I don’t recall when I first heard of the historic pilgrimage trail across Spain “El Camino de Santiago” but akin to the way it has grown into the general public’s consciousness through books, movies, and the increasing frequency of people you know talking about it, the “Camino” or the “Way” has nudged its way up on my “to do” list awareness. Still, I figured it would be one of those “later in life” things since to do the nearly 500 miles of the most popular of the various routes “Camino Frances” starting across the Pyrenees in France, would require more time than the typical vacation of a working man affords.
But, nearly all of my vacations/travels have been borne of “strategic serendipity.” While I do keep a carousel of “to do” destinations in my head, I do not have a “dream trip” that I devote my energy and money to make happen in a certain window of time. My work allows me to be flexible throughout various pockets of the year, such that the variables of a cheap airfare, or already finding myself in a big travel hub, or some travel collaboration have made a destination “decide itself” upon me. That’s the serendipity part of it. The strategy part is that I routinely look for these pockets of convenient and affordable opportunities to take advantage of throughout the year.
In June, I had just gotten back from one of these jaunts to Iceland, when my girl-friend Kim mentioned that she came across some cheap flights to Spain. I wasn’t really looking to make another international trip so soon, but when I investigated and saw the excellent airfare, the wheels to wander started churning. We both looked at our work loads and schedules (we both work remotely from our computers) and decided that we could make it work. Knowing the low fares wouldn’t last long, we decided it all in a 24 hour span, and bought the tickets to Spain. Flying from Asheville to Bilbao, Spain on Sept. 6 and flying from Lisbon, Portugal to Asheville on Oct. 12, all for $671 per person, with our main goal to walk the Camino de Santiago.
We thus had a few months in Asheville to enjoy the summer and prepare, while getting more and more excited about the journey. We both focused on getting caught up, and ahead of our work so we wouldn’t have to focus on it much while in Spain. For me, it’s actually a good time of the year to take a break. Most of the school groups I’m managing are already in their registration mode, or I’ve already got the pieces in place that I can step away for a while, periodically checking in. My house was a little more of a chore, as some rotting wood necessitated that I had to rebuild my front porch posts and railing, re-paint, and install a new gutter drain, but in the end I had prepared myself sufficiently that when we left for the airport, I felt like my home, work, and life were in better order than they had been in a long time. I had thoroughly cleaned my room and desk, filing away mail and papers, doing laundry, vacuuming, eating out the remainder of my food in the fridge. My work and personal email boxes were reduced down to near nothing. I even had my backpack sorted and packed the day before. Man, it feels good to leave home in order and know it will be that way when I get back. Kim came to my house where friend James would give us a ride to AVL airport. I gave El Guapo a big hug good-bye, confident he would be taken care of and played with by my capable housemates Hannah and Kevin. And off we flew.
Upon purchasing our flights, we not only decided where to fly to, but the routing, intentionally choosing an 8 hour layover in Madrid, so that we could go explore Spain’s capital city en route. We left the airport via Metro and we’re able to spend about 4 hours on the ground in central Madrid. We spent nearly the entire time walking. I didn’t do my typical research on the history and sites of the city, but I’m pretty sure we saw every major site in Madrid (at least from the outside). We walked boulevards, through parks, past many squares, plazas, roundabouts, museums, palaces, government buildings, and churches. It is an impressive city, although it was in the middle of a heat wave and we were feeling the effects of jet-lag and little sleep on the overnight flight.
Returning to the Madrid airport, we continued on our flight itinerary to Bilboa. After collecting our bags and hopping a bus into the city center, we walked to our AirBnB in a quiet nearby neighborhood, arriving at 6pm. We unloaded our packs, showered, and put on fresh clothes; though we were tempted to go to sleep right then, we knew it was best to keep ourselves up to initiate our new sleep cycle / time zone. We walked over to the old city, Casco Viejo and enjoyed some pinchxos (tapas) and drinks by the main plaza as it turned to night. We walked around a bit before finally retiring to our bed, falling fast asleep with no hurry to wake up the next morning. When we finally did rouse, we took our host’s advice and walked the pedestrian lanes / parks flanking the river and visited the famous Guggenheim Museum. The building itself is the more impressive work of art than anything inside. We walked more of the more modern town, and after some naps, we went back out to Casco Viejo. Bilbao is a great place for a progressive dinner / drinks. Small portion plates are ready made sitting at the bar for you to choose and eat with your drink – sitting inside or outside (sometimes literally on the street stones). Then you walk around some more and try another pinchxo and beverage at another place. We both appreciated that though Bilbao has tourists, it had a very local vibe with friends, parents, children lingering around the bars, plazas, and parks, just hanging out informally.
The next day, we awoke and left Bilbao early and caught a bus to San Sebastian, a fortified coastal city in Spain. On one end on a rocky mount, historic batteries, now in a park like setting, protect and overlook the old city and the harbor. The rocky cliffs created a large sheltered bay with a 1km long crescent beach, lined with more modern hotels. I went for a quick swim on the beach to get “baptized” in the Atlantic, since our entire time on the Camino will be spent inland. San Sebastian certainly has a dramatic setting and a very nice urban beach with great pedestrian infrastructure, but it felt much more touristy, and I think we both favored Bilbao for its creativity and local vibe. San Sebastian was just a short stop of three hours, and after getting rained on and wet, we hopped back on a bus into France.
We had about an hour in Bayonne to walk through some of its quaint pedestrian lanes before hopping onto a local train to take us to Saint Jean Pied du Port, the traditional start of the Camino de Santiago. We checked into our albergue “Belari” which means “pilgrim” in Basque language. Joseph the proprietor told me that my name “Isaiah” is the same word for “wind” in Basque. I hope that will be a fitting name, as I hope to drift with the flow of the Camino. Once checked in we walked the walls and hill top citadel of the fortified town. While there are many other tourists, the town is particularly geared toward the pilgrims doing the Camino. We checked in at the Pilgrim’s office and got our official “credencial” passport to be stamped throughout our journey. We bought water bottles and some snacks for the start tomorrow morning. We feel ready to go at first light.
Apart from the logistics of being ready, the Camino is a pilgrimage, and regardless of whether you’re a devout Christian or put any stock in the supposed tomb of Saint James at Compostella as the final destination of the Camino, it is tradition and expected that pilgrims walk with their personal “intentions” – your hope and meditation for the Camino, or what you hope for the Camino to teach you. Kim and I talked about this well before the trip, and mutually agreed that even though we hope for the Camino to enhance and strengthen our relationship, we should each have our own individual intention, independent of our relationship objectives. I wrote mine out the morning we flew out of Asheville. I had read the book of James for inspiration. The book advocates a practical faith – being “doers” of the word, and showing your faith by your works. I thought of the aspirations I often speak of – my ongoing desire to be invested in community and giving back, but then I felt myself saying “should” too much. I didn’t want my Camino to be a long walk where I contemplated all the things I “should” be doing better or differently. I wanted it to teach me more through daily surprise and mystery rather than deliberate, subjective meditation. I also want the Camino to have meaning beyond this journey, and resonate with my past and my future. And I reflected how much in my life – the things I claim to be most blessed by, are not the products of my deliberate intervention and ambition. I am a strategic person, but one rooted in fortunate serendipity. I am more the product of gifts and grace outside myself, rather than of gumption and grit from within. And so this is the intention that I wrote, and planted in the cone full of other pilgrim’s intentions.
I must also say that though I am traveling with my computer, it is my intention that I do not spend much time on it. I will check in on work as needed, and do some more writing, but don’t expect frequent blog updates. Maybe when it’s all over, I’ll write more thoroughly and share it. Kim once said to me, “We live in a world where we haven’t experienced something until you’ve shared it online.” Sadly that often feels true, but I don’t want that to be the case for this Camino. I will experience it like the wind, shared in person in the moment. Online can wait, but for now, let it be known that we have started our Camino.