Bookish Matters

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Sunday, July 31, 2011


When the Romans arrived in the second century BC in what would later be called Costa da Morte--Coast of Death--they believed it was the end of the world, the last outcropping of land before the sea and nothingness, and so it was called Finisterre. It was a pagan area, Galicia, a Celtic land. Santiago, St James, one of the disciples of Jesus, travelled to Spain and to the end of the world to spread the word of Christ. The Virgin Mary sailed in a stone boat to Muxia, a town a days walk from Finisterre, to encourage James as he spread the word. In 44 AD James was beheaded in Jerusalem. His disciples went to the city where Finisterre currently lies to ask a Roman legion if they could bury James in what is now the city of Santiago. The Romans threw these men into prison, but they escaped and ran east. The Romans chased the disciples of James and were about to catch them when a bridge the disciples had just crossed collapsed before the Romans could get over it. They buried James in the forest. His remains were found in the ninth century and pilgrims have been traveling to Santiago de Compostela ever since.

Today some pilgrims choose to continue after Santiago, after visiting the remains of St James, to walk across the bridge that had collapsed before the Romans, to arrive at the ocean and the end of the world. Some choose to walk farther, to Muxia, where Marys stone boat could still be found into the 16th century.

I began my camino by visiting my own sea in Bellingham. Last night we began walking at 12:30 to follow the stars to Finisterre. If you walk at night you can see the Milky Way, like God dragged his thumb across the sky, slightly smudging the stars in a path traveling west. You can follow the Milky Way to Santiago and beyond to Finisterre, which is why the city is called Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it that Compostela comes from the Latin for Field of Stars.

We followed the Milky Way west until the sky grew light, until we arrived at the Atlantic Ocean. As soon as we set foot on the beach we removed our backpacks and boots, our clothes and pilgrim trappings, and ran into the ocean, tasting the salt water. We walked along the beach choosing caracoles, the sea shells that have become the symbol of the Camino. Tonight we will walk the last three kilometers of the Camino from the city of Finisterre to the farthest point of land on Cabo Fisterra, to the lighthouse, to watch the sunset and end our Camino at the end of the world.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Reasons People Do the Camino

Spiritual reasons. They like hiking. To discover things inside themselves. Midlife crisis. To pray for a sick friend. Cultural reasons. To test themselves. Personal drug rehab. A promise to their father. To travel in a non-touristy way. They´re going through a divorce. To have their sins forgiven. To discover their life path. For a friend who died. To decide on a career change. To start a new life. They just knew they had to do it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Nomad Life

We wake up in the morning needing to walk. I built extra time into my schedule so I could take days off in the big cities, but every day I wake up needing to move, to go a bit further, a new city, a new bed. We take breaks at bars to eat and use the bathroom, but they´re short, just long enough to drink a cerveza, because we have to keep moving. If we get to our day´s destination too early in the day we´ll keep going, because we have to move. A few days ago, after walking 25 k to a small town, I found a small path off the town and followed it up through the trees, not knowing where it would take me, because the path wanted me to take it, because I needed to think about something and walking helps me think, because I had to keep moving. It led up and up, the path getting smaller, steeper and steeper, until I found myself in the ruins of a castle at the top of a quite-tall hill where I could see out across the town and the valley.

Every step is a prayer.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Foot Surgery

Pies y Ampollas, Blisters and Feet

Everyone on the camino is a blister expert.

I have heard all sorts of methods for the proper way to treat blisters: Use Compeed. Don´t use Compeed whatever you do. Pop the blisters. Sew thread through your blisters. Wear your socks inside-out. Don´t wash your socks. Put vaseline on your feet. Put olive oil on your feet.

On the third day of walking I began trying out all the various methods. I first went with the traditional Dutcher method of moleskin. That came off within a couple hours. So I put on Compeed. That also came off within a couple hours. A young Danish girl I was walking with explained to me how putting thread through the blister keeps the blister from closing, allowing it to drain, the thread acting as a wick while the new skin grows from beneath. So I tried it. And it worked.

I´ve also heard that you should only pop them, because the thread introduces bacteria to the area. While I agree with this to an extent, if you only pop them they will fill up again within a few hours. I´ve tried other methods as well, but the one I´ve found that works best is the thread method, and I apply a sort of iodine/betadine liquid to the needle, the thread, and the blister.

Here´s something I wrote in my diary while I was in Logrono:

"I took a nap. When I woke up the man on the mattress next to me started talking to me in Spanish. I was tired and could barely understand and wished he would stop talking. As I became more awake I understood more. He was from Mexico. He lectured me on my feet and blisters, made me put my feet up, made me go wash my feet. Next thing I knew I was sitting in a chair with the Mexican and three Spanish men around me, all looking at and touching my feet, talking about blister care entirely in Spanish. One of them took up my right foot and and used a needle to pop a blister on my heel, and bathed it in iodine. He bandaged another blister on my big toe. The Spaniards left, and the Mexican massaged vaseline into my feet."

A Danish man I know likes to say that the Camino is the only place where you can walk up to a stranger and say, "Where are you from? How are your feet?" I often think about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.

Some days I take off my boots after walking 25 k, and my feet hurt so much, blisters and calluses pruny with sweat, and I don´t even want to touch them, or look at them, just put them away from me and pretend they are not there. It was like this the day I left Leon. I didn´t want to touch my feet, but I really wanted someone else to, not a massage, just human touch. The hospitalero was a physical therapist and good with blisters, and the pilgrims I ate dinner with urged me to show him my blisters. I went to the kitchen (as well as being a physical therapist and an hospitalero, he was also a wonderful cook) and only had to say "Tengo ampollas" before I found myself sitting in the kitchen with my left foot in the man´s lap and another hospitalera sterilizing a needle.

He looked at the mess of a blister on my big toe and asked if I had problems with work or school. When I said no, he told me I was solitary, lonely. I remembered that morning when I had left the Belgian in Leon, telling him "I walk the camino alone." The two hospitaleros explained in a mixture of English and Spanish that the man could tell my problems from the placement of my blisters, like reflexology. He popped my blisters, bandaged them, and massaged me feet.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Guide to the Camino: General Information and Advice, Part Two

Conversions—Some measurements you convert to quickly and easily. A 20 kilometer day is fairly easy. Your bag is 14 kilos, which everyone considers too heavy, but you get by. Dinner is 10 euros. But Celsius takes longer to figure out. Everyone exclaims about how hot it is one day when it reaches 40 C. It doesn´t feel that hot to you. The Danish girl you are walking with asks why you aren´t complaining about the heat, and at first you tell her it´s because you´re a pilgrim and you´ll take whatever the Lord sees fit to send you, and then you tell her you do Bikram yoga in rooms hotter than this.
Eventually you´ll figure out a way to gauge Celsius: you ask an Irish woman what the average human body temperature is. She says it´s 37.5 C.

Heat wave—It´ll hit a day or two before you reach Pamplona and continue a few days after. In Pamplona, you´ll settle down on a bench in a plaza to wait out siesta and the heat. You´ll be able to see a sign that blinks the time and the temperature. It´s about 35 C when you sit down. You wait, and watch. 36 C. 37 C. 38 C. Afternoon is turning into evening and you have five more kilometers to go. 39 C. 40 C. Will it never get any cooler? 41 C. 42 C. 43 C. 44 C. Finally at 6:30 you wade out into the heat. 44 C, 111 F. The Spaniards tell you you´re crazy for walking in this heat. But as long as you don´t have your pack on, you love it.

Santa Claus lives in Finland—Duh. Everyone knows this except the Americans.

Everyone´s a blister expert—You will hear all sorts of theories on how to prevent and treat blisters. Each person will speak with great conviction. One will swear up and down that Compeed is the best; it´s just like a second skin. Another will swear that Compeed ruins your feet. It´s best just to listen politely, then treat your blisters in your own preferred fashion when they aren´t looking.

Luxury—You will quickly learn to appreciate small luxuries. Four beds in a room. Showers that have somewhere to put your clothes so they won´t get wet. Bathrooms with toilet paper.

Gratitude—Small favors will come to mean a lot. A bartender will give you an extra cookie for dessert one day, and you won´t know if it´s standard at that bar or if it´s because she can tell you´re having a bad day, but you´ll appreciate it with your whole heart. When an hospitalero carries your backpack the few steps to your bed for you after you´ve walked 20 kilometers, it will seem the nicest thing anyone´s ever done for you.

The Mesetas—The Mesetas are the desert. You reach the Mesetas in the middle of your trip. The middle is hard. The middle is when it becomes a single routine of walk, siesta, eat, sleep. Sometimes you can´t remember what town you woke up in. The middle is when you reach the plateau of your learning curve. The middle is when you can no longer remember what it feels like to have feet that don´t hurt. The middle is when menu del peregrino stops tasting good. The middle is when everything stops being new and exciting.  The middle is when all the friends you´ve made manage to get either a day ahead or a day behind you. The middle is when Nutella becomes boring. The middle is when the churches with their giant gold altar pieces and statues and paintings stop being impressive. The middle is when you start wondering if you´re achieving everything you´re supposed to achieve on a pilgrimage. The middle is when leaving your best friends´ phone numbers at home seems a ridiculously bad idea. The middle is when you catch a cold. The middle is when you leave the Belgian. But even in the middle you know there´s nowhere else you´d rather be.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Guide to the Camino: General Information and Advice, Part One

Spanish—Yes, you´re in Spain and you know some Spanish. But there´s always that bar in Pamplona where everything is in Basque.

Blessed are those who do not disturb the sleep of the pilgrims—If you spend the night getting drunk with an Irishman and a Belgian and joking loudly on the terrace of the albergue, the other pilgrims will be kept awake and pissed off, and you´ll spend the next day feeling guilty. However, if you talk in your sleep, if in fact you yell and pound the windows in your sleep and wake up the 70 other pilgrims in the room in the process, while you will worry they´ll think your a lunatic, they´ll just be glad your nightmare temporarily put a stop to everybody´s snoring.

Ear plugs—Surprisingly few pilgrims have them, but everyone loves to complain about being kept awake by snoring.

Touregrino—A pun on the Spanish word for pilgrim, peregrino. Some pilgrims will take the bus when they get tired, or even if the day´s walk is particularly boring (think Mesetas). Some pilgrims will have their packs sent to the next city by taxi. Spaniards are especially prone to such things. Your friend the Irish woman will tell you that everyone has a different reason for doing the camino and everyone does it in their own way, but you´ll have trouble feeling compassion for these people

Bedbugs—They are among us.

It´s your camino—You´ll hear people say this. If you´ve gotten in the habit of walking with someone, don´t be afraid to tell them you want to walk alone, and don´t be offended if someone says the same to you. Take days away from your friends. Choose your own path. It´s your camino.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Guide to the Camino: Signs and Symbols

Santiago—Saint James. Saint Jacque. Jacobeo. James´ body was discovered in the city Santiago de Compostela, where you end.

Blue and yellow—The colors of the camino. Your brain will be trained to notice the slightest bit of yellow anywhere.

Yellow arrows—Flechas amarillas. They point the way. Painted on the road, on the sidewalk, on rocks, on buildings, sometimes just a splotch of yellow on a tree branch, always guiding you closer to Santiago. You´ll get nervous if you haven´t seen an arrow or shell for a while. "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" will get stuck in your head a lot.

Sea shells—Conches. Scallops.All the peregrinos (pilgrims) carry one on their pack. At the wine fountain you used your shell as a cup. Some of the cities have metal shells in the sidewalks to mark the camino. They´re painted on sign posts. They´re found in city artwork. The shells are found on the shores of Galicia, where you will end your journey. Two myths explain the sea shell. One is that after the death of Saint James, his body was being shipped to Spain when a storm hit and the body was lost to sea. It was washed ashore undamaged and covered in scallops.

Credenciales y sellos—Pilgrim´s passports and stamps. Every pilgrim carries a credencial. Every time you stop at a hostel, sometimes at churches or bars, they stamp your credencial and date it to prove you did this step of the camino. Each stamp is unique, a record of your journey.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Guide to the Camino: Food and Accommodation

Bars—If you went to bars this much in the States you´d be an alcoholic. But bars are where you get cafe con leche in the morning, tortilla at lunch, San Miguel and tapas in the afternoon, rosado at night.

San Miguel—Most popular beer in Spain.

Tortilla—Spanish omelette. Usually just eggs and potato slices baked in the shape of a pie. Eaten alone or as the filling for bocadillos.

Bocadillos—Big sandwich. Sub-style bread, six inches to a foot long. But simple. A bocadillo de queso is just bread and cheese. Bocadillo de atun is just bread and tuna, not even mayonaise. Easy to get at bars, but you´ll get so bored of them. One day you´ll have two chocolate bars for lunch simply to avoid another bocadillo.

Cola cao—Like fortified caffeinated hot chocolate made with frothy milk. Buy it at bars so you can use the bathroom.

Vino tinto—Your lips will become permanently purple.

Rosado—You´ve never had this much pink wine in your life. It´s the Belgian´s favorite.

Menu del peregrino—Pilgrim´s menu. Also called menu del dia. A starter (you usually get ensalada mixta), a second (you usally get fish and chips, battered merluza or lenguado), un postre (dessert, yogurt or fruit or ice cream, arroz con leche if  you´re lucky). A basket of bread and a bottle of vino tinto. Lots of food for cheap, about 10 euros.

Ensalada mixta—Perhaps the only way to get your vegetables in Spain. Usually lettuce, tomatos, and tuna. Sometimes olives, hard-boiled eggs, shredded carrot, etc. Vinegar and oil for the dressing.

Albergue—Hostel, refugio, auberge. The pilgrim´s hostel. Where you sleep every night. Between 4 and 200 beds per room. Bathroom, place to hang laundry, a kitchen and internet if you´re lucky.

Albergue municipal—Community run albergue. Cheap, lots of beds, basic facilities. 4 to 8 euros.

Albergue parroquial—Parish hostel. Run by nuns or volunteers. Often by donation. Sometimes a community dinner. Often a pilgrim´s blessing. Some parish albergues are full of friendly volunteers, some quiet nuns. At one the nuns led everyone in singing. :)

Albergue privado—Private albergue. 8 to 10 euros. Not necessarily any better than the other albergues, but sometimes they are. Maybe a swimming pool or less people per room.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Day in the Life

 A day on the camino:

Rise between 5 and 6 when you hear other people rustling. Eat breakfast at the hostel (coffee, bread, orange juice) or from your own food stash (bread, tea, yogurt, fruit, nutella) or wait for a bar.

Begin walking with the sunrise. Walk alone a ways, or slow your pace to talk to friends as you pass them. Maybe have a hiking partner for the day. Golden wheat fields in all directions, the sun rising over the hill.

Pass through a town and stop at a bar. Get a cafe con leche and a croissant napolitana, or just a Cola Cao so you can use the bathroom.

Walk. Stop at a bar. Walk. Picnic lunch. Walk. Walk. Walk.

20 or 30 kilometers (12 or 18 miles) later...

Arrive at a town and check into the albergue (hostel). Municipal or parroquial preferred. Between 12:30 and 2:30 is normal.

Take siesta. This includes napping, stretching, showering, washing laundry, and eating snacks.

At 5, when siesta ends, go explore the town. Stop into the cool quiet churches with their high stone roofs and golden altars. Stock up on groceries. Stop at a bar for a pincho of something.

Dinner. Menu del peregrino. Two courses, dessert, vino tinto, bread. Drink with friends.

10 PM. Lights out for all good pilgrims.