Pilgrim Blessings on Camino de Santiago

In Viana, I bumped into Kevin and Liz outside the cathedral. The warm evening sunlight turned the building a golden brown, and we delighted in seeing each other again. As ever, they enquired about my feet and how I was getting on with the sandals. I confirmed that I’d just bought new hiking shoes that very day, and the sandals were getting the heave-ho and would be sent home in the mail.  They looked relieved and glad that I’d finally come to my senses in deciding to walk in shoes!

Though we’d chosen to stay in different hostels, we attended 8pm mass that evening and availed of the special blessing for pilgrims afterwards. By then, I felt enormously grateful to have survived those early days of the Camino – the Pyrenees, the issues with beds, and the distance I had already walked. I’d resigned from my job to walk the Camino and I really wanted to walk the 800km to Santiago.

Ego didn’t want for me to get so injured that we’d have to go home early, and face an audience who might judge me, and call me foolish and reckless.

Left a permanent job to walk the Camino, only to come home after just a week?

Fail!

In  reaching Viana intact, and in sourcing a new pair of walking shoes, I felt I was really making progress. I felt renewed.

The very least I could do was attend mass, give thanks, and avail of the pilgrim blessing. I’ve been reared a Catholic but by my own admission, I’m not a poster child for organised faith of any kind. Still, I’ve been reared to say “Thank You” and I felt strongly about doing that – even if the world disagrees about who, or what, to thank. I was delighted to have made it that far but there was still over 600km to go and I would need all the help I could get. I didn’t expect to do it all on my own.

Back in St. Jean Pied de Port, I attended a mass and gladly received the pilgrim blessing before I ever started walking. There, it was spoken in French, and I managed to understand only bits of it. Crossing over the Pyrenees meant we had all arrived into Spain, so the blessings from there on were spoken in Spanish. I hadn’t a clue what was being said, and some online research reveals that there several versions of the blessing. There may not be one exact prayer that’s said in all instances but this is one below is at least one version, and I’m presuming the sentiment is the same across all versions – even if the translation varies a bit:

O God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, protecting him in
his wanderings, who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, we ask that you watch over us,
your servants, as we walk in the love of your name to Santiago de Compostela.

Be for us our companion on the walk,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our albergue on the Camino,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.

So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and enriched
with grace and virtue we return safely to our homes filled with joy.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Apostle Santiago, pray for us.
Santa Maria, pray for us.

I popped in and out of churches a lot in my time walking the Camino. I do this in “real-life” too, and leave a trail of burning candles in my wake. On Camino, I liked the cool shade of the churches and they were a welcome reprieve from the heat. Conversely (given the Camino’s Christian tradition), the churches were often the quietest places to sit and take stock. I found the albergues loud and busy, and the café bars were equally packed. Thankfully, the churches offered some breathing space and an opportunity for quiet reflection, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs.

I attended mass in a sporadic fashion, and availed of pilgrim blessings whenever they were offered. Some priests rattled through the blessing with perfunctory speed and little heart. I had no problem with that – sometimes priests are men who need to get home and eat some dinner, like the rest of us. I don’t expect them to infuse every day with divine significance! Still, I was glad to receive whatever blessings they offered – regardless of their delivery.

Of all the pilgrim blessings I received along the way, this one in Viana was truly tear-jerking and I came away from it feeling choked up. Whoever he was, the priest that evening brought a tender humanity to the proceedings, and caught a few of us off guard with his warm humour. At the end of the mass, he gathered all the pilgrims together to the front of the church. We stood in a semi-circle in front of the alter, in our dusty shoes and hi-tech clothing. We were a mixture of young and old; women and men; Catholic and not, but we stood there united in our pilgrim status.

We all hoped to walk to Santiago.

We all intended to give it our best shot.

We all hoped to make it safe and sound.

Usually, we were blessed in a group and as a group.

This particular evening, the priest took the time to bless each of us individually. He asked each of us where we were from, and found something small and encouraging to say to each of us – whether it was about the football teams, the weather, or the music from our home countries. That small gesture was profoundly powerful. Of a sudden, we weren’t just a random scattering of alien pilgrims. Instead, we were people with homes, lives, and loves – all acknowledged by a simple question and warm comment.

Magic!

With each of us, he gently placed his hands on our shoulders and, looking straight into our eyes, said a blessing. He spoke softly. The whole thing was over in seconds. I want to say that he made the sign of the cross on my forehead but I don’t know if this is a real memory or an imagined one. Either way, the ceremony of blessing us was deeply moving. It took only a few minutes to make it personal, and I came away with tears in my eyes.

Total wuss!

I’m not sure what exactly brought me close to tears:

Was it because he spoke to each of us individually?

Or that he placed his hands on my shoulders?

Was it because he joked about football and made each of us smile?

I have no idea.

All I know was the pilgrim blessing gave me a few moments of gentle, mindful, connection. In that exchange I felt welcomed and acknowledged. Here I was, entirely human:

Sore

Floundering

Emotional

Stubborn

Grateful

Proud

Pilgrim

I was doing my best, but I was less and less sure what my “best” actually was, or what that even meant.

Without any flash dramatics, this priest had gently gathered us all together and shown us a few moments of gentle compassion and humour. With that, he infused our hearts with a little bit of hope for the days ahead, so even if our feet failed us, we felt blessed. That counted for something. I came away from the church feeling that my Camino was bigger than me, and stronger than my sore feet. Some deeper part of myself had just been fortified.

The woman who’d walked with me over the previous 2 days was not Catholic but admitted that something special had just happened. Even she felt the sincerity of the blessing and took it to heart, with renewed hope.

Pilgrim blessings – I’m a fan 🙂

 

 

Viana: Camino Begins Again

Distance Walked: 8.8km

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After the previous day’s physical struggle to get to Los Arcos,

And the logistical issues with finding a free bed,

This day’s walk was short and sweet.

Days earlier, I had to take a taxi from Zubiri to Zabaladika, just to find a free bed. It meant ‘losing’ or ‘cheating’ on 12km of trail. I agonised over whether to go back and walk those missing kilometres but in the end, decided not to.

There was no going back: there was only forward.

So, when I ‘skipped’ another 8km days later, I was not entirely pleased. I hadn’t intended to taxi my way through the Camino. Even though I’d genuinely been stuck for a bed on both occasions, I didn’t want to get into a pattern of taking taxis. That wasn’t why I’d travelled to Spain.

A Scandinavian woman in my company was very displeased at missing those 8km. She’d spent years planning her trip and reading her guidebook in advance. She wanted to ‘do it right‘ and wanted to experience every inch of the trail for herself. She wanted to experience everything listed in the guidebook. She also wanted to ensure she stamped her Pilgrim Passport in every coffee shop or bar she stopped at along the way. Those rubber stamps of coloured ink were proof that she had walked the distance. A break in the narrative – even 8km of a break – was truly upsetting for her. So much so that she swore loudly and spent the night feeling too annoyed to join the rest of us for dinner.

I can understand her frustration, and at the same time wondered if she was so strict with herself in all areas of life. I imagine she was. She had a plan for how she wanted to experience and achieve Camino. Taking a taxi and missing any of the trail was literally intolerable.

Sometimes, life throws an unexpected curveball and our plans go out the window. What do we do? Do we dig our heels in, rigidly arguing for the plan? Or do we open our arms to the unexpected and abandon the plan in favour of the new reality?

A good friend had told me before I started: ‘You can’t prepare for Camino’. I was delighted at the time, and thought she confirmed I didn’t need any physical training. In retrospect, I think she was telling me: ‘So many unexpected things happen on Camino, whether you want them, and you can’t prepare yourself for every eventuality. The best thing you can do for yourself is go with the flow of it. Make it up as you go along, and see what happens. Be open, be flexible, and be willing to change.’

When we woke in Torres del Rio, our group of 4 people divided:

2 decided to take a taxi back to Los Arcos and pick up the trail. They wanted to cover the 8km they’d skipped the previous evening.

2 of us decided to walk onwards to Viana. We needed to re-group and take care of some errands. We also decided there was no going back.

We arrived into Viana in the late morning, and delighted at arriving early enough to secure a bed in the Albergue Municipal. After days of staying in private accommodation, we welcomed the opportunity to stay at a cheaper place – €6 for the night! The staff assigned us to different numbered beds and we made our way upstairs to find where we’d sleep.

The funniest thing about this hostel was that the dorms contained triple bunk beds.

That’s right: not double, but triple.

I’d never seen such a thing before. And as it happened, I’d been assigned a bed right in the middle of the bunk. There’d be someone sleeping above me and someone else below me.

Getting into my bed was easy enough – climb up the metal ladder on the side, and propel myself forwards and sideways at the same time – think ‘Bruce Willis jumping onto a moving truck’.

Easy!

Getting out of that same bed was altogether more complicated.

The space between my mattress and the one above me wasn’t big enough for me to sit upright. I had to sit hunched over, like Quasimodo.

From there, I wriggled along the mattress until I got to the ladder, and made my attempt to climb down, backwards. Naturally, I needed to steady myself somehow but I couldn’t grab the bed above me – there was someone in it and that was their ‘private space’. I also wanted to stabilise myself by stepping on the mattress beneath me but I couldn’t do that either – there was also someone there, and I didn’t want to disturb them.

Getting out of my bed meant I had to get both hands and both feet onto the ladder, without putting a foot or hand out-of-place, and without losing my balance. The trick? Stick my bum way out (like doing a standing half forward bend in yoga) and move quickly!

Viana was a sweet reprieve and it gave me a chance to begin my Camino again.

How so?

I bought new hiking shoes, and they transformed my feet. After days of painful tendonitis and small sprains, the shoes offered me cushioning and support. Hallelujah!

I also splashed out on an Altus poncho, as recommended on Jen’s Camino blog. The previous days’ rain made me realise that I needed something that would cover my whole body, not just my torso, and keep me dry. If I was going to walk the remaining 630km or so to Santiago, I wanted to stay dry as much as possible. My raincoat was too short, so a poncho was the most sensible alternative. I had a choice of colours: Fanta Orange or Fluorescent Lime Green. I chose the orange, and paid €45 for the privilege. It was the most hideous and most expensive poncho I’d ever known, but it had come recommended and I decided to give it a go. I found myself half wishing it would rain, just so I could get my money’s worth. And at the same time, I didn’t want it to rain at all while I walked my way across Spain.

Fickle Pilgrim wants the best of both worlds!

That evening, I joined a pilgrim mass in the Viana Iglesia de Santa María, and gave thanks for arriving in Viana safe and sound. My timing there was fortuitous – just when my sandals were really starting to give me grief, I’d arrived in a town that was large enough to have a shop for outdoor gear and footwear. Not every town on Camino has such a shop, despite the thousands of pilgrims needing gear along the way.

I’d prayed for the resources I needed to keep going and in a very practical way, my prayers, and needs, were fulfilled.

That night, my fellow pilgrim from Torres del Rio and I feasted on steak and chips, and were given a bottle of wine each with our meal. God bless the 3-course, €10 Pilgrim Menu, with baguette and wine! The pilgrims around us were jovial and in a party mood, drinking brandy and laughing loudly. I fell into bed that night feeling satisfied and fortified, in one.

There was no going back – there was only forwards.

 

 

Camino Challenge: No Beds (again)

Arriving into town and learning there were no available beds, was disheartening.

At the end of a long, sweaty, dusty day of great physical exertion, it was particularly gutting.

If, like me, you’d plan to spend the night in such a town, then the news is rather problematic.

Finding a bed doesn’t just mean having somewhere to sleep that night. Finding a bed also means:

  • You can have a shower, at last!
  • There’s somewhere you can wash and dry your laundry
  • You may have wi-fi contact or phone coverage – and let your loved ones know that you’re still alive
  • You can settle somewhere for your evening meal and a beer
  • You can relax into conversation and friendship
  • Your day’s effort is done. There is nothing to do but rest.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

In everyday life, it is the equivalent of going home after a long day. Except, I was a long way from home. Life on Camino is transient and temporary, and not having a place of rest was the closest I’ve known to being homeless.

Not so much fun.

Arriving into Los Arcos only to learn that there were no available beds, was terribly disappointing. Priority 1 was to find a bed. Everything else came after that. The shower, the laundry, the dinner and drinks, were all delayed. There would be no resting until I’d secured a place to sleep.

I was just over a week into walking Camino and this was the second evening I’d arrived too late for a bed. In case you missed it, I wrote about my first experience of it here: A Day of Ups and Downs.

Certainly, the volume of people walking Camino in the past few years has sky-rocketed. I read somewhere recently that a few years ago there were 35,000 – 45,000 people walking the route each year.

In 2013, those numbers had risen to over 200,000.

Of course, that kind of increase puts pressure on everything – accommodation, water supply, waste disposal, cafés – you name it. I didn’t take it personally that I was left without a bed. If those numbers are true then it’s likely on a given day that someone gets stuck for a place to sleep – why shouldn’t it be me?

Still, getting stuck for a place to sleep (twice) coincided with pushing my body extra hard, on days that were very hot. I did wonder if there was a correlation there, and maybe something to be learned from it all.

The four of us went from hostel to hostel across Los Arcos and everywhere the message was the same:

No room at the inn.

At the last hostel, the staff confirmed that not only were all the beds taken, but every inch of floor space was full too. There wasn’t enough room to take in a stray cat.

Before I’d even had time to think: “What now?” my fellow-pilgrim from Australia said one word:

Taxi.

There wasn’t even a moment of hesitation. She said it with absolute confidence and conviction. She spoke it clearly and immediately. She had created a plan. She spoke for all of us.

Ordering a taxi was entirely practical:

We had to get a bed

We had to go to another town

There was no way we were able to walk it

 

I wouldn’t have thought of it, and I was thrilled that she did.

Quick as a flash, the hostel-owner jumped into her mini-van parked outside the front door, and ushered us in. We had no idea where she planned to bring us, but we also didn’t really care. I trusted her local expertise and knowledge, and felt confident that she’d help us figure out a place to stay. Plus, I felt relieved that I could hand over this task to someone more knowledgeable than me.

Complete surrender.

I was thankful too that we were in a group. Not only did it equate to a cheaper taxi fare for each of us, but it meant that she would take our request seriously. It can be easy to turn away one solitary pilgrim. It’s harder to ignore a group of them.

Just as it is in life, there is strength in numbers.

After a few minutes of driving, she stopped at the first albergue and found it was full.

She stopped at the second and found they had space. Yay.

Until the guy stamped my Pilgrim Passport, I didn’t know where we were. It tells me that I was in Torres del Rio, some 8km outside Los Arcos. Those were 8km I didn’t walk, and would have to decide on the next morning.

Our albergue held a bar and restaurant on the ground floor, with bedding and bathrooms upstairs. They even had a swimming pool! The bar was loud with metal and punk music, with medieval-looking armour and crossbows on the walls. The courtyard in front was full of people drinking beer in the cool evening shade. They didn’t wear quick-drying sports gear or zip-off hiking pants, but instead, were covered in black clothes, with lots of tattoos and chains.

My guess? They weren’t pilgrims 🙂

How great we were getting to “mix with the locals” a bit!

And like an old woman, I found myself thinking: I hope they’re not going to stay out here all night making noise!

That evening, I filled my belly with paella, delighted to take a break from baguette. I felt profoundly grateful for my bed. I shared an open dorm with the 3 women, in a room with low ceilings, exposed wooden beams, and very few bunks. I slept like a rock, and when I woke the next morning, I hadn’t changed position at all. I’d heard snoring and people going to the bathroom but I had been so tired, I hadn’t stirred an inch.

But here’s a thing:

The hostel was privately owned, and they told us that some of the beds in the dorm were reserved. When we arrived at 6pm there was no sign of our roommates but we presumed they’d show up later. By 9pm the beds were still empty. Given that the hostels had a “lights out” rule for 10pm, these pilgrims were cutting it fine.

When we awoke the next morning, we discovered the beds were still empty. They had never been slept in at all.

6 pilgrims had reserved beds in a private hostel and for whatever reason, didn’t show up.

By the time the staff realised this, it was too late in the day to accept replacement pilgrims.

I wondered:

How many people like us, had arrived in Los Arcos to find there were no available beds?

How many of them took a taxi – alone or in groups – to Torres del Rio and were told that there were no beds there either?

And how many of them would ever guess that upstairs there were 6 available beds, with clean sheets, lying empty all night?

How many of them had to travel further, when what they needed was available right in front of our eyes?

Yes, 200,000 people on Camino puts pressure on services. But making private reservations and not keeping them has an impact too. I’m pretty sure there were pilgrims who could have used those beds that night but were never given a look-in.

It was a sort of Camino Capitalism.

Not cool.