The Way of Saint James is an intense experience. It usually involves new experiences, exhaustion and levels of discomfort and this has a way of bringing people together. The people on the Way are usually very nice people and with the shared intensity of the daily grind, people become friendly and friendships are made.
When I set out two weeks ago to walk from Burgos to Santiago my priority was to walk. I was not out to make friends, and eat and drink well. I wanted to walk and let everything else take care of itself.
There are many smart phone apps now that can give you distances, lodging info, weather, …you name it and the information is there with a smart phone. But, from the first I decided I was going “old school”. I would not make detail plans, I would not download apps, and I would not worry what tomorrow brings. I decided I would plan day to day by talking with other Pilgrims, innkeepers and locals and I would go about as far as I could each day to the next open municipal albergue (bunkhouse). I would roll with the flow and not worry.
I think my approach was in part inspired by a couple of friends (Karen and Rich McCann – no relations) and their travel experiences. Karen writes a travel blog (www.enjoylivingabroad.com) where she offers many tips and stories about enjoying your travels. One of my favorite themes of hers is keeping it simple and keeping it real. Karen and Rich have a way of finding enjoyment in the smallest things, and not getting overwhelmed on any trip.
Back to making friends on the Way. It happens naturally. The way it worked for me was I started at an albergue, and from there I walked as far as I could. That night I met the other Pilgrims there and talked. The next day I again walked as far as I could. Several of the Pilgrims I saw the previous two nights were again in my albergue. We go out to supper, or share food, and talk about the trail, politics or whatever. After three or four days of walking and lodging together, you coordinate and look after each other. You become friends. For me, it is a two or three day process and my group of friends come from the Pilgrims walking at the same daily pace as I am.
It may be a little like summer camp but for adults. But instead of craft workshops, it is instead walking all day.
I met Federico in Burgos, and after two nights we were sharing the trials and tribulations of the camino each evening. From Burgos to Leon, we walked across some of the most desolate spaces of the Way – very long days. I was just starting my walk and the first four days were the most painful for me and Ferderico was there to cheer me on. He was always in a good mood. We parted ways in Leon because with my limited calendar, I needed to jump ahead approximately 100 km so that I could finish in Santiago after two weeks.
I met Peter the first night after jumping ahead to Ponferrada from Leon. He made an impression on me because as I was checking in, he was in a spirited discussion and he tipped over his chair as he rose from the table and roared away. Of course he picked up his chair and was a gentleman, but still very explosive.
Peter has a huge chip on his shoulder. He is mad at the whole world for some reason. But behind all his huffing and puffing, and pessimism, he is a very nice guy and quite fun to talk to. He has been on the road for four years. He lives on about $25 per day. When he runs out of money he works a bit at whatever sort of odd job he can find and then he is back on the road, walking again. He is especially fond of walking in Scotland where you can camp anywhere by law. He considers “The Guardian” newspaper to be a “radical liberal left wing rag” and he has little patience for bleeding heart liberals. He is skeptical about climate change, but recognizes that 98% of the scientists agree that human activity is changing the climate, so there may be something there. But still, he is not ready to accept it. Honestly, when I think of Peter, I am reminded of the Black Knight in the Monty Python movie and I don’t know why.
Even and I walked into Santiago together. Even is from Beijing, China. He came to walk the Camino for two weeks, during the Chinese New Year break. He walked from Leon to Santiago. He is 26 years old and a software engineer. Even understands English well, but speaks it with difficulty. He knows no Spanish.
Even was really quite brave to travel alone to a country where he had limited ability to understand and communicate. Peter, Even and I walked pretty much the same distances each day, so we stayed in the same albergues and shared many meals and conversations. You could tell Even enjoyed listening to conversations, and that he would love to partake but found it difficult. From the beginning, Peter was looking out for Even.
What cemented our friendship was a couple of nights of windstorms. Even and I were the only two in the albergue at Gonzar when the first big wind storm hit. Gonzar is settlement more than a village. There was no place to buy food or get a meal when we arrived. Even had two oranges, two bananas, and some chocolate. I traded him a tin of tuna fish for an orange and gave him some teabags and sugar. We had enough stuff to have a basic meal for the evening. During the night, tremendous windstorms knocked the power out and so we left the albergue walking the next morning without food, and little chance of finding any. Everything was closed. Finally we found a bar/cafe open at about 11:30a and we entered. The bar keep said he was sorry but no coffee or food was available. At that moment, however the electricity was restored and I talked the guy into cutting up some chorizo (Spanish sausage) and ham he had, and serving it with sliced bread and coffee. I realized later on a couple of occasions that this had made quite an impact on Even. Later the same day he bought me supper because I had been able to find our breakfast. He insisted. And later that same evening, I saw him making a whole loaf of sliced bread into chorizo sandwiches. I realized that he had not tried chorizo before. Coming from China he was scared of the Spanish food and pretty much asked for beefsteak and french fries for each meal. He tasted chorizo and was an instant fan.
We also went to a Pulperia for octopus, which he loved and I wrote out several of his favorite foods in English so he could find the recipes when he got back to China.
Food makes the world go around.
Thanks for reading. Steve