This is part of chapter one. It has not been professionally edited. There are typos and small mistakes. I have gone over the manuscript so many times, I don't see them any more. Full editing begins this summer.
Lost and Found on the Camino de Santiago
By Xuan Carlos Hernández
El peregrino, perdido en esa tierra de nadie, en ese país de Nunca Jamás que es el Camino, navega en una burbuja solitaria aunque avance rodeado de una multitud. ¿Pietatis causa, devotionis afecta, votis causa? ¿Homo viator? Sí, eso y mucho más: Espiritualidad, por encima de todo, el Camino es espiritualidad o no es nada, pero también abnegación, solidaridad, compañerismo, hospitalidad, búsqueda, aventura, libertad y Camino para andar. Una inmensa puerta que se abre a todos, sin distinción de credos, razas, culturas o motivaciones, y también un milagro cotidiano.
The pilgrim, lost in that no man’s land, in that Neverland that is the Camino, navigates in a solitary capsule though he moves forward surrounded by a multitude. An act of devotion, fulfilling a vow or promise? Homo viator? Yes, that and much more: Spirituality, above all things, the Camino is spirituality or it is nothing, but it is also selflessness, solidarity, camaraderie, hospitality, searching, adventure, freedom and Camino to walk. An immense door that opens to all without distinction for race, creed, culture or motivation and also an everyday miracle.
José Antonio de la Riera
Asociación Gallega de Amigos del Camino de Santiago
“What did the angel say?”
“This is the sign you were looking for.”
I awoke from the dream just as the plane from Prague landed in Madrid. I left the cool, cloudy, misty skies of Bohemia for central Iberia– bright, hot, and desert dry. Stepping off the plane, I slipped on my sunglasses and removed my jacket –drops of sweat rolled down my back as soon as I stepped out of the luggage claim area with my three bags and my red Osprey backpack. Just months before my friend’s dream of an angel had saved me and in would eventually bring me here.
I was about to begin the Camino de Santiago, the millenary path in northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St. James – the apostle of Jesus – are said to rest. As one of the three Christian spiritual centers during the medieval era, this city inspired millions over those centuries to leave their small, towns, cities and farms from throughout Europe to walk to the end of the earth, as they knew it. Santiago lies just 85 km or 53 miles from a rocky peninsula named Finisterre – land’s end. Medieval pilgrims stared into the Atlantic Ocean and watched the water swallow the sun and rise anew on the opposite end of the earth – a symbolic representation of their own death and resurrection after pilgrimage. I wanted this walk to mean the same for me. My friend’s dream had saved me and led me here.
Many believe this region was sacred to the Celts as of some of their symbols line the Camino. Santiago de Compostela’s name is based on more on a mix of legend, mystery and medieval Christian beliefs. Santiago is Spanish for Saint James and Compostela is often thought to mean field of the stars as it might refer to Milky Way or stars that shone above the holy grave when the relics of St. James were discovered around the year 813.
Trips to the city never completely stopped, although the current of people had ebbed to a trickle at certain points in history as it had for most of the 20th century. These facts had remained in my mind since I had read them as a student at Indiana University Northwest. Professor Vargas had gone on and on about the Reconquest and aid of St. James to the Christian forces in the battle of Clavijo in the year 844. And in that criticism of war and myth, he mentioned the Camino and how it had come back to life.
“People are delusional. It’s the Spanish government making money off imbeciles. Many of them are foreigners,” Professor Vargas would say.
To him, a native of Madrid, it seemed unbelievable that people in our age would still believe in myth, devotion, faith or spirituality.
“They are a ridiculous bunch of sheep. What miracles?”
Yes, it was true. Not the sheep, but the fact that in the past 25 years, the path had come back to life and continues to inspire thousands from around the world to leave everything for weeks or months and walk on the ancient trail. That’s what I remembered. Not devotion or legend motivated me, though I knew El Camino was sacred, and I felt it had something I needed and it would provide the space and time to walk, to think, and to pray, but most importantly to recover – fully I hoped – from a trip that had gone terribly wrong just a year before.
I went to see about a girl in Italy. The girl. The one you wait for your whole life. She was the one. Or so I thought. And many…too many things went wrong. Actually, everything went wrong. First, the airline lost my luggage, which forced me to wear the same clothes for three days straight. I didn’t have enough money to buy clothes, so I hoped for them to find my bag and I used hotel soap to wash my sole outfit a blue t-shirt, jeans, socks and black boxer briefs. At night, I lay naked as the clothes hung to dry in the windows of tiny hotels. I was emotionally naked too – risks involve that, don’t they – especially those involving the heart.
Between morning and night, I wandered through the center of Rome walking through the places where we had held each other, where we had kissed and dreamt of life together by the Piazza Navona where we sat in the shadow of the Fontana di Nettuno to share two sandwiches and a single juice box. And by the Spanish Steps where we had stepped inside the church to escape from the heat, but stayed for the silence and calm, a respite from the vroom of cars, the buzzing mopeds and the pressing tourists. We were on our own Roman Holiday.
“Ti amo, Miguel,” she said for the first time.
“Te amo,” I replied. “Te amo…”
It was best that I could not remember where that café was, the one where we sat for an entire evening, only leaving when the city was resting. The café owner asked us to return home as he was closing up, “A casa ragazzi per favore. Grazie.” We walked through the glow of streetlights that had transformed the city into one of gold, shadows and endless romance. Every alleyway was ours. Our love felt royal, crowned by centuries of previous lives and love stories. We held hands, pulled each other into doorways…kissing...kissing…whispering.
That first trip lead to three more and a fourth, the trip from the previous year – a tragic tale. If only it had been written in pencil, to be erased and blown away in crumbs.
After a three-day search, Alitalia found my bag and forwarded it to Rome. I returned to the airport, picked it up then went back to the privacy of the small Internet café where I had kept connected to his family and friends back in Chicago and in East Chicago, Indiana. “I’m fine,” I lied in the emails. I counted my money, checked my bank account and decided to spend one more night in the ancient capital – at a hostel instead of a hotel before heading to Perugia to look for her.
“Just enough,” I whispered. “I have enough to make it through the week for food, a couple of train tickets, the hostel fees, the rent when I get back.”
That didn’t worry me as much as returning to her hometown. In the limited space of my seat at the café, I moved from side to side stroking my chin and scratching my ears. At the hostel, I tossed and turned unable to sleep and on the train to Perugia I got up or switched seats no less than six times. There was no music to soothe me. Someone had stolen the iPod out of my suitcase. Fortunately, that’s all they stole. The guidebook became a security blanket I held to my chest when I wasn’t reading. People just stared when I fidgeted. I was alone. No one knew me, no one cared who I was, and no one knew why I was there. The feeling became more acute once I saw her in Perugia. No hugs or kiss after kiss after kiss. No walks during the twilight by the Fontana Maggiore. We did not stroll through the Galleria Nazionale like we had done every time I returned. We would not window shop on the Corso Vannuci. She didn’t offer to make croissants this time. We spoke for an hour, nothing more. She sent me away with a handshake. I went, I saw, I lost and I never heard from her again. I had pictured a dinners, lovemaking, and talking about the future like we had many times. It was a last chance to create a life together. Children. We had agreed there would be expensive cars or fancy apartments full of things we didn’t need. We wanted to focus on building a family and on traveling around the world.
“You lied,” she said as she walked me to her door. “You lied to me, you’re a coward. Don’t come back here. Go back to the woman you’re with now.”
Those final words smothered my heart, and filled me with a guilt and sadness. They became two stones I dragged away into months of despair and an exercise in three things: First, studying: I was in the middle of working on a Master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University. And second, bad acting: What do you when just about everything goes wrong and you don’t want repeat the story over and over? Perform. You say everything is OK and try to be normal, but both felt aimless. I started drinking, and got drunk in public too often, so I stopped going out to avoid those embarrassing one-man performances like the time at my friend Michelle’s party. Loaded with some 10 beers on top of several shots, I karaoked a preachy, piercing Kiss – the Prince version and knocked over a table full of food mid-song. There were chips and macaroni everywhere. I even smoked marijuana, regularly, just to relax, but my landlord threatened.
“I don’t care if it’s just marijuana. I don’t want it here, it stinks. I’ll call the cops.”
My acting became better, though the lies remained transparent.
“Busy,” I would say. “Yeah, lots going on.”
I forced smiles, forced my work and slept some three or four hours a night. I needed gallons of coffee just to function.
Coffee during the week, and alcohol on the weekends (they started on Thursday afternoons for me) – were cups of solace and dependence. The medium latte from the small coffee shop could be an early morning elixir, something to look forward to after a sleepless night, though only at first, because its punch quickly faded and my body begged for more. I would drink about seven cups of coffee throughout the day, sometimes more. After class and heading back to my apartment with a cup of fresh coffee, I ignored the heart tugs and questions. Is this your treatment? You need some help. Or I drowned them with rationalization.
“I need this.” I said. “This is a crutch, but I need this. How else can I make it? I have a degree to finish and lots of work to do.”
At the school’s newsroom, I snuck into the bathroom stalls to combine the coffee with cheap rum, pouring a quarter of a bottle from a plastic flask. My friend Helena once took a sip from my cup when I was away from the desk.
“Damn, no wonder you’re always drinking that coffee,” she said.
“Yeah, that’s some strong stuff.”
My stomach dropped. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead.
“You should talk to someone,” she offered staring at her monitor. “That’s some, ehem, coffee you’re drinking.”
No words. No defense. The blinking cursor on my monitor didn’t move that day. I stared at the window, at the building across the street, then at the clock and left without submitting a story. I retreated even more from people, and remained pretty miserable until my friend called me that morning in late October. A phone call, and a call to healing, the first step toward salvation. A message from an angel.
I cut down on the alcohol, but never gave up coffee even though I was sleeping through most nights. By the time I reached Prague, I walked and walked in search of a good cup. Sometimes I found it; sometimes it was strong, and good – the beans roasted just right, no bitter flavor. Yet, I often found it far from the apartment on Na Bojisti. Czechs were better at making beer, and that was more widely available. Sometimes it was a good substitute, but I was more careful because I didn’t want disturb my roommate or for her to confirm the rumors I’m sure she had heard. Her mere presence saved me from falling into constant drinking. I took the subway, a tram, but mostly, I walked in search of that cup of coffee, and sometimes those trips became unending rambles through the city’s neighborhoods. On the weekends, when I left Prague, the walks continued in other cities: Krakow, Vienna, Berlin and the Czech towns of Cesky Krumlov, and Hradec Kralove. I wandered in silence, only speaking when it was necessary. I didn’t worry about seeing the sites. There was no checklist, no harried chase of the local color. I simply wanted to walk in new places for walking had made something grow inside me, though I could not tell what it was.
I learned what it was after I was bumped by clumsy couple at the Dinitz Café in Prague’s center. That’s where I went to dance salsa on Friday nights where my hope was to meet a Czech woman. That couple was annoying. The dance floor was crowded enough without their awkward steps and offbeat spins – colliding into everyone. They even stepped on me a couple of times. When the music finally stopped, I went to the bar and ordered water, my face wet, my feet tired. I wiped the sweat with a paper towel. They sat at the bar too and the anger evaporated. They smiled, laughed and held each other – such a picture of joy and affection. I don’t remember how we began talking, but I even ended up buying them a Staropramen beer – the first one I would have with other people in months. I learned that Elmer and Maria Rita, both in their early forties, were from Italy, near Milan. We had such a good conversation; we quickly made plans for dinner the next night.
We met at 8:30, had some traditional Czech food or as I called it Vitamin P (pork, potato dumplings and pivo) and afterwards we meandered through the narrow streets of the Malá Strana neighborhood, near the castle. We spoke about my plans after graduation and Elmer shared his thoughts about career and life in general.
“You must do what you really love,” Elmer said.
The conversation became personal. We spoke about family, hopes, dreams and I wondered about mentioning the trip from the year before. I almost did. Elmer also talked about how he connected spirituality to walking, and how his interest in this type of meditation had increased since he had walked to Santiago de Compostela some years before. I remembered Dr. Vargas’ lecture, but the seed that had been sown on my walks sprouted with Elmer’s words. This is it. This is it. That very night I turned on my computer in the dark kitchen of my apartment and googled the camino. I told my roommate Nicole about the idea.
“Miguel,” she said. “It sounds like something life-changing.”
While we were having dessert with our professor Mindy a few days later, Nicole spoke about her plans to research her family’s history near the eastern border with Slovakia. Mindy had come to meet with the organizations we were working with, and was treating us to dinner.
“Tell her what you’re thinking about doing,” Nicole nodded toward me.
I was still unsure about the trip at that point.
“Well, I want do a pilgrimage in Spain,” I softly said afraid to add much more.
I didn’t want to say why and Mindy did not probe, though her bright eyes asked for more.
“I just want some time to think before heading back to Chicago,” I mumbled through a spoonful of cake.
She looked into me – stopped stirring her coffee, reached across the table, and put her advice succinctly.
The events that followed and led me to the Camino further confirmed it was the right thing to do. The woman on the train to Berlin, and the woman I met in the bar knew about the Camino.
I began packing up my clothes about two weeks before I was to leave for Spain. I bought a lightweight hiking pack, a sleeping bag, a pocketknife and some brand new trail sneakers. I read about the Camino online, combed the Internet forums to absorb as much as possible and to ask about doing the walk from Roncesvalles to Santiago in about 25 days. The penultimate step before leaving was contacting my friend Raquel in Madrid to ask her about stashing my bags at her place for a month. I also needed to have my plane ticket for the trip back to the United States mailed to her apartment. That’s all I asked, nothing more.
I wrote, she said yes, but she sent no address. Two days passed. Nothing. I wrote again. Nothing. I checked my email every day, at least ten times a day over the course of a week, but got no response. Where is she? I had no other way of contacting her – no phone and she wasn’t on Facebook. Then seven days before my departure, her name finally appeared name in bold black letters with this message:
Miguel…Miguelito… querido amigo……
I am really really sorry. I just got your message (i have been at a chicano
lit conference all week...I am not sure when you are arriving. But here is
the problem: I am in the process of breaking up with Andrés so I am not
sure what is going to happen. Please let me know when you will be here and
I will try to make arrangements as soon as possible., Again, I m' really
Seven days….oh, damn. Seven days and nowhere to store my luggage for the month. I walked home and then walked out and thought and worried and then worried some more. Where am I going to leave my damn bags? In desperation, I returned to the Internet and went to forums about the Camino and posted pleas for help. A few ideas appeared in my email, but not much else. Some told me to lug my heavy bags to the city or town where I planned to start the Camino, leave them there and then return for them at the end. That was unfeasible. Time was short. I prayed and ventured out into Prague’s cafes for answers once again. Coffee had lost its jolting effect on me, but the acting of sipping the hot liquid calmed me. And, then, just 5 days days before my flight to Spain, I received an email from Luis Carriedo:
My name is Luis. I’m a pilgrim, well at least I try to be, a resident of Madrid, I read on the forum of Jacobeo.net, your request for help, I answer you privately, instead of in the forum, in case you decide to accept my hospitality I prefer not to publish all my private information, as you know and should understand, the Internet is just as good as it is bad. You say that you’re in Prague at this time, two pilgrims come to mind, a married couple, that I met a couple of years ago on my last pilgrimage, they live in Prague, they’re names are Tomas and Petra, if you are going to be there sometime still, I could give you their information so that you can contact them.
Send me an email and tell me about your plans, where you are going to start the Camino, what date, etc. and about your luggage and those two nights that you need to stay in Madrid, don’t worry, my house is big, accustomed to giving hospitality to pilgrims and with regard to the address for the receipt of your tickets, once you answer and explain your projects I’ll send it.
Now, I sat in the Barajas airport waiting for my first host on the Camino, Luis, the forty-something father of three who had answered my plea for help. In his email, he said he would be wearing an orange polo shirt. I looked up and down the hallways, but I saw no one fitting the description. I sat and waited. Ten minutes passed, then 20 and then 30. I looked around, got up and walked around but saw no one wearing orange. I dug into my bag for my notebook and cell phone.
“Hello, I’m Miguel.”
“Hola, Miguel, where are you?”
“I’m here at the airport and where are you?”
“I’m here also. What terminal?”
“I’m in terminal four and you?”
“At the one, I was mistaken, I thought you would arrive here.”
“I can walk over there.”
“No, stay there, I’m on my way…I won’t be more than 10 minutes.”
I put my cell phone away and sat down again wondering what this guy would be like and why he was willing to take in a complete stranger with all his junk. A tinge of fear shot up my spine. I pulled the luggage cart close as people approached and I sat back down to observe the people walking in and out and hugging and making plans. I had been here – just a few years before, the beginning of a trip I could have scarcely imagined. It changed my life, and now I was back.
My cell phone rang about 15 minutes later; I stood up and looked down the hallway where a tall man was marching up the terminal, a cell phone glued to his face, wearing jeans, sunglasses pulled over his gray hair, and the unmistakable traffic safety orange polo. When he saw me on the phone, he put his away and came straight to me.
“Hello, pleased to meet you.”
“Let’s get going. ¡Hombre! You do have a lot of luggage.”
“I’ve been living in Europe for three months now, so I had to come prepared.”
“I can see that. This stuff must weigh 80 kilos.”
The blanket of heat enveloped me and the sunlight was so intense, I squinted, even with the sunglasses. He breathed hard, and walked fast. He beeped open his white van, and we threw in my bags. I got in as did he and he slammed the door shut, started the van, and the AC immediately blew its cool air into my face. He shifted into reverse, backed out, reached for a CD, pulled down his sunglasses and lit a cigarette all in one motion. His cell phone rang through the stereo’s speakers. Living on a Prayer by Bon Jovi. No…you’ve got to be kidding! It was a business call. He spoke, confirmed meetings, made plans and joked around with his employee. We sped away from the airport for the small suburb of El Alamo about 30 kilometers from Madrid, and after about 10 minutes, he relaxed and asked questions. Where are you from? What were you doing in Prague? He asked about Mexico, mentioned some Mexicans he knew, drawing smoke between questions and answers.
“You know, I really don’t smoke much, just once in a while.”
He lit another cigarette.
I eyed a figurine of a knight with a red cross on his shield on the dash and some pins with weird symbols on the ceiling of his van by the sun visor. Though they could not completely cover the sun, the sunglasses could hide my curiosity.
“You said in your email you were coming to think and for emotional reasons. That’s good, you’re coming with your heart in the right place. It’s seeking. But I will give you some advice, don’t ask the Camino for anything; give yourself completely to it instead.”
The smoke filled the entire cabin and I coughed. Instead of opening a window, he turned up the volume on the stereo, so that we could hear a squeaky synthesizer song. And the started to sing. What the? It was embarrassing, but he didn’t stop, singing louder emphasizing lyrics he thought I should hear with his right hand and cigarette. The smoke lingered in my face.
Then finally, he cracked open the windows, put out his second cigarette and lit a third. He turned up the volume on his stereo even more. The metallic notes of a squeeky synthesizer rang out. I couldn’t believe he was singing in front of a stranger, but he didn’t stop.
“He, who walks the Camino as a tourist, is blind to so much mooore….”
The song went something like that. The unease returned. What’s up with this guy? I coughed again. Hint, hint. We pulled up to a tollbooth and still, he continued singing. The attendant grinned awkwardly. I reached for my wallet.
“Miguel, What are you thinking? No, put that away. And don’t worry about any money this weekend. I want you to relax. I want you to be ready for the Camino.”
He paid. We lurched forward then took off as he switched into second, and then into third gear. I looked out the window trying to ignore him; he still sang, now softer and to a song about yellow arrows. Olive groves stood over golden grass and parched earth as we traveled further from Madrid. And the sky, the sky was cloudless. Prague had been gray for most of the time I had been there – this took some getting used to. It had been a particularly rainy, cloudy spring. The days of sun were gems. As we zipped down the highway, I spotted a shopping center and El Corte Inglés. I was here in Spain, and then we went to Italy and that’s when I met you in Perugia. We had wondrous days in Cortona, and in Rome, romance beyond compare on the ancient streets. The August sun seemed to say that we would last forever. It turned out to be a presage for the early autumn of our love. Luis snapped me out of memory.
“Are your ready for this?”
“Are your ready for this?”
“Physically, yes. I lost about 11 kilos in the past three months. And I can walk for hours,” I said with an air of accomplishment.
Luis shot it down.
“Good, but that’s not all you need. Do you have a guide? When do you want to start? Do you…forget it.”
“We’ll go over everything at the house.”
We pulled off the highway and into El Alamo, a sizeable suburb sitting on some hills. We drove into his small garage where his dog, a small biscuit-colored mutt barked loudly, until she sniffed my hand. Elvia, Luis’s wife, shook my hand, introduced herself and showed me to my room.
“Have you ever walked the Camino?”
“Yes, but in parts.” she said. “It was my idea to walk the first time, but now it’s all he thinks about.”
“You look tired,” Luis said.
“I am, and hungry too,” I answered.
“We’ll eat when I come back. I have to take care of some business, but I’ll be back soon. You relax.”
He asked her for a shopping list, gave her a peck and was off again before she could reprimand him for smoking.
I closed the bedroom, unpacked some clothes, and set my old laptop and iPod to the side, stretched out on the bed, and scrolled to Motorcycle Diaries soundtrack. I was drained – I had been up packing to 3 a.m. the night before, so I expected to immediately fall asleep, but I couldn’t get completely comfortable. In and out of shallow sleep, I tossed and turned – while Elvia cleaned in some far corner of the house, the distant whoosh of a vacuum and the rasp, rasp, rasp of a broom followed. Everything seemed fine: The house was well kept and new, no more than a few years old. They might be normal, but this guy is obsessed with the Camino. The music, that cheap, goofy music. I just want to walk; I don’t care about any of this other stuff. None of that mattered to me – this was supposed to simply be a time for reflection and healing.
The unease returned. I was used to hospitality and had offered it with my parents all my life, but Luis, I didn’t know. What if these people want something, What if they take my things or do something else? I tried putting the thoughts out of my head, but I realized I had to ask Luis why he was doing this. Why would they allow a perfect stranger into their home? Why wouldn’t he allow me to pay anything? What did they want?
A plane flying by caught my eye and I wondered about its direction and final stop, but it also brought back a memory from a couple years before. My parents had always welcomed strangers or a friend in need to our home. Once on a return flight from Mexico City, my father met an old man who was traveling to North Carolina, though he had no idea how to get there. He had never traveled in the United States and there were no direct flights from Mexico City to the Carolinas, so my father offered to help. That meant we took care of him in for a few days, got him some medicine for a horrible cough. We got in touch with his grandson. He didn’t know much English either. We found a flight and then took him to Midway Airport. Afterwards his grandson called us from Raleigh to thank us for the help and even offered to send money for our kindess. My father refused and told him to spend the money on his grandfather. The plane flew up and out of sight, but the memory put me at ease. Certainly, some of those seeds of kindness and generosity had blown across the Atlantic.