Everyone Does Their Own Camino—Luxury Version

“When you told me about the Camino,“ our friend John said, “you talked about hostels and sharing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If you had told me it was going to be like this . . . “ Dad had just called John to fill him in on our adventures and the latest four-star hotel we were staying in. “We’re doing a luxury Camino,” Dad explained, repeating the words I’d used many times on this trip. “Here, I’m going to put Becky on.” Dad handed me the phone.

I didn’t even greet John. I started right in with my Camino educational-moment-of-the-day. “Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain walked the Camino to Santiago. We’re doing it their way. I’m pretty sure they had people carrying their bags for them and they probably stayed at some pretty nice places.” Municipal hostels didn’t exist when they walked it. . . Last night we stayed in a former palace that dates to the 1500s—I’m thinking that was more their style. Though they couldn’t have stayed in that place specifically because they walked in the late 1400s.

A popular phrase along the Camino is “everyone does their own Camino,“ by which we mean that there are many ways to do this journey. There are, in fact, hardly any rules. The only one I know of is that if you want to get your official compostela certificate at the pilgrim office in Santiago, you must get your pilgrim credential stamped twice per day for the last 100 km. But other than that, there’s no definitive rule book.

So Dad and I will carry our day packs, enjoy our air-conditioned room and private bathroom. You can call us King Lou and Princess Rebecca if that makes these accommodations easier for you to accept.

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A Night on the Camino with Dad

“Let’s go meet more pilgrims,” Dad said on Friday night. He has become adept at identifying pilgrims by their clothing, shoes, shuffles, and limps. Backpacks and shells are also markers.

So as we strolled the streets of Los Arcos around 5pm, I saw them the same time he did. Except I immediately recognized them. Two men over six feet tall and heavily tattooed. You don’t see many like them on the Camino, and so even though I saw 60-90 pilgrims per day in the Pilgrim Office, I remembered these brothers immediately.

Pace and Thor (from California) were with a German friend and in search of a supermarket, which Dad and I had just passed minutes earlier, so after introductions, we not only walked them to the supermarket, but walked around the tiny store with them chatting about our experiences thus far. (Imagine one of our supermarket aisles in the US, but so narrow that two people can barely walk by each other. And then take that and cut it into quarters. Put two quarters side-by-side, decrease the inventory by two-thirds and you have the market.)

Our (new) friends were staying at the municipal albergue (hostel) and I asked if they could take my dad in there to show him how the other half lives on the Camino. They laughed and welcomed him to see the dorm. I stayed outside—I had stayed in this very place seven years earlier so knew about the bunkbeds and communal kitchen (and everything else) thanks to personal experience. “Looks like the homeless shelter that I volunteer at once a month,” Dad said when he came out.

They invited us to join them for beers in the courtyard at the albergue. Their other brother Mitchell joined us, along with a young man from England (also named Louis). For the next couple hours, we fed one euro coins into the vending machine inside producing beers for most, water for me.

Eventually the conversation of backpacks came up. “Tell them what you do!“ Dad said. And so it was that two of them produced their backpacks and I went through them asking questions about the contents and why they needed certain things. Pace’s biggest problem was the weight of his empty pack. This was something I had personal experience with. On my first Camino, my filled 45-liter pack weighed 22 pounds— which I didn’t know until it was weighed when I arrived at JFK airport to leave for the trip. By the time I returned, I had left enough things across Spain that my pack was down to 16 pounds. It was only when I was preparing for another Camino that I weighed my empty pack and found it weighed 5 pounds on its own!

For Louis (the Englishman), his first issue was the fact that he brought an 85 liter pack with him. The heaviest item in it was some sort of charger that must’ve weighed at least 3 pounds.

Eventually we made our way back to the main square for dinner. Some of these folks had two and three entrées! Thor and Louis decided not to tempt the fates, and headed back to the hostel to make the 10 PM curfew. Mitchell and Pace didn’t seem as concerned— they figured they could hop the fence if they had to.

At 10:30, we all parted ways and I called the number for the taxi to bring us back to our hotel, which was 3 miles from town. When the woman answered, I barely made out her voice over the noise from wherever she was. “No puedo,” she said. “. . . Pamplona.” Which I immediately understood to mean “I can’t. I’m in Pamplona.” Pamplona continues to celebrate the San Fermin festival this weekend. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this Camino, it’s that the Spaniards have their priorities: family, friends, and enjoyment of life are all much more important making money. Which was great for this taxi driver, but not so great for me and dad.

So I asked our server at the restaurant if she knew of anyone. She looked at the phone number I had and, in Spanish, said simply that that was the only taxi in the town.

Dad had had enough beers and sangria and great conversation that none of this worried him at all. Our hotel offered, as part of their services, to pick up pilgrims in the town to drive them to the hotel when they first arrived. and bring them back in the morning to continue their walk on the Camino. But they did not operate a taxi service back-and-forth. However, the woman who picked us up when we first arrived told us that if we needed anything after she left for the day at 4 PM, the owner didn’t speak English. But we were welcome to call her and she would gladly assist us. So I called her. The background when she picked up was only slightly less noisy than the taxi driver’s. But without hesitation she told me she would be there in five minutes.

Two minutes later she called back saying that the owner of the hotel would be along to pick us up instead, Explaining that she had had a couple of drinks and so was unable to do so.

A couple minutes later a late model Mercedes pulls up. The owner is kind and laughs with us at the fact that the only taxi service in town is not available tonight. We get back to our room and I decide I’m entirely too tired to keep all of you updated on our travels. And so it is that we finally get to sleep.

Walking vs. Volunteering on the Camino de Santiago

Some of you may know, just before meeting my dad in Pamplona to start our Camino, I spent the previous week volunteering in the pilgrim office in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (SJPdP), France. Many people begin their pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in that town. They walk into our small office thinking we are there just to sell them their Camino credential (passport) and give them their first Camino stamp. I did both of those things for 60 to 90 pilgrims every day. But in addition, we give them a list of all of the pilgrim accommodations along the 500 mile journey, an elevation map, and go over with them—in detail—the route for their first day (because it is the hardest day of the entire Camino and we want to do our best to prepare them). In addition, I answer any and all questions they have (to the best of my ability). I would get questions about accommodations, safety, food, alternative transportation, pack transfer services, my own Camino experiences, and many other things. But it was made clear to me in the six pages of instructions I received via email a month before I arrived: my number one job was to reassure people. Which now makes so much sense to me. Deciding to walk any portion of the Camino to Santiago is a big decision, and to finally arrive at your starting point, the thing that people most want (though they may not realize it) is reassurance.

It takes most pilgrims 3 to 4 days to walk from SJPDP to Pamplona. Therefore, I knew that the people I was checking in on Friday and Saturday were ones that I might see again—as I was going to take the bus to Pamplona to meet my dad to start walking the following Wednesday.

And here we are. . . nearly every day it happens that someone smiles at me and then pauses and looks quizzically. Some recognize me right away. Others are not sure where they’ve met me before. One young man saw me, Dad, and Patricia having dinner in Estella. He came over to us to specifically thank me for helping him at the start of his journey. It turns out he had been sitting at the table next to us that night, and after sharing his thanks he gave us the rest of his bottle of red wine before he headed back to his hostel for the night.

Last night, Marjorie approached me thanking me for my help before she began her journey. It was now the last night of her one week walk on the Camino, and she shared with me the details of her challenging first day, and how proud she was of what she had accomplished.

Many people who have volunteered on the Camino told me, before my first time volunteering, that volunteering along the route was even better than walking it. Having volunteered twice so far, I completely understand the sentiment. But I might change it to say that even better than walking or volunteering is doing a hybrid of both. Getting a chance to see the people that you were able to help is quite an incredible way to experience the Camino to Santiago!

Camino Vignettes

Just a few things from my first day on the Camino with Dad:

We fill Dad’s water bladder by pouring cups of water into it from the bathroom sink. (Why he doesn’t just hold it under the faucet, I’m not sure.)  “You know how to use this thing?” I ask.  “No,” he says. I had thought his friend John, who lent it to him, was going to show him how  how to drink from it. “I’ve never figured out how they work,” I told Dad. “I think you need to bite on it to get the water out.” He does so. It works. Camino challenge #1: Mastered.
At the start of the day, I encourage Dad to step into a crosswalk with me, knowing the Spanish stop for pedestrians. “Probably not good luck for them to kill a pilgrim anyway,” I say.

As we walk through town passing Spanish folks Dad asks,  “How do you say good morning?” “Buenas días,” I tell him. Dad says it to the older man approaching us. The man says something back. “What did he say back?” Dad asks me. “The same thing you said to him!” Learning Spanish may be a little too much for Dad. We’ll focus on the walking instead:)
One hour later, after he drinks from the tube attached to his water bladder, Dad says, “Can we put ice in this thing?“ He decides to ask for some in the next town.  “It’s called yay-lo in Spanish,” I tell him. I decide not to tell him how to spell it (h-i-e-l-o), as that will only confuse him. He practices. I tell him  “That was Lois’ favorite word on the Camino. She’d always get a lemon soda with ice everywhere we went. To this day, I think she still remembers how to say ‘with ice.’” “You can just ask for it for me,” Dad says. (Further support for aforementioned idea of nixing Spanish lessons for Dad on this trip.)
We meet two strapping young lads from France. Dad says he’s probably three times as old as they are. “How old are you?” they ask Dad. He asks them to guess. They start in the 50s. And take four more guesses to get to 71. I think, “I doubt I had a  clue as to what a 71-year-old man looked like when I was their age” but decide to hold my tongue. Dad enjoys the fact that he’s the oldest person on the Camino thus far (three hours in at this point). We meet a woman who walked with her 73-year-old mother for 21 days on the Camino last month. But without discussion I know we both don’t count that as she’s not actually here on this very Camino at this very moment.