Give it up for the birds

Give it up for the birds

Day 32, Friday, May 10: Samos to Morgade (29.3 km, 18.2 miles)

Come on, put those hands together. The birds went above and beyond today! They got my attention and applause, for sure! Hopefully you’ll be able to catch some birdsong in my videos. Even allowing for the fact that the birds’ best singing is heard before I start recording or just after I push stop, I still caught some lovely musical interludes. Yes! Put those hands together and give it up for the birds!

[Note: I came up with the title for this post and jotted down the towns and the distance, as shown above, shortly after arriving at my destination. The remainder of the post is being written four days later, in the wee hours of the morning. I’m grateful to re-read the notes I took as I walked that day. They help bring the memory of the walk back to me, as do the photos and videos. The details are coming back and put a smile on my face as I relive the day and “get it down” for posterity.]

I never did get the “possible roommate” last night, so I was able to turn the light on when it suited me and get out the door just shortly after 7:00 am. I often walk to the first or even the second little pueblo for breakfast, but fortunately I followed my instincts this morning and stopped for a croissant and a coffee before moving forward. Good thing! It was hours before I would have found a place to remedy hunger! As it was, quick breakfast behind me, I was just on the outskirts of Samos when four women passed me at 7:30. They were soon out of sight and from then until 9:58, when a gentleman whizzed by me, I didn’t see a soul. It was just me and the birds, some cows, a few horses, many trees, rolling hillsides, babbling brooks, and enough stones and mud to force me at times to take great care in placing my feet. Especially as I moved beyond Sarria–more about that in a bit–it occurred to me that were it not for the “nearly mountains” in the background and the huge castaños [chestnut trees] that lined the path, I could almost feel like I was in southwestern Wisconsin. If my description doesn’t have you wishing you were there with me, then I haven’t done the area justice (or… or you are just not an outdoor kind of person).

Perhaps you have seen one of my slug photos? Another reason to watch where I placed my shoes: in a matter of about 20 feet, I spotted three of the good-sized, intricately-patterned black fellows. (Perhaps some among you would give them a different, more accurate name? “Slug” is the best one I know to use.)

Just thinking out Dowd*

So yes, a lot of time to drink in the sounds and sights and think about “life.” One thought leading to another. Frequent stops to commit those thoughts to writing. And now, to sharing.

Thinking about those birds: there is no way anyone can convince me that the birds aren’t filled with joy as they sing to greet the new mornings, thrilled to be alive for another day. And this, even though the bulk of their day may actually be spent flitting from here to there in search of sustenance. We might call that “work” or “drudgery” or “ho hum, here we go again.” The birds have a “let me have another go of it, ‘cuz I can hardly wait” attitude.

That brings to mind Emily from Thornton Wilder’s beloved play Our Town and that poignant scene in the cemetery where Emily, now dead, begs for a chance to go back and relive just one ordinary day, but relive it paying full attention to how extraordinary the minute details of ordinary life can be. When allowed to choose one such ordinary day and place herself in it, she is, of course, very frustrated with her inability to communicate to others how very special each moment is. Remember how the play’s narrator agrees with her that people just don’t understand and appreciate life? Some few do, he suggests. Poets and philosophers, maybe.

And that sets me to wondering about what life was like for Lazarus after he was given a second lease on it. Or for Jairus’s daughter. Or the widow’s son. And, for that matter, for the ones who were in the process of mourning the deaths of their loved ones: Mary, Martha, Jairus and his wife, the widow. Did they come to a new sense of joy with the dawn of each “extra day” they were given? A new appreciation for the ordinary daily tasks of life? Or did tedium take over again after a while?

This was not, by anyone’s standard of measure, an easy day. It was the longest hike I had done in weeks, and by the time I reached the village I had climbed close to 200 floors (and so, later in the evening, I went out for a walk, heading in the direction of the next village, returning to the albergue with 206 floors and over 19 miles for the day, making it, I believe, my longest day to date.). So, easy? No! At one point, I took out my phone (aka: my “notebook”) to jot down how happy I was to be walking rather than riding a bike, when I see, approaching me, a cyclist in the process of dismounting. I was soon in conversation with Santiago from Argentina who was headed to “meet” Santiago the Apostle in Santiago. He was glad to walk along for a while and admitted that were it not for the time crunch he would be walking as well. Santiago had begun on April 29 in St. Jean Pied-de-Port and expected to complete his Camino within another day and a half. At one point, I shushed Santiago. “Listen! Do you hear that?” It was the cuckoo bird! It had been days since I’d heard him, but there he was, over and over again, accusing us of folly! I tried to record his call, but when I later watched the video with the volume turned high, there was no cuckoo bird to be heard. Santiago was my witness, though; the cuckoo lives!

Santiago had miles to go before his day would be over, so I sent him off, wishing him well, and I again thought to myself how grateful I was that it hadn’t occurred to me at any point to rent a bike to continue my journey.

*Some of you know that my maiden name was Dowd and that my dad was a fabulous, funny, and prolific letter writer. Back in the late 50s he had some stationary printed up with the letterhead “Jest thinking out Dowd.” I’m happy to appropriate his gimmick, although changing the “jest” to “just” in consideration of the types of thoughts I was having. Dad also had stationary printed with this across the top: “No Dowd about it.” He sure had fun with words!

Sarria and beyond

The town of Sarria is 112 kilometers from Santiago. Pilgrims who walk at least 100 kilometers (or who bike at least 200) prior to reaching the cathedral in Santiago and who have the appropriate documentation–the credencial/pilgrim’s passport with its sellos/stamps–qualify for receiving the treasured Compostela certificate. Sarria is a good-sized city and is very much given over to the tourist/pilgrim business because so many people begin their pilgrimage there.

Can you understand why I was dreading it? The guidebook cautions us to be kind in thought and in deed when we come upon those just beginning their pilgrimage journey in Sarria. We are warned that the Camino from here on will benoticeably more crowded and considerably noisier. More commercial. A buzz in the air that no longer harmonizes with the melody that the long-time-on-the-road pilgrim is singing.

And so: I moved through the town as quickly as possible. I stopped in the very attractive 13th-century Iglesia del Salvador and, from the same period, the Monasterio de la Magdalena with its lovely, refreshing cloister walk and patio. I picked up a new credencial because the one issued to me back at the beginning had only a few spots remaining for the sellos I needed to collect to confirm my completion of the final 100 kilometers. But I was anxious to get out of the “maddening crowd,” so I picked up bread, cheese, and chorizo in a little grocery store in hopes of finding a good picnic spot somewhere down the trail.

And I did find a lovely spot! There’s a photo of my backpack hanging on a castaño on the side of the trail, and of the huge bocadillo I was about to consume.

The day had gone quite, quite differently for Ginny, and was about to change for me as well. To explain: I was so pleased with my lunch spot and with my sandwich that I wanted to share the photos immediately with the family. I turned on my data in order to do so. Oops, not good enough reception to be able to send anything. However, I could see evidence that Ginny had tried to call me via WhatsApp. And not once, but over and over and over again.

This is not good! We have not called each other once on the entire trip. Text messages have met our needs just fine. Something was wrong and I couldn’t find out what it was from my out-in-the-boonies location.

Nor did Ginny answer my call when I got within calling range.

I kept moving forward, many scenarios–none of them good–going through my head.

It was only when I reached my destination for the night that a text from Ginny came in letting me know that she had been taken by ambulance in the early hours of the morning to the university hospital in Santiago and that she was now in recovery after surgery for an ischemic bowel. Holy cow!

Trial and error until we finally connected by phone (turns out the albergue was in a really low spot: I had to climb up out of the hamlet to receive/make phone calls). It’s now 5:00 pm.

Long story short: I gathered the available information for schedules of busses leaving from Sarria or from Portomarin, each a journey of approximately 10 kilometers from where I was lodging for the night. I had walked some 29 kilometers already that day; I didn’t have 10 more in me, nor, even if I did, the time to catch the evening bus. And what time would I have to leave in the morning to walk to either town to catch the only Saturday bus–leaving one of the towns at 8:50 am and the other at 9:15–to Lugo where I would be able to get on a bus to Santiago? Too early!

Albergue to the rescue. “That morning bus,” the oldest of the women at the hostel explained (in Spanish, of course), “it will pass by the highway a few kilometers from here as it travels from Sarria to Portomarin. There is a place along the road where it will stop if you flag it down. You go there in the morning. If you are there by 8:50, that is good. You wave and it will stop.” When I asked for directions to get to that spot, she assured me that someone would drive me in the morning, that if I were in the lobby at 8:30, someone would drive me.

And so there was nothing more I could do that night. I was hugely entertained during dinner by an 11-month-old baby at another table who absolutely loved the waiter and his antics. A good distraction. As was the evening walk I took up towards the next village. Marveling that a car would actually be able to drive this little lane to “get me to the bus on time.” (Truly: in the 6 or 7 kilometers I had spent on the road leading to Morgade earlier in the day, I don’t recall seeing any cars on it.)

By the time I posted the “flashing news” about Ginny to all of you, my five roommates were fast asleep. I soon joined them.

The following morning

We’ll give a quick recap of Saturday morning. Sure enough, one of the daughters of the woman who promised that “someone” would take me to the bus stop was indeed available at 8:30 to do just that. And off we went. Three or four kilometers maybe. A lot faster than walking, for sure. She dropped me off at a sort of intersection with absolutely nothing noteworthy to indicate it was a place where a bus would stop. But oh well. Stranger things have happened. I expected to have about a ten-minute wait. So a good ten minutes go by and along comes a car from the side road, the one down which I had traveled to get to the stop. It was the daughter again!

“The bus hasn’t come by?” “No, not yet” I respond, thinking: would I still be here if it had? “Get in quickly,” she tells me. “When I got back my mother asked me where I had dropped you, and when I told her, she said it was the wrong place. We’ll go there now. Get in.” Backpack, poles, body back in the car. Me thinking; And if we cross path with the bus as it travels in the opposite direction? What do we do then?

Fortunately, that did not happen. She brought me another kilometer or two closer to Sarria, dropped me off, and within five minutes the bus came around the corner and pulled into a lane marked “bus” on the side of the road.

From there through some pretty countryside to the city of Lugo. Find schedule for the bus times for Santiago, buy ticket, wait about an hour. I’ll be in Santiago by 1:30. Could have been much worse.

The bus from Lugo to Santiago went through several larger towns through which the Camino would also pass. As I looked out the bus window while going through the towns, I saw pilgrim after pilgrim after pilgrim. I’m sure that in between the towns the Camino passes through some pretty areas, but it was a bit disheartening to me to see the “crowds.” When would I be “one more pilgrim” again?

For the moment, though, I had enough to think about. Arriving in Santiago. Getting from the bus station to the albergue Ginny had previously reserved for herself for that night. Dropping my pack off there and finding my way to the hospital….

Don’t worry. “Consider the lilies…”. And the birds. Let’s have another round of applause for the birds who remind us each morning that all is well! Then, when we’re all clapped out, time to start behaving and living as they do. Except maybe not so much public pooping!

Are we there yet?  (Wait a minute: where are we going?)

Are we there yet? (Wait a minute: where are we going?)

Monday, May 13: the update you’ve been waiting for

I know, I know. I’ve kept you in suspense. Let’s put an end to that with this report.

How about this for good news: when I left the hospital today, Ginny got “real food” on her dinner tray this evening: broth and fruit juice! And earlier in the day: café con leche. So little by little, from gauze pads dipped in water to water from a straw and now, the “gourmet meal” I’ve just described, everything is going in the right direction.

And this: not only is she walking all the wings of the 4th floor, but she’s now doing it without toting the IV/saline solution cart with her. She even came outside in her glamorous hospital gown to see me off on the bus to downtown Santiago.


Still, the doctors here seem to err on the side of caution, so it seems she’s not likely to be heading for Madrid on Thursday evening and back home on Friday, as per her initial reservations. Might be delayed by a couple of days.

But when she finally does return home: it’ll be with her daughter Colleen and her sister Pat who are coming to “fetch” her. They are probably in the air as I write this. How’s that for love?

Meanwhile, I’m making a mess of life in the big city (the population is said to be just under 100,000, but it seems much bigger to me). So far I have managed to

  • Lose my credencial [Pilgrim’s passport with stamps “proving” that I’ve been traveling through umpteen towns and villages along the Camino]
  • “Check” my backpack in a store while touring the Cathedral area and not notice that the receipt I got for the bag did not give an address…. (and yes, I walked in circles before I finally found the store and my waiting bag)
  • Get on the right bus but going the opposite direction than the one in which I wanted to go (great way to see the extent of the city, but not the best method for getting to the hospital in a timely fashion)
  • And more…. But I’ll spare you

I’ll just say that it was kind of weird to arrive in Santiago the “wrong way.” Hard to feel celebratory when I finally was in the squares (yes, plural) surrounding the cathedral. A cathedral which, I confess, I have yet to enter.

Though my initial plan was to return to the “village” of Morgade, 101.something kilometers from Santiago, to continue my trek towards the tomb of the Apostle in the “right way,” I am now giving serious thought to a different plan.

I’m thinking that instead of taking two busses to get back to the area where I left the Camino, I might just… go to Finisterre, the “end of the world.” This route to the coast would be considerably less busy that the last 100 kilometers of the Camino Francés and I’ve been told that the scenery is really spectacular. It might just be a more fulfilling way to end my pilgrimage.

As it stands now, tomorrow will be a day of tying up loose ends, and then, one direction or another, I’ll head out of Santiago on Wednesday morning, with plans to return no later than the evening of May 21 so that I’m well situated for my scheduled flight to Barcelona on May 22.

There are still two days from last week that I have not written up yet. With luck, those posts will be coming. After all, they have been given titles already, and the titles are feeling very lonely.

Ginny and I have had lots of visiting time for the last three days. We’ve swapped stories back and forth about our adventures while apart and have recollected the first half of the trip, spent together. Laughter and tears. Precious memories. It has been a Camino that has surprised us on many levels! Oh, believe that much!

And remember: we both made it to Santiago. One in an ambulance, one in a bus, but we got here. We chuckle to think back to how Barb didn’t really care if she got her “Compostela” (for completion of the route, for doing the final 100 kilometers), and, by golly, it looks like she may be the only one of us to actually get it. We FaceTimed Barb tonight before I left the hospital and we all agree: what an experience!

Thanks for your support and for your kind and loving inquiries into Ginny’s health. She is one tough cookie, no doubt about it!

Trying on monastery life for size

Trying on monastery life for size

Wednesday, mid-day (May 1) through Saturday, 9:40 am (May 4)

A postscript for starters. Why not mix things up a bit? (Who’s boss of this blog, anyway?)

So here’s the thing: it is Thursday, May 9. A whole week has gone by since I arrived at Rabanal del Camino. A bit more than a week. In the interim I have moved forward more kilometers than I care to count, and I find myself now in an albergue from whose windows I can see the huge monastery of Samos, my destination on this day. My thinking had been: if one stay in a monastery town is good, two should be even better. Plus, maybe my short walk to Samos will leave me with the time needed to catch up and write this post about Rabanal.

And to compare the two experiences, right?

Ah, but there is no comparison to be had! Well, alright then, compare and contrast. Uh! Sounds like a Composition 101 assignment. Don’t hold me to any standards I should have learned way back when. Just let me quickly say that Samos is a disappointment. Or “Samos as an experience of monastic life” is a disappointment.

I’m about to head over to the church now for the 7:30 mass. With little enthusiasm. I hope I’m proven wrong. I learned on my tour of the monastery about seven hours ago that

  • The monastery does not open it doors to the public for their vespers or morning prayer or any other prayer times, just the mass
  • The monks no longer sing Gregorian chant. (They gave it up a couple of year ago because they are so few–there are 8 of them–and because some of the monks are too elderly to join with the others downstairs in the church, so they say their private office in a chapel closer to their living quarters.)

So, I have quickly come to see that Samos is not going to be a “Rabanal” experience. Really, I see now that I might have skipped it. But then I would have missed the lovely walk that brought me here–the Samos destination is an “alternate” route–and the lovely walk I had after lunch along the river here.

And I wouldn’t have known about this monastery, and really, it’s pretty neat to think that for over 1500 years there has been a form of monasticism in this little lost valley between the mountains. In spite of the Visigoth invasion, the Moorish invasion, the many “kingdoms” that fought each other through the centuries. And we’re talking about what grew to be a very, very large monastery.

I asked the guide today how many monks lived here at the “peak.” That was, I think she said, in the 1700s, and the answer was: “80 or 90.” Counting the novices and other groups she mentioned–in very rapid Spanish!–as many as 250 men. And now… 8!

Well, here’s what I hope for them: that it is a lot warmer in their living quarters than it is in the church and the cloisters we toured; that they are fonder of one another than they appeared at this evening’s mass (from which, as I write this, I have now returned…), that they don’t drown under the responsibility of trying to keep the monastery vibrant with no support, as I understand it, from church or state (the 5-euro tour tickets and sales at the monastery shop must have to really be stretched far to keep the place afloat. To heat it to boot? Forget it!).

Now let me try to back up to last week’s stay in Rabanal del Camino which is the story I am really here to tell tonight (and perhaps over the course of the next few days, as I find spare minutes….).

Greetings and settling in

As I described in another post (see “And it only took me four hours,” May 1st), I took my time traveling the seven miles from Santa Catalina de Somoza to Rabanal del Camino, meeting a number of out-of-the ordinary individuals along the way. I arrived with both a light and an open heart. I located the monastery’s little square just off the Camino route and some pilgrims gestured to a man in a plaid shirt, telling me he was the one I wanted to see if I had questions about the monastery. That plaid-shirted man, maybe 50-something, was Father Javier, the prior–head monk–at the monastery. No sooner was he pointed out to me than he slipped into a building on the square, leaving the door slightly ajar as he entered. I followed quickly.

As it turns out, that door led to the monastery’s albergue for pilgrims such as myself. I have spoken thus far about “the monastery,” but this might be the time to tell you that I use the word “monastery” to refer to three things. The first is the building I had just entered; it houses up to 10 pilgrims at a time. Or maybe 12. I didn’t actually count the number of beds, but I know the monks want to keep the number small. Then there is the building which houses the four Benedictine monks and which, I assume, wouldn’t hold but a few more. This residence, you might say, is the actual monastery. Unlike Samos which was established in the 6th century, this one was formed, I believe, in 2002 because the Benedictine monks from Germany wanted to establish a presence on the Camino. If I’m remembering correctly, there was a former building on the site, but it was remodeled and modernized significantly. The third building is the small romanesque-style church, the oldest part of it built in the 12th century, with additions, modifications, and renovations completed in subsequent centuries. (Don’t let the word “renovation” fool you; this church oozed medieval times!) The very modern innovations (improved lighting and PA system) were done tastefully and enhanced the experience rather than detracting from it. So: three buildings. It has just been easier, until now, to refer to “the monastery.”

Back,then, to Father Javier who had just entered the pilgrims’ living quarters with a South Korean pilgrim (John, by name). “Ah, you are Katy?” Fr. Javier continued: “The one who emailed us, yes? We’ve been expecting you. It may be just the two of you tonight. You know, this is the first day of the season that we are accepting pilgrims.”

What?! I hadn’t known at the time I had written to the monastery that they didn’t accept pilgrims until May 1. In his reply, Fr. Javier hadn’t said anything about that. He had just told me that they didn’t take reservations, but that “it shouldn’t be a problem.” I found it to be an incredible piece of luck that my timing coincided with the monastery’s.

“Actually,” he went on, “there was a large group here last night. We don’t take groups, but we made an exception. So things are a little disorderly right now. We’re happy to keep it small for starters.”

Happy, yes, because the hospitalero who was to arrive for his (or her?) early May volunteer gig had been in touch just a few days back to let the fathers know that he was sick and wouldn’t be able to make it. That meant that the monks themselves would have to be the ones washing sheets, making beds, cleaning toilets, fixing, serving, and cleaning up from meals, plus washing pilgrims’ clothes, none of which are tasks they usually perform.

“But it’s okay. We will be fine. Let me show you everything but the living quarters first. That’ll give time for the floors to dry, and then you can settle in to your room.” So he showed us the lovely little enclosed garden, the kitchen where would would be served breakfast between morning prayer and mass, the library-lounge where we were welcome to use any of the books, and the upstairs meditation room (skylight, throw rug, meditation pillows on floor). And then, finally, the bathroom and the one large bedroom with two partial walls and big cupboards/closets in which to store our things. (“Floors get mopped every day, so nothing should be left on the floors,” we were instructed.)

Fr. Javier explained that we were there “to rest.” That we shouldn’t offer to help because that wasn’t our job. We weren’t to wash our clothes; they would take care of that. “Do what you need for yourselves,” he counseled. We had shown up too late to have been included in the lunch count for the 1:55 pm meal, but we should plan on having the evening meal with Fr. Javier and the other monks. Someone would come to collect us. He showed us a printed schedule for the three daily meals, the three prayer times open to the public in the little church, and the mass time, and mentioned that we could also request consultation times with any of the staff. And off he went, having put around each of our necks a key to the front door of our albergue, the door to which automatically locked when shut.

It was quite clear to me and to John: this was a sweet deal. I’m not referring to the price (which was “donativo”–give what you can and what you think appropriate), but rather to the facilities–very new, very clean, very comfortable and inviting–and to the kindness, good will, and hospitality which were so prevalent in the little tour Fr. Javier gave us.

And you’re thinking: at this rate this story will never be told? You might be right!

Getting down to the business at hand

Which for me meant: filling the empty spot in my belly. El Refugio, not thirty feet from my new front door, was exactly the place to do that.

Have I explained how I learned about the monastery in the first place? When Ginny bussed ahead into León and took up residence in an Airbnb there, Roberto was her “host.” Roberto, it turns out, has connections in Rabanal. He had told Ginny about those connections and, when I met him during my one night at his place in León, he brought them up again. Roberto is a consultant for a hotel and restaurant in Rabanal. It’s a business that has been in the same family for several generations, but Roberto has been hired to help them move into the 21st century with their menus, their presentation of the food, their marketing, etc., etc. He has also worked some with the monks, checking out their willingnesss to get on board with his idea of bringing people to Rabanal (and to El Refugio’s hotel) to begin their Camino). His idea: maybe give people the opportunity to stay in the town a few days, get some one-on-one counseling with the monks, attend the services in the church, all while getting excellent meals (vegan, vegetarian, “new age” food appearing on the menu along with local specialties….)

So yes, it was because of Roberto that I had learned of the monastery I had just committed to staying in for at least two nights (that’s one of the rules for the monastery’s albergue, that pilgrims will stay at least two nights and will consider their stay a kind of silent retreat; if you aren’t interested in “things of the spirit” [and if you don’t have a pretty decent handle on English], you aren’t a good candidate for the monastery experience).

It was kind of a “must,” then, that I look into El Refugio as well. Besides, the restaurant offered cocido maragato [a rich meat stew prepared in the “maragato” style of this region through which I was traveling and a dish about which I had been hearing]. So, splurge that it was and feeling not very “monk-like”–sticking to a simple lifestyle, for example–that is what I ordered. And consumed. Every bite. Even the pigs’ ear!

After which: I began to “rest” as we had been ordered to do. I had four “rests” of the sort that I am now going to describe. Now some people sleep to rest, or sit back in their easy chairs; I walk. Fr. Javier had pointed out a notebook in the library in which were descriptions (in  German and in English) and accompanying maps of eight different walking routes accessible from the monastery. The descriptive sheets gave the estimated time of each walk, varying from one hour to two-and-a half. I pored over the descriptions, extracted several of them, along with their corresponding maps, from the notebook, threw a few things in my small backpack, and off I went.

As mentioned, I did four such walks: one on Wednesday afternoon, two on Thursday, and a final one on Friday afternoon. These were some of the most delightful times I have had on this trip. Pure country, if you know what I mean. I wasn’t following yellow arrows, wasn’t going where hundreds of thousands have already gone, but was traipsing up the narrowest of paths “into the hills” or down “into the valleys” with a sense of freedom and a spirit of adventure. And with a camera, for the sights were so impressive. Before all was said and done I had gone to the monastery’s “park,” to its “woodlands” and twice to magnificent overlooks, one above and west of the village, one above and east. On the latter, I carried in my little pack two books I’d borrowed from the library: I wanted the Bible for the psalms and the book of Antonio Machado’s poetry… I just couldn’t resist. (Think Spain’s Robert Frost or Mary Oliver.) I spent some wonderful time seated on a stone throne high in the hills, overlooking pastures with cows and not one but two near-empty villages in the distance while I alternated staring in awe and reading poetry written by awestruck poets. It doesn’t get much better.

And yes, I sang! And yes, I became a bit panicky on one of the hikes. I got a bit mixed up on the directions, couldn’t interpret the printed map, didn’t recognize the “rectangular corner” in the field behind Farmer Juan’s garden where I was supposed to see the towering willow and head into the monk’s woodland…. Before I knew it, I was very confused while trying to make it back to church for vespers, and I found myself in way-above-the-knee “broom” and/or gorse, not sure if I was going the right direction. I could have done without that particular hike. The others? Fabulous. Best “silent retreat” ever! I wish you could have been there, truly.

And that’s how I spent my free time. A little bit of wandering around the tiny town. Quite a few minutes spent just outside El Refugio, capitalizing on their WiFi as, in fact, the monastery’s albergue didn’t have it, the monks figuring that it wasn’t conducive to “silent reflection.” Both Thursday and Friday mornings, while waiting for the days to warm up, I worked on blog posts since I was a couple of days behind. (If you noticed a couple of posts that had fewer typos than usual, those were no doubt the ones written and actually edited/revised on those two mornings. My walks up and down the main streets of this small village revealed a few fun and funky places, like the “Green Park” where a sign read: Free Entrance and which had hammocks and lounge chairs and a couple of sofas under canopies. It also had perhaps as many as a dozen tents set up, available for pilgrims to rent, I assume. The whole place looked kind of 60s style. I stayed away from groups and socializing, though had short conversations with my roommates who eventually included, besides John, Christine from France, Rainer from Germany, and Jiwon from South Korea.

I sent an email to Roberto back in León, thanking him for recommending Rabanal to me. His response indicated that he would be in town working at El Refugio on Friday and that, if I were still in town, perhaps we could have coffee together. And so we did, on Friday afternoon. He told me more about his work and his enthusiasm for promoting Rabanal as a “starting point” for pilgrims wanting a shorter version of the Camino. Turns out that his girlfriend is a big promoter of the Camino as well, organizing “section” or “etapa” [“stage”] tours for people who want more of a “soft version” of the Camino. When we met for coffee, Roberto suggested a hike for me to take, but in trying to follow it, the barking of one particular dog encouraged me to turn around. This was a blessing because it led to my climbing up to the precious overlook that I described earlier where I sat and read psalms and poetry.

The rest of the time? The scheduled meals, prayers, and masses.

Meals and Mendelssohn

So far you’ve only heard about Fr. Javier, who, I neglected to mention earlier, is a native Spaniard. It was at the first dinner, on Wednesday night, when I met Brother Leandro (a young–30-something?–monk from Venezuela) and Father Pío, in his 70s, I would say, from Germany. (The hike descriptions were his doing; very poetically written. He told me he grew up on a farm and has always loved gardening and being out in nature. His handiwork is evident in the monk’s various gardens.). The fourth monk, Fr. Clements from Korea, returned from vacation on Friday and so he, too, became part of our “family.” Apparently Fr. Clements is very well known–at least among Catholics who make up approximately 8% of the Korean population. John said he “knew” him from television. It explains one of the reasons why so many Koreans want to stop at the monastery. However, as Fr. Javier explained, they have placed a limit on how many Koreans can stay at one time: just two! It seemed that several times before that policy was instituted, there were instances when all but one or two guests were Korean. Some with very limited English skills. It made it very difficult for the non-Koreans. Fr. Javier said that without the restriction, they might be entirely filled with Koreans each night.

In all, I ate three breakfasts, two lunches, and three dinners during my monastery visit. The lunches and dinners were taken in the monks’ residence and we were cautioned ahead of time that these were “silent times.” Indeed they were! (Or weren’t, as I’ll get around to explaining in a minute. Be patient.) There was, true, no talking. Zilch. A gesture here, another there, as we offered each other the bread basket or a bit more water. That sort of thing. Otherwise, though, our focus was pretty much straight ahead or on our food. This was awkward for the first meal or two, but each time it became a bit easier. I was there long enough to fall into the routine and to even find it (somewhat) comforting.

Before we sat down to lunch, Fr. Pio read from the Book of Revelations. (I imagine they work their way through the Scriptures and I just happened to be there to hear the most difficult of all the books of the Bible.) After the short reading, we all sat down and, in the absence of a hospitalero, Fr. Javier was not only the cook but the waiter. His entrances and exits were nothing short of a synchronized ballet, performed with a flourish and in a rhythm that was fun to observe (out of the corner of one’s eye, because…. well, because it seemed appropriate to follow the example of the other monks who kept their vision straight ahead). Everything Fr. Javier did was predictable once I had learned the “routine,” everything from the way he removed the three pitchers of water at the same time to the way he collected the glasses and the plates, the water and wine glasses and the bread baskets. Everything as if on cue.

While we ate: music! Classical music. It was “Mendelssohn week,” I was told (after dinner, because, as stated, no talking during meals!). An opera here, a piano concerto there. I eventually recognized a piece or two. So, “silent”? Not exactly.

The meals themselves: very tasty. Very tasty indeed. One would not, however, gain weight on them! If a pilgrim wanted seconds, he or she would be wise not to hesitate to dish them up before the bowl was wisked away from the table. In the evening, expect a lighter meal. Don’t hold back unless you want to supplement your meal in one of the town’s cafes. Fr. Javier added some interesting touches to the salads, bits of apple and pear surprising me in the cold lentil dish or in the salad.

I was lucky: there were three tables which formed a big U-shape, and I was always seated on the only side that faced a window, so besides seeing Christine and Reiner across from me, I could look out onto the patio. The scene I’ll now describe was kind of humorous: at one meal, Brother Leandro was seated next to me. I had noticed, when he was sitting at another of the tables, the degree to which he stared straight ahead when not eating. Very disciplined! So at this particular meal when he was sitting next to me, out the window I caught sight of a bird on a bush. I swear, the bird’s tail was keeping time with the Mendelssohn music! For at least a minute. Perfect timing to the music! I couldn’t help myself–I took a sideways glance at Brother Leandro, to see if he was seeing what I was seeing. I can’t say that our eyes even met, but I knew that we were each attempting to hide the grin on our faces as we witnessed the same delightful sight.

So were they human, these monks? Incredibly so! Very dear indeed. Although there was no talk at lunch and dinner, after the former we would gather just outside the monastery to chat for a bit about our afternoon plans. It was a chance to ask questions or share a quick story. Brief but friendly. The evening meal was over about 8:40. We would then all proceed to a room that I’ll call the monastery “parlor” for some socializing until the bell rang (9:20) sending us scurrying over to the church for evening prayer and the pilgrims’ blessing. During those post-dinner gatherings we learned more about the monks, their work, and their interactions with pilgrims, or they learned a bit about us. Time to ask questions, tell tales, share a humorous story. Fr. Javier, for instance, enjoyed telling about one of the more zealous hospitalero volunteers. It seems that when the Abbott was visiting Rabanal with a contingent of other monks, he stopped by with his group and wanted (all of them) to enter to use the bathrooms. “You’ll have to go use a bathroom at one of the cafes,” the hospitalero told him. “I’ve jut finished cleaning them and I want them to stay clean for the next group of pilgrims.” That’s telling the Abbott where to go! There were laughs all ’round, even though the other monks had heard the story multiple times. And then: the bell rings and, regardless of whether a question has been thoroughly answered or a story fully told, that’s it: off to the prayer service we go.

Gregorian chant!

Yes, it is alive and well in Rabanal del Camino. For the first two days, just the three monks, with Fr. Javier always doing what I’ll name the “call” and Brother Leandro and Fr. Pio the “response.” (Sounds like square dancing, but no, we’re talking voices. Beautiful voices.) What I would call the “chants” themselves were always in Latin, but Spanish was used in some of the services. And, for that matter, English and Korean, French, German. The extra languages came into play when the monks asked visiting pilgrims to do some of the readings or the “prayers of the faithful.” I was impressed, as well, that there were booklets available for pilgrims for each of the daily services (Lauds at 7:30 am, Vespers at 7:00 pm, and Compline at 9:30), in a choice of English, French, or German. One for Korean speakers as well? Maybe. It would make sense. All the prayers very measured, very sacred. Not protracted in length, but not rushed either. And those voices! The echo of them in the small, bare church was so lovely. “Is being able to sing a requirement for monastic life?” I asked at one point. I was told it was not. (So, then, my singing–or total lack of talent in carrying a tune–did not automatically disqualify me; I didn’t pursue the problems endemic to my being a woman, married, and well into my 70th year. Didn’t want to hear too much laughter during our social times.)

You can understand, then, why I was disappointed with my experience at the Benedictine monastery of Samos. It had the 1500-year presence in that location, but, in my opinion, a lot of the “fire” had gone out in Samos.

Final farewells

Warm hugs distributed, Christine and Rainer were off early on Saturday morning; they wanted to get an early start on the climb to Cruz de Ferro. I elected to have one more breakfast and morning mass in Rabanal.

Jiwon had now been there for almost a full day. Three new pilgrims had already presented themselves by breakfast time. (I think they had arrived the day before and were told “Come back tomorrow. We will lose three people on Saturday and you can take their places.”) For some reason at breakfast I volunteered to sing–yes! Me!–one of my “prayer songs.” It was well received by all present (none of whom were native speakers of English). Brother Leandro asked if I would say that prayer when I arrived at Cruz de Ferro. “The ‘grace’ version of it or the ‘joy’ version?” I asked. “Oh, the latter!” And so, promising that I would do so, that kind of wrapped up my stay in Rabanal. I attended the 9:00 am mass, got strapped into my pack, picked up the hiking poles, and then I was off. I had a mission down the road! A song to sing!

(If you must know, I sang a couple of songs when I arrived at Cruz de Ferro several hours later. I recorded them but… trust me on this one: they sure couldn’t measure up to my recordings of the birds! In the end I did not send the recordings back to Rabanal to prove that I’d done what I’d been charged to do. I left my songs and my “joy” stone behind and kept my memories to bring them forward. And to share them with you.

And now I’ve done so.

Life throws its share of curve balls….

Life throws its share of curve balls….

Rolling with the punches

So we plan… and then reality has other ideas. And when we have no choice in the matter, then we choose our attitude. Which is exactly what we are doing. Or attempting to do.

Yes, I had a walk today, a super one. I’ll tell you about “Day 32” in a different post, when I get around to it.

But for now, let me update you. Ginny, less than 1.5 days from a triumphant walk into Santiago, woke up in severe pain in the middle of the night. There was an ambulance ride to Santiago and surgery this morning for an ischemic bowel! She’s getting good care and putting her translation app and her sweet personality to good use. I will take a little break from the Camino and bus to Santiago tomorrow. (Gotta make sure the city is worthy of my spending another five days walking to it…)

Ginny is wondering if it is St. James / Santiago himself who is behind all of this or if the good Lord himself has designed a test we don’t yet know how to take or interpret.

It’s a reminder, anyway, be it here or there where you are, that we don’t know what our days hold for us. We can only do our best to enjoy each one and each other.

Be back soon!

Making their “Way”: Katy and the slug, the kitty, and the chicken (all are welcome at the table and on the Camino)

Making their “Way”: Katy and the slug, the kitty, and the chicken (all are welcome at the table and on the Camino)

Day 31, Thursday, May 9: Triacastela to Samos –with detours and a bit of exploration around Samos (17.9 km, 11.1 miles)

This can be a simple, straightforward report for today. As you can see from the mileage above, it was a short day. Planned that way so that I could arrive early in Samos, site of “one of the largest and oldest monasteries in the western world founded in 6th century on the asceticism of the Desert Fathers, taking the Benedictine rule in 960.” Wow, that’s a mouthful. And from my guidebook because if you’ve been following me, you know that even I don’t write sentences that long. Or do I?…

The day began with a startling realization: it had been a quiet night in my room. Six of us? Seven? And no snorers, sneezers, coughers. Just respectful folks with good control of their sound emissions. Alleluia! We were quiet as we packed up. I was still one of the last ones to leave, right around 7:30.

At the far edge of town one has a choice: head right towards Sarria or left towards Samos and the monastery, adding 6.4 kilometers. You already know which route I choose.

The rest of the walk, once I headed to the left? Its story can best be told with the photos (and videos?) that I’ve sent home and that Regina will so kindly add to Facebook and/or to this post.

There weren’t many people encounters today–a former Columbian who has lived in Ft. Lauderdale for the last 18 years, and Tom, from Wisconsin, with whom I spoke at some length before the monastery tour began–nor did I spot any flocks of sheep or cows to admire. However, there was the slug with whom I had a nice little conversation. And the hen. And the cat, though he was skittish and didn’t have much to say. We all were heading down our Camino today, each with a different purpose and speed, but we acknowledged one another’s right to be there in whatever capacity.

And the birds, of course. They don’t let anyone keep them from singing. Joyous and glorious. Ever-present. (Still MIA, though: my cuckoo…)

A different river today. We’ve left the Valcarce behind and moved on to the Oribio. Like its Galician sister, the Oribio was loud and talkative and animated, creating a show of her rock-hopping and ledge-dropping. A pure delight.

Center-stage, though? Taking a bow left and right and center: the trees. Well, the path and the overhanging trees which flanked it. It was such a familiar feeling to be hemmed in and shaded by trees. They weren’t, of course, Indiana trees, but they acted in a similar manner. And at their feet, the ferns, bright and brilliant, nodding in the mild breeze.

Fitbit claims I climbed 93 floors. Yeah, I guess there was some climbing, but through the “woodlands” I barely noticed. I was too busy looking.

Did I miss the howling wind of several days ago? I was fine without it. That was then; this was now. The fury and the calm both had their turns.

Did I miss the rain? Well, yes, in one meaning of the word “miss,” I did miss it, or we missed each other. Again, as was the case yesterday, it didn’t begin to rain until I arrived in Samos. And mostly it didn’t begin in earnest until I arrived, toured the monastery, secured lodging, ate lunch, took a walk, and got back to my albergue. I showered inside while the showers began in earnest outside. Curtains of light rain pushed at a significant angle by the wind. It’s nice to be inside, and with a heat register I can operate on my own.

I’m in a private albergue recommended by Ginny who was here about a week ago. I’ve been told that someone named Stacy is going to share the second bed in this room, but seeing that it is almost 7:00 pm, I’m thinking that maybe Stacy’s plans have changed. Whatever, alone or with a roommate, I suspect I’ll get a good sleep tonight.

As I said earlier, the photos and videos from today tell most of the story. If you don’t see any posted, check back later. If not today, soon. Regina to the rescue.