ON THE ROAD TO SANTIAGO
By Karen Tannehill
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times, as Dickens wrote.
This is the most fitting way to describe the pilgrimage that brought me and 17 others from Eastern Oregon University to Santiago, Spain. I signed up for the adventure imagining a spiritual journey made up of Zen-like moments in rural Spain.
It ended up being more akin to a 14-day stint on the television show Survivor but without the million dollars waiting at the end.
The worst of times included a series of airline fiascoes that shortened our walking time and lengthened our travel time. The bright side is now I can say Ive had German sausage, pretzels and beer in Germany.
We took the scenic route to Spain by way of Frankfurt, where our party was split into two groups, flying standby on various airlines to Madrid. Since we were off our schedule, the hotel and train reservations were scrapped and we were on our own to find lodging in a city that to me, was the equivalent of a human ant farm.
In the streets of Madrid, I felt like the character in the Wheres Waldo books, complete with backpack, walking stick and puzzled look. Our group was made up of students with various language abilities: native speakers, second- and third-year students, and students like myself who only had two terms of Spanish.
Thankfully, when the group split into two, Armando Garcia and Karina Popovici were in my group and were instrumental in guiding us through Madrids subway system and negotiating our hostel stay. At this point I was ready to curl up in a fetal position, rip off my scallop shell and denounce my pilgrimhood.
I wouldnt suggest traveling to a foreign country with such limited language skills. Had I not been with others who were more fluent I would truly have been lost.
The worst of times also included torrential rain, wind and flooding throughout most of our pilgrimage route. Contrary to the My Fair Lady lyrics, the rain in Spain falls directly over the road. My boots were well-worn and my muscles primed, but all the walking I did in preparation for the trip was null and void once my boots and socks were soaked. The blisters came in threes and fours, lifting toenails and making Birkenstocks the favored footwear of the trip.
Throughout the travel delays, rain and mud, the laughter miraculously continued. Our group maintained a positive outlook and kept making the best of an adverse situation.
As we each established our walking pace, the group broke into several smaller groups. I traveled with Danielle Schneck and Abby Kiklevich, and occasionally wed meet up with Jeff and Colleen Johnson or Danielle and Lenord Kemper.
Among the three of us, we experienced everything from severe tendinitis to stomach flu and near hypothermia. We decided that for us, the pilgrimage was not about walking a certain distance to receive a certificate, but about learning to care for others and allowing others to care for us.
I found the people of Spain to be most generous with their acts of kindness and good intentions. When we were weary and soaked to the bone, people offered warmth and nurturing.
The best example was in Ruitelan, a tiny village with one refuge. We were on our way to OCebrreiro, and thought we could make it there in one day. We took a two-hour lunch stop to dry off and to rest Abbys feet.
This side trip combined with our accidental detour through a road construction site hampered our plans a bit. Abby was limping and doing her best to continue, but it was clear we all needed to stop.
Danielle Kemper poked her head into the doorway of a house marked refugio and found the gem of the trip. The innkeepers were the kindest men, and the best combination for our immediate needs: Miguel, a naturopathic healer, and Carlos, a chef who would put Martha Stewart to shame.
Carlos bore an uncanny resemblance to the Dalai lama, which no doubt added to our feelings of comfort. Some people claim Elvis sightings, but we went to Spain and found the Dalai although Carlos firmly denied it, probably just to keep his anonymity.
We started the day in Villa Franca and the innkeeper there drove our backpacks to OCebrreiro so we could make the steep ascent without extra weight.
Since we were stopping in Ruitelan, Miguel kindly drove to OCebrreiro to fetch our packs. Abby received some healing, or at least some comfort. Her feet were blessed and she was given a natural medication to take for the next few days. Our hearts were warmed by this little haven in the rain. We were warm, dry and well fed.
We also had the opportunity to meet a few other pilgrims from around the globe who were staying in Ruitelan that night.
The next morning, Carlos fed us breakfast and drove our packs and Abby up to OCebrreiro. He made sure Abby was settled comfortably in the bar, and explained to the owner that she spoke very little Spanish and needed to wait there for her friends.
After unloading all of our packs in the rain, again the Dalai, also known as Carlos, gave Abby a big hug, and she admits that at that moment she didnt want to let go.
Those two men had offered us more than kindness; they had given us a feeling, a well-being that hadnt been present over the past couple of days.
Since our walking time had been cut short, and our bodies were rebelling against our strange new diet and wet boots, there were times that we took a cab, or even a bus to get us farther down the road to Santiago.
It is definitely an un-pilgrim-like thing to do, but we figured since this might be the only visit we have in Spain, we would rather spend time seeing the country than nursing our wounds.
The rest of our time together was an attempt to make this water-logged adventure into a vacation. We eventually bused to Santiago, and pooled our money to get a very decent hotel room with hot water, a private bathroom and a heating system.
Danielle, Abby and I went shopping for pajamas and dry socks. We then went to the market for slumber-party food, and spent our first night in the hotel hand-washing our laundry and jimmyrigging clotheslines throughout the room.
We spent the next couple of days sightseeing in the beautiful city of Santiago. We visited the cathedral and passed by the statue of St. James.
We ate lots of great pastries and bought trinkets and jewelry for the folks back home. Obviously the trip the three of us experienced wasnt exactly the traditional pilgrimage, but then again, none of us are traditional women.
We were three amigas or friends who bonded through illness, rain and cow-poop, and managed to laugh all the way through it.
More on the rain in Spain: There are as many views on this trip as there are pilgrims who experienced it. For more war stories and adventure tales, the public is invited to a presentation at 7 p.m. April 23 in Ackerman Hall, room 210, at Eastern Oregon University.
Karen Tannehill is a La Grande resident.
THE PILGRIMAGE OF ST. JAMES
St. James is the patron saint of Spain, known as the Moore Slayer. Maintaining Christianity during a time of Muslim rule is attributed to him.
The saints remains are said to be in Santiago, and a cathedral was erected over the tomb. This is the destination point for people making the pilgrimage. Pilgrims can visit the tomb under the cathedral and hug the giant golden statue of St. James, which is the focal point of the altar.
The entire pilgrimage spans from France to Santiago.
The group from Eastern Oregon University intended to walk the last 120 kilometers from Ponferrada to Santiago, but because of travel delays, was forced to take a bus for parts of the journey in order to catch the outgoing train in time.
The group I was with walked a little more than half of the distance. Others in our group walked more but no one had time to do the entire thing.