Feliz Navidad from the Camino

James and his new friends were lost. They hadn’t found a yellow arrow in over two hours since leaving behind <town with the famous monument which inspired a famous book>. And they couldn’t see any house or habitation, just woods with multiple paths cutting across. They passed by a pond in a marbly rock outcopping, which would have been tempting to bathe in, but not in these circumstances.

None of them were getting any 3G data in their phones. They followed the sun using cardinal points for a while, but it began getting dark and it would be difficult to continue without any reference.

Jose lit a cigarette and complained “We should have stopped for the day after visiting the <famous monument>.” Mandy added, “Yeah James, we were counting on your experience so we thought we’d accompany you for a bit.” The two of them had begun the camino a couple of days before.

Half a kilometer later they reached a fence-less orchard with apple and pear trees. On a little hill behind, just below the setting sun, was a farmhouse with a car and tractor parked outside. The trio walked up to the house. James knocked on the door.

The farmer who lived there opened the door. Hardly had James begun explaining, that the farmer said “yes, yes, I know you are pilgrims on your way to Santiago de Compostela and you got lost because of the insufficient waymarkers.”

-“I was wondering if you would let us-”

-“Feel free to sleep here for the night. And help yourselves to the apples and pears from the trees.”

-“Thank you, sir! You are most kind.”

-“You are most welcome. Tomorrow morning, I will send my son with you to guide you to the nearest waymarker from where you can find your way.”

James was like “hey, that’s exactly what God said to the prophet Isaiah.”



Der Deutsch Flötist aus Hannover


As far as the eye could see were bare harvested fields. On the horizon, James could see rows wind turbines clearly against the background of dark clouds, their blades rotating quickly in the strong wind. The camino cut through the fields like a thin line made by a knife. The view was a bit monotonous through Castella y León after Burgos, but on the bright side, it was plain without much elevation.

James was in pain from the shin splints. He had been limping and taking pain killers since Belorado. But now he had to hurry to get to Hontanas and beat the rain, since the sky looked threatening. He passed a large pile of hay, below which there was a couple resting. He recognized them as the couple from the albergue in Roncesvalles. “Buen camino,” he shouted. “Buen camino,” they greeted back. The man said, “finally, the weather is how it is in Spain around this time of the year. The sunny weather we had over the last two weeks was a gift.”

He found a way-marker with a sign that said that there were five kilometers more to Hontanas. His right foot was killing him, and for a moment he regretted not having stopped for the day at Hornillos del Camino, a village five kilometers back where he’d stopped to eat. He remembered Juan, who’d decided to accelerate a couple of days before Burgos and wondered where he might have reached. And Ana, who he calculated should be getting to Sahagún. The camino is not a race, he reminded himself. But thinking about his friends who had already walked through these parts encouraged him to soldier on.

A bolt of lightning streaked through the sky, followed by a loud thunderclap. It seemed too close for comfort. As James felt the first of the rain, more than a steady drizzle, he stopped, put on his poncho rain-coat, and the cover on his backpack. A few hundred meters on, and the rain became a heavy downpour. The dusty wheat fields of Castella y León received a generous shower. The wind which moved the wind turbines was now against James, slowing him down. The sudden downpour turned the dusty stretch of the camino into a muddy path. It was now difficult to move through the clay which clings on to footwear. But since there was no shelter, not even a tree, James had no choice but to continue towards Hontanas.

Because of the sound of the rain, James did not hear the footsteps behind him. A tall man who didn’t look like he was more than twenty, reached up to James, nodded, and overtook him. He had a flute dangling from his backpack. “Buen camino, I am James from the USA.” The guy replied, “I am Hans from Hannover.” He was walking faster than James, and seemingly with a lot less effort. James said “I sure hope the albergue at Hontanas is not full, I don’t want to sleep on the street again with the weather like this.” Hans shrugged his shoulder and said “well, if you are such a *****, you shouldn’t be out here on the camino. I played my flute in Burgos and earned enough money for a warm meal, if I sleep rough here, it means I’ll have more money to spend on the next stage.”

James was shocked at the fact that anyone would walk the camino without any margin for emergency. One could get injured on the camino, or need to go back home, which needed some reserve cash at hand. But he was also amazed at Hans’s guts, youthful brashness, and recreation of the conditions of the earliest pilgrims in the 11th century.

James reached the albergue of Hontanas soaked. He did not see Hans at the bar at dinner time, but hoped he was warm and well fed. That day and over the rest of the camino.

The Journey – Every Pilgrim has Baggage

The ground was getting progressively rougher and more difficult to walk on after Astorga. James had spent the night at El Ganso, from where he’d made a phone call to a close friend and co-worker (Author’s note: more on that in a different chapter). After a breakfast of toasted bread, jam, and coffee with milk at Rabanal del Camino, he was once again advancing uphill along the Montes de León.

After a couple of hours of careful treading because of the loose scree, he was at Foncebadón. First at the village. A cute bicigrina from the albergue of El Ganso rode by. “Buen camino,” she shouted. “Buen camino, und viel Glück,” James shouted back. In a matter of minutes, she was out of sight. James was soon out of the village, and a half hour later, he could see the top of the Cruz de Hierro in the distance.

Perhaps as a warning of what was to come ahead, the slight descent towards the clearing was full of scree, and one had to be careful and walk slowly, not to twist an ankle. The Cruz de Hierro is an iron cross on top of a stone pillar, to mark the way during fog. At its base, an enormous mound had formed from the stones left behind by pilgrims. The tradition is that the weight of a stone carried by a pilgrim and left at this spot is added to the weight of his good deeds, on the day of judgement.

James took out the stone he had picked up at the beach back home and walked towards the mound. That was when he saw her. There was a girl huddled up at the base of the pillar with her hands covering her face. Her backpack and bastions lay nearby. As he began climbing up the mound, he realized that she was crying.

James promptly put his stone at the foot of the pillar, then bent down and asked the girl, “are you all right?” She looked up. Her sunglasses covered her eyes, but she looked like she was in her mid-twenties. She did not reply, but took off her sunglasses, and James saw the tears streaming out of her eyes. She looked really tired, but more than that, jaded. He offered her his cantil of water. She drank out of it quickly, as if she had gone thirsty all the while without realizing it. James felt pity.

Finally she said “thank you,” her voice still quaking with emotion. “Is something wrong?” James asked. She replied, her speech intermittently interrupted by her crying, “a guy I loved sincerely had promeised me that the love of our life would happen, and that we’d go to visit Paris. But he soon began abusing me, lied to our friends that I was the one causing problems, and now he’s seeing someone else.”

James bent down and gave her a hug. “You are better off without such types,” he said, “if he’s with someone else and not you, it is because a pig always chooses a piece of sh*t over a pearl.” He was not sure if his words were enough to comfort her, they probably were not. He gave her some of his fruit and cereal bars, and a kiss on her forehead. “Be strong. Enjoy the camino, go to Finisterra and then go back home in peace and start afresh. Buen camino.” She had not stopped crying, but managed to say “buen camino, señor. Thanks for your kindness.”

James put his backpack on and got down the mound and was back on the camino. “What a terrible, disgusting, manipulative son-of-a-b*tch,” he thought and walked away.

The Journey – Coca Cola is a bomb

James, Juan, and Miriam were walking briskly now that the steepest ascent of the Pyrenées was behind them. The terrain had plateaued off and in a few hours of walking along the asphalted road, they would get to Spain. Navarra to be specific, the graffitists had ensured that no pilgrim would miss this point, with “Gora Euskal Herria (long live the Basque country)” spray painted all along the camino through Basque speaking France and Spain.

They came to a sign that said “Last chance to get a French stamp. 2 km.” Twenty minutes later, they came across a man selling water and drinks from his van parked at the side of the road. The three of them took off their backpacks, and got their passports stamped by the man. There were a few pilgrims seated around, resting a bit.

James had filled his water sack from the fountain of Roland, but decided to drink a Coca Cola. No sooner did he buy the can, when it slipped and fell to the ground. Aluminium cans are not as strong as one would expect, and it hit a few stones and.. exploded! Steady streams of coca cola went flying all around, the way fireworks do. An elderly pilgrim got a jet of coca cola hitting his sun-glasses. Miriam’s backpack was closest to the exploding can and bore the brunt of the spill.

Luckily, all the pilgrims and the man selling the drinks were amused and not annoyed. James apologized profusely to the gentleman who got coke on his shades, and to Miriam. He promised to buy her beer once they reached Roncesvalles.

Once they had rested a bit, the three of them set off towards the franco-spanish border. Ibañeta, then Roncesvalles for today. Just a few small stages towards the destination.

As he left, James thought, “Coca Cola is a bomb, and not just a bomb in terms of calories.”

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I have since stopped drinking coca cola and other carbonated drinks. “Miriam” complained a few weeks back that her backpack still smells of coke.]

The Journey – Prologue

“No way am I walking almost one kilometer to eat lunch at this fancy mall’s food court,” protested James, “I have stuff to finish before the end of the day.”

“But its a Friday,” Maria attempted to convince him, “Come on, some fresh air, sunshine, and good company will be a nice way to end the week.”

“Would it kill you to be social once in a while?” shot Paul, the most senior member of the research team.

“Guys, I love your company but its just that today I happen to be hard pressed for time. I’d gladly eat lunch with you if its at the canteen of the mathematics department.”

Finally, Mihai, the most recent member of the team spoke, “Actually, James, if you’d like to go to the canteen, I’ll go with you. Today might not be the best day to eat out for me either. The food court will have to wait for the coming week.”

Just as the two of them are about to leave, Maria says, “I’ll go with you guys. Pedro just texted me saying he’s busy as well today and would prefer eating out another day.”

The four of them sit at a table in the basement canteen, the walls of which have copies of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. The blue early summer sky is visible through the windows.

“I’m thinking of backpacking through northern Portugal and Spain this August,” James said. “In fact, I would like to visit the city of Santiago de Compostela, the third holiest city in Christianity. I heard about it from Paulo Coelho’s book, the alchemist. How does one get there?”

Maria and Pedro were Spaniards. “You could take the bus or train to there,” said Maria. Pedro added, “or you could go there on foot, by bicycle, or horseback, as have millions of people over the last thousand years.”

“That sounds crazy, why would anyone travel to a far off corner of the Iberian peninsula on foot? Wouldn’t it be hundreds of kilometers?”

The Journey – Part …

– Buen camino!
– Buen camino.
– I’m Juan from Madrid.
– I’m James from Lisbon, Maryland.
– There’s a Lisbon in the USA? I’ve been to the Portuguese capital and loved it.
– I might take the bus to Lisbon once I’ve finished the camino.. if time permits.
– Oh yeah, you should! What made you do the camino?
– Well, I can’t say for sure.. but mostly because I got curious after hearing about it from some spanish friends. What’s your reason?
– Wanderlust. As a journalist, I get to travel a lot on my job. But this is a personal and different kind of journey.

As they get closer to the Auberge Orissón, Mont St Michel,
– James, do you want to stop for a drink over there? The apple cider is very good here in the Basque region.
– Yeah, of course! I need a drink and a break.

They sit down with apple cider, coca cola, and orangina.
– What are you reading?
– Lope de Vega, the 16th century writer. He was Cervantes’ contemporary, although not as well known.
– Can I have a look?

Desmayarse, atreverse, estar furioso,
áspero, tierno, liberal, esquivo,
alentado, mortal, difunto, vivo,
leal, traidor, cobarde y animoso;

no hallar fuera del bien centro y reposo,
mostrarse alegre, triste,
humilde, altivo,
enojado, valiente, fugitivo,
satisfecho, ofendido, receloso;

huir el rostro al claro desengaño,
beber veneno por licor süave,
olvidar el provecho, amar el daño;
creer que un cielo en un infierno cabe,
dar la vida y el alma a un desengaño:
esto es amor, quien lo probó lo sabe.

[Source; https://nomesjoana.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/lope-de-vega-soneto-126-desmayarse-atreverse-estar-furioso/]

-Errm.. what does it mean in English?

The Journey part-1

Another morning, another day to get closer to the destination. One ring of the cellphone’s alarm was enough to wake James up. He was usually a light sleeper, but had been sleeping well lately. Without many dreams, and that was a good thing for him.

He quickly got ready and dressed, stuffed his belongings in his backpack, put on his boots, and set out. Once down the main road through Riego de Ambrós he was past the church, then out of the village into the montes de león. Once past the last street light, he switched on his frontal head light.

The path James was walking was well marked. It was not the first time it had been walked on, nor the first time it was written about. Heck, there were even a dozen films on the subject. He asked himself why he was out there and if he was reinventing the wheel in some way. But at the same time, being one of millions and finding himself in these lands, on this path gave him a sense of purpose and peace. Imagine that, the stars of the milky way guiding the path on a tiny, insignificant planet, walked by a microscopic fraction of people who made the choice to do so.

It was a half past six in the morning, but still dark as the night, since it was autumn. It was cold, but wearing a waterproof wind cheater and the brisk pace was enough to keep James warm. One hundred meters onwards, he was faced with a choice – follow the waymarked path or continue along the winding asphalted road? He had learnt the previous night after talking to the villagers that the regular path had a steep descent with a lot of scree. Continuing along the carretera nacional would add 2 km to his distance but was an easier trek. So along he went along the road.

To add to his plethora of thoughts, he now wondered if he was shirking from a responsibility, by deviating from the marked path thereby avoiding a difficult segment.

The road was winding, but James kept to the left of the limiting line. The frontal lamp was enough to illuminate a few meters ahead of him, and the road had reflective delimiters and indicators of curves. At a distance, the lights of the city of Ponferada were visible, through a gap between the mountains. Almost like a distant beacon to which he had to get to through the sea of darkness around him. On all sides, the wooded mountains formed a wall of black silhouettes.

What a terrible time to remember having read in the guidebook about wolves in the mountains! James now felt a creepy sensation and wished he had eyes at the back of his head. He quickened up his pace, held his walking bastions pointing upwards like lances, and continued along the road. Now every sound from the woods, every leaf crackling, every insect sound, seemed too close for comfort. James was not a fighting man. He hadn’t been in a brawl for over a decade. He possessed no weapon or training. He had begun learning martial arts the previous summer but was a newbie.

There was noone else around, neither people nor vehicles. The sound of the engine of a heavy vehicle some ditance away became audible. As it got louder, James stopped, moved to the left side of the road, and let the vehicle pass, making himself visible to the driver. It was a garbage collection truck. Then the sound faded away as the lights of the truck grew dimmer and eventually went out of sight. The structure of the mountains and the valley and the winding roads gave plenty of advance warning about approaching vehicles. But not about bandits or wild animals.

Five kilometers later came a temptation. As the road passed through a plateued region, there was a free camping site where people could pitch up their tents and spend the night. The site was gated and there seemed to be a café which was closed at that time. James considered stopping there until sunrise or until someone else came along. But he decided to carry on, since he had ground to recover that day.

It was getting close to a half past seven. The sun seemed to be taking longer than usual to rise that day. James than realized the necessity for daylight saving time, the twice a year annoying ritual of adjusting clocks.

Then, he saw the figure of a man walking ahead of him, in the same direction. That’s odd, he thought, because there were no houses or inhabitation from where the man could have emerged. The man was walking quite fast. He did not seem to have a backpack, unusual for pedestrians at that place and time, and had on a long black cloak. He seemed to have a small bundle slung across his shoulders, much like the way people would walk the path in the middle ages. But he did not have a scallop shell. James was in part relieved at the sight of another human being, but also in part apprehensive because nothing seemed right about this man. He quickened his own pace to try and get closer. “Hola, buenos dias,” he shouted when he was a few meters behind. But the man did not show any reaction. James then realized that he had come close to running to keep pace with the shadowy figure.

James was now just a couple of meters diagonally behind the mysterious walker. He was almost the same height as James, possibly slightly taller. He shouted out, ‘buenos dias, señor. Eres peregrino?’. At this point the cloaked man stopped and turned around and James saw his face. He was pale, almost skeletal, his face had a several days old stubble which wasn’t yet a beard. But what was the most weird were his eyes – they seemed to be sunken in completely rathern than appear as eyeballs placed in sockets. He had a wry smile, almost a smirk.

He said nothing, made no movement, only stood staring James down. Waiting for him to make the next move. It didn’t take long for James to realize he was face to face with the devil. “Now is the time to fight like a man,” he thought and got ready with his bastions.