This is part of chapter one.
It is being professionally edited and translated. There are typos and small mistakes in this version.
Editing is in full swing. Updates to come during spring 2014.
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
A fragment of Chapter One:
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.