The hotel attendant walked me down a very long, wide, immense stone hallway and showed me to my room. It was just what I needed! A small, cell-like room with a small bed, nightstand with no lamp, simple desk with a simple chair, high ceilings and a huge window on one of the stone walls. The bathroom had an old fashioned toilet with the water tank hanging from the ceiling with a chain to pull for flushing. The door was old and worn and shower curtain was flimsy, but I was grateful to have my own room and I was glad to have a refuge away from the teeming crowds on the streets outside. The decor was the ultimate in Spartan, with no frills, no decoration and no color. But I just wanted peace and quiet after my long, exhausting trek and this Benedictine monastery was perfect!! This was the Monastery of San Martiño Pinario which once belonged to the Benedictine order of monks from the 1200´s to the 1800´s. In the 1840´s, the Spanish government confiscated Church property and dissolved the Benedictine Order of monks and today it is a public building which houses pilgrims and tourists.
As I stood under the portals around the enormous inner courtyard, with its massive stone fountain, I pictured Benedictine monks walking in silence through the huge stone building going to prayers or congregating in the cavernous dining room for meals. I wondered who had been the occupant of the small cell which was my sleeping quarter for the night. Later that evening when I returned to my room, the enormous three story structure with the moon and translucent grey clouds in the night sky, brought me thoughts of witchcraft and the horrors of the Black Death during the Middle Ages. I became kind of afraid to sleep in my stone cell alone…… but I took comfort in knowing that there had also been centuries of prayer within these stone walls. I slept comfortably and soundly. I woke up to take coffee and bread in the cavernous dining hall which had me as its only guest. A lone, friendly waiter brought me coffee. He poured it out of a giant silver tea kettle which looked like a relic from the Middle Ages. Our conversation about Los Angeles echoed off of the stone walls as if we were talking inside a Cathedral. It was definitely one of the most interesting breakfast settings I have ever experienced.
That day, I had walked into Santiago de Compostela after finishing my 500 mile pilgrimage on the Camino. I had walked into a town swarming with tourists and pilgrims!! This was the antithesis of a Spiritual Homecoming! I found myself guarding my purse against pickpockets rather than dropping to my knees and kissing the ground. Most hotels were full and the only available pilgrim´s hostal was too far for me to walk after limping through my last 18 miles on sore right foot with a numb heel. I could not lug my backpack one more mile!! Thankfully, the Monastery of San Martiño Pinario had one of its 126 rooms available. I was happy to have a room in a monastery where I could be cloistered from the crowds, throw off my sweaty clothes, and begin life anew after finally finishing the Camino!
I had begun my morning in the small non-descript town called Acra about 18 miles away from Santiago de Compostela. I was extremely happy to finally be finishing my very long 42 day trek!! The last three days I had been forced to send my backpack via taxi because my foot hurt too much and did not want to cause a permanent sports injury. However, on my final day on the Camino, I was determined to carry my backpack under my own power. Miraculously, the pain was almost completely absent for most of the final 18 miles. Thus I began my final day of walking on the Camino…..it seemed like a dream!!! I could not imagine what it would feel like to finally reach Santiago de Compostela after 500 miles of heat, cold, weariness, awe, wonder, frustration, fascination, introspection, revelation, self-examination, prayer, memories, tears, wishes, hopes and dreams……..And here I was!!!!!… I had FINALLY reached my destination!!…… only to find a TOURIST TRAP!!! I found a crowd of pilgrims at the Pilgrims Office where I went to get my “Compostela”. A “Compostela” is an official certificate attesting to the fact that one has walked the Camino de Santiago. It is issued upon arrival to those of us who walked for 500 miles, but it is also awarded to those who did the short version of 60 miles. Most people opt for the short version! As a result, the last 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the Camino were packed with short distance pilgrims eager to get their “Compostelas”.
In the last five days of the Camino, there were crowds of trekkers and accommodations were hard to find. It seemed like it was a “dog-eat-dog” struggle to get a bed. I found myself walking further and further to find a hostal. One day I was stuck in a village called Ferreiros (population 50) where there were no beds available. I had already walked 18 miles in 90 degree heat and I was too tired to continue another eight miles to the next town. Luckily, a small restaurant offered floor space to any pilgrim who bought a meal. I got myself a salad and took a space on the floor in their spare room; as did about 40 other people! That night I slept nestled between two married couples. One of the husbands woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me I was snoring. I was completely embarrassed and was glad I would never see him again! This village had a weird vibe and I did not like it there. The only good thing that happened in Ferreiros, was that I got to rescue a kitten who was trapped inside the motor of a car! After the rescue, I fed it a can of tuna I had in my backpack. There was also a large friendly black dog who reminded me of my recently departed dog Malcolm. I petted him and wished I had food for him also. All these incidents coupled with the constant view of the cemetery a few feet away, made me yearn to finish my trek as soon as possible! I set a goal for walking 31 miles the next day. I knew that it would add soreness to my already strained foot. But I wanted to finish my trek so I got up in darkness, walked through the cemetery and tried to light my way on the stony path with a tiny hand held light.
In Galicia, the cemeteries are located within the church grounds which is a practice I have never seen anywhere else in the world. I found it extremely interesting and I took lots of pictures. The stone churches are usually very small and the mausoleums are lined up along the church perimeter. I read many of the plaques on the tombs and noticed that most people died in their 70´s and 80´s; a testament to the healthy lifestyle in this hidden, rural corner of the world. The villages of Galicia seem like places that time forgot. The old ladies still wear black clothing with scarves tied underneath their chins and the men wear little berets. I loved the music with the bagpipe called a “gaita” and I loved the stone houses although many were in ruins. The young people have left the villages to pursue a life in the cities and often there are only old people left. But the most memorable feature of my trek through the villages of Galicia was the smell, which was pungent cow pooh mixed with fermented grass!!…It will forever be etched in my memory.
Forty-two days ago I had left St. Jean Pres-du-Porte in the French Pyrenees. I was oblivious to what it truly took to walk 500 miles and I am grateful for my ignorance because I had no fear. I was over-loaded, over-fed, and over-burdened. I was weighed down with the deaths of my friend Noni, my friend Shaunie and my dog Malcolm who I had just put down two weeks prior. Thoughts of my sister Martha´s illness still haunted me. I carried my life-long insecurities, worries, fears, hurts and traumas from a relationship. I know I will continue to work on some of these very human issues, but I know that the “Camino” or the “Journey” never ends and the Camino de Santiago has given me strength and clarity.
Here I was on my last day of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. As is customary, every trekker bid me “Buen Camino” or “Good Journey” and I bid them the same. I walked in the footsteps of thousands of other pilgrims who made the same journey for the last thousand years. Many with the same prayers for themselves, their families, their friends and our world. Traveling has always expanded my worldview and made me a more compassionate person. On this trip, I got to spend time with European people and this challenged my hidden stereotypes and assumptions about European people. This has made me a better person. It underscored what I already knew to be true, which is that people are more alike than we are different. I thought of my meeting the retired farmer named Pedro in the outskirts of the town of Villafranca del Bierzo. Pedro seemed like a long lost uncle and we talked politics and I asked him about this part of the world. Before I continued on my way, he insisted on giving me a bag of vegetables from his garden. I could not refuse such a kindhearted gesture even though it meant more weight to carry. I carried the extra four pounds in my pack for several days until they were all eaten. I refused to throw away vegetables that were given to me with so much love and goodwill. His gesture moved me deeply. And there were so many other kind people like “Uncle” Pedro.
In northern Spain, I have walked through a living history book set upon gorgeous scenery. I have learned so much. Traveling on foot made me notice plants and insects. It was a joy to see butterflies, caterpillars and the flora and fauna of this part of the planet. I was forced to endure heat, cold, physical pain and discomfort and it made me stronger and less apt to complain. Breaking down my body with daily strenuous activity helped me to find physical and mental balance. I learned that maintaining this balance through strenuous activity will be essential in my life. I have become more appreciative of a simple cookie, a drink of water, a small bed, a shower with some soap and I grew satisfied with the two changes of clothing I carried. I had more than enough. I was forced to face my choices in life and there was nowhere to run from the emotion that ensued. I could not hide or lie to myself and so I endured painful memories and I emerged with a clearer perspective. Sometimes in my boredom, emotion, awe, facination or weariness I would feel comforted by a reading that a priest had given me at a Pilgrim Blessing in the the town of Belorado in the Meseta….
“The Lord protects you in his shadow. He is at your side.
By day the sun will not harm you, nor will the moon by night.
The Lord protects you from all harm; He protects your soul;
He protects your comings and goings now and forever…” Buen Camino.
By: Patricia Soto