Blog: Camino de Santigo 2009

Day 1: Irun to San Sebastian

Wow, what a way to get thrown into the walk!! You’d think you’d be starting an 800 kilometer journey on a light note; instead, the Camino de Santiago throws you right into the thick of it.

We started the walk in Irun, a small Spanish town on the border between France and Spain. The Camino del Norte originated historically from a bridge in Irun called “el Puente de Santiago.” This bridge is what all walkers refer to as “point zero” and serves as a type of frontier line. Luis, my parents, my youngest brother Matias, and I all stood on the bridge for a family picture, gave each other our blessings and said our good byes, before we set off on our respective cycling and walking ways.

At exactly 2:15 pm Luis took off on his Freedom Ryder, a three-wheeled hand cycle, accompanied by my father on his own bicycle. My mother, Matias, and I began walking aimlessly. We knew we had to get to San Sebastian, but we didn’t have the slightest idea how to get there. Before we knew it we were on a highway and nearly getting run over by a hundred speeding cars.

As if a miracle from God, we bumped into two other “peregrinos” (the word used for those who walk the Camino of Santiago) who were also just beginning their own journey. They must have been in their forty’s, two Spanish friends, completely well equipped with walking canes and all, and they seemed to now exactly where they were going. It didn’t take long for my mom, Matias, and I to latch onto them.

We began following them down a road when all of a sudden the sky split in two and rain started pouring. But not just rain, heavy rain, massive rain, so much rain that it began to hail with chunks of ice falling from the sky. Wet, cold and scared, we found refuge under a small bus stop and used the idle time to get to know our new found friends.

When the hail subsided (even though the rain continued) we decided to continue walking. Unlike our friends who had ponchos and rain gear, we had nothing! Ok, I’m exaggerating, my mother and I each had a tiny wind breaker but poor Matias literally had NOTHING, nothing at all to shield himself from the storm.

Nevertheless, we walked and we entered the real Camino del Norte. Through farms, up hills, around cows and horses, we began our ascent on dirt covered roads, actually better said, mud covered roads. By the end of the first hour we were completely soaking wet but we had reached the Virgin of Guadaloupe’s little chapel at the top of an immense mountain.

At that point we bid farewell to our friends who stayed behind and we continued to follow the yellow arrows that mark the way of the Camino de Santiago. My mom and I managed to change our shirts but poor Matias had nothing to change into, so he remained walking with a soaking wet Walkabout t-shirt. The path took us by surprise as we faced nothing but climb, climb, climb for two hours straight.

With not a person in sight and no civilization around us, we walked high above the clouds in the mountain tops. Ocassionally, the sky would open up and bless us with the most beautiful view of the towns below, surrounded by both sea and rolling hills. But for the most part, the walk consisted of just the three of us, and our silence, our thoughts, and our spirituality.

At around 5 pm the trail began to descend and we finally started coming back down to sea level. We reached a small little fishing village called Pasado de San Juan where we ran into the first cafe we saw. Having not eaten anything since breakfast, we ravaged the cafe’s kitchen, ordering whatever was left at the end of the day’s menu. We stuffed our faces with typical Spanish tortilla de papa, pumpkin seeds and potato chips.

The Camino de Norte’s arrows pointed us in the direction of a little dock and at that point we ran into our two friends again. They informed us that we needed to take a little boat to the other side of the river when the Camino continues. We boarded a tiny little ferry with them, and 60 cents and 5 minutes later, we were on the other side of the river ascending into the mountains again.

The rest of the afternoon was full of fear, vertigo, and trepidation. The yellow arrows took the three of us up very steep and narrow paths along the cliff of the mountain. The scenery was spectacular! A view of 180 degree of endless sea was breathtakingly beautiful. But no more than 25 minutes later, the sky split in two again and it began to downpour. It rained so so hard that we were sopping wet, head to toe, socks, shoes, underwear and all!

The Camino continued to take us through the edge of the mountains, along the sea. There was not a soul in sight. You could have yelled at the top of your lungs and no one would have ever heard you. We pushed our way through and feared that it was getting late and getting dark. I lost my wind breaker and Matias was finally persuaded to wear one of my mother’s extra dry tank-tops that looked hysterically ridiculous on him!

An incredibly good sport, Mati turned out to be our guardian angel today. He saved us from growling dogs, motivated us to push a little bit harder, and guided us through the last bit forest when it got so dark we could barely see the step in front of us. We’re sad that tomorrow he’s leaving us to head to Morocco, but enthusiastically await his return!

At 9:15 pm, exactly 7 hours later, we touched foot in San Sebastian. Our father came to collect us as we layed sprawled out on the “rambla”, the beautiful pedestrian veranda that hugs the sea. After a very warm shower and a ham and cheese toastie, we called it a night after a very long but incredibly rewarding day.

Day 2: San Sebastian to Zarautz

Day 2 of the Camino de Santiago started off with two blisters and antibiotics. Due to my wet sneakers yesterday, I developed two small but mean blisters on my two big toes. I’ve also been trying to beat a bad cough and running nose for the last couple of days, so I finally decided it was time to start the antibiotic.

My mother and I began to walk at 1 pm because we spent the morning accidentally getting lost through the streets of San Sebastian as we looked for the place that gives the peregrinos the “credential” that you need to have stamped in every town in order to receive the famous “compostela” in Santiago. After learning that on Sunday everything is closed, we made our way back to the hotel, picked up our packs, and set off for our day’s adventure.

Unlike yesterday, it didn’t rain today and actually the weather was quite perfect. The day’s first climb was through a beautiful farm setting, where some cows grazed while others rang their neck-line bells near by. As we continued to walk we were blown away (both literally and metaphorically) by a group of cyclists that came speeding by us. Despite their hurry, each one of them turned around to say to us “buen camino,” in other words, good trip. As we later learned, those two words are the two most frequently used words in this entire area and is the most endearing way of saying hello between one peregrino and another.

The Camino began to take us away from the farm land and Cantabrain Sea and into the heart of the mountain. Through tiny weeded paths full of shrubs and rocks, the Camino not only became narrower and narrower, but steeper and steeper. Before we knew it we were in a grove of immensely tall trees, under their willowing branches and leaves. The grove resembled a rainforest, and in one little corner, near a tiny stream stood another peregrino drinking fresh water. We introduced ourselves to Adam, from Poland, and explained to him why we were walking the Camino. We gave him a Walkabout bracelet.

We walked with Adam for the next two hours, up and down treacherous hills. I find the descents much harder than the climbs. Coming down those steep slopes, hopping from one rock to the other, skipping from one patch of dry earth to another flat surface, shakes your body and shocks your knees in a way you are not used to. And that’s exactly what happened to me. Some how, some way, I hurt my left knee so that every other time we descended further down the mountain I was overburden with an excruciating pain.

As we reached a highway, we saw Adam further ahead talking to someone. We realized he was talking to Luis who happened to be cycling by at that exact same moment! What a coincidence, or as my mom said “an incident from God.” If Adam hadn’t crossed the highway at the exact moment Luis was rolling by so as to stop him and say “buen camino,” we would have never bumped into Luis. And off Luis went, riding into the wind on his Freedom Ryder, with his Argentine flag flapping behind!

In the town of Orio we bid farewell to Adam and my mom and I sat down for a late lunch. I needed the break, desperately, for my knee was getting worse and hurting more. After a meal of chicken and french fries, we continued down a path where we were frightened by a dog that was chasing cars. Shortly after we learned that the dog belonged to a nearby worker who introduced himself and his friend Jose Maria.

Jose Maria had been working in construction when a freight elevator fell on his back and left him paralyzed 30 years ago. We told him about Walkabout, gave him a bracelet, and offered our assistance in any way. His chair looked rusted and outdated, but nevertheless, he asked how HE could help Walkabout.

Limping, we managed to arrive in Zarautz where we arrived at our hotel and met up with Luis. Although we were all exhausted, we felt good, motivated, and accomplished. We decided since it was still relatively early, we would go back and have dinner in the old city of San Sebastian.

Over traditional Spanish tapas, Luis and I exchanged stories. He told me that today was harder than what he expected because the climbs were so steep that his front wheel was barely touching the ground and thus had very little traction. As a result, he had to push even harder and explained it to me as taking “two steps forward, one step back.” Nevertheless, he never got discouraged and continued to push, push, and push, until arriving in Zarautz.

Slightly revived but definitely ready for bed, after dinner we fell fast fast asleep.

Day 3: Zumaia to Markina

Without a doubt, the hero of the day is Luis. What he accomplished today is a feat that is so difficult for you and I to comprehend because we have never propelled ourselves up a mountain with only two arms on a bike that must weigh at least 40-50 pounds.

Although my mom and I started Day 3 in Zumaia, Luis started today’s journey in Zarautz, approximately 10 kilometers further out from our start point. We met up with Luis in Deba, a beautiful beach town on the Cantabrian coast full of Spaniards on their summer vacations.

After numerous climbs and hills, which all together amounted to more than 20 kilometers, Luis came rolling down the mountain and accompanied us to Deba’s Tourist Office where we were able to acquire the credentials needed to obtain the Compostela in Santiago.

After a stroll on the boardwalk, we decided to leave Deba together and walk in tandem for as long as the Camino would take us. My mom and I walked behind Luis who led the way to a beautiful bridge.

After crossing the bridge, together we began to ascend the first climb which is where I was able to witness first hand how difficult it is to push your entire body weight (plus the bike’s) with only the strength of your arms. Every strenuous rotation on the hand cycle is one effortless step for us, a step we don’t even blink or think twice about. And Luis continued to push, push, and push until finally he made it to the top, at which point he gleefully let the bike go, catching a rest and waving his arms in the air, like a roller coaster at an amusement park.

At the bottom of the hill, we bid farewell to Luis who was going to pick up his pace and accelerate ahead. Because it was getting late, nearly 5pm, my mom and I decided against the Camino’s path through the mountains and instead chose to follow Luis’ route through the two-lane highway.

We began to ascend, next to soaring cars and roaring trucks, and we stayed on that road for 3 hours. All I could think of was Luis and how far ahead he was. As I breathed in the sea air, basked my face in the evening sun, and walked one step at a time, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride.

I am beyond proud and honored to be Luis’ sister. He is a true testament of will power and endurance. He encourages my mother and I to push ourselves a little bit harder and walk a little bit longer. After cycling 50 kilometers (at an average speed of 10 kilometers per hour) in just one single day, Luis is living proof that whatever you put your mind to you can do. Luis, you truly are our hero!

Day 4: Markina to Guernika

What a long long day, endless actually. We woke up at 7 am and headed to the center of Markina to begin our day’s walk. But before embarking on our 26 kilometer journey, we decided to make a quick visit inside the local church. The quiet, peacefulness and serenity I experienced in just those two minutes, gave me an unexpected inner strength to proceed.

Today’s walk was really all about forests! Although the first hour was along a flat pasture that ran alongside a narrow creek, the remaining seven hours took place inside the mountains and inside the woods.

The first town we passed through was Iruzubieta and shortly after, we walked through the town of Bolivar. Upon seeing a sign for the Simon Bolivar Museum, we detoured from the Camino and decided to dedicate the next half hour to an educational lesson on the great South American liberator. The town of Bolivar is where Simon Bolivar’s ancestors came from, and the tiny museum serves as a homage to his personal and political career.

After our first killer climb, we began to descend upon an imposing structure that resembled an Italian Renaissance church. In closer view we noticed that the church was in fact a monastery, el Monasterio de Cenarruza. In the monastery we met two peregrinos who had just walked there from Deba and were being given refuge by the head priest. Several peregrinos opt to sleep in the monastery. We met the priest who kindly stamped our credential, certifying we had been there.

My mom and I had a quick lunch on a little bench under a large oak tree and then continued to climb. We spent the rest of the day walking through woods, what seemed like enchanted forests, where there was not a person in sight. The whole mountain was ours, or so it felt that way.

At one point the Camino deviated back onto a two-land highway and while walking there, we heard a loud honk which startled us. We looked up and saw Luis who was driving by in a car to set off on his day’s ride. What a coincidence again! We bid each other a “buen camino” and off we went.

At around 7 pm, exactly eight hours later, my mother and I hit the town of Guernika where Picasso painted his famous painting “Guernika.” We were exhausted, absolutely shattered, our legs felt like jello and I had developed a new blister. On top of it all, my mom began to feel ill and I had to run around the town looking for a pharmacy. When her situation didn’t improve a couple of hours later, we had to find a 24-hour doctor in town who would see her. Luckily, she saw the doctor who prescribed her some medication and she is quickly recovering and feeling better.

Luis too had an exhausting ride. When we met up in the evening he told me that the last 8 kilometers of his day was all climb and up hill. Although he said that at first he didn’t think he would finish the trajectory, he explained to my mom and I that finding your pace and your rhythm is key. Once he found that rhythm he was able to get “into the zone” and continue. This is cyclist-ville! There are hundreds and hundreds of cyclists all over the place and Luis told us that swarms of them would pass by him and cheer him on. “Animo, animo” (courage) as they say here!

Day 5: Guernika to Zamudio

Today was the most pleasant day thus far, at least in my opinion, although it was incredibly long, 28 kilometers.

We left Guernika very early and followed the Camino through the mountain. Given that my mom had not been feeling well the night before, we decided to take it easy and walk at a very slow leisurely pace. The Camino began to ascend and for the first hour and a half of the day we found ourselves walking through rocks, mud and branches.

As we progress each day we begin to familiarize ourselves with the Camino and learn its intricacies. As a peregrino, you unintentionally begin to personify the Camino and love or hate it depending on what it throws at you. My mother and I both agree that we prefer when the Camino takes us on paved roads rather than through mountain trails. Although the mountain trails are beautiful and put you in touch with nature, the up’s and down’s are difficult, hard on the knees, and much more demanding.

At around noon, my mom and I stopped at the top of the mountain and caught our breath. We had a snack (a piece of fruit) and enjoyed the 360 degree view. In the distance you could see rolling hills, farms full of cattle, goats, and sheep. We followed the yellow arrows and proceeded down the mountain. Our goal was to get to a small town called Larraetzu 22 kilometers from where we had started.

Under the blazing sun and in the tremendous heat, we exited the mountain and took the Camino down a two-lane asphalt road. We arrived in Larraetzu, a quaint charming little town where everything was closed. Between noon and 4 pm all commerce closes in Spain.

We sat down at the only opened “taverna” and ate the sandwiches we had in our backpacks. There was a couple sitting next to us who asked us where we were from. They told us they were from Larraetzu and owned the only newspaper shop in town, about 10 meters from where we were sitting. They lived above the shop and had been living there since birth. The woman’s grandmother had owned the shop, passed it down to her daughter, who in turn had passed it down to the lady sitting next to us. She expressed that she wanted her daughter to run it once she grew old. I couldn’t stop thinking about her life in that little town. In many ways, I long for her simplicity.

On our way into Zamudio we came across two other peregrinos that were taking a snooze under a tree. These were the only two other peregrinos we saw today. They told us they were going as far as Bilbao. After 28 kilometers, just the thought of walking another 11 kilometers exhausted me.

In Zamudio, we waited for Luis to arrive who came in like a champion. He continues to amaze us and inspire us. He rode 28 kilometers in the summer heat and never stopped for even one second. Although he said the first half of the trip was treacherous (all uphill), he said the latter half was pleasant as the highway offered him a wide shoulder to ride on.

We are so excited for our short trip to Bilbao tomorrow!

Day 6: Zamudio to Bilbao

Today was a very short walking day, only 11.3 kilometers. Again we woke up very early and departed the hotel by 8 am. We don’t sleep very much at night. Between one thing and another, washing our clothes and writing in our journal, we typically fall asleep around midnight.

The Camino immediately took us through the mountain. Our map indicated a climb, but we didn’t anticipate it to be as steep as it was. Luckily, it was cloudy so we didn’t have the scorching sun beaming on us, but the humidity was high. It took us just under two hours to ascend the mountain, and at the very top of Monte Avril, we had a 180 degree viewof the city of Bilbao.

Putting all our weight on our two knees, we slowly came down the mountain and entered the city. I can’t tell you how lucky I am that my knee is not hurting anymore. So much of this journey depends on the health and strength of your knees. I just pray to God that they don’t give out on me!

Once inside the city, the Camino took us by the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Begona and my mother and I decided to enter it. There happened to be a mass taking place so we sat in. We listedned to the priest’s eulogy who prayed that we all make a pact with ourselves to go one whole day without saying one bad thing about another. In different ways, the Camino of Santiago is always sending you messages of spirituality.

Although we had only walked 11.3 kilometers, by noon my legs were beginnging to feel like jello and my achilles tendon was in pain. Nevertheless, we got to the hotel, put our bags down and set off to visit the extraordinarly famous Guggenheim Museum. What an experience!

Just setting foot in the museum makes the stop in Bilbao worthwhile. The Picasso’s, Calder’s, Kadinsky’s and Cezanne’s are incredible. There was also a Richard Serra exhibit taking place and we enjoyed being able to participate in the installation and go through it.

We met up with Luis back at the hotel who told us he ended up riding 21 kilometers to get here! Somehow, somewhere, someone got lost. Nevertheless, you could immediately tell he was happy. He looked strong, he felt strong, and he said that the hard work from the previous days was “finally paying off dividends.” He recounted his day’s ride and told us that he was packed and ready to go by 1 pm when he noticed that his bike’s right rear tire was punctured. The problem was that to get it fixed he had to wait until 4pm when all the shops re-opened. So he did just that.

Luis situated himself on the hotel’s terrace and ordered some lunch while he waited for his bike to get fixed. At 5 pm he set off for Bilbao with a whole new tire! The first 7 kilometers of his ride were a severe climb, steeper than previous climbs he’s done. Despite having the bike in the easiest gear, he was averaging no more than 3 kilometers per hour. Once inside Bilbao, Luis reminisced that everyone would cheer him on, that pedestrians would stare in awe, and that people were fascinated by the unique bicycle.

Tomorrow will mark one week since we’ve been walking. We reflect on all that we’ve seen and traversed and cannot believe how far we’ve come but how much further we have to go. Yet every step we take is one step closer to finding a cure for paralysis thanks to your support.

Day 7: Bilbao to Zierbana

Bilbao woke us up with a cloudy day, cold and drizzling. We dressed accordingly, with long pants and sweatshirts, and stopped in a small cafe for breakfast. At around 9 am we resumed the Camino and began our day’s adventure.

The Camino took us through the outskirts of the city, through an industrial zone full of factories, cranes and garbage. Nevertheless, we walked alongside the Ria Bilbao and came across another peregrino who was travelling on his own. We introduced ourselves to Jordi and immediately turned him into a Walkabout ambassador. I think by the time we get to Santiago there will be more Walkabout logos along the Camino than sign posts for the actual trail. I’m feeling a little bit like Gretel, marking my path with Walkabout bracelets like she did with breadcrumbs.

Walking through Portugalete, we became better acquainted wit Jordi. He told us all about his life in Alicante and how he hoped to change jobs, which at the present entailed loading boxes of candy in and out of trucks. He thought the Camino de Santiago was not only the best place to meet people, but also the best way to “find himself” and figure out what he wanted from life. His perspective on the Camino made me reflect on my own reasons for undertaking such a challenge. I want to test my limits and my endurance, but most importantly I am here to build awareness for paralysis and raise funds for spinal cord injury research.

I’m not going to elaborate on the rest of the walk because quite frankly it was very monotonous and uneventful. My mother and I walked with Jordi down a paved pedestrian path for three hours straight, non-stop. The path was through a valley, surrounded by steep hillsides that were grazed by cows. I couldn’t help but stare at the cows and wonder how they don’t tip over. The Camino brings you in touch with nature and makes you appreciate the beauty of it in ways you have never done so before.

At around 2:30 pm after walking 26 kilometers, we reached the small town of Zierbana and stopped at its main attraction, Playa La Arena. My legs were numb, my back was soar, and my third blister (on my pinkie) had gotten much worse. Limping down the street, my mom and I bid farewell to Jordi and stepped into a restaurant for a much needed lunch.

I was in pain, massive pain, but I couldn’t help but feel excitement for Daniele’s visit. Walkabout’s first follower, he was set to land in Bilbao at 9 pm. After a short nap, I greeted him in the lobby with my camcorder in hand and filmed his visit. Since we’ve started, I have been documenting all major events, milestones, and landmarks on the trip. Although sometimes I wonder if video clips and journal entries can do the Camino justice.

The Camino is magical and mystical, inspiring and illuminating. The Camino is difficult and painful, rewarding and encouraging. The Camino is treacherous and strenuous, uplifting and invigorating. The Camino is all those things, and many many more.

Day 8: Zierbana to Cerdigo

Walkabout’s day 8 was an eventful day, primarily because we had a new addition to the group. Poor Daniele got thrown into the deep end, despite having no prior training and having arrived late the night before. Our walk commenced early in the morning from Zerbiana, and in typical Cantabrian fashion, a cold and cloudy day awaited us.

The first half an hour of the Camino was spent walking through Playa de La Arena. Although it was a beautiful setting and called for a breathtaking view, it was by no means ideal for a peregrino covered in blisters. By the time we reached el “Puente Azul,” my sneakers were full of sand and all the band-aids I had sealed around my toes were already beginning to wear off. Luckily, I had safety-kit in my backpack which was put to good use.

The first climb of the day entailed a flight of stairs with over 130 steps. Once at the top, the Camino took us along the sea, up and down rolling hills. My mother’s ankle was progressively getting worse and looked more swollen than the day before. In an effort to relieve her of weight and thus pain, Daniele decided to carry her backpack for the rest of the morning (one in front and one in back).

We followed the Camino along the national two-lane highway, the N-634, through the town of Onton. By mid-day we reached a small village called Miono, full of people, music, and food. It didn’t take long for us to learn that it was the annual village festival, and the locals were hosting a party in the town square. But the party was not just any party, it entailed a contest, a tortilla de papa competition. Each family worked hard for the first prize, vigorously cooking to make the most delicious tortilla. Fortunate for us, we were able to try difference pieces. I can’t tell you how much we savored each bite!

From Miono we walked to Castro Urdiales and by the time we reached the town our sandwiches were burning a hole in our backpacks. We stopped at a cute playground and silently ate our lunch while we let our feet rest. On a full stomach and with our legs having quickly gotten stiff, resuming our walk proved to be harder than we expected. Nonetheless, we decided to take a wide detour to see what was meant to be a picturesque town and to have our credential stamped. We were not disappointed. Although not particularly glamorous or architecturally beautiful, we loved seeing a bustling port and the church was definitely worth the extra time. Sightseeing done and credential stamped, we got back on our way, eager to complete the last 5 kilometers of the day.

The last stretch felt like a race to the meeting point where Pedro and Ines, good family friends of ours, were waiting to pick us up and take us to Pedro’s mother’s house where we were going to spend the next two nights. We arrived at the agreed-upon location and without fail Pedro, Ines, their daughter Silvia, and their adorable dog Dama were waiting for us. It felt like having a welcoming party at an airport after a long long journey home.

We arrived at the house, overjoyed about being in a warm home and having a home-cooked meal. By the time Luis arrived a couple of hours later we had enjoyed a nice shower, a great nap, and we felt much rejuvenated after 25 kilometers of walking!

We all met downstairs for dinner, completely famished! Three appetizers, two main courses, two bottles of wine, and several desserts later, we replenished our stomachs, felt full, fat and happy! Pedro’s mother is the most welcoming and generous person I have ever met, not to mention incredibly funny and energetic. She made us feel right at home right away.

Over dinner Luis shared some fun facts from his 50 kilometer ride! He felt good and strong and so went well beyond our daily target. And while on his ride, when running out of energy on a steep climb, a large group of hell’s angels, a motorcade of motorcyclists, passed him and cheered him on. Giving Luis motivation, he gained an extra push of strength and made it to Pedro’s mother’s home!

Oh home sweet home! We feel so close but are so far. Nevertheless, we are so grateful for the additional company (thanks to Daniele) and the warm and gracious hospitality (thanks to Pedro and his family)!

Day 9: Cerdigo to Santona

What a day, what an absolutely fabulous day! The best so far, or at least the most beautiful.

We woke up bright and early in Pedro’s mother’s house and had a full breakfast of eggs, cake, donuts, cheese, croissants, coffee and yogurt. My mother’s ankle was still not better, actually worse. It was swollen, inflamed, and she could barely stand on it. So we figured her best bet was to not walk today but stay resting in the house. In any case, I had Daniele and now Pedro, Walkabout’s third follower, to accompany me.

Pedro’s mother’s house is in Liendo and we had to drive 10 kilometers to Cerdigo, the town we finished in yesterday. At 9:35 am sharp, Pedro, Daniele and I were well on our way, walking through different towns and villages. We came down a hill only to find ourselves standing face to face with a lama. Two feet away stood a big black buffalo, and to our right a camel! The three of us stood staring at each other, attempting to decipher what on earth these animals were doing there! Around the corner we noticed a circus. Thank God because for a second I thought all the walking had gone to my head and I was imagining things.

We detoured away from the yellow arrows as Pedro took us along different little paths and routes. Walking with a Spaniard makes all the difference. But Pedro is not only a Spaniard, he’s a local! Having spent his childhood summers in Liendo, he knows this area of the country like the back of his hand. Thus, I didn’t have to look at a map or worry about getting lost. Instead, I could take in the surroundings and enjoy the scenery. For the first time in 10 days, I was able to take the back seat and follow someone else’s lead.

Walking in a single file line, Daniele and I marched behind Pedro who took us up a large mountain promising us the most beautiful view. And he was right! Indeed, from the top of the mountain we had a breathtaking 180 degree view of the Cantabrian sea and we could see, in the far far distance, where we had come from several days before.

We continued walking on empty stomachs until we found the perfect spot to sit down and have a rest. Along a cliff perched high up top, we found a flat patch of stone and set up our picnic. Among the three of us we shared several sandwiches and made sure to properly hydrate ourselves. It didn’t take long for two other peregrinos to find us and join in on our conversation. We learned they were two young boys from Germany and were walking the Camino for purely physical reasons and not because of any spiritual purpose.

As Pedro, Daniele, and I continued on our way, we got on the topic of religion. Pedro said something that I will not forget. He said that the “fuerza” (force/strength) you have to put into the Camino to walk it, opens up a fountain of spirituality unbeknownst to you at the time. I can assure you that the Camino slowly enlightens you with a whole new meaning of life. By the end of the 30 days, maybe the German peregrinos will have discovered something they didn’t even know they were looking for.

The last part of today’s walk was amidst the most beautiful setting I’ve seen thus far. The Camino took us along an incredibly narrow path along the cliff of a mountain and dropped us off on Laredo beach. I was amazed at how well Daniele and Pedro had done, how far they had walked, and how much they had endured without ever uttering a single complaint. They were true champions and I am eternally grateful for their support and companionship.

As the sun was setting on the beach, we took off our socks and shoes and spent the last 7 kilometers walking with our feet in the water. Out of a movie, it was the picture-perfect way to end a long day, walking into the horizon with the infinite sea beside us.

Day 10: Santona to Santander

Today marked 10 whole days since we started walking, we’re nearly one third of the way there. Fortunately my mother’s ankle is slightly better but not 100 percent so she decided to rest another day. Pedro agreed to walk another couple of days with us so luckily I had a companion.

We drove bright and early from Liendo to Santona, the town we finished in yesterday. Pedro had left his cane/walking stick there and to our amazement, he was able to find it in a nearby cafe. We set off on our 35 kilometer walk and our first stop was a prison! El Dueso, as it’s called, looked like a fairytale castle, absolutely gorgeous with an amazing view of the valley. Two worlds completely apart, I couldn’t help but think of my vast freedom versus the prison’s confinement. The Camino introduces you to new people, takes you to new places, and shows you a whole new perspective on life.

Walking with Pedro through the mountains we started philosophizing on life. We discussed that the Camino proves to you that you really don’t need much to live on, that you can do without the superfluous luxuries of life, and that with only a bare minimum of possessions you can still amount to great successes. While exchanging thoughts and ideas, we passed through the towns of Arnuero, San Miguel de Merulo, and Guemes always following the yellow arrows.

Around 2:00 pm the sun came out and began to heavily shine down on us. Hot and hungry, we stopped on a hill of wild grass and terrain and made ourselves at home. We laid down, took a ten minute power nap, and had our lunch, tortilla de papa! After regaining some strength and energy, we set off on the last 15 kilometers of our journey.

It’s fascinating how your body begins to adjust to exercise and physical training. The first few days were brutal and I was in excruciating pain. My muscles ached and every inch of my body hurt but I couldn’t stop and had to keep going. Today, it’s a whole new story. Although I feel fatigue, I no longer feel pain. My tendons have stretched, my muscles are strong, and I can go on for hours and hours.

Walking towards Somo we heard a whistle and saw Luis on his bicycle go speeding past us. Like a comet through space, Luis zoomed down the road and waved from behind. From the corner of my eye, I could see his smile and his muscular arms. Even though I am with him every day, I can actually see the difference in the size of his arms from the day we started to today. It’s astonishing how much bigger his biceps have gotten!

Luis and my mother (who was riding in Luis’ support car) waited for us in Somo where we re-joined as a group. While waiting, Luis circled around the town, over and over again, accumulating kilometers. When we arrived, we exchanged stories from our day’s adventures and heard that Luis had cycled 32 kilometers non-stop! Taking each climb in stride, he suffered from the heat and blazing sun but never gave up. Ever since Luis had his accident, his body lost the ability to sweat. Therefore, the heat becomes unbearable for him so every once in a while he slows down to throw a bottle of water over his head.

Luis continues to be our source of motivation and inspiration. Whenever the going gets tough, I think that if he can do this with only his arms, I sure can too! The last part of our day consisted of a ferry ride to the center of the city of Santander. Cruising on the Bahia with a view of the city directly in front of us, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I can’t believe we’ve come this far.

Day 11: Santander to Santillana del Mar

Today was the day of the peregrinos! We started our walk in Santa Cruz de Bezana, a little town right outside the urban nucleus of Santander. There, my mother (who’s ankle is much better) and I met up with Pedro and began our 35 kilometer journey.

Within the first 10 minutes of our walk, we met a group of peregrinos we hadn’t seen on the Camino before. We began to walk with them, in tandem, like children on a school field trip. Little by little, we got to know the different characters of today’s story.

One was an Argentine living in Chile, who had lost his passport in Barcelona and was stuck in Spain. He decided to walk to Santiago before dealing with the hassle of consulates and embassies. Another was a Polish young girl who had a 10-day vacation and was walking to see how far she could get. She was an opera singer, or so it sounded like it, who graced us with her beautiful voice throughout the morning. The third young guy, a 26 years old, was Polish, Ukrainian and Danish, but lived in Berlin. His name was Lucas and he had no plan, no timing, and no destination. Lucas was absolutely hilarious! I spent the whole morning listening to his stories and laughing hysterically.

We slowly lost the other peregrinos as each one stayed behind, one at a time. Lucas, however, decided to continue walking with us, keeping up with our fast pace. He told us that he was travelling alone, was absolutely shattered, and had walked nearly 40 kilometers that morning. Poor thing didn’t realize he had another 10 kilometers to go!

The Camino took us along paved roads throughout the entire day. At one point, the arrows pointed north, up a massively high mountain. We read in our book that if we detoured through the train tracks, we could not only avoid the climb, but also cut 6 kilometers! We didn’t even think twice about it.

Everything your parents have ever told you not to do, we did. We walked, ran, skipped, and jumped through the train tracks. Praying for my life, I held onto a metal pole as a train came speeding by. Feeling my hair and body get swept away by the gushing wind, I closed my eyes and counted the seconds for it to be all over. Once the train was gone, we ran as fast as our two legs could carry us.

To get to the town of Requejada, an industrial village full of chemical companies, we had to walk down an endless path surrounded on either side by two rusted metal pipes. The pipes seemed like they were infinite, like they extended into space forever, and ever. It must have taken us nearly 2 hours to walk the entire path, until fortunately we left that area behind and crossed a river.

The last 5 kilometers of the Camino took us back through farmland and rolling hills. We met up with four other peregrinos, another Argentine and three Spaniards. Two of them were a couple, and they had all started the Camino de Santiago that day in Santander. Boy oh boy, did they have a lot to go through! I can’t even imagine just starting to walk. We gave them all our tips and suggestions as to what to do and not do on the first few days.

The 45 kilometers we walked today were well worth the destination. Santillana del Mar is the most gorgeous little medieval town, as if it were out of a movie! I kept thinking it was the real Disney World, the real Altos de Chavon, the real Princess Bride and Robin Hood setting. Full of Cobble stone streets and castles, Santillana del Mar was a trip to the past. I’m so glad my mother was with me to be able to enjoy it together, although I missed Luis and longed for his presence. But with pride I remembered that Luis was only a few kilometers behind us, having cycled 25 kilometers in one afternoon.

Day 12: Santillana del Mar to Comillas

Magic is the only word capable of describing today’s adventure. Ines and Pedro organized for 15 of their Spanish friends to join us for the day and walk with us from our start point to our destination. I am utterly grateful for Ines and Pedro’s support and all their friends’ participation.

Ines had coordinated for all of us to meet in the Plaza Mayor of Santillana del Mar at 9:30 am where we initiated our 21 kilometer journey. My mother and I were introduced to all the new faces and were incredibly excited to get to know our new companions. We were also thrilled to welcome Ana and Guillermo to the group, old friends from our home town in Greenwich who happened to be in a nearby town on their summer vacation.

We began to ascend up the mountain, walking in small groups but nevertheless, all together. We looked like a heard of cows, or an army of ants, walking in procession. I stayed behind, towards the ed of the line, and got to know Lola and Marta who are good friends of Ines’ from Madrid and spend their summers in Comillas. Both of them came with their respective sons, Jaime and Alvaro, both 19 years old. The boys were joined by their friend Jorge and Bea, who is Ines’ daughter. Having a bunch of teenagers on the walk made it that much more fun and exciting!!

I was incredibly surprised by everyone’s agility and ability to walk so many kilometers in such tremendous heat. A not-so-typical day for Comillas, the sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the temperature reached 33 degrees. Nevertheless, everyone kept up with our steady pace and never once complained (albeit with blisters, jeans, and not the most comfortable sneakers).

Around 2 pm, after walking nearly 5 hours straight, all 18 of us perched ourselves on a hilltop and had a small lunch. We lost two friends, but gained an extra two, who joined us for our picnic. We each brought our own sandwich but exchanged extra’s and leftovers. It was like a carousel of food going round and round in circles!

With our “pilas recargadas” (batteries recharged), we gained strength to push through the last 5 kilometers. We detoured away from the yellow arrows and decided to follow a different path that one of our local friends recommended instead. The unmarked path took us directly along the coast, parallel to the water, with the most amazing view of the Cantabrian sea. Pointing out different houses and sharing each family’s different story, Ines’ friends made us feel like we were part of their community. My mother and I felt right at home.

When we finally reached the town of Comillas around 5 pm, an unexpected surprise awaited us. Ines’ friend Sonia had organized a banquet of food in her home. The tortilla de papa, croquetas, and pastries were devoured, and we were all blow away by her beautiful house located right in the center of town.

I dreaded bidding farewell to my new friends because I longed for time to stand still and hold that moment of today forever. Walking with 18 people made the whole experience truly magical. There are few words that can describe what it was like to see Walkabout’s following. To compare it to Forrest Gump and his followers is a valid analogy, of course on a much smaller scale.

Back at the hotel we waited outside for Luis to arrive from his 25 kilometer ride. As he came speeding in, I managed to get my camcorder out just in time and film his grand arrival! He told us that on his last climb, just when he was about to give up, a car drove by and the people inside yelled “animo Luis, fuerza Luis!!” He didn’t recognize who they were, but was pleasantly surprised to have total strangers cheer him on. It turns out it was some of Ines’ friends, Walkabout’s new friends, that gave Luis the strength he needed to carry on.

Day 13: Comillas to Unquera

When people tell you that the Camino de Santiago is just as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one, they hit the nail on the head. This really is a mind game, one that you are constantly trying to battle and figure out how to win.

Today was a spectacular day, not only because of the views, but also because of the company. My mother and I were joined by Ana, Guillermo, Ines, Pedro and Sylvia (Ines’ daughter), and last but not least, Dama (Ines and Pedro’s dog). We all met at a rotunda in the center of Comillas at 9:30 am and began our 27 kilometer walk.

It’s funny how the Camino turns your world upside down and reverses your perspective on life and everyday occurrences. While you typically long for sun during the summer, during the Camino you pray for clouds. I guess my praying didn’t amount to much because it was bright and sunny all day.

During the first half of the walk, we ignored our map and yellow arrows, and instead followed Guillermo’s lead along the coast. Ana has been coming to Comillas ever since she was a child so her and Guillermo know the surroundings like the back of their hand. They suggested we detour from the Camino and walk along the coast instead, which provided a breeze and much better views. They were right! The trail was spectacular, along beaches, cliffs, and protected wildlife.

At around 1 pm we arrived at the small fishing town of San Vicente de la Barquera and although we didn’t have time to go visit it, I could tell from afar that it was an incredibly charming little place. With a fort, church, and tons of little colorful boats, the town reminded me of a scene out of one of Ernest Hemingway’s maritime stories. In San Vicente we said good bye to Ines, Sylvia and Dama who, after walking 10 kilometers (and yesterday’s 22), called it a day.

The Camino pushed Guillermo, Ana, Pedro, my mom, and I up our first climb, which wouldn’t have seemed so bad if it weren’t for the blazing sun. Panting, we reached the top of the mountain where we decided to have lunch on a small terrace/playground peering onto a small church. Lunch was delicious, thanks to Ana’s sandwiches de milanesa!

Our lunch was interrupted by a photographer from the local newspaper La Alterta, who had been sent to photograph us for a story on Walkabout which was said to come out over the weekend. He took some pictures of my mother and I with our fellow peregrinos and we couldn’t help but laugh at how ridiculous the shots were, some of us sitting on a ledge, others of us standing beside an arrow.

On full stomachs we set off walking again, with Guillermo and I leading the pack. We talked about the mental strain the Camino puts on you and he reiterated to me that it’s a long 30-days and best to take it one day at a time. He also mentioned something that I’ve heard before but will never forget, “that life is about the journey and not the destination.” For some reason, probably given the idyllic setting, those words reverberated in my head over and over again.

By late afternoon we found ourselves in the middle of the forest in the middle of a mountain, stranded with no exit other than to continue to climb. We knew we were getting close to Unquera but we were all shattered, hot, and exhausted. Pedro kept sighing out loud, moaning and claiming that it’s best to release physical pain verbally. If it helps him, to each his own!

The way down the mountain was the hardest part of the day. We came across a mud pond and I stupidly stuck my foot in it and got soaked! With a wet, dirty, and muddy foot I had to make my way down the vertical slope! The worst part was my mom and her bad ankle. Luckily, we had Guillermo who appeared like an angel from God and helped her down the slippery rocks (with her walking sticks) one step at a time.

If you had tried to write a better ending to this day, you wouldn’t have succeeded given the sequence of events that occurred. When we finally entered the town of Unquera (and the province of Asturias) around 6 pm, we sat down as a group to have some cider at a local cafe. All of a sudden, the whole town stopped to look at Luis that came speeding by. With his Argentine flag flapping in the wind and his muscular arms peddling back and forth, we all hollered and cheered him on as he went. He turned back around and joined us for a coffee, eager and excited to see Ana and Guillermo’s old faces. What a coincidence that he had finished his ride nearly at the exact same time as us, it was perfect timing! Or as my mother would say, “maybe it was an incidence from God.

Day 14: Unquera to Llanes

Good morning sunshine, good morning Asturias, and good morning to all the friends of The Walkabout Foundation!

Today is the 14th day of our journey. My mother and I woke up very early as usual, around 7 am, eager to complete one more stage of the Camino but sad to have left behind all of our friends and fellow peregrinos. One of the amazing things that the Camino gives you is the special bond you develop with the people you meet along the way. These people can be both old friends or new. It doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, it’s an experience that you share that binds you together.

Having initiated our journey in Unquera, at around 10 am we arrived in Colombres, a town famous for its Indian architecture that came about during the Asturian emigration to the Americas in the 19th and 20th centuries. We were able to absorb this Spanish/Indian culture by visiting el Archivo de Indianos, an incredible and beautiful museum dedicated to this given period.

Shortly there after, the Camino took us from the small quaint town of Colombres to a busy and loud highway. On “la Ruta Nacional-634,” we found ourselves walking for hours and hours on endless pavement. The cars, the heat, the smog, and not to mention the suction we felt every time a big truck passed us by, made this stage of the Camino not only frightening but quite unbearable.

How could we talk, how could my mom and I communicate? Impossible! For hours and hours we were immersed in our own thoughts and watching each other’s backs, while crossing the towns of La Franca, Buelna, Pendueles, Vidiago, and San Roque. At 4 pm, we stopped in San Roque, in a camping ground, and caught our breath eating a big bowl of pasta carbonara. The temperature must have been around 40 degrees and given that we were so tired, a plate of spaghetti and a big “cafe con leche” felt like the last coca-cola in the desert. Try getting up from a lunch after 6 hours straight of walking. I think it must have been San Santiago that gave us another push to continue.

By now you don’t even think about walking anymore. Your brain automatically moves your legs and in a robotic fashion, you propel forward. We are immune to signs and distances however endless the Camino seems. A few more kilometers and we finally arrived in Llanes! We went straight to the hotel where Luis was already waiting for us. Although tired, we dropped off our backpacks and followed Luis who was going for a ride in the center of town. In town, we bumped into Rosana (our cousins’ cousin) who is truly an angel that God sent our way. She had made a huge banner with The Walkabout Foundation’s logo on it and was waiting for us in town with her two daughters, Ana and Amelia.

The five of us kept an eye out for Luis to pass by on his bicycle. When he finally did, we all ran into the middle of the street with the Walkabout banner and cheered him on as he sped by. We took Llanes by storm! Luis continued to explore the town, in and out, and every stone and corner. Unfortunately, during his ride, he got a flat tire but luckily we had Rosana to help us. She immediately notified us of the closest cycling shop and we got his wheel fixed!

What an exhausting but rewarding day. Tomorrow marks two weeks since we’ve started walking, reaching our mid-point of 400 kilometres!!

Day 15: Llanes to Ribadesella

Today was real a test of stamina and endurance, a perfect example of the mind game you have to play to succeed at the Camino. After walking 29 kilometers yesterday, my mother and I had to muster the energy to walk another 30 today under the blazing sun and in the 40 degree heat.

CaroMonicaDay15Rosana and her husband Jose Carlos are two saviors (and saints) and washed all our dirty laundry last night. We swung by their house early this morning to pick up our clean clothes and walked with the two of them for the first 4 kilometers of our day. They took us along the most beautiful path, right on the coast, where we were able to photograph more of the “Mar Cantabrico” and experience 180 degree views of endless sea.

I don’t have words to express to you just how hot it was today. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and I could feel the sun pulsating down on me, on my back and shoulders especially. But not only was it hot, it was also humid. You could tell it was going to rain because the air felt heavy.

By mid-day my mom and I arrived at a beautiful lake with an incredibly serene and peaceful church sitting on an island. “The Iglesia de los Dolores,” between the towns of Barro and Niembro, invited us to pause for a moment and reflect on our journey, on the last two weeks, and on our mission. We’re here to build awareness for paralysis and disabilities, and thanks to all the friends of The Walkabout Foundation, we’re here to fund research that seeks to find a cure for spinal cord injuries.

Our serious thoughts and reflections were sharply contrasted with the comical scene that awaited us once we turned the corner. The Camino took us right smack through the middle of “Playa de San Antolin,” through people sun bathing, women in their bikini’s, men in speedo’s, and kids building castles. We looked so ridiculously out of place, my mom and I, trekking through the sand with our big backpacks and hiking gear.

Across the beach, we arrived in a small town named Naves where we had lunch at a placed called Casa Raul, a small restaurant that opened in 1950. Raul himself was there, probably around 90 years old, sitting quietly watching the people come in and out.

On full stomachs, we continued walking down a narrow path through the forest. Our book says that this path is known as the “camino medieval,” the exact route that the old pilgrims used to take decades and decades ago to get to Santiago de Compostela. With not a person in site, we stopped along the way at a little chapel, a tiny little chapel no more than two feet high, to say a prayer. The little chapel was home to a statue of the Virgin Mary who held a plaque that said “no pasen sin rezar” (don’t pass by without praying). My mom and I both kneeled down, and for a minute the Camino felt like it was ours and only ours, the world felt like it had halted, and every worry we had disappeared.

As we walked a little bit further we came across a hill full of grazing cows. We marched through the cows, face to face with them, until arriving at a small church perched at the top of the hill full of peregrinos. We descended from the hill only to find ourselves alone again on a completely desolate trail. Out of nowhere, a stray dog leaped from the bushes and blocked our way. Shocked, speechless, and shaking my mom and I stood still. We’ve encountered dogs all along the Camino, but never without a leash. We panicked and turned around.

We had no choice but to keep going, the yellow arrows pointed down that path so we had to swallow our fear and overcome our trepidation. Thank God we had our walking sticks because a second dog appeared out of nowhere as well! We ran until we reached a stretch of farmland, where again there was not a person in site. Civilization seemed so far away until we heard gun shots. Bullets began to fire through the air, don’t ask us why or how, but we heard one shot after the other.

Eight hours and 31 kilometers later, wet from the rain, we arrived at our destination in Ribadesella. We met up with Luis at our hotel who was about to go out on his afternoon ride. He had been waiting for the sun to cool down.

My mom and I watched him get on his bike and adjust himself. He was pumped, eager, and ready to conquer the day! By 9 pm he was back at the hotel, feeling strong, after having ridden 25 kilometers!

Today, we’ve been walking and riding for 2 weeks straights without stopping. We’ve ditched the knee brace, the ankle wounds, and the muscular sores. We’re committed to the end, all the way!

Day 16: Ribadesella to Villaviciosa

Today marks the point of no return! We’ve been walking for two weeks straight and we have exactly another two weeks to go. There’s no turning back now.

I guess all my prayers for clouds paid off! We woke up to an ugly grey day and dressed accordingly, leggings, sweaters, and ponchos. I am so burnt from yesterday’s scorching sun that a day like today is very much appreciated.

We initiated our walk in the town of Ribadesella and the Camino immediately took us to the beach. Despite being cloudy and very early in the morning, there were people swimming and sun bathing. What is most amusing about this part of Spain is the way people take advantage of the beach despite the consistently bad weather. Rain or shine, you see every family heading there every morning with their bath mats, towels, and umbrellas.

We walked down the boardwalk and followed the yellow arrows into the heart of farmland. On the Camino, we came across two couples with their kids who introduced themselves to us. They were from Madrid but what’s a funny coincidence is that one of the men was wearing a t-shirt that said “Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic.” What are the chances on such a desolate trail, in the middle of the countryside in northern Spain?!

By 2 pm we had arrived at Playa de la Espasa, a wide long beach with hundreds of Spaniards on it. For the first time in 16 days, my mom and I sat down to have a proper lunch. After eating sandwiches on-the-go for the last two weeks straight, we devoured (and savored) a plate of meatballs and salad at a restaurant on the beach. The Camino provides you with a whole new appreciation of life’s little things. Not only do you learn not to take anything for granted, but you also learn to appreciate a good meal, a warm shower, a symphony of cow bells, a call from a friend, a walking stick, the smell of eucalyptus trees, compeed, clouds, and another peregrino on your trail. I could go on and on, the list could be endless.

When we arrived at the town of La Isla, our book said to look for a sign with two “conchas” (shells, ie the symbolic emblem of the Camino de Santiago), and take a left at the sign following the Camino through a dirt road. My mom and I got completely lost, but to our surprise, sent like angels from God, Lucas and Marisa (our two peregrino friends) appeared out of no where! We hadn’t seen them in several days and as if they knew where they were going, they found our way through bushes, weeds, and very tall grass.

Lucas and Marisa were headed to sleep in Sebrayo, while my mom and I were set to meet Luis at the hotel in a town called Villaviciosa. We parted ways with our friends and took a highway for the following 9 kilometers. It was never ending and painful, both physically and mentally. However, around the corner we met 3 cyclists whose bicycles were covered in flags. Intrigued, we stopped them in the middle of the road and found out that they were French and had been riding for over a year and a half straight across all of Europe. They were inspiring and motivating. They had traveled from Russia, to Scandanavia, Italy, Spain and all around.

30 kilometers and over 8 hours later we arrived at our destination. Luis told us about his magnificent ride, how he cycled 20 kilometers from a town called Cangas de Onis to Ribadesella. Once in Ribadesella, he rode for another 20 kilometers around the beach town and surrounding villages.

Luis told me that in Ribadesella he met a man who stopped him. The man was riding down the veranda in his electric wheelchair and told Luis he had had a car accident 24 years ago. Luis was taken aback by his kindness, his gentleness, and his welcoming and friendly demeanor. Wasting no time, Luis told him all about The Walkabout Foundation and they exchanged emails.

Later that night, I spoke to my dad on the phone who asked me about our journey. I told him everything, including that Luis had ridden over 40 kilometers. He concluded the conversation by saying that Luis is a “genio y un idolo.” Without a doubt, he truly is our genius and idol.

Day 17: Villaviciosa to Pola de Siero

Although I pray for clouds each day, I have to admit that I don’t pray for rain. We woke up today to a thunder storm. By 8 am we were on the road, trying to find our way out of the city of Villaviciosa, in our ponchos.

Rain poses several problems for a peregrino on the Camino. For starters, you get soaking wet because no poncho that is light enough for you to carry is strong enough to ward off water. Secondly, your shoes have no protection therefore causing your socks and feet to get wet which is a perfect recipe for blisters. Third of all, you can’t find your way given that you can barely see two feet in front of you.

All of these things happened to us, and more! We initiated the Camino by a small “ermita” (chapel) where there were two yellow arrows pointing in opposite directions. One arrow pointed towards the city of Gijon, while the other one pointed towards Oviedo. Because there was so much fog, my mother and I nearly headed in the wrong direction which would have put us 30 kilometers out of the way.

What shocked us was how quiet the towns were given that it was Monday. There was no traffic, no movement, not a person on the streets. We felt like we were walking through ghost towns, like we were in the middle of a scene from the movie “The Pianist” where there’s only one person left standing in this world.

We walked quietly, my mom and I, in single file line until we reached The Monastery of San Salvador de Valdedios. Like the towns we had passed to get there, the monastery was empty too and extraordinarily quiet. I was eager to meet a monk or see  17_Day17Foto2a priest but unfortunately, there was not one in site. We visited the “albergue” (room) where peregrinos are allowed to stay and met three who were shielding themselves from the rain. The two girls, Clementine, were from France and the young guy was from Cadiz, Spain. All three of them said they were walking the Camino to “find something,” whatever that something may be.

My mom and I spent the rest of the morning hiking up a mountain. I think it’s the highest and longest climb we’ve had thus far. But to make matters more excruciating, the fog was so unbearable at such a high altitude that we could not see more than a foot in front of us. We had no choice but to ascend, and so we did, at a very slow pace.

Our only saving grace was the little friend we met along the way. Before initiating the climb, a tiny stray black dog began to follow us. He trailed behind us the entire way up the mountain, and every time we stopped to catch our breath, he paused too! Having him as our companion gave us a sense of security. Despite his diminutive size, we felt safe beside him.

At the top of the treacherous mountain we arrived at the town of Campo de Alto where there was nothing more than a gas station and small restaurant. We decided to avoid our sandwich lunch again, and instead treated ourselves to two fried eggs each! So gourmet!

By 3 pm we arrived at La Vega de Sariego, our destination. But seeing as it was still relatively early and we didn’t feel too tired, we decided to continue. On the “Caretera Asturiana” we walked for another 10 kilometers, working our way to a town called Pola de Siero. In the middle of the highway, to our surprise, we bumped into my father, my youngest brother Matias, our family friend Esteban, and his son Matias, that were driving to meet us. My mother and I couldn’t have been happier to see more Walkabout followers!

Matias, my brother, decided to walk with my mom and I for the last 5 kilometers while my father, Esteban, and the other Matias went by car to find Luis. They found Luis in mid-Camino and watched him finish his 26 kilometers!

“Caminante no hay camino se hace el camino al andar y al volver la vista atrás veras los pasos que nunca más volverás a pisar, caminante no hay camino sino estelas en el mar…..”

Day 18: Pola de Siero to Oviedo

We began our day in Pola de Siero with our new Walkabout followers, Matias and Matias! My mom and I were ecstatic to have companions after so many days of walking alone. After some morning stretches in the “Plaza del Ayuntamiento,” we took off on our relatively short 20 kilometer journey.

The Camino was kind enough to divert us away from the “Caretera Asturiana” and instead took us along a path beside the highway. The four of us walked together, skipping, singing, and laughing, while the sun scorched down on us. By mid-day the temperature had risen to 35 degrees celsius and we were dying! Rationing our bottles of water, we made sure not to get dehydrated. We took care of each other and kept an eye on our sunburns.

The Camino does not spare you of anything. It throws you into any given situation and expects you to easily handle yourself and your surroundings. Around a corner, we came across loud sounds, people yelling and crying. As we approached the noise we realized we were at the back entrance of a psychiatric hospital. We didn’t want to intrude on the patients’ space but the Camino brought us face-to-face with them. Once again, the Camino made us think about our lives, our family, our homes, and just how blessed we are.

We continued walking, over the train tracks, and came in touch with yet another harsh reality. In makeshift tents and trailers, there was a whole family of kids, mothers, sisters, brothers, and grandparents, running around in the dirt and garbage. They were a gypsy family and sought refuge out of odds and ends from our everyday lives: tires, bed sheets, torn wrapping paper, broken glass, etc. I stood there thinking how many unnecessary things we live with, how much excess we have, how many possessions we own that we could do without, and how we ought to give back.

With that thought in mind, we reached Oviedo just before 3 pm. We were thrilled to welcome another Walkabout follower, my brother Diego who flew in from Connecticut. We were all completely famished so we went to a small little cafe on a “peatonal” street where no car traffic is allowed. I crave salads these days, especially fresh vegetables. I was lucky to find the best salad nicoise in town!

Shortly after, my phone rang and I received a call from a local newspaper that had heard about Walkabout through our friend Rosana. The reporter, Maria, told me that she was very much interested in writing a story about Luis and the family on the Camino de Santiago for the “Nueva Espana,” the most circulated newspaper in Asturias.

Wasting no time, Maria came to meet the family in Oviedo’s main park, “Parque San Francisco.” Luis was riding around on his bicycle and Maria was able to capture him in action! We posed as a family and gave a short interview. We look forward to reading the article on Thursday.

As we were leaving the park, I noticed a young guy in a Quickie wheelchair. He was with a young girl and what looked like his parents. I approached him, introduced myself, and told him all about Walkabout. His name is Robert and he was with his girlfriend, aunt and uncle. He had a car accident 9 years ago that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Instantaneously we became friends, all of us and all of them. We stayed chatting on the sidewalk for about an hour.

It was the perfect way to end the day. In Oviedo, the whole family together, with our old friends Esteban and Matias, and our new found friends, the sun setting, the temperature cooling, and all of us feeling a deep sense of accomplishment. Thanks to your support, every step we take is one step closer to finding the cure for paralysis.

Day 19: Oviedo to Grado

This morning we found ourselves in the middle of the city of Oviedo, surrounded by parks, bell towers, churches, and a small bronze statue of Woody Allen. As he once said “Oviedo es una ciudad deliciosa, exotica, bella, limpia, agradable, tranquila y peatonalizada, es como si no perteneciera a este mundo, como si no existiera…Oviedo es como un cuento de hadas.” I couldn’t agree with Woody more, indeed Oviedo is like a fairytale.

The Camino took us through the city’s main street, which led to the central train station and put us face-to-face with an enormous hanging clock. The time was 11 am, a very unusual and late start for my mom and I. But given that we had two teenagers (jet lagged) with us, it was to be expected!

We zigzagged through the city to find our way out to the mountain. Right before initiating our first climb, we met two other peregrinos getting ready to kick-off their journey. They were father and son, Antonio and Juan from Barcelona, who had just arrived by bus to Oviedo to begin the Camino de Santiago. Juan was 13 years old and had been begging his father all year to take him on the Camino. He told me that he wanted to meet people, make friends, and that he had heard that the physical pain one endures while walking has “recompensas” (rewards). I was in awe of his maturity and how eloquently he expressed himself given his young age. He amazed me further when he ascended the steep mountain with a huge grin on his face.

On the other side of the spectrum, my mom, Matias Reynal, Matias my brother, and I were panting, breathing heavily, and seriously struggling to climb. Luckily, we had each other to lean on and to call on for support. My mom and I would take turns staying behind to accompany our newcomers. Instances such as these prove to us and show us that are bodies have adapted, changed, and grown stronger after 19 days of walking.

We found the absolute perfect place to have lunch, actually better than anything we could have actively looked for. On a small hill perched in the middle of the valley, right next to a tiny little chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima, we ate our sandwiches and let the wind blow in our faces. We appreciated the cool breeze after walking for 3 hours under the scorching sun. Another day of heat, humidity, and sunburns!

Around 5 pm, we reached an intersection where we coincidentally came across Luis’ support car. We knew Luis was only a couple steps behind so we decided to pause there and wait for him. We eagerly anticipated his arrival and when he sped past us, we hollered and cheered him on, “animo Luis, animo!!”

The last part of our walk seemed like it was never-ending. But then again, the last kilometer or two ALWAYS seem endless. We walked between corn stalks and tomato crops with not a person in site until we reached a train station with a big sign that read Day19Foto3″Grado.” Finally, after 27 kilometers, the two Matias’, my mother and I had reached our destination. I have to say that I was very impressed with both Matias’ stamina and endurance. They kept up incredibly well even though the second day is notoriously the hardest.

We met up with Luis, my father, and Esteban in Grado’s “Plaza del Ayuntamiento” (town square). We heard from Luis just how challenging today was, primarily because of the heat. Every few meters, Luis had to stop in the middle of the road to throw water on himself. And many times, my father and Esteban would ride by and empty their own bottles of water on him. The issue is that because Luis’ bike is so low to the ground, more heat radiates towards him and the sizzling asphalt becomes unbearable.

But the heat wasn’t the only hurdle Luis had to overcome. He had to ascend up the same treacherous mountains we climbed with only his arms. Never losing site of his goal and destination, he pushed and pushed his way through, withstanding the physical pain and agony, and arrived like a true champion at the finish line. Seeing Luis’ smile in Grado made our long difficult day so incredibly worthwhile.

Only 325 kilometers left to go…

Day 20: Grado to Salas

I have to be honest and say that today was not an easy day for me. I woke up tired, very tired. When I got up from bed and planted my two feet on the ground, I felt an ache quiver up my legs and run through the entire length of my body. I guess walking 30 kilometers for 20 days straight has finally taken a toll on me.

Day20Foto1After a chaotic morning of packing, over sleeping, sibling arguments, and a visit to the doctor (poor Diego has an ear infection), my mom and I finally made it on our way. Our book said 18 kilometers, but when we reached our starting point in Grado, we came across a large sign that illustrated the day’s itinerary and marked 23 kilometers to the town of Salas.

Before embarking on our journey, we stopped in a small “tabaqueria” and bought a copy of today’s “Nueva Espana.” Seeing as it is the province of Asturia’s most popular newspaper, the news agent had sold out of additional copies. We turned the pages and were blown away to see an entire page, in color, dedicated to Walkabout. The article titled “A Compostela Sobre Tres Ruedas” (To Compostela on Three Wheels) talked about Luis, his stamina, his family’s support, and the foundation’s mission. There was a huge picture of our family at the top, and smaller pictures of Luis, my mother, and I at the bottom.

We started to walk and luckily, we had the weather in our favor. As a matter of fact, it was cool out, actually quite cold. However, we weren’t prepared for the drop in temperature. After yesterday, we expected a similar situation of excruciating heat. But given that we bid farewell to the Cantabrian coast and have now entered the interior of Spain, the altitude here is much higher. We are now walking what’s called the “Camino Primitivo” (otherwise known as the Original Way) which takes us through the mountains straight into Santiago.

We didn’t even stop for lunch today. Instead, my mom and I ate our sandwiches as we walked. It was so late in the afternoon that we didn’t see any peregrines. They must have been all fast asleep in the “albergues” (hostels).

The last stretch of our walk took us up a steep incline on the highway. It’s funny how one’s thoughts and opinions change over the course of the Camino. At first, back in early August, I longed for asphalt, paved roads, and highways. Today, I couldn’t love more the dirt paths through the mountains and nature trails.

7 pm we arrived at the entrance of the town of Salas and a sign there caught my attention. I took out my camcorder and began filming what it said, “todo por la patria” (everything for the country), when a police officer sprung out of no where and scolded me for filming the police station. He demanded a form of identification and when I told him we were peregrinos and we didn’t have our passports with us (they were in Luis’ support car), he insisted that we give him something to prove who we were or we were going to have to face severe consequences. I immediately remembered the “Nueva Espana” we had bought that was folded in my backpack and I whipped it out to show it to him. Let’s just say he didn’t utter a word after that, he excused himself, and walked away.

What awaited us moments later in la Plaza del Ayuntamiento was priceless. My mom and I arrived at the exact same time as Luis, my father, and Esteban who had come by bicycle. We stood in front of the main church, “La Iglesia de San Martin” that was built in the 15 century, and the whole town cheered us on. I couldn’t understand why all the commotion, until one man came over and asked to have a photograph taken with Luis. All of Salas had read the article in the newspaper and knew exactly who we were!

Luis, my dad, and Esteban were famished and exhausted after riding up hill for kilometers and kilometers. What’s amazing is the pace at which Luis rides and is able to keep up with my father and Esteban. I am honored to be Luis’ sister. I couldn’t be more proud. Seeing the way people admire him and cheer him on gives me goose bumps. There are no words to describe the positive impression that Luis has left on every town we have visited throughout the Camino de Santiago. It is evident that he is not only an inspiration to my family but also, to all the people he meets along the way.

Day 21: Salas to Tineo

What a fun-filled day thanks to my younger brothers Diego and Matias! We had an early wake-up call, a family breakfast, and took off before 10 am.

The day started off cloudy, cold, and straight up a mountain. What a way to throw Diego into the thick of it, not to mention he’s on antibiotics. We worked our way to the top, through the fog, only to find ourselves at the foot of another ascent. We climbed up a mound of sand, through a construction zone. Everywhere we looked we saw bulldozers and cranes, not your typical view during the Camino. But we got out of there quickly and arrived at a small town called La Espina.

What’s peculiar about the Camino is that it forces you to always look down at the trail. Because there are so many rocks and the ground is so uneven, your eyes are glued to your feet. One wrong step, and you can twist or break your ankle. However, the irony is that if you fail to pay attention to the yellow arrows, you can get seriously lost. On trees, houses, and posts, the yellow arrows guide you and orient you in the right direction. Therefore, the Camino expects you to look up and down simultaneously.

In the town of La Espina, my mom and I took advantage of a local bar’s washroom. Matias and Diego decided to go ahead without us. When we resumed the Camino on a dirt road, we heard someone whistling on the Day21Foto2highway below us. To our surprise, it was Diego! He had somehow lost Matias, missed the yellow arrow, and gone the wrong way. While we waited for him to catch up to us my mom panicked about Matias. It had been a while since we last saw him and he wasn’t answering his phone.

We walked and walked until we reached a clearing in the Camino. The most picture-perfect sight, there were two benches on either side of a fountain that read “agua potable” (drinking water). A small statue of Saint Santiago presided over the fountain, and Matias was lying on one of the benches with his feet kicked up and sound asleep.

We felt bad waking him up because he looked so incredibly at peace, but the sun was blazing sun and heat was rising and we had to keep going. We met up with Dani at that point, a peregrino from Madrid, who came to the fountain to fill his bottle of water. We started talking about our backgrounds and he told us that several years back he had a near fatal car accident that left him with 150 stitches on his face, a hole through his cheek, and no fingers on one hand. Ever since then, he walks the Camino every year and explained to my brothers that the Camino is not a sprint but a marathon. Hence, it is meant to be taken slowly.

We walked with Dani the remainder of the day. 26 kilometers and 7 hours later, we reached our destination in the town of Tineo. We sat down in front of the “Ayuntamiento” (town hall) and watched Luis arrive in heroic fashion.

Flanked on either side by my dad and Esteban, Luis thanked his “wing men” and said he owed a lot of today’s success to them. He said that every few minutes they would pour water on him as they rode by and explained that they never failed to give him support when he needed it most: at the end of a 9 kilometer climb. Shouting “animo” and “vamos,” my dad and Esteban helped to pushed Luis through to the finish line.

We ended the day with a group picture in Tineo’s main square. Looking now at the snapshot, I can’t help but think that a picture is indeed a thousand words. Our smiles say it all, a sense of happiness, satisfaction, pride, and accomplishment.

10 days left and less than 300 kilometers to go…

Day 22: Tineo to Pola de Allende

A small plaque on the Camino read “el encanto y la magia nos siguen transformando.” I stared at it and thought about its meaning, over and over again. Although it didn’t specify exactly what it was referring to, it was obvious that “the enchantment and the magic [that] continues to transform us” is in reference to the Camino.

We began our day in the center of Tineo with Walkabout’s newest follower, our cousin Maria Luz who flew in all the way from Sudan. Diego, Matias, my mom, Maria Luz, and I begun our ascent out of the city and into the heart of the mountain. A small cottage made of stone immediately greeted us with several hand painted signs all around. In front of the door it said “aqui vive el ultimo de Filipinas” (the last person from the Philippines lives here). Somewhat comical, the little cottage served a purpose. It was meant to stop the peregrino on his way and force him to catch his breath.

We continued through one of the most beautiful settings I have ever seen. The Camino took us through a path that looked like an orchard, covered by a natural ceiling of intertwined branches and leaves. We appreciated the shield from the sun as we faced yet another day of unbearable heat.

We arrived at an intersection that signaled two opposite directions. To the left marked “Camino” and to the right “Monasterio.” At that very moment, we coincidentally came across Dani, fellow peregrino, who suggested we follow him to meet our other peregrino friends at the monastery. We agreed to go with him, despite it being an uphill detour.

Sitting on the front lawn of the “Monasterio de Obona” were over 10 peregrinos taking a break. Most of them we already knew but there was a group of 4 cyclists that we hadn’t met before. Hugo, the youngest of the bunch, was cycling the Camino with his father and told us that they were heading to Lugo, a few cities before Santiago. Unfortunately, he explained, there are not enough vacation days in the year!

While all the peregrinos rested, one little girl exhausted her energy by running around in circles. Luna, a 4 year old german shepherd, belongs to Giusep, a newcomer to the Camino. Giusep is from Barcelona and initiated his journey in Oviedo with his dog who he has brought along for company. He carries 5 kilos of Luna’s food on him and over the course of 4 days, has managed to shrink the weight down to 2 kilos.

Not long after, we all resumed the Camino together, walking down the hill in small groups. In pairs of 2 or bunches of 4, we conversed, chatted about our respective journeys, and passed the time getting to know one another. Before we knew it we had reached the town Campiello, a perfect location to stop for lunch.

At a local bar, Diego, Matias, Maria Luz, my mom, and I congregated around a small table and devoured our sandwiches. We looked after Diego’s blister (a mean one on the back of his heel) and then continued on our way. It was incredibly entertaining to Day22Foto2have Diego and Mati walk with us. We spent the rest of the afternoon laughing and singing out loud. Even though Diego’s legs hurt (Day 2 is always the worst), he made it to Pola de Allende like a true champion.

Upon reaching our destination, we collapsed on a bench and waited for Luis to arrive. When his support car drove by the main square an hour later, we all sprung to our feet and got our cameras ready in hand. As Luis approached us, we started clicking away, and all of us, mom, Diego, Mati, Maria Luz and I, ran into the street screaming and cheering him on.

Another day has passed and Luis has accomplished yet another tremendous feat. I wish I could be a fly on his shoulder and watch him propel his entire body weight up these treacherous mountains with only his arms. But what I admire most, more than anything else, is seeing Luis’ determination, focus, and eternal stamina.


Day 23: Pola de Allande to La Mesa

We begun our trek where we left off yesterday, in front of the “Ayuntamiento” in Pola de Allande with two less Walkabout followers, Diego and Mati, who flew back to the US this morning. We’re sad to see them go but we are grateful for the moments we spent together, bonding on the Camino. The experiences we shared undoubtedly brought us closer as siblings.

It goes without saying that my mom, Maria Luz, and I had another day of sizzling sun and scorching heat. Not to mention that the Camino completely deceived us. At first, it took us through a valley, on flat terrain, along a brook, and under trees. We were made to believe we were in for an easy ride, so we took our time and leisurely walked. Our surroundings reminded me of the story I read as a child, “A Little House on a Prairie,” with nothing more than the sound of a babbling brook and the silence of rolling hills.

All of a sudden, we turned the corner, and the yellow arrows pointed in the direction of a steep ascent. With no end in sight, we began to pace ourselves, climbing the mountain one small step at a time. It felt like an eternity, like never-ending torture. Our legs ached, our muscles hurt, we were short of breath. After ascending for over an hour, we reached a clearing near the top of the mountain where we could see the “carretera” on the opposite side of the valley. As we sat down for lunch on the grass, I couldn’t help but look at Luis’ trail, his Camino, and ponder how on earth someone can climb up such a steep mountain with only their arms.

We continued up the last stretch of the mountain and reached an abandoned fountain where we came across our peregrino friend Giusep and his dog Luna. Giusep was trying to hydrate Luna with rain water that had accumulated in the fountain’s basin. He had gotten stuck in the mountain over night with nothing to drink and no civilization in sight for over 18 kilometers. We gave him some of our bottled water and walked with him and his dog the rest of the day.

Upon reaching the town of Lago, my mom, Maria Luz, Giusep, Luna, and I sat down in front of a small little chapel for a much needed break. We talked about life, family, friends, jobs, hobbies etc., as Giusep told us he was in the middle of a financial and marriage crisis and hoped the Camino would “aclarar” (clarify) his situation. We continued the conversation as we walked to the next town, Berducedo. There, we bid farewell to our friend who was staying at the “albergue,” and followed the yellow arrows for another 5 kilometers to La Mesa.

It’s hard to classify La Mesa as a town because it’s really nothing more than 3 houses and another “albergue.” Nestled deep in the valley, it is surrounded on either side by wind farms perched at the top of the opposite mountains. It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, not only because of the geography but also because of the serenity of the place. It exudes a sense of quietness and peacefulness. It felt like entering a bubble where you are shielded from the rest of the world.

We chatted with the cyclist peregrinos we met yesterday while waiting for Luis to arrive, but at 9 pm we still had no word from him or my father. The sun was setting and we were cold from sitting outside so my mom, Maria Luz and I decided to walk back to Berducedo. A crazy idea but at least this way we could warm up!

At 10 pm, in the dark, rain, and fog, Luis came peddling into Berducedo with my father and Esteban behind him! We ran into the street to applaud him and quickly gave him a dry change of clothes. They had cycled the last 5 kilometers in the rain and were soaking wet! We ordered Luis a hot chocolate at a local bar, where he began to talk about his day’s adventure.

He told us that he thought that today’s climb was harder than riding the New York Marathon. After all, the ascent lasted more than 12 kilometers! Luis works hard to find his “pace” throughout his ride, and it’s not until he enters that zone that he finds himself perfectly at ease. He explained it took him a while to find it today and it only happened after he poured an entire bottle of freezing brook water over his head.

I asked Luis what he thinks about when he rides. He immediately answered “girls” and said that girls are a source of motivation for most guys. Although I’m sure many guys wouldn’t admit it, I appreciate Luis’ honesty and don’t doubt that he’s right. He did mention as well that today’s ride, at the top of the mountains, made him feel like he was in an airplane above the clouds. That sensation was pure religion and spirituality as he put it.

Luis makes you believe. He makes you believe in something, in a force, in a power, and in yourself. If he can work his way up that “carretera,” that Camino I saw today, with the strength of his arms only, then you and I can (and should) believe that anything in life is indeed possible. Luis is a living testament that you can accomplish anything you want, anything you put your mind to.

Day 24: La Mesa to Grandas de Salime

Yesterday, my father and Esteban were cycling through Tineo and Pola de Allande when they stopped in front of a house in a small town called San Facundo so that my father could adjust his bicycle’s seat. On the second floor balcony of the house sat two ladies who were mother and daughter, 86 and 61 years old respectively. They called down to my father and Esteban and asked if they could get the cyclists something to drink.

My father gladly accepted a glass of cold water but did not want to disturb the ladies and told them not to worry about coming down. Placeres (the daughter) immediately responded by saying that exercise is good for the body and soul and proceeded to come down to the street with cold drinks. When my father told her that this was the third time he and Esteban rode this “etapa” (stage) between Tineo and Pola, Placeres mentioned that yesterday she saw something that left her incredibly emotional.

She explained that she saw a young man in front of her house who briefly stopped to throw water on himself in an effort to cool down. Placeres said that the young individual was on a tricycle, propelled only by the strength of his arms. She and her mother, Adela, were so fascinated by the cyclist that they brought out their binoculars and stared at him as he rode off. Placeres said that never once, not in all the years of watching peregrinos go by, had she or her mother witnessed the courage demonstrated by that young man as he carried his weight (and his bicycle’s weight) with only two arms. Placeres concluded by saying she had stayed up thinking about the boy all night.

At that moment, my father told her that the boy was his son and explained to her that Luis was riding the Camino from Irun to Santiago, over 800 kilometers, with his sister and mother. When my father gave Placeres a copy of the “Nueva Espana,” the local newspaper that Luis and the family were featured in, she broke down. In tears, she explained that she could relate to the pain a parent feels when something happens to your child because a few years ago she lost her 28 year old son to Leukemia. In a span of 3 years, she lost her son, husband, and father.

This morning, my mom, Maria Luz and I had a car drive us to San Facundo before we set off on our walk. Not only did we want to meet Placeres and Adela, but we also knew that a visit to their house would brighten their day. When we arrived and introduced ourselves, Placeres started to cry and invited us into her house for morning coffee.

The few moments we spent with Placeres and Adela allowed us to put things into perspective again and reminded us why it is we are here and exerting ourselves so much. The love these two ladies exude towards their family (their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren whose photographs were on display in every last corner of the house) is a parallel love I have for my brother and my parents have for their son. Placeres and Adela gave us a fountain of energy to proceed.

We started off on a brutal climb, walking at a very fast pace because we had left so late. The most beautiful view I have seen thus far awaited us at the top of the ascent: 360 degrees of mountain peaks with the Rio Navia below. What goes up, must come down. The Camino began to descend and descend, taking us through a winding forest.

The Camino today was completely desolate. Not a person, noise, car, or airplane in sight, we felt like we had reached the end of the world. An ideal setting for reflection and introspection, we arrived at the mouth of the Rio Navia that reminded me of a scene out of the movie “Last of the Mohicans.”

In order to advance, we had to cross the river dam, which housed a power plant fueled by water. The vertigo sensation of looking down at the river below proved to be unbearable, and was only augmented as the Camino ascended for the last 5 kilometers. I practically walked the rest of the day with my eyes closed.

We reached Grandas de Salime at 5 pm and waited for Luis, my dad and Esteban to arrive. Two hours later, it started to rain and pour, when we heard a honk from Luis’ support car. The whole town turned around to look at him, and we all applauded his valiant efforts. Soaking wet, the only thing Luis wanted was a hot chocolate. 26 kilometers later, the whole family was together again.

The Camino is about receiving and giving. It’s about reciprocating the love, encouragement, support, beauty, accomplishment, bonds, and friendships that the journey gives you. Our visit to Placeres and Adela’s house today taught us just that.

Day 25: Grandas de Salime to A Fonsagrada

We started our day at the Church of San Salvador in Grandas de Salime, where we met up with all our peregrino friends. We decided to walk together as a group, in tandem, with Dani leading the way. I spent the morning getting to know Raquel and Miguel, two peregrinos from the outskirts of Barcelona, who I had actually met a couple of days back but did not have the opportunity to talk to. Miguel told me that he had walked the Camino a few times before and that he does so as a means of escaping from his job. He works as an accountant for a mental hospital.

The Camino immediately took us on the highway, which proved to be somewhat of a disaster. There were construction workers all around re-paving the roads, and we were clearly out of place. However, there was no other way to go and we had no other choice but to trek amongst the trucks and along the newly paved asphalt. Not only was the smell nauseating, but the heat radiating from the ground was unbearable.

When I woke up this morning and looked out the window, it seemed as though it was going to rain. I dressed accordingly with leggings, a fleece, a windbreaker, and poncho. To my chagrin, the clouds disappeared and the sun came out, compounding the heat from the asphalt. Sweating, panting, and gasping for air, we barely made it alive to a small town called Castro.

At Castro, we bid farewell to our friends who wanted to stay behind for a beer (Spaniards drink beer at all times of the day, including breakfast!), and my mom, Maria Luz and I continued on our way. Walking through the forest, I made a special note to take advantage of the foliage, knowing that in less than a week’s time I will be far removed from such wilderness. I let it all absorb me, the fern, pine, oak trees, the eucalyptus groves, and the vivid green grass. I felt as though my surroundings were alive and breathing, as if nature were split into different colored auras pulsating at me.

Exactly half way through the day, we stopped at the only restaurant 10 kilometers in sight. Although on the highway, it was a perfect refuge. We were happy to give our legs a rest after walking for 4 hours straight. We were sitting outside when all of a sudden, Esteban came cycling by! He said he was riding fast to try to catch up with my father who was a couple of meters ahead. What a coincidence to have bumped into him!

Maria Luz, my mom, and I quickly nourished our bodies with our ham and cheese sandwiches and ordered a “cafe con leche.” Feeling replenished, we were ready for our one last push.

We arrived in the town of A Fonsagrada before 6 pm and took advantage of our “early” arrival to rest, relax, and wash our clothes.I still can’t believe that we have been walking all day, every day, for 25 days in a row. Because the Camino is so strenuous, difficult, and long, you are not left with much time or desire to do anything else in the day. At the hotel, we waited anxiously for Luis, my dad, and Esteban to arrive and started to panic when they still were not back after 9 pm.

At 9:30 pm they walked in through the hotel door. You could instantly tell Luis was exhausted. When we asked him about his ride, he said that hands down, today was the hardest stage of the trip. Unlike the ride from Pola de Allanda to La Mesa, which consisted of long but leveled climbs, today was all about shorter but steeper climbs. Luis, my father, and Esteban encountered some ascents with inclines of nearly 10 percent. Not to mention that the ride lasted over 4 hours, an eternity for Luis!

The best part of today was seeing Luis and my father high-five each other (fist-to-fist) as they said good night. Before leaving for his room, Luis turned back and looked at my dad and said, “my wingman.” I thought that was the perfect way to end such a perfect day.

A Father’s Perspective

There is not much that I can add to the impeccable delightful daily reports that Carolina has prepared that evoke the special flavor and substance of the “Camino de Santiago”. The accomplishment of having already done more than 600 kilometers on foot under extremely difficult conditions, shows in Monica, Carolina and Luis, an enormous determination and inner strength without which any person obviously would abandon the journey. I am most impressed and proud of my girls as they have walked and climbed all across Spain in the most difficult of all the routes of the Camino. I am amazed at what they have done.

I want to give the insight of an old veteran, and somewhat experienced bike rider of what it is like to ride with your spinal chord injured son through some of the most difficult and beautiful terrain I have ever seen. I started the Camino Norte in Irun with Luis and did one stage with him and then had to leave for business reasons only to return on the the 18th of August with our sons Matias and Diego,( both of whom walked several stages before returning to school), and my close friend Esteban Reynal,( who has been part of all our rides and who has impressed me with his prowess and dedication).

Upon returning, I started the second part in Santillana del Mar to Llanes and then joined the rest of the family group including Luis in Oviedo. My first outing with Luis together with Esteban, after my return to the group, was the stage Oviedo to Grado one with over 18 kilometers of the most difficult climbs I have ever experienced. A day that unfortunately started too early for Luis at 2 PM in the afternoon, the hottest time of day. I’ve now done seven rides with Luis in the Camino and I must say that the impact and influence this has had on me will be with me forever. The rides over beautiful varied scenery all have had long and very difficult climbs, and every time the climb ends, there is another one around the bend. Luis honored me with allowing me to be his wing man. The extreme effort that he puts in to every revolution of his hand pedals is awesome and inspiring. We have had several stages in over 100 degree weather where we had to constantly wet him to keep his temperature down and never in all the rides did he ever consider quitting. Never in the 25 days has he taken a day off.

I loved when we passed little villages and hamlets where people would come out to cheer him on, when ladies would cry when they would see him struggle with the heat or the climb. We have now done together Oviedo to Grado, Grado to Salas, Salas to Tineo, Tineo to Pola de Allande, Pola de Allande to La Mesa, La Mesa to Grandas de Salime and Grandas de Salime to Fonsagrada. In these stages there invariably were climbs of over 14 kilometers non stop with inclines of sometimes over 10%. My experience with him has reinforced for me the fact that he is capable meeting whatever challenge he is faced with. He honors his family and his friends and has filled me, his father, with admiration, awe and respect. I am truly grateful to him for allowing me to share in and be part of this truly epic journey and to be his “wing man”.

Day 26: A Fonsagrada to Cadavo Baleira

Today was the longest day of the trip, even longer than Day 1. I guess we only have ourselves to blame seeing as we got totally lost, and not just once but twice. In 26 days, it has never once happened to us before. Oh well, there’s a first for everything!

Maria Luz, my mom, and I walked out of our hotel this morning and turned left. We couldn’t find the yellow arrows so we asked a person on the street who told us we had to go by the town church. We were happy to be reunited with the Camino at the “Iglesia Parroquial de Santa Maria” and followed the yellow arrows down a series of streets and alleys. Before we knew it, the three of us were standing back at the exact same spot we had started from. We made the mistake of turning left this morning instead of making a right out of the hotel.

Thank God I woke up this morning with energy. For some reason, I felt awake and alive, ready to tackle the day’s challenge. It’s astonishing how much stronger my body has gotten and how much more it can withstand. I didn’t even realize that we had ascended a mountain for the first 5 kilometers of today’s journey.

At the top of that mountain were two small wooden tables, encircled by a railing, and one of the most striking views I have seen in northern Spain. 180 degrees of nothing but rolling hills, this view was unique because you could see beyond it. The hills evoked a domino-like effect, all stacked neatly behind one another. My mom stood on the railing, leaned against it, and threw her arms up into the air. “Hello Spain, hello world” she called out!

Indeed, my mom was on top of the world today. I swear, I don’t know how she does it. With very little sleep (she stays up late washing Luis’ clothes and wakes up early to dry them), she walks 30 kilomters a day as fast, if not faster, than I do. Her stamina and endurance is unparalleled. She is like the energizer bunny that keeps going and going. To exert herself this way, and for this long, at her age is truly motivating and inspirational.

The Camino took us down a valley and directly onto the highway. By 2 pm we were starving. Sick of our sandwiches (we’ve been eating the same ham and cheese croissant for 3 days now), we decided to treat ourselves for the third time in 26 days. We ordered a tuna, tomato, onion, and asparagus salad, and ate like kings!

On a full stomach, we got thrown right back into the thick of it and the Camino forced us up a steep ascent. Not only was the climb steep, but it was also incredibly narrow. Not to mention it was a dirt path full of tiny rocks and pebbles! Just when I thought I wasn’t going to make it, two peregrino cyclists came riding by and said “animo, animo.” Two minutes later I caught up to them and saw them carrying their bikes over their shoulders. The ascent was just too steep to conquer it with wheels.

We became friends with the two cyclists, Pedro and Manuel, who kindly invited us to join their picnic at the top of the mountain. Neither of them had eaten and they were both starving. The Camino is all about sharing, giving, receiving, and reciprocating, so what little they had, they passed around.

We ate our snack of membrillo (a fruit-type jelly) and salchichon iberico (sausage), said our good-byes, and continued forward. We had about another 12 kilometers to walk and it was past 4 pm. On a good day, we typically walk 5 kilometers an hour which meant that we still had over two hours to go. We picked up the pace and arrived at a town called Fontaneira.

At that moment my phone rang and it was a journalist calling me from a local newspaper. He had heard about Luis, about my family, and about Walkabout and he wanted to write a piece for tomorrow’s edition. My mom, Maria Luz, and I were distracted and not paying attention to the yellow arrows. Before we knew it, we were completely lost and in the middle of no where.

Unknowingly, we had walked in the opposite direction down a mountain. When we arrived at a farmhouse and realized we had taken a wrong turn somewhere, we had no other choice but to backtrack our steps. By backtrack I mean we had to ascend all that we had descended.

We arrived back at Fontaneira absolutely shattered and found the yellow arrows again. We had walked over 5 kilometers in vain, lost over an hour, and we still had another 4 kilometers to go! Our legs were numb and our feet ached, but we decided to run to make it to our destination in time to meet with the reporter that had called me earlier.

Seeing my mom run after walking 25 kilometers left me in awe. We finally arrived in Cadavo Baleira, where we met up with Luis, my dad, Esteban, Pedro, and his son Juan, who had all cycled together. We took a group picture for “La Voz de Galicia” and enjoyed a much deserved cold drink.

Over 10 hours and 30 kilometers later, today was definitely the longest day of our trip. I can’t believe we only have 5 more days to go!

A Father’s Perspective

Today was chilly, with the temperature in the 50’s. We departed Fonsagrada with Pedro Delclaux and his son Juan at 4 PM. The stage was to be 32 km to Cadavo Baleira and like most of the region’s stages, long climbs are followed by long descents. There seem to be more climbs than descents, however. Luis generally rides with no wind breaker jacket for most of the ride and it is difficult for me to understand how in the long descents he can withstand the cold wind of the Galician mountains as we are permanently at altitudes of over 3000 feet and he generally is damp from the water he pours on himself in the climbs for cooling.

Just out of Fonsagrada, a passing car tooted its horn and some people yelled Viva Argentina!,on seeing Luis’ Argentine flag flying from his handcycle. At the next turn they were waiting for us and asked if they could take a picture with Luis. They were Argentines from San Isidro, a Buenos Aires suburb and said that this was the best anecdote of their trip when Luis told them what he was doing. The stage was Day26Foto3full of climbs including a very steep one of over 3 km. As is common in northern Spain, we ride past whispering windmills that today provide over 20% of Spain’s power. It is truly impressive to see all the hills lined of windmills with their blades slowly turning. Turning windmills mean that there is at least 26 km per hour wind and that can be your friend or enemy depending on from what direction it is blowing. After a long climb and maybe 10 kms from our destination at Cadavo Baleira, we arrived at the little town of Fontaneira where a man in a motorized wheel chair was waiting by the side of the road with his wife and two year old son. He had been told by a neighbor who had passed us on the road of Luis’ eminent arrival in his handcycle. The man in the wheel chair wanted to have his picture taken with Luis. He said to us that Luis was an inspiration to him. Luis had several pictures taken with the man and his family and as always with a big smile made the family feel that they could share in his journey. My only regret is that I only have five more days to ride with him and enjoy these anecdotes of the Camino.

Carolina continues to write so wonderfully of her walking experiences with her mother. They are truly inspiring.

Buen Camino!