WHAT I LEARNED ON THE CAMINO PRIMITIVO
It’s all about the basics – food, shelter and human company
By LAWRENCE SCANLAN
The summer of 2016 was the summer, for me at least, of the Caspian tern and the yellow conch. First the tern.
I had not noticed the terns until I started making it my habit last summer to walk from my mid-town home to Fort Henry. It was the hill I was interested in, and as the summer wore on I would tackle it repeatedly from every direction. At first I carried just a water bottle, then weights and then finally the fully loaded pack I would take with me for 12 days on the 320-kilometre-long Camino Primitivo in northern Spain in mid-September.
The Caspian tern was the audio on those evening walks around Point Frederick at RMC, past Navy Bay and up the hill to the fort. These gull-like terns with their white-grey bodies, their black head caps and their blood-red beaks roost on the K-Rock Centre roof and when I crossed the Causeway on my training walks, I would admire their aerial displays as they chased each other. But I never warmed to their piercing calls, that of cats in the throes of strangulation.
The pilgrims’ walk I had set my eye on would mean crossing rugged mountains at a 27-kilometre-a day clip with a pack that weighed 15 pounds. Convinced that the trek would challenge both legs and heart, I continued to cycle hard up that same Fort Henry hill sometimes five times in succession, while biking my usual haunts – Howe Island, Wolfe Island, the base, and the lonelier roads of Prince Edward County.
I also walked the Kick & Push Trail, starting at the 401/Sydenham Road junction. I would walk that revamped rail bed for up to three hours (and 15 kilometres) at a time, but only fully loaded a few times. When I board the plane for Spain on September 10, I consider myself ready. A question, though, nags at me: should I have trained harder?
Many Kingstonians, including some of my friends and neighbours, have walked “the” Camino, but that loose way of telling leaves the impression that there is only one pilgrim path in Spain and that it ends, as it has for some 1,100 years, in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
There are, in fact, a dozen Caminos, many starting in Spain but also in France and Portugal. I had chosen the Primitivo (it means first, and is the oldest route) for many reasons: it is deemed the most remote, the most beautiful, and the most taxing – and for that last reason the least traveled. The Spanish call the Primitivo “the knee wrecker,” but you know how the Spanish are. Prone to exaggeration.
Day One. Leaving the town of Oviedo in the dawn light, I am lost. One navigates the Camino – in the countryside and in cities and towns – by watching for yellow conches (the scallop-like symbol of St. James, or “Santiago” in Spanish) or yellow arrows set into sidewalks and roads, fences and buildings. But in Oviedo, I cannot find the signs. To my recue comes an architectural student named Hannah, a little wobbly from a night on the town. She walks with me for some two kilometres, hugs me warmly as she bids me farewell and assures me that I will cry at the end of my journey. The is the first and by no means the last act of kindness on my Camino.
I am walking with Rubén López Pantoja, a young bank worker from Toledo. We walk the same pace and pace, as much as anything, determines your walking mate on the Camino. Rubén would succumb to blisters the following day and while I see him many times over the next two weeks, his is a scrambled Camino, with pauses to visit medical clinics and taxi rides to rest his wounded feet.
Rubén and I are joined by a solidly built, 25-year-old semi-pro badminton player from Albania and Italy who works in communications for a shipping company. Mirsen Beharaj is ferociously fit (in my head he is The Albanian Rabbit), irascible and impish, by times philosophical (he shares my passion for literature and community service) and always cheerful. At the end of punishing climbs, he does not sweat nor seem out of breath. From the summit he looks back down at me as I grind my walking sticks into the loose gravel and he sings, “Let’s go Larry, let’s go!” When he finds something especially amusing, he bends at the hip, one arm outstretched as if for balance, and cackles. I smile just to think of it.
For the next 12 days, Mirsen would be my companion. I could not have asked for a better one. At some point early in the going, I must have said, “Tomorrow is another day.” Every day henceforth, Mirsen regurgitates my Pablum – part jest, part taunt, part tease, part wink. It always gets the laugh he intends.
Midway on the Camino, we are joined by a diminutive retired civil servant from St. John’s, Newfoundland, a grandmother my vintage. Carol Keough joins us after walking a few hundred kilometres on the Camino Portuguese (nothing like a warmup, eh?). She keeps fit at home by walking almost four hours a day and she trains on ultra-steep Signal Hill.
Like Mirsen and me, she had staggered into the albergue (municipally run pencions that offer bunk-bed accommodation for five or six euros, or $8 to $9 Canadian a night) near La Mesa after enduring nearly three days of relentless rain and mountain cold that had put many of us on the edge of hypothermia. That evening, I buy a good weather-proof poncho, which puts an end to the rain.
I begin the Camino thinking it will be a spiritual, bucolic journey, a contemplative experience. But the walk is, for me at least, less about the mind than the body. Each day starts in the pre-dawn dark and involves navigation by flashlight – to get those kilometres in, to avoid the afternoon heat, to secure a bunk at sometimes overcrowded albergues. The name of the game is one foot in front of the other, at times down narrow descents that look like rock slides. I come to prefer the climbs to the descents, though the former at times leave me breathless and sweat-drenched and the latter assault my thighs.
There are no easy days on the Camino Primitivo, but that shared hard experience links all of us who start in Oviedo on September 12. Over and over we see the same people, sharing a meal or just a few words, but they are family now. “Buen Camino” is the ritual greeting on the trail, but with these folks it’s heartfelt.
The Camino, in part, is about deprivation (sleep, for instance. Snoring in the albergues robs all but the snorers of sleep). But the doing without means that simple pleasures (doffing boots and socks, a hot shower, donning dry clothes, and taking long afternoon naps) are all sublime.
My two favourite meals on the Camino were these: two-day-old bread with La Vache Qui Rit cheese and a chocolate bar in a park in Lugo, and a meal we made ourselves at O Padrón from Magi dried soup and pasta, with fresh carrots, onions and tomatoes. I eat four fat bowls of the stuff, plus one for breakfast.
Extraordinary individuals walked that Camino. A blind woman did it while resting a hand on her sister’s arm. Antonio, a heavyset man from Portugal, was always the first to rise and the first one we would pass on the trail. His slowness earned him the nickname of Usain Bolt. A French couple in their mid-seventies were on a 53-day pilgrimage that had been interrupted by his heart condition.
I kept wondering: How did Antonio/Usain lug his bulk over those mountains? How did Bernard, the retired shipbuilder, manage the trek without his heart exploding? And how did that blind woman from Spain not turn an ankle?
The gifts of the Camino are many: water music from fast-moving streams, the tinkle of cowbells, the sweet smell of grain and the perfume of pine, the low cloud that veiled the hills in the morning, the ubiquitous wild raspberries, the pure silence.
We find much to laugh at, too. A bar-fly in Salas plays Frank Sinatra tunes on the harmonica to earn his carajillos (coffee laced with alcohol) from pilgrims. The thing is, he is the spitting image of my father – who died seven years ago. So great to know that Pop II got his wish – he finally learned to play the mouth harp. One morning Mirsen and I walked for a kilometer with cows for company. He howls with laughter as he records the event on his phone.
We get stronger as we go, but the fatigue is likewise building. Bed-time comes earlier, naps get longer.
When I meow to a hostelario (one who runs an albergue) about our experience on the tablelands, he informs me that he has done four Caminos, including two Primitivos in winter.
“It’s supposed to be about suffering,” he admonishes me.
When I marvel about the blind woman, he again one-ups me by describing a blind man who did the Primitivo solo – using only a GPS device and a seeing-eye dog. I shut up after that.
The question I ask everyone – why are you doing the Camino? – never elicits the same response. A tattooed couple from the German alps were doing it for their mothers, both living with cancer. Dani, a svelte triathlete who alternately ran and walked the Camino, craved human company. Carol Keough liked the challenge and Mirsen Beharaj sought answers to some of life’s questions. Me? I was curious to see for myself what the Camino fuss was all about.
My advice? Go – but be warned. The Camino gets choked as pilgrims close in on the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Early on, we walked hours without seeing a soul but two days out from our destination, the path became a carnival. School kids in uniform singing along to pop songs on their devices, cyclists in packs cutting a swath with the ringing of their bells, fruit and souvenir stands.
There are treks in Ireland and Scotland, Quebec and New Zealand. Investigate them, too. Or walk the Camino in the shoulder seasons and simply dress for the weather. The best prevention for blisters is talcum or baby powder sprinkled liberally inside socks and Vicks VapoRub or Vaseline applied liberally to the feet. As critical as good hiking boots are good socks. Mine were merino wool hiking socks made by the Great Canadian Sock Company, based in Toronto. I loved them. No blisters.
Some days on the trail I thought, “This is one of the hardest things I have ever done.” Other days it was, “What did I do to deserve such grandeur?”
I saw many sights. A gnarly old man carrying an enormous orange pack (did he have firewood in there?) and moving painfully slowly, pushing the left foot forward three inches, then dragging the right. He looked crazed and smelled bad. I saw many giant black slugs, a yard full of cats and kittens, a black puppy so small he fit in my palm, the word “Hola” (hello) clipped playfully into an ornamental bush along the path.
Oviedo, Grado, Salas, Tineo, Pola de Allende, Gradas de Salime, La Mesa, Fonsograda/O Padrón, O Cádavo, Lugo, Melide, O Pedrouzo and Santiago de Compostela. Those were my stops along The Way.
Hannah was wrong. I never did cry at the end but I was deeply grateful – for the test the Camino had presented, for the uncluttering of my mind (at least for a time), for the compadres I made from every corner of the globe. I have a taste for trekking now and I will do it again.
Valle, valle, valle, as we heard the Spanish say. Right, right, right.