Palas de Rei, Arzúa, O Pedrouzo

Sunday, May 25

The days blend a bit. The first, it rained all day. The next the sun came out, then hid again, and came out again, and continued the pattern even until now in O Pedrouzo. When we left Portomarín we found Juanito again, and I said to Larissa that here in Galicia something amazing happens every day. A shame the camino here always smells of dung.

Unfortunately after we found Juanito we lost him again. He was walking with a lot of pain. But perhaps in Santiago.

Sometimes we’ve come across Michele, or Virginia and Lucca, or Kasumi, or Diego and Ísabel, or Fabrizzio. In my mind it’s a fog, like the niebla we usually pass through in the mornings in the valleys and forests. We joke that O Cebreiro is hiding in the mist.

Tomorrow I’ll arrive in Santiago. It will be one month exactly since I left Saint Jean Pied de Port some 500 miles ago. It seems I’ll probably spend more than one day there. The arrival day, then the day to attend the mass and receive my Compostela. And then I’ll continue to Finisterre, another three days away. And then, something. What is “something?” Going home? Am I ready to go home?

Until now, Santiago never felt like an ending. Just a pit stop. But knowing that most of my companions will stop there brings a sense of finality to it all. Like the book ends tomorrow, and Finisterre will be an epilogue or a story in the appendices.

I’m not really sure what to say about it and the feelings are more than a little swirly, so I think I’ll leave it at that for now. Let’s just have some photos.

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Larissa

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Miguel

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The renowned pulpo in Melide

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-Daniel

Sarria and Portomarín

Thursday, May 22

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In Galicia, you could be forgiven for believing in magic. Here in the hills and forests with ancient, fat-trunked, gnarled trees and paths lined with moss-covered stone walls, there must be sidh under the hill and faerie folk beyond the veil.

We stayed in bed a bit later than usual in Triacastela. It’s easy when the sky is gray and heavy and raindrops are falling lightly. After breakfast we set out in the rain and the cold.

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We met with Fabrizzio, Kasumi, and Virginia along the way. The forest formed a tunnel around us, dark and damp. At the front of the line I slipped on the wet slabs of granite below our feet, but caught myself. We passed farms with bulls in brown and white — one, standing above me and to the right in a field I couldn’t see from my place on the path, held eye contact with me eerily as he munched. Fabrizzio made jokes about elves in the forest.

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Fabrizzio

When we came across a sign for a bar we made a slight detour, and we arrived at a very tiny building, crowded with pilgrims and backpacks that had all arrived within minutes of each other. We huddled in and ate. For me, an empanada con atún and a Coke.

Fabrizzio’s knee had been in pain for some time, and two women overheard him talking about it. They had him extend his leg out, and then one of them rubbed her hands together and placed them on his knees, eyes squinting in  concentration.

Nonsense.

We set out into the cold again. Fabrizzio grinned and in a faux-whisper said that the women with their magic hands must’ve been elves. His knee was no better.

A storm came on us quickly. The wind whirled around us, howling and pushing our giant wind-catching packs this way and that. I lowered my hood and spread my arms out wide. Something about it made us all loco, except Alejandro who seemed withdrawn. But I laughed and grinned and dared it to get worse, and we all sang songs with each other loudly. Fabrizzio is like a jukebox of American songs, and some Brazilian ones, and of course Italian. One of the songs we sang was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and Larissa and I did a duet where she sang in Brazilian Portuguese and I in English.

Wind madness, if there is such a thing. As the storm raged I felt completely present and euphoric.

In Sarria we took the first albergue along the path in the town center, which blessedly had a room with only four beds, so we knew no one would flick the light on at 6am and start talking loudly. Our room was upstairs next to the kitchen and comedor, a big and comfortable area with a slanted roof of wooden logs. Fabrizzio, Virginia, and Kasumi chose the same albergue.

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After showering and doing laundry we went to a nearby pulperia. Pulpo Gallego is a specialty in Galicia. It’s octopus cut up and served with oil and peppers, and it’s delicious. I feel a bit torn about it since octopi are known to be very intelligent. But it’s so tasty that I joked with Miguel about opening a pulperia in Los Angeles.

We also stopped in the supermarket and bought bread, cheese, chorizo, coke, chocolate, two bottles of wine, and a bottle of crema de orujo. We’re a bunch of drunks, apparently.

Back at the albergue I spent some time writing and uploading photos to the tablet. I sat with Virginia and Kasumi at one of the dining tables as they snacked on some chips and beer. Poor Virginia has back pain, and the bones or tendons around her shoulder blade pop and crackle when she moves her arm. I’m sure something is wrong with the fit of her pack.

She lives in Granada, and we met her for the first time a few days ago in Villafranca del Bierzo after she set out on her Camino from Astorga.

Kasumi, as you might guess, is Japanese. The Italians have nicknamed her Gina. She’s picked up a bit of a tan here on the Camino, which she says is not at all fashionable in Japan, and we often poke fun that she won’t be able to go back. I first met her in Calzadilla back in the flat lands, along the old Roman road.

It was a good night. We were joined by two Germans I met in Foncebadon, along with another Italian named Lucca who often travels with Fabrizzio, Kasumi, and Virginia. We ate, we drank, we joked. The hospitalero had to ask us to quiet down so the people downstairs wouldn’t be kept awake.

We stumbled to bed at around 11. In the morning I got up at around 7:15, which is delightfully late for a pilgrim. Alejandro woke soon after, followed by Larissa and then Miguel.

As before, we set out in the rain after breakfast, passing through more enchanted forests and farmland until we eventually stopped for food and a bar filled to the brim with tourists. And I mean tourists, not Pilgrims. People traveling in cars or with guides or buses. These last 100km are going to be strange.

As I sat down to eat I saw out of the corner of my eye a familiar face, though at first I didn’t react. Then I did a double-take — it was Michele! I thought he was an etapa or two behind me, but here he was in the same bar. I called out to him much too loudly, and his eyes lit up. We stood, walked hurriedly towards each other, and shared a mighty bear-hug. He was traveling now with some more Italians and a Spaniard, I think. I introduced him to my companions including Fabrizzio, who lives in Milan but was born in the south.

It’s difficult to express how joyful it was to see Michele again, and to know that we’re back on the same path. We didn’t say much, but his eyes said a lot and I imagine mine did too. Later I would see him again at our albergue in Portomarín.

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After lunch we started to walk at slightly different paces. Alejandro ahead out of sight. Miguel with Larissa and I until she and I stopped at the sight of a young goat standing on top of the old stone wall that bordered her field. We slowed as we watched her reach up into a tree to nibble at the leaves. We stepped closer, and to our surprise she was unafraid and didn’t run. I took photos and video of Larissa reaching out towards the goat, and then she did the same for me.

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As I held my hand out the goat sniffed it a bit and licked it once or twice. Hoping for food, I imagine. She let me pet her head a bit, and at times she butt her head with a little bit of force into my hand. Me standing there with my wooden staff and my hand resting fully on a goat’s head made for quite a sight.

For a city-slicker like me, it was a magical moment in an enchanted landscape.

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But there was more magic to come. When we arrived at Portomarín, a lovely city overlooking a large river, we checked in at a nearby albergue called O Mirador and I turned on my phone’s Wifi. Moments later I received a message from my mother with an image of my unborn niece’s face via sonogram. Today, for the first time, I saw her face. My niece. Me, Uncle Daniel. Uncle Daniel. Imagine when she’s older and I can tell her this story!

We went upstairs to the restaurant for a meal. I don’t know if it was lunch or dinner and I suppose it doesn’t matter. We sat for a long time in the comedor where a wall of windows overlooked the river. Afterwards Larissa and I watched a few Brazilian music videos and I tried to play a video of The Dustbowl Revival for her, but the connection was slow.

We went downstairs to the albergue. She’s resting. Miguel and I are writing. Alejandro is listening to music. Later we’ll probably go back upstairs for some drinks and food. Outside the rain doesn’t stop.

-Daniel

Triacastela

Tuesday, May 20

In the morning clouds and mist rushed over the mountains, and the roofs of the old thatch and stone buildings of O’Cebreiro were covered in a light layer of snow. We bundled up and hurried to the same restaurant we’d had dinner in, Venta Celta, to enjoy a quick breakfast. I briefly walked around the city to snap photos before we left via the path behind the albergue that leads into the forest.

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As we put the city behind us we turned for one last look, but it was gone. Shrouded by the mist, it felt like a scene lifted straight from cinema. The ghostly city that disappears after the protagonists leave, taking its spectral residents with it.

We walked through the cold. On either side of the path the flowers and plants drooped heavy with snow. Clearly they were as taken by surprise as us that winter isn’t yet over.

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The walk was a simple one, not flat but not arduous. We passed the Alto de San Roque, where a sculpture of a medieval pilgrim stands forever trapped in mid-stride, clothes blown back by the wind, looking out over the mountains. We quickly snapped photos with icy hands before moving on.

For lunch we stopped at a restaurant and albergue in Fonfría called A Reboleira. Inside the bar was a small round dining room shaped like a hut, with celtic music playing. Larissa asked Alejandro if the music was local and he said yes. I was surprised since it sounded more Scottish or Irish to me. Apparently there’s a very heavy celtic influence in Galicia, which I suppose makes since given the geography. But I had no idea before now.

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In time we descended into Triacastela, a very long and stretched out pueblo. Our albergue, the municipal, has only four beds per room. So finally we may be able to sleep without someone deciding to flick on the lights at precisely 6am and begin talking as loud as if it were midday, which has been a problem in the last several albergues. Some people go to sleep very early, and we have to tip-toe when we go to bed so that we don’t disturb them. But then they wake up at 5:30 or 6 and make all the noise in the world. Oh well, pilgrim life.

We ate dinner nearby, and after enjoyed chupitos of crema de orujo. Then we enjoyed taller glasses of the same. Given the rough walking yesterday it was nice to unwind, drink a little too much, and laugh a little too loud.

Tomorrow we’ll reach Sarria, which will put us just 115 kilometers from Santiago. Jonathan asked me this evening, as Larissa and I were enjoying some chocolate, if I was starting to ponder the end. I wrote my thoughts about that in the previous entry. I told him I’m trying to keep my mind here on the trail for as long as I can. I don’t even have my return flight booked yet, and I don’t particularly care. That can wait.

There are two beautiful horses just outside our window.

-Daniel

O’Cebreiro

Monday, May 19

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It snowed here not thirty minutes ago. This is O’Cebreiro, a name that conjures up images of an imposing stone town at the peak of an isolated mountain, with an ominous ring of clouds overhead. The town is indeed stone, but it’s charming rather than frightening. Even now in the cold and fog, though it’s difficult to explore, it’s far less menacing than the image I held in my imagination.

The road today was a long one at 30 kilometers, with two separate and challenging climbs. We were told it would be cold and rainy, but it was neither. After breakfast we left Villafranca del Bierzo by the steep route to Alto Pradela, 400 meters up. Alejandro, Miguel, and I charged ahead while the others took a more reasonable stride. The beginning was steep; a reminder of the initial trial-by-fire that was the Pyrenees, except that this route was lined with trees. Later it became more graceful, with the path winding broadly across the mountainside and offering wide views of the valley below.

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I found myself thinking of those who’d chosen the route that runs along the highway. For some it’s a matter of health, but others choose the easier route solely because it is easier.

To each their own Camino, they say. But for me, to choose the easy way is to choose a road paved with regret. It’s strange to say, but regret is a central motivator in my life. Or rather, avoiding regret. If I walked the easy road I’d doubt the choice with every step. So I couldn’t possibly go that way.

Regret is the worst pain of all. When someone leaves our lives, we mourn the loss. But worse than the pain of loss is the pain of things left unsaid. The proper goodbye that never happened. And so it goes with everything else. The regret when you wanted to say, “I love you,” but didn’t. The regret of not standing up for yourself when someone wronged you. The regret of not apologizing when you wronged another.

Why am I on the Camino? Why now? Because I could have pushed it off for all eternity. There would always have been something in my career or in my life that would have taken precedence over the Camino. But I can’t stand the notion that I might find myself living my last moments of old age with this regret on my lips: “I never went on the Camino. I wish I’d made time for that.”

So I took the hard way.

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It was rewarding. There are two kinds of joy I’ve experienced today and yesterday. Once in VIllafranca del Bierzo, sitting outside the bar while one friend played with the barkeep’s dogs, and another sang her favorite songs in a voice as beautiful and elegant as a lily. A drink in my hand; the blue sky overhead; nowhere to go.

The other was the joy of reaching the top of the mountain after a difficult climb with 23 pounds of equipment weighing me down.

I ended up on a detour through the small town of Pradela, because the yellow arrows pointed that way even though it wasn’t necessary. Unless you need to visit the bar, you can hug left at the fork instead of right and carry on. Still, the small valley the town overlooks was beautiful in the sunlight. Great fields and meadows and farmers tending the soil.

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I reunited with Alejandro there, and then with the rest of the group soon after. We descended and began the long trek through a valley carved by the Rio Valcarce along a road. We passed through several lovely pueblos before beginning the steep climb to O’Cebreiro. The rough stone path through the forest, leading first to La Faba, reminded me of the ascent to Upper Yosemite Falls. Which is to say, it was pretty brutal. We all reunited at La Faba and then carried on, separating again as our paces varied. Here the path rose more gradually, gently riding the curvature of the mountains and passing into Galicia. A few kilometers later we reached O’Cebreiro as the sky turned darker and the air colder.

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As the fog rolled in and the air chilled we ran to the nearest restaurant to eat. Caldo Gallego for me, and also a Galician stew. Another simple but deep joy — warm soup on a cold day after a hard walk. All totaled I think we climbed some 1100 meters today, broken down between the first peak and the second.

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So much of the road here reminds me of California. And I know that I’m only a week from Santiago, and a few days more until Finisterre. It begins to feel like I’m walking towards home. I wonder what it will be like to return to Los Angeles. What will it be like when the Camino is over, and I’m left to digest it all in my mind? People like to say that although this Camino ends, the Camino of your life goes on. I appreciate the poetry but I find it too convenient — it seems like a mantra we use to protect ourselves from a difficult thought.

An older Spaniard in Ponferrada told me that the truth of how the Camino continues is more concrete and less poetic; When I return, I’ll have all these experiences swirling in my mind and in my heart. In time it will settle into something. I don’t know what.

-Daniel

Villafranca del Bierzo

Sunday, May 18

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Today was simple but hot. I spent a good chunk of the walk talking with Larissa about all that’s swimming in her mind on the Camino, and it’s quite a bit. She’s hard on herself, I think. But who am I to talk?

We took a break from the heat at a tiny bar along the highway, where Brazilian music played as we entered. The barkeep told us there were only three kilometers to go, which was welcome news.

But as the road stretched on seemingly without end Larissa didn’t feel very well. A truck approached from behind — Protección Civil. They offered her a ride to the municipal albergue in Villafranca del Bierzo, where I am now.

It’s a beautiful building, like a cheaper version of a casa rural, with a view of the long pueblo stretching out ahead, dominated by huge church on a hill. After showering and washing my clothes I went down towards the pueblo and came across the others at a bar. We had the menú del día and were joined by a girl named Virginia from Granada, along with two dogs who wanted nothing more from life than food and belly rubs.

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The iglesia that sits atop Villafranca del Bierzo

After lunch I went down into the town to use the ATM, and on the way back met Jonathan. He described parting with Sarah this morning and we talked a bit before I moved on.

Tomorrow I make the climb to O Cebreiro, in the rain and wind and cold.

-Daniel

Foncebadon, Cruz de Ferro, Ponferrada

Saturday, May 17

I arrived at the Cruz de Ferro before the first glint of sunlight reached it. Sarah and Jonathan walked together behind me. I set my pack down against a fence and took some photos in the pale morning glow, and from the other side to see the burnt orange and pale blue as sunlight started to bend our way. In my cargo pocket I could feel the two rocks I had brought with me, one from Astorga and the other from Rabanal del Camino.

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I’d passed through Rabanal alone the day before on the way to Foncebadon, the ruined pueblo that is now experiencing a small rebirth as the Camino grows in popularity. My traveling companions, the two Brazilians and one Spaniard, had stopped for a rest earlier on and I’d decided to continue alone before the sun was too high and hot in the sky.

There were two ponies at the entrance of Rabanal. I’ve heard rumors of a pilgrim doing the trail on a pony, and I wonder if those were his or hers. I probably won’t ever know. I stroked the muzzle of one before moving on, passing the pilgrims stopped for lunch or ending their day there. It’s a pretty town with one long main street running from beginning to end uphill, flanked on both sides by tiendas, albergues, and bars. And one strange lean-to with the word “Voluntad” and a table full of little odds and ends you could take, leaving a donation in the box nearby.

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I saw a rock there with something written on it I hadn’t expected, and I took it and put some money in the box. As I walked on I heard a voice call “Gracias” from the park to my right, and I could barely make out the figure of a man behind the vines growing on the fence between us. I thanked him and left.

The flat lands were behind me now, and along my left the horizon was blocked by snow-capped peaks. The path was rocky and passed sometimes through dense foliage with flowers in white and purple and yellow, waving in the wind.

Eventually I arrived in the Foncebadon and saw that it was truly a ruin, abandoned except for those who worked there doing business on the Camino. I saw familiar faces and realized the albergues were filling fast, so I hurried to get my bed, hoping my friends weren’t too far behind.

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Sarah and Jonathan arrived and found all albergues full, and we sat for a while drinking beers while the hospitalero of one tried to phone ahead to the small encampment beyond the Cruz de Ferro. No answer. He offered them his own bed and said he’d sleep on the couch.

My troupe arrived from the opposite direction I’d expected — I had missed them when they entered the town, and now they were checked in at the parochial albergue up the street, where they would have the communal dinner and breakfast. I booked my dinner with Sarah and Jonathan at their albergue, and we talked about rising early to reach the Cruz de Ferro before sunrise.

Now I was there, having left while there were still stars in the sky. I walked carefully up the mound of rocks, careful not to step on anyone else’s dreams and wishes and dedications, placed my simple rock from Astorga in no particular spot, and left the other (the one from Rabanal) closer to the great wooden post that supports the cross.

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I put some distance between me and the cross, and sat in the grass facing the rising sun. I whispered the Shema, and then the only prayer I allow myself to say. I sat quietly for a few moments before standing again.

I continued taking photos of the cross as the light changed, and taking photos for others with their cell phones. Sarah and Jonathan huddled nearby in the cold. After a while she walked up to me in silence and gave me a hug, and handed me a postcard with a note on the back. I read it and tucked it away in my guide book. eventually they gathered their things and asked me if I wanted to walk on, but I chose to wait for the others.

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Not long after, they came towards the cross. The sunlight behind them made them difficult to recognize. They placed their rocks, we all took photos, and we carried on to Ponferrada.

First we passed through the tiny refugio Manjarin, isolated and very hippie-inspired. People who stay there overnight go without electricity or plumbing, but they can see the stars.

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The other side of the mountains may as well have been Los Angeles. The ground was the same dirt and rock of the Santa Monica mountains, surrounded by scrub brush with the city in the distance, ringed beyond by more mountains (though these were snowcapped). For the first time I found myself feeling homesick.

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We stopped for lunch at no place in particular, and Sarah and Jonathan caught up again. We said we’d meet again on the trail or in Ponferrada, but as it turned out we wouldn’t.

In Ponferrada we stayed at the municipal albergue, and didn’t venture out into the city. The albergue has a beautiful courtyard, though the rest is very minimal. But it’s donativo, so you can only be grateful. We ate dinner with some Italians who whipped up pasta in tomato sauce while Alejandro cooked a tortilla that ended up as scrambled eggs and potatos, though still very tasty.

Tomorrow, Villafranca del Bierzo.

-Daniel

Astorga and the Man in White

Thursday, May 15

We arrived in Astorga today, after a peaceful walk through the foothills of the mountains that we’ll begin to climb tomorrow.  We passed through a small pueblo where music was being broadcast on loudspeakers from atop the church. Songs of prayer and also songs about the Camino. “Soy peregrino, soy vagabundo…”  And as we began our descent from a hill into Astorga, a man with a guitar sang a simple but oddly catchy tune about pilgrims. When he learned I was from California he added a verse for me, and also asked me if I had any souvenirs from California on me that I might give him. But I have none, so I could only offer euros.

After checking in at the municipal albergue and eating lunch, Larissa, Miguel, and I lost sight of Alejandro. We walked towards the Cathedral expecting that we might find him there.

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But we never made it that far. We were stopped on the street by an old man, dressed all in white with a white hat and white beard. He wore enormous metal rings on his fingers. When he saw us his eyes lit up and he called out, “Peregrinos!” There is a supermarket nearby, he told us hurriedly, where the floor is glass and you can see down into Roman ruins — Astorga is built on an ancient Roman city.

Like any sensible pilgrim would, we followed the strange man quickly through the streets to the supermarket. Farther and farther back into the store, where I was very sure we’d find a meat locker full of other pilgrims. But no, instead we came to a portion of the market where the floor is glass, and below it lies an ancient Roman rain-catching system now in ruin.

The tour wasn’t done yet. He whisked us around the city. He pointed out the distant mountains where there had been gold mines. He brought us to a convent where there was a statue of a pregnant Mary, and a unique sculpture of a woman on the cross. He showed us a ruined Roman amphitheater and gave us rocks he claims are from the construction 2000 years ago. Here, a house where a poet lived. There, a building were Dalí and other artists and poets stayed together. An ancient church, the Cathedral, and a palace designed by Gaudí. A private albergue that was once a jail for women. A plant which grows there and has iodine-rich sap, good for blisters. Often he’d stop every few feet, whirl around to face us, finger outstretched towards small lights embedded in the sidewalk. “Luces! Para peregrinos!”

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He rattled off so much information in so little time that our heads were ready to burst and our feet ready to surrender from the endless walking. I asked him his name — he said his name is Amador. He who loves. Everyone we passed knew him and called to him.

We offered to pay him for his time and he declined, but he accepted our invitation to join us for a beer. He’s lived here all his life, being born just outside of the city near a pueblo we passed. He works in art and antiquities, when he’s not escorting pilgrims around town out of the goodness of his heart and his love of his city. We drank together and he told perhaps a thousand Spanish jokes, many of which went right over my head. Finally we said goodbye, and the most surreal experience of the Camino to date came to an end.

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What were the chances? How fortunate that we should be there, on that corner, at that moment. Any later and he would’ve been long gone, and we would’ve been none the wiser. Perhaps other pilgrims would’ve been less trusting of the strange man in white, and missed the entire experience.

The Camino is full of such bizarre serendipity.

Pilgrims reading this — if you’re wandering in Astorga and a strange man in white calls to you to follow him, consider saying yes.

Tomorrow we aim for Foncebadon.

-Daniel