelous views of the ocean and the islands off in the distance. We walked alongside resort beaches that could rival the French Riviera, finally arriving in Vigo. It’s a bigger city than I thought and we happily fell into our hostel exhausted and needing showers. We went out for a Tapas meal and tumbled into bed in anticipation of tomorrow’s journey which will be a diversion. Some of us have decided to branch out and follow a little traveled path now called the “Spiritual” diversion that will follow the route of St. James’ body as it came ashore in Spain and then was taken inland. We’re trying it with little information and one small questionable blog post that we’ve found, but it it works, it looks pretty cool. Sadly tonight Aoife leaves us to return home to Ireland. It’s nice to have made her acquaintance and I look forward to seeing her again soon without a doubt.

Peace,

Alex


Viana do Castelo

I left the lovely albergue at 6 a.m. in the company of Irena from Amsterdam. More about Irena in a minute. This albergue was incredibly spotless and peaceful.  One major difference between the Camino Portuguese and the Camino Frances, is that since there are fewer pilgrims, there is no rush for beds at albergues every night, diminishing some of the stress that can occur towards the end of a long day’s journey. It was a municipal albergue, run by the local confraterinity of St. James, and Ricardo, our hospitolaro couldn’t have been sweeter. Laundry was done, with ease, showers were plentiful with hot water and the company was just grand. It was nice to see people and start talking to folks from different places – Ireland, Switzerland, France, the Czech Republic, South Africa, England, California and The Netherlands.

Irena told me on our walk this morning that she had just finished the Camino Frances (walking from St. Jean to Santiago) and she took a train down to Porto to begin the Camino Portuguese. And people think I’m a little nuts for doing two Caminos in one year! When I asked her motivation, she told me that she had basically quit life recently. I love it! What a concept to unpack and mull! Quit her job, her boyfriend and needed a break. In addition to the boyfriend, she was working about 60-70 hours a week as a restaurant manager in Amsterdam and as a skipper on a cruise boat through the famous canals of Amsterdam. I wanted to just lie down on the ground and take a nap after listening to all that she was juggling. So after sleeping for a few weeks she decided to walk the Camino – always a good solution to life’s little and big problems…or even when you don’t have problems as far as I am concerned. She is a very sweet girl – when I say “girl” she’s in her 30’s…so I can say it. We had a lovely conversation about family and work and many things, including religion. Always the working holiday for me! But it was fun, because even though she has been walking the Camino for weeks now, she didn’t know the history of the pilgrimage, so I got to put my professor cap on (unfortunately I left my very cool cap from Fordham that I just recently acquired, at home) and we talked about the history of this particular pilgrimage as well as other pilgrimages. It was a great conversation and helped to make the walk more enjoyable.

Today’s walk, despite being part of what is known as the coastal route was entirely inland. A not unrelated note, it was indeed longer than 17 miles, according to my phone it was 23.6. While I am sure that John Brierley, the author of my guidebook is a lovely gentleman, I think his calculations are really off. Or, perhaps, since my steps are shorter than others, my GPS clocks more mileage. Just ask Mike Ward about our walk around Rome this past Easter. It was also the first day where we had some hills to climb. I won’t go into how I HATE these damn hills. I know I moaned and complained about it enough in posts from previous years. HATE THEM SO MUCH!!!!!  However, it was an overcast day, so at least the sun wasn’t beating down on us as we walked through the little villages, towns and eucalyptus forests. As much as the eucalyptus is an invasive plant and drains the water from these parts of Portugal and Spain, I love them because they always remind me of my grandfather. So that always makes for a lovely time to thin about him and remember him.

It seems to be festa season in many of the towns as when you pass through there are lights and signs on all the street lamps. There are kiddie rides set up, food stalls, live music and all the churches are open, filled to the brim with flowers. The statues in the churches are on special stands, wearing special costumes and adorned with more flowers, so they can be carried around the town. Very early this morning one of the villages we walked through had a little band marching around and ringing doorbells to remind people of the festa. I though 7:30 a.m was a wee bit early to be doing this, especially on a Saturday, but no one seemed disturbed. All the cemeteries were being tended to by the towns people, old flowers weeded out and new flowers being put on the gravestones. The nex village we walked through was blaring a recording of traditional Portuguese songs from the bell tower of the church. Seemed a little like what life must have been like in the USSR or Communist China with public loudspeakers blaring propoganda at all hours of the day, but again, no one seemed to be bothered in the least bit.

We bumped into Monika from San Diego, who decided to walk from Porto as well. She has some time before she returns to Phuket, Thailand where she is teaching English. People in this world do the most interesting things.

Across a rather large and long bridge we eventually made it to our destination for the day, Viana do Castelo. I walked the narrow pedestrian part looking straight ahead and never down. It made me a bit nervous. However it became fun when a few Vespas drove by high fiving us!

Because the albergue did not open until 3 p.m. we plopped ourselves in the cafe next door to the albergue only to find the five Irish ladies enjoying coffee, vino and Super Bock, the Portuguese beer, as well as sandwiches. It was great to see all of them. We’re becoming fast friends and they are such a lively and fun bunch.

The albergue we’re staying in tonight is a Carmelite monastery. VERY simple, but very clean. Again, there is no run on beds. There are a total of 15 of us here. The nice priest gave us all sheets, towel, and pillows and told us to leave our keys in the box when we left in the morning.

Tomorrow may very well be my last day of walking in Portugal. My plan is to walk along the seaside (I like this inland route, but I love the seashore more) up to Caminha. From there you can either take the ferry or hire a fishing boat (I think that sounds like fun) to cross into Spain. I may just walk a little farther to try and gain some kilometers in order to arrive in Santiago on the 7th as was my original plan before I was happily side tracked in Porto.

No major insights for today. A good day of walking and talking to people – making new friends and learning more about those I’ve met already. Not sure who’s walking which route tomorrow, so I could very well be on my own again, but that’s just fine. It’s been nice to have some time alone as well as time with others. This Camino is reminding me of the importance to find and enjoy that balance. I do spend a good bit of time alone, but it’s often spent at home working, writing, reading, paying bills, etc. The stuff of life, not really contemplative time. I get that when I’m puttering in my garden at home, but the siren song of obligations and commitments often brings me back inside or out into NYC to do what needs to be done. The Camino is different. My biggest concern is getting up the hill (at least that was today’s concern), taking a shower and washing off the grime and dirt of the day, and truth be told, that is not always 100% successful. Doing my little pile of laundry – today it was by hand in a scrub basin – hanging it to dry and then repacking for tomorrow’s walk. Life is pretty darn simple. Of course I am checking email but trying not to do it as much as I do at home. And I am still teaching an online class, but since I’m only setting aside an allotted period of time in the late afternoon/evening to do this work, it feels really liberating and good. I need to learn how to detach from the web with greater ease at home. I need to bring more of the Camino balance into my daily life at home! Life doesn’t have to be as complicated as I make it.

So that’s it for today. Nothing that exciting to write about, but I’m having a wonderful time. My feet are holding up with no blisters (fingers crossed), my legs feel fine (fingers crossed again) and I’ve been able to schlepp my backpack with no problem. It is a bit heavier that when I left because I’ve been carrying about two liters water with me a day. Motivation to stay hydrated as well as diminish the weight each day!

So perhaps Spain tomorrow or the next day…we’ll see!

Peace,

Alex

Marinhas

My Camino guide said that it was going to be a 28 kilometer day which is about 17 miles. My phone informs me that I actually walked 27.53 miles today. I’m beginning to realize that the guidebook is calculating the kilometers based on the main coastal route and not the seashore path that I have been walking. I’m a little tired right now.

I think today was “boot camp” pilgrimage. Yesterday was a lovely first day of walking. A spring in my step and heart. A gorgeous day with a beautiful ocean view. Today was much the same, but pilgrimage life became a little more “real” today. It was as if I was on a Marine training exercise where the objective is to break down the body, mind and spirit to rebuild it – hopefully stronger and wiser!

To say it was HOT today would be an understatement. Thank goodness for brilliant ocean breezes that are a welcoming respite. It’s also amazing to discover that if you walk one block inland, how hotter it becomes. I tried to hug the sea all day today. As a result, I think I added those extra kilometers.

As I started out this morning, passing all the cabanas and proprietors setting up their concessions for the day, I walked past an elderly gentleman on his morning constitution. He asked me if I was Italian and I told him I was American. He told me he was Portuguese. Naturally. Of course then he started speaking to me in Portuguese and I panicked. Why oh why do I seem to continually have these encounters?  And why could it never be with a gentleman closer to my own age and not my grandfather’s. Of course I can never be impolite, so I stood there patiently listening to him, contributing to the conversation by nodding my head every time he paused and occasionally saying “sim” – the word for yes.I really just wanted to start walking again. But as I stood there I began to understand that he was asking me if I was headed to Santiago. Or he was telling me that there was an uprising in Santiago, I’d like to believe it was the latter. What I came to realize was that he was offering some very careful directions from here to Santiago – about a nine day walk mind you. What dawned on me that if you listen, even when you don’t really understand what is being said, you can actually begin to understand. Of course since Santiago is over a week away, the GPS directions took about 15 minutes. But it was a great lesson for me in patience and recognizing that I don’t really take the time to listen. When someone else is speaking, my mind is usually racing to my response, or is off somewhere else, rather than being fully focused on the present. In this case, because I had to pay attention to words that might be similar in languages that I do understand a bit better, I had to and did give him my undivided attention. Something that I need to practice with every conversation that I am engaged in. Now again, he could have been giving me totally false directions, or telling me to go drown in the river when the boat crosses into Spain, but I’d like to think he was a good minded fellow. After we parted ways, I did see some of what he was talking about regarding today’s journey.

As I said, it was a difficult day of walking today and as a result I ended up focusing on a number of negative issues I’ve been mulling. It’s funny how when things aren’t so easy, how I can look at life through that sort of lens, thinking about everything negative. After a stop for a beer and an aqua fresca – the Portuguese agua con gas, I began to feel better. Hydration is a really good thing for a person’s body, mind and spirit!  And after that, instead of thinking my miserable thoughts I began to think about all the refugees and migrants who have to walk in oppressive heat and who don’t have the luxury that I have to be able to stop for a beer or a nice lunch, and buy a big two liter bottle of water so I can continue to stay hydrated. I also choose to carry this pack with all my high tech quick drying gear as well as my mini medical kit and of course my iPad and camera so I can stay connected and document my life. Others carry the worldly possessions that they were able to grab before they left – and not all could, their children and their elderly in their arms and on their backs. They cannot avail themselves of 30 SPF sunscreen, proper hiking shoes and band aids. It’s a sobering reminder of just how privileged a life I lead and while this pilgrimage is one that has elements of suffering, it is one that I have decided to undergo out of choice. The pilgrimages of the refugees and migrants are certainly not walks of choice or privilege and I think their journeys offer us tremendous opportunities to consider what we can do to help and how we can avert this growing crisis. It’s not someone else’s problem or some other country’s problems. It’s a world problem and we in the United States need to generously and warmly welcome refugees and assist them in finding homes and work and school and medical care. Each one of us has a family story and history that brought us to the United States. We cannot deny others what what privileged to our ancestors or us.

Finally arrived here at the albergue around 3:30 p.m. just as the Irish ladies did. We washed, did laundry and had a silly dinner in the only restaurant in the village which was across from the cemetery. As a result, we had front row seats to the funeral cortage of a 91 year old woman. It seems that just about everyone in the town showed up. What a beautiful tribute.

I hope tomorrow will really be a 17 mile day. The map shows that most of the route is an inland walk, so I shall see. Who knows who I’ll meet. It’s always someone who has some kind of lesson that I need to contemplate.

Peace,

Alex

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Vila do Conde

“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), It’s always our self we find in the sea.” – e.e. Cummings

Well I made it to today’s intended destination.  This Caminho certainly isn’t the Camino I am accustomed to walking.  I guess the next ten to twelve days will reveal many things.

I got an early start and was out the door of the hostel at 6:53 a.m.  I actually took the metro to the “edge” of Porto.  It was suggested that this would be a good option instead of walking from the Cathedral.  This eliminated about 12 kilometers from the walk, but apparently it’s a really tough walk through a lot of industrial areas.  When I arrived at Matosinhos at the Ponte Móvel, I crossed the bridge as instructed – a very nice symbolic way to begin the journey – and then I froze.  I didn’t know which way to turn.  There were no arrows!  I walked around for a bit and finally found one.  That was the only one I found for about an hour or so. I knew I was headed in the right direction as the plan was to walk up the coastline.  So I understood that if I kept the ocean to my left and the lighthouse in front of me, I was going to be fine.  Hate to think where I would have walked to or how I got there if the ocean was on my right!

The route was quiet, a number of people taking their morning walks alone, with others, with their dogs.  It was rather barren for a good bit of time and then the colorful beach cabanas started to appear and the beach goers began to make their way to the seaside for the day.

There’s just something about walking along the ocean even when you’re schlepping a backpack.  Within minutes my mindset changed.  And I hadn’t even realized that it needed to.  My pace calmed down, as did my brain.  I think it was around then when I went back into a familiar and comforting zone – pilgrimage mode.  It took some realization though to recognize it. All of the sudden I noticed a change and thought, wow, this feels good.  And I remembered how and why. Funny, I thought I was already there, but as I began to think about the last few days, especially my time in Porto, I was really being more of the tourist – the actual reason why I extended my stay there for an extra day.  I certainly don’t regret having done so, but it was continual movement for over 48 hours and I felt saturated with history, facts, trying to soak in as much of the beautiful atmosphere and culture that I could in a short period of time.  I literally did start checking things off my map and would then move onto the next cultural or culinary destination.  No time to really reflect and be calm.   And while I do consider the side trip to Fatima a pilgrimage of a certain kind – it was almost a no brainer to go and, in the words of Fran Di Spigno one of those “While we’re here” moments.  It would be silly to go all the way to Portugal and not make that particular detour.  I was glad that I did, but it was a limited visit that was made entirely on jet lag fumes…but I digress from today’s little insight that I have gleaned, which may be that pilgrimage is good for the body, mind and soul. Frankly it’s not a new insight, but today has just reminded me in a very real way how absolutely true that is.

Once I began walking I noticed that my anxiety about whether or not I was going to get to my destination diminished. The rhythm of my little steps connected with my breath and my silly mind stopped kvetching, worrying and thinking about work.  The view of the Atlantic Ocean was absolutely spectacular to say the least…pictures will be shared.  It was a beautiful day walking on the boardwalk through nature sanctuaries, filled with wildlife and flora.  It was wonderful to see everyone enjoying the ocean, whether fishing, digging in the sand, basking in the sun or enjoying coffee, lunch and family time.  There were many children’s camps taking advantage of the ocean, and in that sense, offered a reminder that our different cultures are not so different.  Children need activities in the summer!

I walked past fishing villages with the catch of the day literally being hauled off the boats. Sardines, Octopi (is that correct?) all being prepared for feasting later in the day.  There is a very laid back vibe along the beach route as one might expect, and a very friendly one as well.

About midmorning I bumped into five girls from Ireland and then again a couple of more times. We ended up sharing some gorgeous red wine this evening. Other than that fun group (gosh I hope I see more of them along this pilgrimage…I really like them already!), I have met a young girl from Switzerland here at the hostel who is walking her first Camino and wrote to her sister telling them that I was 43 years old. Love her already!  They are the only pilgrims I have met.  So between almost no arrows pointing the way and very few pilgrims, this is not going to be a typical Camino. I suppose that’s a good thing, and I’m trying to stay open. I guess I’m being pushed out of my Camino comfort zone in the same way I was being pushed out of my natural comfort zone three years ago when I decided to walk the Camino Frances. I have had to remind myself every now and then throughout the day that all will be well, there’s no need to worry. Just let it happen. It may take a few days to re adjust myself, but in the meantime I survived the first day AND enjoyed a delicious meal of grilled sardines and some amazing white wine for 10 euro!!!. “It’s what’s for dinner” here on the Portuguese coast.

Tomorrow is another new adventure. I’m trying to just get back into the “let go and have faith” mode. Honestly it’s been a challenge, but I think today’s walk was a wonderful reminder for me about why I love pilgrimage. It allows me to slow down, observe and speak with a renewed heart  It’s a gentle experience of recognizing the beauty of this world and how interconnected and interdependent all of creation truly is. The ocean meets the rivers on this walk, the sea life supports human life and humans care for the wildlife and natural world through protecting, preserving, and enjoying this magnificent coastline.

I was reminded more than once today that the idea of being independent and autonomous does not work on earth. And there is astonishing joy to be discovered and celebrated in the confluence and intersection of life along the sea.

Please know that you are all in my thoughts and prayers (not sure you should count on the effectiveness of the latter…still a great deal of work that needs to be done there).

Peace,

Alex

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” – Mother Teresa

O Porto

I’m wondering if I’m ever going to start my Caminho…or is this going to be an entirely different one with minimal walking and more indulgence, even though I think these Caminos have been a very self indulgent exercise (no pun intended), the last 24 hours or so have been more “tourist” than “pilgrim” oriented.

I arrived yesterday afternoon to the beautiful city of Porto on the banks of the Rio Douro – ‘River of Gold.’  This is the city from which the country of Portugal took it’s name in the 12th century. Henry the Navigator was born here in 1394 and by about the 15th century, Porto had a formidable role in the maritime discoveries of the New World. The historical center is a World Heritage site and the city is a designated European City of Culture. They also love their football here and it is evident everywhere you look, most especially since Portugal just won the Euro 2016, defeating France and scoring their first major football trophy. And that’s about as much of Howard Cosell I’m going to be able to channel.

My original plan was to stay overnight and begin walking my Caminho today, but after a couple of hours walking around yesterday afternoon I decided to extend for one more day. In this whirlwind stay I was able to take a cruise along the river and see all the bridges. It was a great way to spend a really hot afternoon! I also visited a couple of port wine lodges, the Cathedral – which is the starting point for the Caminho out of Porto, the Carmelite church, the open market, had a wonderful dinner, tasted a couple of nice Portuguese wines and the list goes on. Everywhere you turn you find the beautiful Portuguese tile, on the sides of every building and within many of the interiors.

One of the (many) highlights was a visit to the Church and Monastery of St. Francis. The Church has been de-consecrated 😦 and it is now a museum. The church has one of the most incredible and impressive interiors I have ever seen; gilded carvings everywhere you turn your head. Sadly you are not allowed to take photographs, but I purchased the brochure for 1 euro that has some photos of these magnificent carvings. There is a marvelous Tree of Jesse there as well as a very graphic carving of the five Franciscan martyrs who went to the Middle East – one body is headless, his head is elsewhere in the carving with the blood red paint accent!

Tomorrow begins the adventure into the unknown following the Portuguese coastline. I’m looking forward to something new, but still pretty nervous about the decision to walk this route. As I’ve noted ad naseaum here in the blog and to any of you who have had the great misfortune of listening to me drone on and on about pilgrimage, it’s a sacred movement that is shared by many of the world’s religious traditions. Personally, I have found it to be an extraordinary opportunity to get out of my everyday routine and reassess what I’m doing in life and why I’m doing it. I don’t always get answers to those particular questions, but making pilgrimage provides different questions and/or answers to questions I didn’t know were brewing. Every pilgrimage I have made has stayed with me and continues to unfold and reveal new things to me…even when I walk the same route over and over. Because it never is the same route.  The people are different, the weather changes, I’m always older, the world is a different place every day. But there’s always something(s) that manages to capture my spirit when I walk. The grandeur of God is everpresent in the floral pathways, the bees collecting nectar, the scent of the honey that they make, the cows grazing on a mountainside in a rainstorm, walking in silence with another, the vineyards as far as the eye can see, or enjoying a tortilla and cerveza with students. It’s wonderful to remember each prior journey as I walk, anticipating the familiar landmarks, but experiencing them in new ways and with new (and wise) souls who accompany me. There are always pilgrims, behind and in front, walking to Santiago for myriad reasons, some very private, others not as much.  But they walk, in the sun, with blistered toes and with joy.  There is a great deal of suffering on the camino, yet the complaints are few and far between. Rarely does a person stop and say “I’m in so much pain, why am I here, I quit.” There is a lot of “Why am I here, why am I doing this,” yet the movement towards Santiago continues with the many levels and stages of wellness in body, mind and spirit.

I’m still not sure why I’m doing this, and as one of my students recently commented – “Two Caminos in one summer?”  I flippantly responded that perhaps I have much to atone for.  That part is certainly true, but I think it might also have something to do with the idea that pilgrimage can be frightening and uncertain, while at the same time  offering incredible peace and security.  It’s a paradoxical journey. It’s a journey that allows me to push my insecurities and doubts about myself, who I am, what I’ve done, and what I hope for, in different ways.  It’s honestly an opportunity for me to think about my faith, or if truth be told, the lack thereof. I always feel safe on pilgrimage, so maybe that’s got some element of faith there. I enjoy the walking because it never fails to remind me that there is good in this crazy, scary world we are in. There is definitely more good than evil. Unfortunately the good rarely makes the headlines. And yet we see it everyday all around us in many forms. We just need to honor and celebrate it more frequently…like every minute!

On pilgrimage people are vulnerable and they need to rely on themselves, their instincts, the environment and on other people.  Most of the time, it all works, and reflects just how wonderful it is to be alive and in the company of all of the created world.  I also think that I make these pilgrimages because I’m searching for something. It’s not an elusive something, or a “prize” like the ring, but a something that draws and beckons and continually reveals with every step and every visit to a shrine, or a sanctuary, or with every person who asks for prayers along the way. Don’t know if it’s working, but for some reason I keep coming back for more and I know it’s got to be more than the good food, beverages and sunshine. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything beyond a list of new foods and wines I’ve tried, or tales about some of the kooky people I may meet, because I always seem to meet them wherever I go.

I’m posting a few photos of Porto, that probably don’t reflect how wonderful this city actually is.  Keep your fingers crossed that I make it to tomorrow’s destination – Vila do Conde.

Peace,

Alex